Ellen Mirojnick is a legend in costume design. Her work spans everything from Basic Instinct to Chaplin to Speed to the new HBO bio-pic Behind the Candelabra. I spent a really nice breakfast recently with Ellen talking about a lot of things. I’m going to break it into two interviews, but I wanted to share with you Ellen’s thoughts about making Liberace come to life – helping to transform Michael Douglas into a flesh and blood version of someone so flamboyant he could be easily disregarded as a cartoon. Ellen’s work on this film is jaw-dropping, and I can’t wait to see the film – it airs at 9PM Sunday night, May 26th, on HBO. Read on for more here and join us for breakfast, won’t you?
KB: I mean, that trailer for Behind the Candelabra, Ellen, it’s crazy amazing.
EM: It was the best picture I have ever, ever, in my entire life worked on.
KB: I mean first of all you have the opportunity to dress one of the most flamboyant characters of the 20th Century…
EM: it was one of the hardest projects I ever did, not because of the obvious, but because of the context of the script. Behind the Candelabra is the story of the relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson. It ranges from late 1977 through 1982. That is a very specific time, and it doesn’t have much to do with Liberace performing on stage all the time. It was a great piece of material, a great director, a great producer, a great production designer… I mean the team was a solid five star team; it was beyond. But what was necessary to learn was Steven Soderbergh’s point of view – what did he actually want it to be in the end? Was he looking at a comedy, was he looking at a dramedy, was he looking at a relationship story, was he looking at hopefully something not camp? I didn’t know; I’d never worked for him. We looked at quite a lot of research; I mean massive amounts of research. I was fortunate enough to have personal research as well as stage research. That is easy to get a hold of. Actually, personal research is not that hard to get a hold of either.
KB: Well there is the Liberace museum…
EM: Which is closed, it closed in 2010. I was fortunate enough because (producer) Jerry Weintraub was able to reach out to the foundation for their participation with props, cars, and antiquities of various kinds. Ann Foley and I were able to go through the costumes with the archivist. We were so lucky; it was an extraordinary opportunity.
KB: You know what I felt like when I watched the trailer, I felt like your work was better than the reality of what he actually wore.
EM: I cannot thank you enough for that compliment.
KB: I mean it! I have seen the museum and I have seen the costumes, I have seen the tape, I know his “thing”. I watched that trailer and I thought HE (Liberace) would be so proud of this, because Michael Douglas looks amazing and those costumes looked better than the ones that were used back in the day.
EM: Thank you so very much, but the truth was when we saw the costumes that he actually wore, they stymied our imagination because we would never have enough money or time to recreate them.
KB: So what did you do?
EM: Well, they were fabulous at the museum; we have photographs. The research was worth trillions, it was amazing what we were able to photograph and see and touch. His costumes were hundreds of pounds of punched crystal. Michael Travis had done an extraordinary job; he was the designer at the time. Prior (to Travis) there were different designers. The pieces in the early 1960’s were staggeringly gorgeous. It was before the excess of all the stoned costumes, but all of his costumes were stoned in some way or the other. But these were – I mean, the work, the embroidery! It takes your breath away in real life. They are works of art, without question.
The Production Designer Howard Cummings and I decided which shows we could recreate and what would work for the story. So we picked six. We did a presentation for Steven. The design was based on what it would look like on the stage in the lights. We searched for fabric, and we knew what story we were going to tell in each piece. They were based on shows that he did. The costumes were chosen based on what pianos Howard could have, for each one of the shows. First and foremost, it was based on the music that Steven chose with (composer) Marvin Hamlisch – that was first and foremost. What is the music, and what was the piano and then what should be the costume? Not what WAS the costume necessarily but what SHOULD BE the costume for our story. You give it all to Steven and then he chooses how he is going to shoot it, what the lighting would be and so on. So we sat at Hargate’s costume house with the lights and Mary Ellen testing lots of different things. First we presented it to Greg Jacobs, the producer, and then we presented to Steven. Steven was thrilled. After all of that, we got going, but this all took place in less than 7 weeks.
KB: Who made your stuff?
