Costume designer Mary Zophres had created some of the most iconic looks in modern movie history. From The Dude’s robe and sweater in The Big Lebowski to the simple but strikingly effective dresses in La La Land (for which she won a Costume Designers Guild award earned one of her three Oscar nominations for), Zophres understands time and place and how a costume helps an actor become a character almost better than anyone.
Zophres has created looks the quirky looks for morose teens in Ghost World, the campy flight attendant antics in View from the Top and went even higher with the astronaut costumes for First Man. But she’s probably best known for her work with the Coen Brothers, having began in the costume department with Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy. Her first official costume designer title project with them was for their Oscar-winning Fargo and it’s been a collaboration ever since.
I spoke with the three-time Academy Award nominee about how she got started, what it’s like working with the Coen Brothers and her Oscar-nominated work on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
AW: How did you find out about your Oscar nomination?
MZ: I was in my kitchen having coffee, but I didn’t wake up early. I had no idea that I would be nominated for that. So I was under the impression that it was going to sort of slip under the radar. I woke up, my son and I were like, you know, having our vitamins. I poured a cup of coffee and then I strolled over to my phone and it was on silent. My agent had called me at like 5:30 in the morning, but I didn’t to hear it. When I pushed the button on my iPhone and it shows the text up on the screen it was like, ‘Congratulations!’ There were texts filling the whole screen and I thought, ‘That was today!’ My whole stomach just went upside down like ‘Oh my God!’
I was shocked. I was really shocked. I was not expecting it at all. It was a very competitive year this year. There were a ton of projects, beautiful ones that I thought were going to get nominated and I didn’t expect that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and get nominated so I was really, really pleasantly surprised.
AW: I read that you graduated from Vassar with degrees in art history and studio art. How did that lead into fashion and costume design?
MZ: In college you had to declare your major rather early. I discovered that in order to take a film class, you had to take us a year of theater. So I did a year of theater and then I took film classes; I think my first film class was in my junior year and it was too late to change my major. Although, I loved art history and studio art, I don’t know that I would’ve changed it. I was in my first film class, Mr. Steerman was the professor, it was a smaller class and we studied film in the beginning and then kind of took turns doing different elements of filmmaking. One week you were directing, another week you were doing the sets and the costumes. Another week you were in charge of lighting and then another week you had to get in front of the camera.
I knew that I wanted to be behind the camera, but it was in his class that I really realized it. I grew up in south Florida and was no Internet and even though I watched movies my entire life, it never occurred to me that I could work on one. It wasn’t until I got to college and my friends were filmmakers and film majors and the first film that Mr. Steerman screened was François Truffaut’s Day For Night, which is about a film crew making a movie. All of a sudden the lights went on, I was like, ‘Oh, okay,’ because I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was never good enough to be an artist.
I was an intern at an art gallery and I worked as an intern for Art Forum magazine and I was very disillusioned by the art world during my internship. It was such a big money business and I felt like it was less about the arts than it was about the commerce. So I was sort of turned off by all of that. I was kind of searching for what it I was wanted to do and when, like I said, in my junior and senior year, I discovered I can work in the film business. I definitely knew I wanted to be behind the left behind the camera because I had no interest in acting and being an actor, but my work in front of the camera gave me an appreciation for actors because it was so hard for me to do that. That I think was one of the biggest lessons I learned and it’s been really helpful for me in my career because I’m always cognizant of the fact of how hard is it for an actor to do what they do. So to give them the tools they need to and also making sure that they’re comfortable, I don’t mean like sweatpants comfortable (laughs), I mean that they’re comfortable in that they feel that what they’re wearing is giving them the tools that they need to get into the character that they’re playing.
I moved to New York City and it was impossible to get a job in the film business. I was a bartender, I was a waitress, I worked for Norma Kamali. I was bartending at night, saving my money, and then I started working for free in the film business on a couple of projects. I got my first paying job as a parking PA then after that I got a job working the in the art department.
