Rushfield's Hollywood: The Costume Maven
Our chief columnist's new series interviews the artists who make an industry. Today, legend Ellen Mirojnick of 'Basic Instinct', 'Bridgerton' and tons in between
When I think about what makes Hollywood different from the firehose of “content” that floods our phones and devices, I think about the skill, craftsmanship and artistry that is the calling card of this industry — things that “we” (Wall Street, consumers, your boss, etc..) often take for granted. This is the first in my series of conversations highlighting and appreciating the untold stories of this town. Hope you enjoy it. - R.R.
Ellen Mirojnick has spearheaded some of film and television’s most memorable fashion moments of the last five decades, from Basic Instinct’s seductively clad femme fatale Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone) to a sequin-bedecked Liberace (Michael Douglas) in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, which landed the costume designer an Emmy.
In her early career in the 1980s, Mirojnick broke in with series of legendary cinematic depictions of her native New York City, including Fame, Fatal Attraction and Wall Street. She went on to a storied career that includes such screen treasures as Speed, Face/Off, What Women Want, and The Greatest Showman and more recently, the first season of Netflix series Bridgerton.
She has been a frequent collaborator with some of the great visionaries of film including Adrian Lyne, Oliver Stone, Paul Verhoeven, Nancy Meyers and Steven Soderbergh.
This week, I spoke with Mirojnick by Zoom from her home in Los Angeles.
How did you first get interested in fashion, and learn about design?
I started to paint when I was really very, very young (growing up in New York). I was very much brought up through a pretty solid art foundation and many different disciplines. I would say that led to wanting to find a career where I could actually do my art. I was open to a lot of possibilities, and what came before me was the possibility of designing junior sportswear, which suited me at the moment. It was fresh and new, and hadn't been done in America. So I was fortunate to have that happen, and I did that for about seven or eight years.
You had your own line?
It was my own line within a company. The company was called Happy Legs and we were quite successful in the market. That then led to an opportunity to design an independent film and I didn't know what I was doing, but I did it, and I got hooked.
What did you like about designing for a film?
Well, it was very new, fresh. I always loved the movies and storytelling. So to be an integral part of how it actually gets put up on the screen was exciting. I didn't think it was necessary to study costume design. I was able to still work in fashion, and I had a really great mentor at the time, and he was supportive of me having a new career — but he wanted me to be able to make a living in my new career before I let go of fashion. So I started doing commercials. And that led the way for me to become the assistant costume designer on Fame, the movie, in 1978, working for Kristi Zea, who was also another designer who worked in commercials at the same time. So we were two newbies. And that was it. I was just hooked and then you start the search. I don't say the climb, I'd say the search.
What’s the difference between designing for fashion versus characters?
It comes from two different points of view. You work from a different part of your brain and your heart. With costume design, what happens is that everything is always geared to the text. You interpret the text and in that text, you will have characters and those characters will have a life. That life will be as written. You are a storyteller, so you have to actually design those characters in a way that will best express how the story moves along, or who they are and what part they play in the story.
What was that first experience like, working on Fame?
Alan Parker was an extraordinary design director and it was great to work with an English team and see how they saw New York from a a different point of view. Fame was exciting. It was singing and dancing with really talented people in the streets. It was a very fresh and new feeling for a film that actually defined a generation.
You say that began the “search”. What happens in the search?
Well, you're an anxious young designer who really wants to get to know whoever you have to get to know, so that you could possibly be asked to do a film. Although I was an assistant, I was only an assistant twice, which is unusual, but it really just took its own time. I lived in New York and I made myself available to whatever was coming along in New York, and at that time there was a whole series of TV shows and movies of cops and law enforcement, et cetera. I certainly didn't mind doing that, anything to continue along the path.
Your first big movie was the now-cult teen film, Reckless, in 1984.
Reckless was quite interesting. It was also a film of young people, but it was a different kind of film than others would make about young people. It was more independent. It was grittier. It was very stylized. Jamie Foley, I think it was his first film out of school. And he had a very clear point of view about how he wanted it to look and shoot. Michael Ballhaus had a very specific eye. He was a great cinematographer. We were in Weirton, West Virginia, where there were old coal mines and so on. It was not a very attractive place, but when you go out of town on a film it's a very closed family. It becomes like camp.
What did you learn in those early days about working with directors, with actors? You've worked with a lot of big personalities.
In Fatal Attraction... no one was a star. They were all good actors. That was a good director, good producers. We didn't live in a celebrity culture then, and it's very different. I don't ever work on films or projects that support a celebrity culture. I kind of shy away from it because it doesn't serve the bigger picture. It doesn't serve anything. It doesn't interest me.
What is the job like when you're on a project like that?
If you're doing something that just concerns the celebrity or movie star or television star or whatever, it's very different. You're feeding that one entity. The projects that I have worked on, the directors were all good. They all had a point of view. You serve the project, you serve the director and the director's vision, no matter who is in the film. As a costume designer, you collaborate with the production designer and cinematographer, and the director, of course. You're all there creatively to tell that story and serve that vision of the director and make it a singular story, not who wanted this and who wanted that.
