For Mary Zophres, costume designing is an all-consuming profession. On her latest film, Damien Chazelle's old Hollywood epic Babylon, she was hands-on in costuming the movie's entire ensemble, including stars Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva and on down the call sheet to the legions of background actors.
"I was possessed when I did this movie," Zophres says. "But I think we all were. It was like this monumental challenge, and it was fun and creative and exhilarating and exhausting — all those things. It was definitely the most challenging and most rewarding film I've ever done."
Zophres broke into the industry as an assistant costume designer on films like Natural Born Killers and The Hudsucker Proxy, before becoming the go-to designer for Joel and Ethan Coen — starting with 1996's Fargo — and Chazelle. She has earned Oscar nominations for her work on True Grit (2010), La La Land (2016), and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018). Following their collaboration on La La Land, Zophres re-teamed with Chazelle on First Man and now, on Babylon.
"Damien's vision from very early on was that he did not want it to be a typical '20s movie," she explains. "It's a completely original script, and it's a total ride. He was inspired by books he read about the time period and diaries from the time period, so it's grounded in some sort of reality. But he wanted to make it a very, very un-'20s movie."
One of the film's most daring looks is the low-cut red dress that Robbie's aspiring starlet, Nellie LaRoy, is wearing when we first meet her, a frock that is both era-specific and timeless. "It was a big collaboration between Damien, Margot and myself," Zophres says. "It was a costume that needed to accomplish a lot, which was to introduce a character, and not only introduce a character but to tell part of her backstory.”
"And it's a good color," she points out. "It's a very evocative color. It's power. It's carnal. There's a reason why the lady in red has that infamy." Zophres remembers the moment Robbie tried on her wardrobe for the first time and thinking, "'That's it.' We knew. It's kind of an aha moment.”
Below, Zophres shares with A.frame five films that have inspired her throughout her career and influenced her approaching to costuming Babylon.
Directed by: D.W. Griffith | Costumes by: D.W. Griffith and Clare West
I love Intolerance for the artistry. For my research for Babylon, I was fascinated by their method of research and how they interpreted that research into the artistry of the film. The handmade quality and beautiful artistry, I love it so much. I find that it's clever and beautifully made and speaks the character with a swift brush. You look at the person and you know who that character is.
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula | Costumes by: Bernie Pollack
It's just one of my favorite movies. The contemporary authenticity of that film is so visceral — it was not trying to be a different period — and I think that it's so well-crafted. It's real and authentic in a way that is inspiring to me.
Directed by: Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly | Costumes by: Walter Plunkett
Singin' in the Rain is an absolute joy. I discovered it on TV — a lot of these movies were on Turner Classic Movies — and it was just a joyful movie. Gene Kelly dancing in that movie, I think, inspired me to be very much in favor of working on musicals with dancing. If I could do that for the rest of my career, I would be very happy. For a long stretch of time, they weren't making musicals, but I love it. There's dance and different types of dance in Babylon, and so I found those times on set to be so exciting and joyful.
Directed by: Mike Nichols | Costumes by: Patricia Zipprodt
A costume just says so much about a character, and Anne Bancroft, she's in a leopard print and you just know who she is by a simple costume choice. That's what I appreciate so much. And Dustin Hoffman's postgraduate look, he's a little bit preppy and it's instant character acknowledgement. That was super influential on me. I work a lot on instinct, and I know when it's right on a character. I feel like it's from watching a lot of old movies with my mother when I was a kid, such as The Graduate.
Directed by: Sergio Leone | Costumes by: Carlo Simi
To me, it still stands the test of time. It's cinematic, and the use of every craft in that film — from makeup to sound design to camera to costume — tells the story and creates a world. That's the other thing that is very inspirational for me: I am very much into world-building and creating. I feel like in Babylon, we created our world based on research and based on the script — this original screenplay that just blew my mind when I first read it — and we created the world and everyone lived within it. The actors and the camera movement and the production design and the costume design, it felt like we were all in sync. And I feel like that's what Once Upon a Time in the West did; everything is in sync, working to the same end.