But then I got a job as a PA for the costume department on [Oliver Stone’s] Born and 4th of July and that’s how it started. But in hindsight, like all these things that I did as either growing up or in college, like art history and studio art completely informed my work. It’s a way of studying history through visual and it’s very helpful when I go to do design for my own job. Paintings are also a great source of not only inspiration but also research for films. With studio art, I can draw. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. It depends if I’ve been practicing and since having a family, it seems like it’s harder and harder to practice. So that’s how it sort of ended up. I realized in the last year of my college that I wanted to work in the film business. I wasn’t as a film major, but being an art history major has been has been really helpful in being a costume designer.
AW: How how did your relationship with the Coen Brothers Begin?
I saw their first films while I was in college and became a big fan of theirs and as I started to work independently, I was friends with their costume designer [Richard Hornung]. He did Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. I was working in New York and he had moved to LA and I was working with another designer, Judy Ruskin, who was the one I started with on Born on the 4th of July. I moved out to LA for a film and that film went down and I asked [Richard] if I could PA. I was an assistant costume designer at the time. So I went back to being a production assistant to work on Barton Fink and then I was the assistant costume designer on The Hudsucker Proxy among other films that I did with him.
After Hudsucker I started designing on my own and Richard called me and said, ‘Listen, I’m not feeling well. I don’t think I’m even be able to do Fargo.’ He was sick and he had been sick the whole time I knew him, but he was on a drug therapy that seems to be working. And then he took a turn for the worst. And honestly, it was very bittersweet for me. I’d rather have him alive and not have my collaboration with the Coen Brothers. But unfortunately that’s not how it went down [Horning died in 1995], so he could not do Fargo. So they [The Coens] met with me and I flew myself to New York. I met with him and they offered me the job right there in their office.
And I’m pretty sure I screamed bloody murder when I left. I know I was like ‘WHAAAT?!?’ I came back to LA and I started to prep but after like a week here I said, there is nothing that’s in Los Angeles that is going to work for the film Fargo. So they let me come out to Minneapolis and I did the prep there and that’s where I found the motherload of all the clothes that I did on that film. But that was a really low budget film. And I think they were like, ‘How badly can she F it up?’ It’s really, if you know Joel, I mean it in a funny, but they’re like, okay, ‘She worked with Richard all these years, he recommended her.’ I had done Dumb and Dumber and you know, can you imagine like that’s their point of reference of what I’m going to do (laughs).
I think they were pleasantly surprised with Fargo. I think they were really happy with how that turned out and they asked me to do their next film and they asked me to do their next film. I never take my collaboration with them for granted, but I always check with them now before I take something that could potentially conflict with something that they’re doing because they really are a joy to work for. I love their material and I find that their material is incredibly interesting. I love what I do and I’ve been doing it a long time. I know that there are some costume designers that are not so excited about what they do anymore but I still love it. I love my job and I think the reason why I love it is because I’ve had the opportunity to work on their projects and their projects are so, so different. Did that answer your question? (laughs)
AW: Yes! Just looking at your filmography, it’s so varied between genres and time periods. Do you have a favorite genre or period that you’d like to work in?
MZ: Not really. I like changing it up. I like going from one, I don’t want to only do westerns. I don’t only want to do comedy. I like having all these different choices, that’s what makes it interesting. And the Coens often write in such different time periods or with different genres or different interests. You know, there might be a movie that’s really focused on music, like Inside Llewyn Davis or you know, this one [Buster Scruggs] was obviously a nod to how much they love Westerns. Like this is their Valentine to westerns, to me, and to Westerns in film and in writing. I think they just love the iconography and the depth of the stories and how differently we can create stories. They’re intrigued by it and so am I.
AW: One of your other Oscar nominations is for True Grit so that’s been a good genre and collaboration for you.
MZ: It has! But I don’t want to be known as like, oh, ‘She can only do westerns.’ So hopefully the next job I do won’t be a western. I like to mix it up. I really do. I’d love to do something earlier. Something in the 16, 17, or 1800s. Sometimes they don’t film in the United States because we don’t really have the architecture and they’re often filmed in Europe so they’ll go to European designers and often they go to Europeans assignments. But hopefully one day I’ll be able to go across the pond and work because I do like to work in different areas and like surprise myself and flex different design muscles and work in ways that I’d never done before.