Where does the process start then, creating the look of a character?
It begins with the words. It begins with the director's interpretation of what those words are and how that character is best to be expressed. I do not have a process. The only thing that I have that is consistent with each and every project is really to understand that text. How can I capture and involve the audience to be able to follow that character's journey. Sometimes that happens with a color; most of the time, it happens with a silhouette.
Then from there, sometimes it's, ‘who is that person going to be?’ It's kind of like I imagine it in a black-and-white world, even before the color. So I can see what that silhouette is, I paint a little picture for myself and take it from there, and actually, usually, look at lots of different kinds of images, depending on the project.
What sort of things will you look at?
Sometimes I'll go to the museum. Sometimes I'll just Google different things and one thing will lead to another, to another. I'll go to the library. I'll look at different photographs. I'll look at paintings. I'll look at books. I'll walk in the street and look at silhouettes of cars. I mean, everything is up for grabs and it's a very private process. You don't know what's going to be the stimulus to the next act of creation.
Do you ever get stuck?
Let's go through some of the great titles you helped create. Let's start with Fatal Attraction. Talk about that.
It was a really, really great project, to be introduced to all of the players. The script was such a page-turner, and it was so thrilling and Adrian Lyne was a great master visualist humanistic director, and really a great knower of how to capture the humanity of relationships and men and women, and real life.
With Glenn Close's character, what were you trying to express
Well, that she was crazy. I mean, there's a shot in that film where she is listening to Madame Butterfly, turning the light switch off and on, in a white T-shirt, and I think it's best expressed there.
What does that white T-shirt signify at that point?
I'm sure it said something to me at some point, but I don't remember what it said. I think that the image of this very sad woman in the simplicity of non-expression, but the light off and on and off and on was probably the perfect note at that time.
You worked with Michael Douglas many times after that film.
I didn't meet him until Fatal Attraction and then, we happened to do Wall Street together and we formed a nice relationship. What's very important when you work with people, is that you establish a trust. That's the first and foremost thing that you have to do and not only did I establish a trust with Adrian, I established a trust with Michael as well, and we were able to work on many different kinds of films because he trusted not only my sense of design, but my sense of storytelling and being able to see the full picture of any movie
When people think of the look of the ’80s, the first thing that comes to their mind is Wall Street.
Without a question. Gordon Gekko has become a noun as opposed to a character.
It wasn't set out like that. It just so happens that Oliver [Stone] told a story that really, really was the zeitgeist of the generation at the time. Michael is very specifically designed to be a seductive character, almost as if he was a movie star of a different age. It was a combination of Cary Grant and the Duke of Windsor. I wanted to make that amalgamation, that he just appeared to be a man unto himself, not just another wealthy broker on the street, and tell the story in that manner, that he is able to seduce whoever comes into his orbit. He was the villain, but that villain attracted every single young man in every walk of life.
Speaking of star vehicles, your next film was one that has become iconic in different ways. Tell me about working on Cocktail.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It wasn't a good movie. It was a terrible movie, but we always laugh about it. It was Tom Cruise's comeback movie. He had, I think, been in a bunch of movies that weren't that successful. And he was the star obviously, and a delight, a total delight. It made a lot of money. I mean, people went to see this movie and I think that Tom Cruise began his Tom Cruise-ness at that time, and he was a star, and is a star, to this day.
It may not be a good movie, but people still watch it today.
Exactly, exactly. I mean, we all laughed at it when it came out and said, “Oh my Lord, it is not a good movie.” However, I think it looked good.
After some very dark and serious projects, what was it like working on something lighter and fluffier?
I think that everything is really kind of all the same. Even when you work on a musical, yes, there's music and dancing, but it's work. Everything is serious when it comes to putting it in front of the camera. Yes, sometimes it's lighter fare. Is it easier or more fun? It really depends on the director, for the most part.
Four years later came yet another iconic film, Basic Instinct.
Basic Instinct was a great film to work on. It was my first film I did with Paul Verhoeven and I think that he's a genius and a very extreme filmmaker. He doesn't cut corners under any circumstances. He is a truth-teller and because he's foreign, there's always a slightly different point of view. It was a great experience.
Sharon Stone plays an incredibly complex character. How did you go about creating that look?
If I remember correctly, the inspiration there was Hitchcock and Ice Blondes. I don't remember why I chose white, but I do remember what the reason was for the design, and that's because Sharon asked, ‘Could I have something that I could be able to use my arms and legs as if I was a man, sitting in a chair and have a lot of freedom that way?’ I said, ‘sure.’ I am really a lover of simple silhouettes, and she's tall and beautiful and could absolutely carry it off. So the simplicity of the sleeveless sheath dress that was very short and just that wrap was very much just in my mind's eye.
Next we come to the inevitable, the also iconic, Showgirls.
