Damien Chazelle’s highly ambitious early Hollywood epic Babylon, which has garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, is already out on digital platforms and coming to Blu-ray on March 21. The film is a tour de force on behalf of its entire creative team, featuring a refreshingly unique vision from Chazelle brought to life in jaw-dropping fashion, a standout score by composer Justin Hurwitz, a best-yet performance by Margot Robbie, and much, much more. Babylon is absolutely worth a watch, and those who missed the film’s theater run can enjoy Chazelle’s grandest effort to date on digital platforms now.
One of three categories in which Babylon was nominated for an Academy Award is Costume Design; the film’s other two nominations were for Production Design and Original Score. The look of Babylon‘s cast of characters was created by Mary Zophres, who previously worked with Damien Chazelle on both La La Land and First Man. Zophres is also known for her repeat work with Steven Spielberg, with whom she worked on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, as well as the Coen Brothers; Zophres has worked with the Coens over ten times, including on Burn After Reading and Inside Llewyn Davis.
Costume designer Zophres spoke with Screen Rant about her work on the film, the genius of Damien Chazelle, and her pride in her wardrobe team.
Mary Zophres on Babylon
Screen Rant: Between the party scenes, the massive set sequences, and the decade-spanning nature of the story, is this the most intensive project you’ve worked on, just in terms of scope?
Mary Zophres: It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done, and it’s big because everything is in camera. Damien, in my meeting I had with him, was like, “Yes. I wrote that there are a thousand men on the battlefield, and there will be a thousand men on the battlefield.” They’re not tiled, there’s no CGI, and what they’re wearing is what they’re wearing. And the aging is what they’re aging. He didn’t want to manipulate it; it’s all in camera.
That was the one that had the largest amount of people, but Skid Row had three hundred. The Wallach party had close to five hundred people at one point; I think it might have gone down to the high three-hundreds. This is a sequence that we shot for over seven days, so a lot of those things we had to build because we knew that it was going to be filmed over a long sequence of time. We had the “Singing in the Rain” sequence – three-hundred [people] in front of that funny fake Ark. We’re not going to find three-hundred raincoats, [so we had to make them].
Damien wrote a beautiful, original epic screenplay. What’s wonderful about his screenplays, and about working with him, is that they read like novels and wonderful screenplays at the same time, but they’re full of depth. He writes what he wants in the script; it’s not like he’s like, “Oh, by the way, everybody at Jack’s pool party is going to go in the pool.” He scripted that. Knowing that, you’re like, “Okay, that’s going to be other things that we have to build,” and so there’s a lot of building.
I love building because it gives you absolute freedom, but it also can cost a lot of money, and you have to be time efficient about how you do it. We managed to make it so that we built a lot in-house. I had an incredible crew on this film who worked tirelessly. We were functioning on adrenaline and like this feeling of like – I mean, I know I felt it, and I tried to tell my crew this every day – “I’ve never had an opportunity to like this, and we may never have it again.” It’s an original screenplay. It’s not based on prior IP. When is that going to happen again? [It’s in the] 1920s, in this grand scope. So, I never got an eye roll from my crew. Everyone was rolling up their sleeves, [like], “Okay. Game on!” They worked tirelessly, and the amount of product, costumes, and artistry that came out of my tailor shop, and my specialty costumer, the fitting crew, my assistants, the assistant costume designer, and our supervisor – ideas [were] free-flowing. Everybody was “Game on.”
Even the vendors that were outside, all over Los Angeles, were into it, and accepting the way in which I wanted specific suits to be tailored. I brought in sample suits from the 1920s; I found a dated one that I was like, “This is how I want Irving Thalberg’s suit to be tailored, and Manny’s suit.” The tailor, who has a thriving business [and] has been working with me for years on different projects, loved [it]. Everybody got into it.
That’s what was so magical. It was high-octane. Everybody was fueled by, like, adrenaline and caffeine. It was intense, and yes, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but in so many ways, [it was] the most gratifying. It was because everybody’s game was at a hundred percent, and it didn’t stop. We had crazy things going on until the last day of shooting, and then it was over, and then I was like, “Okay, that just happened.”
Full disclosure, the day after we wrapped I had to have hip replacement surgery; I did the whole movie on crutches. I thought I pulled a muscle the weekend before I started prep, and then had an MRI, and they were like, “No, it’s your hip. It’s bone-on-bone.” By the time we did our camera test, I was like, “I can’t put weight on this leg,” and I was on crutches all during the battlefield [sequence] – the whole movie. I never sat down because it hurt to sit. That’s not why it was the hardest; even if I wasn’t on crutches, it would have been the hardest movie I ever did. Honestly, when I got my nomination for the Oscar, I texted everybody on my crew, and I congratulated them. I’m going to start getting teary-eyed, but I was like, “This belongs to you as much as it does to me.” And I mean that, really.
