It’s been over eighty years since a silent film has won best picture, but 2012’s The Artist looks poised and ready for the honor. This beautiful homage to filmmaking is stunning on many levels, especially the storytelling element of its costume design. In this interview – which is PART 1 of 2 – costume designer Mark Bridges talks about his approach to the film, some of his sourcing, and his take on using fur on screen. Read on, and stay tuned for PART 2 coming soon!!
How did you come to work on this film?
I came to work on the film two ways. The production manager was asking for suggestions on costume designers and a friend of mine recommended getting in touch with me. Another source was my agency, who had initially suggested someone who wasn’t available, then suggested me. I met the director (Michel Hazanavicius) on the 4th of July holiday, a Monday, at his hotel on the Sunset Strip and we hit it off right away. During the meeting we were referencing the same silent films and silent movie characters as inspiration for The Artist and within a couple of days, I was told I had the job if I wanted it.
How much prep time did you have, and how much of the cast was in place by the time you started?
Technically I had I had eight weeks prep time, but actually I had more time to think and research and plan because I knew I had the job about three weeks before official prep began. I spent a lot of time watching silent films and searching images online, as well as putting a book of images together for Michel to show how I would approach the various beats of the film.
As to the casting – when I started it was known that Jean (DuJardin) and Bérénice (Bejo) were going to be the two leads, but Jean was not in town yet, and contractually Bérénice wasn’t able to start fittings. I got their sizes from their previous costume designer and while I pulled and sourced for the rest of the movie I searched for things for them. Other cast came in as usual; Michel knew who he wanted, but working out their deals took time.
What did the script look like – with no dialogue, was it just blocks of screen direction?
The script is written like descriptive paragraphs of action interspersed with what the title card would say in quotation marks. It made it very easy to visualize the beats of the film. Also, Michel had drawn his own storyboards of how he would shoot all the scenes. It helped me immensely because from that, I would know to put some detail on the back of a coat because I could see from the boards he planned to shoot it from behind. His storyboards helped me many times to know what was in his mind.
How did you approach the design work, breakdowns, etc., given the fact that it is almost an entirely visual storytelling, no dialogue? I mean, the score is great, but nobody talks. So much hangs on the visual departments.
The design of the film is what we all strive to do when we design: tell the story through the language of the clothes. Michel had the idea that when a character was at the height of their fame, they would be very high contrast (George in his white tie and tails at the beginning, Peppy in her pale dress and black coat going to the studio), and more gray or medium value when they are not famous. That thread was very useful in making choices for the two leads as we chronicle their careers.
I also felt it was important to separate real life clothing from movie costume clothing, so textures were very important. I tried to make the film clothes sparkle with beads and sequins. We see this concept and understand it as: Peppy auditioning (in a flat crepe dress) and then getting hired (she appears in a movie costume) when she sees George again at the studio in her sequined dress. I also thought it was important that, in the scene when she hurriedly leaves the set to see George in the hospital, the sequins of her costume look so out of place in the hospital setting. It emphasizes the urgency of the situation. When George is down on his luck the textures are flat, like his life, and his suits don’t fit him quite as well as they did in the prime of his career.
What were your design conversations with the director like? Did he have a lot of ideas?
Michel did have many ideas, between the storyboards and broad strokes of contrast and fit I mentioned. One of the most rewarding things about this job was that once I was given his ideas, I was left to interpret the costumes in my own way and to contribute what I thought best to fulfill these images. I made choices, did the fittings with the actors, showed Michel the photos, and we would discuss. I usually do a character’s fitting as completely as possible, trying to fit the whole arc of their story and their costumes. Michel was a terrific person to collaborate with, very open to ideas and very approachable. It didn’t take long in our working relationship to get into a rhythm of work that was very satisfying. We also developed a shorthand communication as to how a scene should look by referencing some of the films we had studied during prep. Sometimes it was Citizen Kane and sometimes it was Man With A Thousand Faces. I would take the ball and run with it from there.
How did you approach designing for black and white?
The approach for designing for black and white started with getting as many textures as possible and then looking at the results of the camera test. The art department did a color board for a camera test that we photographed in color and black and white. That was my reference when choosing colors or values for the film.
When I did fittings, I photographed each potential costume in color and black and white to see how it would read. I brought costumes of different colors, patterns and textures to the camera tests to see how they would read. It was very enlightening and luckily it took place early in the prep period.
Where did you source your shoes? I am dying to know.
I sourced the shoes from various places, but they were mostly new shoes for the women, as women’s foot sizes have changed quite dramatically since the 1920s.
Peppy’s shoes were a combination of Capezio Mary Janes or T-strap character shoes, considering her needs for dancing. I also used ballroom dancing shoes from Champion Dance Shoes on Barham Boulevard, because many of their shoe styles are very 1920s, made of satin with a Louis heel. I would then add some Jazz Age paint details to them as I did for Peppy’s black and silver ones in her first film role. Painters’ tape and shoe spray is all I need!
You are so crafty! Hats – did you make them? They were exquisite!
All the hats were from the period, which was important to me because unless you have the hat blocks from the period, I find reproductions rarely are the right depth and scale and are lacking in great period details. I really wanted a veil for the scene where Peppy watches George leave the auction house. We searched for a piece of vintage hat lace, and figured out where the border should be placed on the actor’s face. That hat was then refurbished and had the veiling added by Harry Rotz at Western Costume Company. He refurbished several of Peppy’s hats to their former glory. I love the look of that moment in the film.
As do I. The suit from the fire – I presume you made that. How many copies did you make? Can you talk a bit about the suit as it relates to (the antithesis of) the tuxedo for which he is famous?
Yes, I did make the suit for the fire scene. I think we made three suits for that sequence. Because of the way the story is told, that suit is an emblem of George’s downward spiral, so I used a textured flat gray wool, medium value as the complete opposite of the tailored George we see in white tie and tails at his premiere. The suit was fitted to be slightly big to subtly give the suggestion that George was less of the man he once was.
Can you tell me about your use of fur in this film? It’s a very tricky, touchy subject. Fur is appropriate for the period, but its use among costume designers is often emotional, even political. Did you use fake fur? Vintage fur? New fur? What is your take on the use of fur in costuming?
I used vintage fur for Peppy’s costumes and faux fur for the coat that Missy Pyle wears in the film within a film. I think certain periods require the use of fur, Hollywood in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties especially. I probably would not use new fur for any show and would prefer to use faux fur, especially with all the new synthetics available; they really fool the eye. The use of synthetics makes everyone happy; I get the look, the actor isn’t revolted by the animal carcass aspect of wearing new fur, and the producers are happy with the bill. Everybody wins!
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Big thanks to Mark Bridges for all of the great stories and educational insight! Stay tuned for PART 2 of this interview about this fascinating film, and the magnificent costumes created by Mark and his team. Have a great week, Frocktalkers!!