EM: Mary Ellen at Hargate’s. Dennis Kim, Anto of Beverly Hills and Maurizo at Western Costume. You have Liberace who is a very known flamboyant character and you have Scott Thorson. But when you do the research of their personal lives, what I found was that (and this is what made it hard as well) Liberace’s everyday clothing was not anything that was what you necessarily think it was. Do I know that for a fact? Not entirely, because every photograph (unless it was really personal, which I was able to get a hold of to some degree) indicated that he was a presentational man. But this a story of two men and they are being played by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Added to the mix was the story that Steven wanted to tell, the actors Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, and the reality of Liberace and Scott Thorson. So how can you make Matt Damon (if you are talking in heterosexual terms) the trophy wife or the buxom blonde, and make Michael Douglas the sugar daddy? It was the greatest experience of my life.
KB: I mean look, you are working with amazing material and you are working with your friends – it’s pretty great.
EM: Well not only working with my friend but also great filmmakers, seriously great filmmakers who really know how to do it. They have confidence, elegance, and respect in what they do and who does it with them. I am so fortunate. These are the white knights. This was an extraordinary collaboration with extraordinary support.
KB: So HBO was behind it from the beginning?
EM: From the beginning, and they were so supportive. I mean, the sun shines, it’s brilliant, it’s fabulous, I love every single one of them, there is never even a question of what it is, what can we do for you.
KB: Right, yeah that’s nice!
EM: It’s brilliant. They are the nicest people, really the nicest people, and quite experienced. So the part that was my challenge was how to put those costumes on the stage and how to do justice to what Liberace actually performed in at that time.
KB: For the people who are really fans and who would know the difference you mean?
EM: No, just what it really was in a historical sense. I don’t know if his fans are still alive truthfully, it was a long time ago now. The challenge was how to do it in a limited time with a limited budget and then how to create these characters that you could believe. It’s a fine line between allowing yourself to be flamboyant and not allowing yourself that luxury – to create the character that allowed the actor to transform enough. I have to give the actors something that allows them to transform, because they were real guys in real clothes for half of the story, or three-quarters of the story.
So what did I learn from Liberace? I learned that Liberace finished with his performance and put a robe on or a caftan. He wore lots of robes; he wore lots of caftans. Clearly it was at that time, however he was wearing hundreds of pounds of costumes every night so did he want to wear clothes afterwards? Nah, he wanted to be comfortable. That was a big thing that we learned. There are photos of him in caftans and robes with heads of state – it was really funny. So you take it seriously. We did probably a dozen robes and caftans.
KB: You built them?
EM: Everything was built for the two of them. We had great stock, but those costumes for Michael and Matt had to be built. They were glossy figures; you couldn’t really put them in stock, although I did sometimes. But in doing so, these were very, very, very demanding choices. I was really insecure the whole time during this project, asking myself, “Is this the right choice? Is this enough? Should it be more flamboyant?”
That balancing act was like juggling, and I was really insecure throughout the entire time for myself, I just didn’t know. But I have seen the film, and I am happy with the choices. There was a Producer that saw the film early on, he said to me “You did so good, How did you do it?!?”
You had to really, really ride that line and you didn’t waiver, the commitment was so excellent because it could have been cartoonish. To see Michael Douglas walk around in a caftan, that could be cartoonish, just the whole thought of it, but it wasn’t, because he plays it so well.
KB: Well that is what I thought in the trailer, I thought he is 100% committed.
EM: Both of them were so committed, you watch and you are staggered by their commitment. So in the fitting rooms, in doing both of them, it was staggering the amount of focus that you had to have. You had to get them to see what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work. And then from the minute I saw both Matt and Michael put that first garment on, which in Michael’s case was the muslin for the stage clothes – could he wear a cape? Could he wear a coat and move gracefully? How long could it be, how heavy could it be; could he work it? It was a great beginning and he was quite elegant.
