In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
A scroll through veteran costume designer Mary Zophres's lengthy filmography on IMDB shows a roster as diverse in genres as it is noteworthy in caliber of directors and movie titles: The Farrelly brothers' "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary"; Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday"; Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can"; Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"; Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" and "First Man" and Kenneth Branagh's upcoming "Death on the Nile."
If that's not impressive enough, Zophres has been Joel and Ethan Coen's go-to costume designer for over two decades, creating unforgettable wardrobes for the enduring characters of "Fargo", "Kingpin", "The Big Lebowski", "No Country for Old Men" and, most recently, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," which is currently available to stream on Netflix.
"I've never been invited to the Lebowski Fest," says Zophres, disappointed, over the phone from Los Angeles. "I'm waiting for them to ask me to attend that."
While Zophres is a repeat ask for directors, she counts some of Hollywood's most sought-after talents as frequent collaborators, too. "I've worked with a lot of actors three times," she notes. Sitting on said trifecta list: George Clooney, John Goodman, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling — the latter two together in both "Gangster Squad" and, of course, "La La Land." (Plus, separately for "First Man," below, and "Battle of the Sexes," respectively.)
"Gwyneth Paltrow, I've only worked with twice [for 'View From the Top' and 'Iron Man 2']," she continues, easily ticking off A-lister names while matching them with related movies. She even has her own personal four-timers club, with top members Josh Brolin and Scarlett Johansson.
"[Johansson] was a teenager on 'Ghost World' and then a young woman on 'Iron Man 2' and then she was a mother on 'Hail Caesar'," says Zophres, fondly thinking back to when she first worked with the actress in 2001. "I was like, 'OK I feel old,' for sure. But it also warmed my heart. Her daughter was in the room for our first fitting for 'Hail Caesar', and I remember I started to tear up."
The costume designer is sure to point out that she's selective with her projects — and perhaps the actors involved, too. "There is one actor that, if I knew he was in the film, I wouldn't do it again," she reveals without naming names, but otherwise has had "nice experiences" with the casts she's dressed.
Such a distinguished resumé (and stacked contact list) doesn't appear out of thin air or simply land in one's lap. "I worked my up," asserts Zophres, who grew up in Florida and logged many hours working at her parents' clothing store. After graduating from Vassar with degrees in both art history and studio art, she moved to New York and did the "starving artist" thing, bartending and working retail to pay the rent. "I was trying to break into the film business and I was working for free and having all these weird internships," she explains, recalling a stint in an art department building a non-functioning prop toilet.
But then she got her big break, which was big in every sense of the word: Zophres's best friend was an accountant on an upcoming film and helped her secure a Production Assistant gig in the costume department. The movie? "Born on the Fourth of July", directed by Oliver Stone and starring Tom Cruise in his first high-profile dramatic turn post-"Top Gun" and "Cocktail". "I had no idea if I was going to get paid," she says. "I was just happy to have a job with a director that I had heard of."
Zophres was tasked by the film's costume designer Judy L. Ruskin ("Sleepless in Seattle", "Waiting to Exhale") to sort through and organize massive piles of thrifted buy-by-the-pound clothing into categories: '50s, '60s and '70s. "[Ruskin] came back and it was all hung up and all sorted," she says. "Judy was like, 'Great! Can you work tomorrow?'" Up until then, Zophres knew she wanted a career in the movies, but not necessarily the costume department. She admits "resisting" the idea at first because the clothing aspect seemed too close to those years spent helping her parents run their retail store back home in Florida. But that one experience changed it all.
"I was very confident that day when I sorted all those clothes. It was not the day that I had when I was putting together a toilet for the art department. This was a different sort of confidence," Zophres explains. "I was like, 'I want to be a costume designer' and I just moved full steam ahead."
Zophres followed Stone's production to Texas — and she did receive a paycheck of $200 a week, which she acknowledges was not enough to live in New York City, even in the late '80s or early '90s. "I worked happily 14 to 18 hours every day," she says. "I remember I went out every night, because that's what you do in your 20s, and then on the next film, Judy hired me as her assistant."
Zophres credits Ruskin, whom she assisted on "City Slickers" and "Young Guns II", for her unofficial "undergraduate in costume design." She regards her next step assisting the late Richard Hornung, who first hired her as a P.A. on the Coen brothers' 1991 film "Barton Fink", as her "graduate school." (Zophres had actually applied to graduate school, but Hornung convinced her to gain practical experience with him instead.)
"Doing the work, instead of studying it — and doing it with him — was very instructive and the right thing for me to do," she recalls. On his productions, she mastered the "paperwork," which is usually handled by a costume supervisor on Los Angeles sets, plus specialty, hands-on skills like aging and dyeing, which have advanced now into their own departments.
