Mary Zophres has had an amazing career, designing some of the most iconic costumes in recent memory – Jeff Lebowski, anyone? She has finally been recognized with an Academy Award nomination for her brilliant work on True Grit. This longtime Coen Brothers collaborator opens up about the details of that project, and what it means to make her Greek dad a superstar back home.
Tell us how you became involved with the project – at what point did you hear about it, and what were your initial reactions?
Joel and Ethan first told me about True Grit while we were on A Serious Man. Interestingly, by the time we start shooting a movie, they are so prepared, that they are thinking about their next project. They can also tell me approximate shoot dates, which is how I can plan my work schedule around them. I was SO excited when I heard about this project… A western!
What is your working relationship with the Bros. Coen like? Do you have a shorthand (visual or otherwise) that makes things easier?
I love working with the Coen Brothers. True Grit was our tenth film collaboration so as you can imagine, there is an ease of communication both verbally and visually that has developed. They are VERY prepared, very collaborative, and even though they are my bosses, they are like family.
What were the discussions like with the Bros. Coen about these characters – what were they looking for?
Very early on we have a brief discussion about the overall look of the film. I asked them if I was correct in thinking that each character should be iconic and identifiable. And they said yes. Then I went and did my research, which was very extensive. Then I sketched, and assembled character boards and boards for each scene with background, and I assemble a palette board. I have to do this for my own self anyway. I can’t really start any project until I know how I want it to look. Then we had our first meeting which is usually in person (but not always which is when the shorthand comes in handy). The boards are a visual springboard from which to discuss whether the direction I was taking is correct or not.
Where did you do your research? What reference materials did you find useful?
I researched at The Western Costume Research Library. Bobbi Garland, who is the head librarian, rocks. I researched every day (after yoga) for 2 months (before I even started on payroll). It felt like I looked at every photograph from this time period. We also got assistance from the Fort Smith Historical Society. And The Autry Museum let me come and look at actual garments that they house in their basement. It was great to see clothing from the period in person. It really informed my fabric choices. I also read 3 or 4 books cover to cover: I Can Tell By Your Outfit (that Kurt from Western and Bobbi recommended), The Calico Chronicles and The Waking Dream.
Did you consult the original film (1969) for visual clues or themes?
When Joel and Ethan first told me about the project, they asked me to reference the book, the Charles Portis novel by the same name, and NOT the movie. I read the book three times before reading the script (it’s a GREAT book) . The book was instrumental in the design of the film. The language is very formal and I followed that cue for the costumes.
What kinds of discussions did you have with the actors about these characters? Did they want significant input that may or may not have differed from the Coens’ ideas?
I had a lot of discussions with the actors, particularly Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper. They were very receptive to the ideas I had. I think they found my research and boards very helpful as I had been thinking about all the details a lot longer than they had. It felt like we were all in sync.
Where did you prep the film? How much prep time did you have?
We prepped the film in Los Angeles for 7 weeks, then we did the last 3 weeks of prep in Santa Fe, NM. Except we started shooting pre-production photography 2 weeks prior to our start date which nearly gave me a heart attack. We shot half the film outside Santa Fe and half outside Austin, TX. It seemed like everywhere we shot was from 45 min to 1 hour away from civilization.
What was your budget? How did you strategize to hit that number?
We had a budget of about $390,000.00. I just came out and asked Bob Graf, who is their long time executive producer and UPM , what is the budget because I knew it was tight. Paramount gave True Grit the same amount of money they gave the Coens to make No Country For Old Men (except True Grit is 100 years earlier). We knew we had to manufacture A LOT and we could not do it all in our shop, so we spent what we needed to spend on made-to-order, and spent the rest on rentals for background. We made deals with the costume houses because we didn’t have enough money to pay for the rentals.
What was your office like once you got to location? Did you have a regular costume truck or another kind of facility for set work?
We had an office in Santa Fe in the old army hospital. We also had a trailer that we rented from Santa Fe and it worked through the end of the film.