Actually the first time I gave him the first piece, the first muslin, with tons of ruffles, the mock up of the bib, the shape of the silhouette, the height of the shoe, I saw him transform in seconds. And we kept building upon it. It was just a very fine line because Steven was very interested in capturing what the research was, the qualities of the two of men, and the idea of turning Scott Thorson into Liberace’s “Mini Me”. We played on that twin-like effect quite a bit. It was a great thing to have while making the choices concerning the design for both of them.
Matt’s story is absolutely great, Matt came into the room from another movie, three weeks out; there was not very much time. Matt had a previous commitment that was imperative for him to keep that was not related to our film. So we had less time than even three weeks. Matt and I didn’t know each other, and I said, “If you are okay with just beginning to try a piece or two I won’t make you go in and out of all of these costumes”
KB: So how did that work out?
EM: We started easy. Dennis Kim came and made him a suit. We started with that and he loved it, so that was good. Then we went to the fur coat and he was game. Then we gave him a piece of jewelry and a fur coat, and we had a rack of fur coats. He said, “Whoa, let me see another, another and another…” And he was game, so we got quite a lot accomplished in that first fitting, so we were fortunate. After he was finished with his previous commitment it was easy to resume and cut to the chase.
And Michael continued on his way. These are men who don’t particularly like fittings. They had to transform into other people, other recognizable people. It was thrilling, absolutely thrilling to be able to design costumes that, as soon as they put them on, you saw the transformation. As soon as Matt put on a shoe you saw his body language. As soon as he put the shape of the pant on, he changed immediately. With Michael it was basically the same thing, but when he put on the performing clothes and practiced sitting down, it was a costume designer’s nirvana. I mean it really was, because you gave both of them the tools to be able to really commit to becoming these men and not feel silly.
KB: Right, it gave them dignity.
EM: They were dignified; they had gorgeous wardrobes, gorgeous costumes, gorgeous homes, and gorgeous rings, gorgeous everything and they loved it. They lived it, they breathed it, they slept it, they wanted it, they were intoxicated by it. So that was thrilling for me, but I was scared Kristin, every single day we shot, because we shot a lot in a day – we only had six and a half weeks of shooting – and every time either one of them came out in a new outfit, if everyone on the set either went “wow”, giggled or applauded, we knew we were good.
HBO said, “Can we come to the shop and film all the ladies making the costumes?” We were thrilled. I mean Mary Ellen, and her devotion – I could not live without her. We had done quite a few sparkly shows before, but this one was spectacular, and without her help, I would have been lost. So it really does take quite a bit of a team and it does come down to you in the end with pressure on your shoulders to say, “What are the choices?”
You have limited funds and many times I just sat there and went, “Is this the right choice? I just don’t know if this is the right choice.” My team would turn around and say, “What the heck are you talking about? You don’t think its here?”
I wasn’t asking the question for somebody to come and pat me on the shoulder; I just didn’t know. I was kind of blinded by it; I just didn’t have a full concrete “yes this is it” moment. But maybe that’s not bad, because it’s like peeling back the onion until you get purity of that line to be able to make sure that Steven has not a distraction to the note of that scene, but an enhancement to the note of that scene.
KB: Tell me about your team?
EM: The team was sensational. I had Ann Foley as my assistant and later on Bob Morgan , which was heavenly. I had Bob Matthews as my supervisor, Kenn Smiley and Monica Haynes-Nino. We had limited staffing; Ken and Monica did all the pulling and the fittings. Somebody came in with the most gorgeous parfait of macaroons at the beginning of the show, they were sherbety gorgeous colors, and I said, “Okay, that’s a palette.” We put it up on the board, and those two went right at it and pulled the show, so there was a consistency and choice within the background palette of the show.
We also had great supporting players – we had Kiersten Ronning who was a fabulous costumer, and Anna Seltzer, who was a fabulous PA, and most importantly – well everybody was important – but she was extraordinary, fabric buyer Gillian Waterman.
KB: That is what I was going to ask you, the fabric, I’ve done a few 70’s shows and the fabric is tough. Of course it depends on what you are looking for, but for your particular case, I image that prints were hard to find.