I got that opportunity on Buster Scruggs. Like the man covered in pans [from the “Near Algodones” segment] was something I had never even never read, never thought of. And it was so interesting to try to design and make that costume functional and yet surprising to the audience, as surprising as it was to me when I first read it. There was the armless and legless man [from the “Meal Ticket” segment] and they cast the actor who was the best person for the part, but he does have arms and legs. I had to make him look like he didn’t and Joel and Ethan really wanted to use as little visible effects as possible for that. That was a huge challenge trying to figure that out.
AW: What were the challenges working on a vignette style film?
MZ: Each story has its own unique challenge and own unique sort of aesthetic and style and inspiration and it was like designing for six different movies. Even though they are all in the genre of Western, they were all meant to be entirely different and were all inspired by sort of different art forms like other movies or whether it was an illustration or “All Gold Canyon,” the one about the prospector, which was taken from a Jack London short story. So it was like we were paying homage to a lot of different sub-genres of the western.
AW: You spoke earlier about how the character and script helping guide you with what the costume is going to be. Is there a balance between the script, character and then the actual actor as to how you approach a costume?
MZ: Yeah, I think that it’s there. I love to know who’s going to be playing the part. It’s sort of impossible to complete the design, a costume without knowing what actor is going to play it. And that is hugely important and it’s not always possible. There are many films that I’ve worked on that, you know, casting comes in the day before they work. But with the Coens, they have a hard time completing their prep process unless they know which actors are playing which parts. So not only is it beneficial for them, but it’s beneficial for me because I feel like I can really completely design the costume when I know who’s going to wear it.
I can create a character through clothing and I think that’s what’s Buster Scruggs is an example of what a lot of the Coen Brothers work is. I find that most directors really want the clothing to reflect how the character is either feeling or what they’re going through at that moment. It reflects who they are as a person and it helps to move the story along in some way. I’m servicing the script and the director and the actor.
We knew very early on for this, in fact, I think the first story they ever wrote was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. They had always intended to write them as an anthology, where there would be six or seven westerns and it would be shown together. But they wrote The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I want to say, it might’ve been even before O Brother Where Art Thou because they were friends with Tim [Blake Nelson] or maybe it was right after actually, because I think it was on O Brother that they discovered that he had a really good singing voice. They knew he could possibly sing but when they went to go do all the pre-recording, they were like, ‘Wow, we can really have a lovely voice.’
So they wrote the story, they gave it to him and then they put it in the drawer. Then years later they wrote another one and then they just kept it in the queue until they finally realized that there might be something that they could do with them and they could make them, if they could get somebody to green light it.
So from the very start, from the very beginning, I knew that that Tim Blake Nelson was going to be Buster Scruggs so I could design him. I could design this character with him in mind because I had worked with him on O Brother. I knew his build and he’s quite trim and I did my first sketch and could complete the concept because I knew that it was Tim playing the part.
There were some actors that fell in and out of parts so some of them I could conceptualize with other actors in mind, but it’s almost impossible to completely design a character in a film unless you know who the actor is.
AW: Do you have a favorite piece that you have created for Buster Scruggs? Or a top 5?
MZ: I can do my top five of this, maybe of this story. I love Tyne Daly’s costume. I loved her hat and her hat sort of spoke volumes to me about who she was and the silhouette of that costume when they get out of the stagecoach. I love Tom Wait’s costume. I love Liam Neeson’s costume. I love that coat. I love Buster’s outfit. But it’s like asking which is your favorite kid! (laughs)
AW: That’s true; I guess it’s a question you can’t win with (laughs) What’s up next for you?
MZ: I don’t know yet. There’s been some false starts but something will come up soon.
AW: Well, I want to wish you the very best of luck on the 24th. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Mary.
MZ: Oh, thank you for taking the time. Have a wonderful day. Thank you!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.