After tackling "a huge amount of responsibility" assisting Hornung on the Coen brothers' "The Hudsucker Proxy", she felt ready to branch out on her own. Zophres immediately booked a "medium-size" budget movie, "P.C.U.", starring Jeremy Piven and a pre-Marvel Jon Favreau, after Ruskin turned it down and suggested her former assistant. "Then after 'P.C.U.' I got another job, and another job, and I haven't stopped designing since," she says.
When the Coen brothers started work on the 1996 film "Fargo", Hornung, who was battling AIDS, became too sick to take on the project. He recommended Zophres to interview for the job, which she got. "It was very bittersweet for me," she told Esquire in 2013. Her ongoing collaboration with the Coens (and vice versa) is clearly working 14 films in — but she doesn't take the opportunities for granted.
"I never assume they're going to hire me again. I'm grateful every time they reach out to me," she says. "But if I haven't heard from them in awhile, before I take something, I give them a call. I'm like, 'I'm thinking of doing this...' It's never been a problem, so it's working for me so far."
"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" is her second Western with the Coen brothers following 2010's "True Grit", for which she received her first Oscar nomination. Plus, Zophres has stacked experience in the genre, counting Jon Favreau's "Cowboys and Aliens". (Side note: If we count directing and acting, Favreau also sits in Zophres's four-timers club. This game is fun.)
Zophres and the Coen brothers can probably finish each others' sentences at this point, but she's always pushing herself to the next level to bring the filmmakers' visions to the screen — specifically with the furry coat worn by the growly Impresario (Liam Neeson) for the latest project.
"I think the script said a 'bear coat,' because Ethan told me they were thinking of [Robert Altman's 1971 Western] 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller' [which features a] floppy bear coat," explains Zophres, about what she had to interpret. After her own intense research, she landed on a museum image as inspiration, but then couldn't source a piece of material substantial enough to fit Neeson. So, Zophres reached into her figurative and literal toolbox from years of experience to age, custom-dye and stitch many small pieces together into one coat.
This anecdote also encapsulates the thrill and satisfaction Zophres finds in confronting obstacles to bring an ambitious costume to fruition. "You don't want to be like, 'I can't do that because it's going to be a nightmare,'" she explains. "You just conceptualize what you think is right for the film and then you figure out the challenges. It's like a puzzle, but I love it." After a film wraps, Zophres often compares her initial costume boards with the final product. "How accurate was this instinct that I initially had for this character?" she says. "Sometimes they change significantly and sometimes they're very similar to what the board or the sketch was."
Now, you may wonder what costume engineering feat went into the illustrious "franks and beans!" scene in the 1998 movie "There's Something About Mary." You know, when Ben Stiller's character, Ted, accidentally zips his genitalia in his prom tux pants and cue the close-up. But, actually: "It's very low-tech."
"We made a poster board with an enlarged zipper and we got fabric that color-matched the tuxedo and made a large version of that," explains Zophres. "Then, out of foam, we made a penis caught in a zipper. I wish I had saved it because it was this hilarious prop."
Directors and actors clearly value Zophres's dedication and design talent, but the general public may cherish her work even more, as evidenced by how costumes spanning her career have become just as famous and recognizable as the actors inhabiting them. Just look to any cosplay outing or pop culture-related fancy dress occasion, and you'll probably see some version of Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne from "Dumb and Dumber" or a menacing Anton Chighur wearing a denim jacket and a bowl-cut (probably toting an oxygen tank) from "No Country For Old Men". However, Zophres shrugs off the question of whether she goes into her job with the explicit intention of designing an iconic look.
"I love it when my costumes have become a [choice] for Halloween, but it never comes into play. You can't design that way. You know who asked me that same question? Christopher Nolan," she says. "He was like, 'You've done a lot of movies and a lot of times your costumes are very iconic. Do you do that on purpose?' It's like, 'No, no. I'm designing something that's true for the character."
Zophres was especially touched by fans replicating her costumes for "La La Land", for which she was nominated for her second Oscar in 2017, during a showing at the Hollywood Bowl. During a welcome speech given by director Chazelle, the costume designer stood on the stage to observe hundreds of people walking en masse up the hill toward the amphitheater dressed as some version of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling). She even noticed some folks artfully hand-painted the Matisse-inspired florals onto canary yellow dresses, as her team did for Stone to wear for the "City of Stars" musical sequence (above).
"I got goosebumps," Zophres says. "They were doing dance sequences and everyone was so into to it. I was like, 'Holy moly!' That's when it hit me, what an iconic movie 'La La Land' had become. I was so touched by that, I'll never forget it."
The Coen Brothers Go West: Costume Design for 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' exhibition runs through May 26, 2019 at Museum of the Moving Image in New York.