Showgirls. Well, Showgirls was Paul Verhoeven in and out, 100 percent Everything is laid out right before you. There is no hiding. Paul Verhoeven is quite a great artist in that, in his truth-telling, he will not tell an actor, ‘Don't worry. You don't have to take your clothes off.’ No, he tells you straight out what it's going to be, what's expected of them and what he's after. And if you can't play, then you have to say it because he can't catch you in a lie later. So, Showgirls was quite great, actually.
What was it like designing for the on stage, off-stage elements?
There was a great production designer, Allan Cameron, who designed these great sets and themes for the shows. Then you had a design for dancers who were usually difficult, because they have very specific needs. Sometimes they are kind of fussy. And Vegas when we made that film, was not the Vegas of today.
It was the end of the old Vegas.
Exactly, it was not family Vegas at all. It wasn't redone Vegas on any level. So I kind of have fun when I watch it now, because it actually is like a period film.
How did the response to that one affect you?
Nobody saw it. Nobody liked it, and it became a cult film. I just felt bad for everybody that was involved and so much was expected... everybody was expecting another Basic Instinct. Paul was very upset. Elizabeth [Berkley], I mean, she thought she would have a career. It was something a little bit to be ashamed about at that time, but very quickly at that same time, it became a cult favorite.
What advice would you give people who work on a film that gets that kind of reception?
You do your job. A very famous director once said to me, ‘You have to separate yourself out of the film. Your work on the film was excellent. It’s just the rest of the film didn't work.’ Sometimes the costumes don't work. You don't know why people don't like it. I kind of usually think it has to do with the story more than anything else. I would say don't take it personally. There's always another time.
Next one I want to ask you about, because it's such a different palette, is What Women Want, a Nancy Meyers comedy.
There's nobody that makes a romantic comedy better. She is the best of the breed. She's a very demanding filmmaker. What I have found — and I wouldn't have said this then, but I do say it now — given the number of directors that I have worked with that are writers as well, what I didn't understand then was simply this: writers need to see everything. They write it, but they need to see the result of their writing. They need to see what the character is going to become. They need to see all that they have written. So she is always there, she was always there for each and every fitting.
Let's talk about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, for which you won an Emmy.
That is a character that's all about the look, and it was a great experience. It was the first time I worked with Steven Soderbergh. He's very trusting and just believes that you are going to do the work. He is not one to stand over you and watch the work being created once he understands that everybody is on the same page. It was a great challenge because we didn't have much money.
What were some of the tricks you did to capture that look on a tight budget?
Well, I remember when we had to do the Neptune Cape, that was a very difficult thing, but as happenstance has it — and the little costume goddess that sits on your shoulder — one of the shops in Downtown Los Angeles had the cheapest piece of fabric you ever saw in your life that was probably so flammable that it would've set the city on fire. The trick to that show was if the fabric was too expensive, it didn't work. It was all cheap fabric and everything worked perfectly.
Another amazing Michael Douglas character.
Yes. Without a question, and that character came together because of Michael. As long as Michael felt he could be him by virtue of what he looked like, he was 100 percent in.
Tell me about working on Bridgerton, an historic period piece.
I've done a whole bunch of period pieces, but not of that nature. Bridgerton was a delight because I was the first one that was hired by Shondaland as a designer. There was not a production designer, nor a cinematographer, nor a director at the time I was hired. I had worked with Shondaland before and knew what their aesthetic was and knew that they really cared far more about being aspirational than being historically accurate. That was very much the case of turning it into something that was relatable.
I had a great advantage. I knew basically what their aesthetic would look like.I found a painter whose work inspired me so much that I created the palette based on her work... Genevieve Figgis is the painter and her palette was just delicious.
I believed quite a lot in figuring out ways that would make it really acceptable to a modern audience, meaning younger girls who never knew about Regency fashion or Regency times. So we experimented in a way of layering fabric and making it fluid and making everything danceable, whether they were dancing or not, and using things that were of more of a modern vernacular, whether it be the fabric or embellishments or color palette altogether.
It was the first time I had worked on a project that I was given the opportunity to create the world. I felt really fortunate that I could actually redefine it in a way. This was a new way to look at a period drama. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work, but in the case of Bridgerton, it really came through as a new way to get to fall in love and infatuated with a period of time, that was like a fantasy.
What's the funnest part of what you do?
Making shit up. No, I don't know. The most fun part is dreaming, is using your imagination and dreaming and seeing pictures float by you, and it's always that beginning part where anything is possible.
What's the least fun part?
Looking back, is there a director from before your time who you would've loved to have worked with?
What advice would you give to people starting out in your field today?
I hope that anybody starting out will have a dream and have perseverance and know that they'll get there, but the one thing that they really have to have is skill in communication. Without that, no matter how big their talent is, or no matter how big their ideas are, if you can’t communicate them to many different kinds of people and also listen and to what everyone says and be able to decipher what everyone means and get on the same page. Without communication and knowing how to communicate, listening and being able to translate and decipher, you're up the creek and you'll have no paddle, no matter how talented you are.