That’s amazing. I feel like you can tell that everyone’s giving so much to that film.
Mary Zophres: Yeah. Even the background [actors]. Look at them! It was so hot when we shot that battle sequence, and they had a layer underneath, and then they had that tunic layer, and then they had the [chain mail], and the helmet, and it was metal in the sun. And it was real metal. Those poor people – and they just took water breaks. There was no shade out there, and like I said, people were just in it to win it. It was pretty amazing.
How much do you try to get into the actual minds of the characters when you’re coming up with their wardrobe? For instance, I could picture Brad Pitt’s character having a stylist and kind of finding his clothes that way, and then Tobey Maguire’s just pulling random things out of a dresser that he likes, because he’s a little kooky. How much do you think about the character’s mindsets and lifestyles when you’re dressing them?
Mary Zophres: I go deep. That’s just how I work. I’m dressing characters according to the screenplay, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors – a lot of times, the writer and director – [who have] screenplays that are just so rich and fully-formed, including this one. It’s in the page, it’s in the script, what these characters are. [Margot’s] character, [and] Brad’s character feel right because I was trying to channel what the script was telling me about their character. I have developed backstories, and sometimes they’re in the script, and sometimes they’re ones that I’ve gone over Damien or with another director.
There were not stylists in those days, but to me, [Brad’s character Jack Conrad] was one of the first movie stars. You have to remember that being a movie star was a brand-new thing. There were Broadway stars, [who] were famous in Broadway, and perhaps in Europe, but this worldwide or nationwide fame was so new, and he’s one of the first. We learned that he’s from the Midwest, and he comes to town, and through that speech – because you’ve read the script – you know what it was like when he first got there. That transformation that has happened to him in such a short amount of time, and him being kind of on top of the game – all of those things informed how I dressed him. Also, Damian tells me his character is inspired by Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, so it’s all these layers.
The idea for him was that traditionally and at these parties, the men, a lot of times, wore tuxedos. [I thought], “Let’s build Jack tuxedos – I think all of his suits are bespoke.” In fact, everything that Brad Pitt wears in the film is made to order, and I think that would have definitely happened at that time. I think that it was a time [when] luxurious sportswear was just becoming sort of a thing, and I proposed that to Damian and Brad very early on. I said, “I think that he wears sportswear instead of attending set in a suit and tie” It just made him feel like he owned it more, as opposed to being more formally dressed for the occasion. They both loved that idea. His inspirations were people like Gary Cooper, early Clark Gable, Jack Gilbert, and other men’s references that I found. I tried to base it all on things that I found in research, but that were surprising to me. That’s what Damian had asked us to do: find research that doesn’t look typically like your 1920s. That sort of speaks to luxury and confidence for him.
I absolutely channel, and I that for every single character, even the day players. Damien is so good at casting, and the casting was so wonderful in this film, [that] a character actor would walk in the door, and I was like, “Oh, I know what your backstory is.” I give every extra a backstory; that’s my jam.
Tobey Maguire[‘s character James McKay] is definitely more of a deviant. We were going to go one direction with him, and then we decided to go in another way. His makeup that Heba (Thorisdottir) did, and his hair that Jaime (Leigh McIntosh) did was so inspiring. At first, we were going to put him all in green and make him green in pallor. The other choice was this more traditional suit that we built out of this incredible vintage fabric, which was the best. The fabric was cratered, almost, so it was just weird and off-kilter, and that’s what we based the vest on. We haven’t really had a lot of red in the movie except for Margot’s opening number, so it was like, “Okay, this draws your attention in the same way that her first red outfit did.” We ended up going with the more traditional silhouette for him with this kind of strange vest underneath, but in a very particular color, and it just let the makeup [shine]. And the teeth. Damian actually had the beat where the teeth are revealed [in the script]. It wasn’t this line, it wasn’t that line, it was that. He had the whole movie in his head.
Everything that I’m talking about here is all because of Damien. He’s a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly, but I do think he’s the singular voice of his generation. I’m so proud to have been a part of this, and [I’m] just honored that he asked me to do this film. I can tell you all the ideas, and all my methods, and all of that, but it really all comes from him, I think.
From Damien Chazelle, BABYLON is an original epic set in 1920s Los Angeles led by Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva, with an ensemble cast including Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart. A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.
Check out our other Babylon interviews:
Next: Babylon Ending Explained (In Detail)