EM: We didn’t go into the printed world all that much; the prints are difficult so we chose to keep it to a minimum… Although 70’s fabrics can be difficult to work with, in the hands of master tailor extraordinaire Dennis Kim, nothing is difficult ! He creates beauty! Maurizio at Western made Michael’s performing boots and Matt’s performing boots. I begged, borrowed and stole; I think I pulled every “Please help” that I could. Jack and Kenny at Anto made all of their shirts. We did some really fabulous things for shirtings and kind of design for particular shirts without it being printed for Lee. Mary Ellen did all of the performance clothes for both of them, so it was within that kind of circle. Jack and Kenny did all the shirts. We were going to have them do all the robes, but then that became too much work, so Mary Ellen and Rory mastered all the robes and caftans and all the performance clothes. Mauricio did all those performance shoes, Jack and Kenny did all the shirts as I said, and Dennis was the master tailor. We had Maya Roth downtown printing at Cad Fabulous. She did an extraordinary job because we were able to create dimension by screening – the surface first, then embroidery on top of that.
KB: So first put the clear sequins on, second take it to Cad Fabulous and have them print it?
EM: In this case it worked both ways. In the end there was a very difficult costume in which he flies out of frame. It’s modeled after the Neptune’s Nest costume that Liberace wore. When you look at that costume, it is staggering – not my costume, Michael Travis’ costume. His costume has the entire underworld sea in the inside of the cape; the outside is over-embroidered seashells and pearls. So basically that’s the problem – the real costume is the problem.
How do you interpret it without bastardizing it into unrecognizable? I think we found our own way. We could never afford do that inside – ever – but what we could do is find something that kind of emulated underwater waves. We could do coral, seashells, and so on. We happened to be really lucky and found fabric that we could work with on the inside of the cape while the entire outside of the cape is printed, sequined and shell-like. We found appliques of pearls and such; we used assorted crystals. We did an amalgamation of things. When Mary Ellen and I would come to a solution of some sort we would say Bill Hargate, Michael Dennison and Liberace are orchestrating this, they’re smiling they are sitting on our shoulders, and saying we won’t leave you. That’s really what it felt like. I felt protected in that way. This was the finest, most exquisite experience I’ve ever had on any project, ever.
KB: And that is what keeps you resilient in this crazy business.
EM: I suspect. It is a one in a million lifetime opportunity, but it taught me quite a lot in terms of where I am creatively at the moment. I learned what I would really like to be surrounded by, and the necessity of good collaboration. I learned how I can support the team and what my part is within the creative team. Howard Cummings is like a soul brother, he’s sensational. I guess in the end everybody was so consumed by it all that nobody wanted to let anybody down. You only wanted to do your finest work, the finest work that you could do, and it was a pleasure. It was hard, but hugely pleasurable. It was hard because of time and money. But it was a pleasure to be amongst the people that really were great. I am glad though that you liked the trailer so much.
KB: OMG, I freaked out.
EM: I’m so glad you liked it. I really, really am. I am so pleased when others who know nothing of it, see it and go, “Wow that looks good!” It makes me very nervous!
KB: It looks good on so many levels though – Michael Douglas’ performance alone is transcendent. Just from the trailer I was like, “That’s not Michael Douglas, that’s not him!”
EM: I think that is what is so extraordinary, when you do watch it, in five seconds you surrender. I mean, you know who it is, going in, and then you give it up because these two guys are so committed to their parts, as is everybody. Debbie Reynolds is unrecognizable, but fabulous; Scott Bacula – fabulous. All these boys were so game; it was such an extraordinary experience to witness. They were so game that they would do anything. Rob Lowe was like, “What more do you have? What more?” They were so excited about their participation and God, it makes such a difference. In the most demanding of days it makes such a difference. I was very, very fortunate in many ways to be able to participate in this film; it was great.
KB: Ellen, I am so excited to see this on Sunday night. Anything extra special we should be looking for?
EM: No, but I hope everyone enjoys the film and gets swept into its lavish fabulousness!
Big thanks to Ellen Mirojnick for sitting down and talking about this fabulous piece of art. Behind the Candelabra airs Sunday May 26th at 9PM on HBO. Do not miss it!!! Have a great weekend, everyone!