Mary Zophres interview: ‘Babylon’ costume designer
Costume designer Mary Zophres is a three-time Oscar nominee who has worked with legendary filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, Joel and Ethan Coen and Oliver Stone. But “Babylon,” her latest collaboration with Damien Chazelle following “La La Land” and “First Man,” was like nothing she’s ever experienced. The epic film about Hollywood’s transition from the silent film era to talkies required more than 7,000 costumes, featured 200 speaking parts, and necessitated months of research and design work.
“I’ve never really been given that opportunity and I can think of only a handful of movies that have been made in the last 10 years that were this way in scope,” Zophres tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “I think that it’s like a gift that we were given the green light and that we had the support of Paramount. This is the kind of movie that would have gotten greenlit in the old days, like the golden years of Hollywood and maybe 20 years ago, but not now. So Damien had this vision and that we were able to do it and it’s actually there and you feel it on screen [is remarkable].”
Set in the 1920s and 1930s, “Babylon” tracks the rise and fall of Hollywood silent film stars with particular attention paid to an actress named Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a striver who pulls herself up from poverty to become on of the industry’s most notorious personalities. Nellie’s ascent starts almost immediately, during a lavish and outrageous party that spans the first 30 minutes of “Babylon” and includes numerous aggressive dance moves and physical challenges.
“My first inclination was that her first costume change would be red,” Zophres says of dressing Robbie for her opening sequence. Nellie, as a character “is daring, and audacious, and carnal and fiery,” Zophres says, so the introductory costume “needed to be bold.”
“She was going to that party to be discovered,” Zophres says of the approach.
Throughout the party, Robbie as Nellie throws herself around the dance floor – so Zophres also had to take into account the functionality of the character’s clothes. “It couldn’t be too fancy. It needed to be something that looked like she cobbled together,” Zophres says. “I also felt like she needed to wear shorts of some sort. She couldn’t be in a dress or a skirt, and then with the dance and the movement of the dance, we came up with this idea of the sarong.”
That played into Robbie’s thoughts too. “She had assigned animals to certain scenes that her character was, and in the party, Margot said Nellie was an octopus,” Zophres recalls. “So then we’re like, oh, this sarong is like a tentacle. So it was this organic, collaborative development of her most important costume of the film.”
Zophres values that kind of collaboration with the film’s actors. “Everybody came to their fittings and they were very open to all these ideas and then they shared with me what they were thinking and it was always very harmonic,” she says. “There wasn’t a lot of Sturm und Drang going on. Everybody was like this felt right for their characters – and that’s important to me. You cannot send somebody to the camera in something that they don’t feel like their character would wear. That’s costume design 101.”