Was your BG local? Tell us about your process for designing a cohesive BG look) –
We had pretty much no BG in Santa Fe and had about 800 people total in Austin. Most were from the Austin area and some drove in from other places in the state. The extras in Austin were great. Debbie De Lisi who was our extras casting coordinator is awesome. We work together very closely in casting each of the scenes. I asked her to have all the men start to grow their facial hair and hair and they did! It really helped paint an authentic picture of the time period. I noticed in the research that most men had facial hair. Some was VERY long, some more groomed. Many times it depended on age and occupation. I also had read in a gentleman’s diary from the time, that it was a sign of virility and masculinity. It was also practical to not to have to shave every day. Basically, if you could grow it, you had it. I was obsessed with facial hair and hair length on all men both speaking parts and extras. I asked that all the cast grow their facial hair and hair as soon as they were cast. Many were pleased to be able to finally shave and get a hair cut after they wrapped.
Every extra was pre-fit, up to three weeks before they shot. Women had to wear corsets and hoop underskirts; they all had dresses and were accessorized according to the type of character they were playing. I LOVE to do extras fittings and like to be involved whenever I can. Jenny Eagan (my assistant costume designer) and I dressed all of the extras in True Grit. I gathered the palette and stylistic choices when I pulled the stock to populate the look of the scenes. I wanted the town to be a bit urban in contrast with all the characters we meet in the Indian Territory.
Do the Coens like to see the BG fitting pictures, to get a glimpse at the vibe you are creating? Any last-minute changes?
I always show them the fitting photos (that have been organized on boards) to give them an idea of what the scenes are looking like. They enjoy looking at them because they love a good mug and Debbie is great at finding character faces.
One thing I loved about the film was that all of the hats worn by principal characters were distinctly different from one another. Particularly with Ned Pepper’s crew, every person was clearly defined through silhouette, starting with their hats. Can you talk us through your design process in this regard?
Thank you for noticing that. I wanted each of those characters to be distinct. When the audience sees them, they are meeting quite a few characters at a time and I wanted them all to be distinct. I created a back-story for each of their costumes. I kept their looks distinct. And yes, the hat is probably the most important part of the costume in a western. It says a thousand things. Once one character was assigned a hat, I didn’t use it on another actor. For every principal fitting, we had about 50 prototype hats to try on the actor. The right hat, the right tailoring, and the right aging. That’s what I found to be crucial in designing True Grit.
Age & dye work was fantastic. Who did it, and what kinds of conversations did you have with him/her? It was fabulous.
Carol DeMarti was the key ager/dyer, and she worked with her partner Dominick DeRasmo. Honestly, we had so many manufactured garments that come out of the shop perfectly pristine… so they had huge amounts of work to do because we had so many multiples. They cared deeply for their quality of work and wouldn’t stop until they got it right. I am indebted to them for their dedication. If you don’t age a western properly, nothing looks good. We would talk about the level of aging, what kind of living the individual had been through. We started to have shorthand language for things and for levels of aging (heavier than Rooster etc., etc). I also have to mention my incredible cutter/fitter Celeste Cleveland, who is very skilled at the tailoring of period garments. She made the prototypes and sometimes multiples for EVERY major role in the film. Also Maurizio, the shoemaker at Western Costume, did an incredible job replicating boots from the civil war period.
Tell us about the reactions that fans have had about your work in this film – what has surprised you most?
Everyone has been so enthusiastic about the look of this movie. It is really nice to hear. I love to hear that people think it’s “beautiful” because its also the most dirt I’ve ever used on a film.
Congratulations on the Academy Award nomination! You’ve won and been nominated for many (other) awards, but how does this particular nod resonate? After so much great, iconic work over the years, I am curious to hear your perspective on what an award (or the recognition) might mean to you.
I am thrilled to be nominated for an Academy Award. It’s my first and I’m still a bit shocked. I feel very proud and honored. There has been a lot of hoopla surrounding the nomination (which is great) but I’m sure it will all calm down after February 27. I think being nominated does raise it up a notch in terms of how you are viewed within the industry, but I’m not sure how long that sort of thing lasts.
It’s interesting how this nomination effects everyone in your circle: my husband, my friends and family. My parents are freaking out. I’m half Greek and half Italian and the Greek press has gone wild about a Greek American getting nominated. That is making my dad so excited, he’s a superstar back home.
