Mark Bridges interview: ‘The Fabelmans’ costume designer

“We had our first meeting over Zoom,” recalls Mark Bridges, the two-time Oscar-winning costume designer, of speaking with Steven Spielberg about his being in charge of costuming for “The Fabelmans.” “One of the most exciting/intimidating things he said to me during that conversation was that his mother had a very unique personal style. I was immediately curious as to what that personal style might be.” Bridges would find out soon enough, as he created the characters’ look for Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical Amblin Entertainment feature. It would prove to be both a professional challenge and a great creative achievement for a designer who won Academy Awards for “The Artist” in 2012 and “Phantom Thread” in 2018, and who has served as costume designer for eight movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Watch our exclusive video interview above.

It’s Bridges’s first collaboration with Spielberg, but hardly his first time faced with costuming a period film. In fact, it was his work on a movie that depicted the porn industry in the 1970s, “Boogie Nights,” that helped bring Bridges to Spielberg’s attention. “Steven is friends with (“Boogie Nights” writer-director) Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’d just seen Paul’s cut of ‘Licorice Pizza’ just before he started working on ‘The Fabelmans’,” Bridges says. “Early on in production, he told me he’d re-watched ‘Boogie Nights’ after like 25 years, and whatever he saw that I’d done in that appealed to him – though I guess you couldn’t find two movies much farther apart (than that and ‘The Fabelmans’).”

In terms of “The Fabelmans,” Bridges did his homework and learned precisely what that personal style Spielberg’s real-life mother Leah Adler looked like (lots of offbeat fashions like bib overalls and blanket ponchos and self-designed turquoise jewelry). After being hired as costume designer, he was granted access to all variety of Spielberg family photos and home movies that helped him to “create an arc for the characters” of mother Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams), father Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), best friend Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen) and son Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel Labelle), the aspiring teen filmmaker who is presented as a young Spielberg.

Bridges’s research led him to emulate much of the period fashion worn by the real-life Spielbergs, also including his sisters. “The color palette I used (for the clothing) varied depending on where the family was living at the time,” he notes, alluding to their moves from New Jersey to Phoenix to Northern California. “It was very valuable meeting with Steven’s sisters via conference call, because they recalled specific brands like their mother wearing Bernardo sandals. And his real-life father Arnold would wear those short-sleeve dress shirts and neckties and pocket protectors so specific to the early 1960s. That look wasn’t a joke back then. It was real.”

There were also a few times on the set where Bridges remembers that the simple appearance of the characters proved an emotional experience for Spielberg. “The first was when all four main characters were together on the set in costume – Sam, Mitzi, Burt and Uncle Bennie – viewing a Boy Scout film Sammy had made. I could see that Steven was visibly touched. Then there was the very difficult scene of Sammy’s grandmother’s passing. It was just so subtly and beautifully done, and so much of the way the people looked made it especially difficult for Steven.” But it was that reaction that helped convince Bridges he was doing his job to the best of his ability.

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UPLOADED Jan 9, 2023 12:30 pm