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THANK YOU, MARY!!! I am so glad you are getting the recognition you have long deserved for your outstanding work. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me!
I also want to put the interview that Hannah Greene and Kim Ngo did with Mary at the big FIDM gala in here for your reading pleasure. I think that Hannah and Kim almost fell over when they met Mary, so this was a big honor for them, and a lot of fun.
KIM AND HANNAH TALK WITH MARY ZOPHRES
FT: Was True Grit your first time shooting in Austin, well… around Austin?
MZ: Yes! Half of the movie was in New Mexico. We actually prepped and had our offices in Austin and shot in Grainger. The interior of the courtroom was located in another place around Austin, but it was all outside of Austin.
FT (Kim Ngo): I actually just moved from Austin.
MZ: I love Austin, it’s an amazing town. Barton Springs…
(they engage in conversation and reminiscing about Austin)
FT: So how was the film for you? What was creative inspiration?
MZ: I think the research. I really did a lot of research and that was the main source of inspiration. That, the book and the script. The script is very much based on the book. The language in the book is really formal, but it’s really how people spoke in those days. It’s very much based on reality and that puts you in a very specific time and place. The formality of the speech inform the formality of the clothes for me. I did research at Western Costume, read a bunch of diaries and excerpts from different books. I read books from cover to cover, like text books which I never do. Like the Calico Chronicles, I Can See by Your Outfit, where you read specifics in letters and telegrams that were written back and forth. That’s how they corresponded.
You learn about weird things, for instance no one took a shower, they all took baths. You got into the bath dirty, so you’re bathing in your own dirty bath water. How clean could you really get? So then you put on your clothes, and if you washed it, it was in a river or a bin of water with no detergent, you used lye. Which I don’t know if you’ve seen or smelled lye, it’s gross. There’s nothing clean about what they used for soap in those days. With all that knowledge, I knew things had to be dirty. I felt like it was really important to get the cuts right and there was a story behind everything that I choose. Once I choose it, we picked the right fabrics and aged it, but aged it well. I had a great aging and dyeing team.
FT: This looks realistic and really fantastic. How much of it was built versus pulled?
MZ: All of it was built. Every single piece. My tailor Celeste Cleveland, she studies period tailoring. She has all these books, she copies them from libraries, from old copies from older tailoring books and takes it very seriously. She doesn’t mess around. All the shoulders are thrown back because that’s how they tailored in those days. The armscye is tight as you can get an actor in a contemporary movie to wear. It’s a whole different cut.
FT: Yes, it really effects how you move.
MZ: Yes and having her (Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross) wear a high collar gave her a primness, a little bit of a stiffness and formality that her character needed. We wanted one piece of femininity which was her blouse that’s underneath her dad’s pants, everything else is her dad’s.
FT: Those are great shoes (Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross black boots). And I’m loving those boots with the stars on them, they are fantastic.
MZ: Aren’t they? We all wanted those shoes. Maurizio at Western Costume made those! He made all of the boots in movie. It’s a two piece boot, there’s one piece of leather that goes up in the front, now every boot pretty much has a seam here (points at the vamp), and one piece in the back. It’s modeled after a calvary boot from the Civil War, if you turn it upside down, there are nails just like the original design. He had a real boot (from the Civil War) we asked him to make it like this but in Matt Damon’s size.
FT: How much were each of the boots?
MZ: I think he charged $1200 for the first pair and $800 for the multiples.
FT: What was your budget for the entire film?
MZ: We had around $300,000 and some change which is not a lot. We had to have twelve of everything for everybody. Everybody who was a lead got shot. So it was all built, all made and aged. The aging takes a huge amount of time. You have to age. When you send something to camera, even when it’s a contemporary movie, unless it’s suppose to be brand new, and it hasn’t been aged, it doesn’t look right. It looks fake.
FT: That’s great that you’ve done so much work with the Coen Brothers.
MZ: It’s really inspiring to work with their scripts. The fact that the Coen Brothers keep hiring me, I feel lucky.
Big thanks to Mary Zophres and to Paramount pictures for helping us out with the sketches. Best of luck to you, Mary – we’ll see you at the CDG awards!!!