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Interview: La La Land’s Costume Designer Mary Zophres. “In that opening number, we wanted it to be an appetizer of the rest of the movie.”

La La Land is not just Damien Chazelle’s love letter to Los Angeles, it also pays tribute to the musicals of old Hollywood. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress who meets and falls in love with a jazz musician, Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. Together, the duo sing and dance through the arc of their relationship, from bliss to despair and back again. I caught up with costume designer, Mary Zophres to talk about how she honored Chazelle’s vision, and how his creativity helped inspire a collaborative relationship.

Zophres also talks about creating a timeless look for the film, where any of the costumes we see could belong in any era, whether it be modern-day LA or the LA of vintage MGM musicals. See how she worked to put the look of La La Land’s technicolor feel together.

Awards Daily: How would you describe the look of La La Land?

Mary Zophres: When I read the script it was very romantic in a way that I had never read before. It’s not only about the love between the two of them, it’s just romantic about your approach to life, your approach to your dream, and I found the script charming.

There was also that feeling of nostalgia because they both have a love for the past. It was also very modern. All of those things that were in the script were what I was going for in the movie; romance, nostalgia, happy, joy, heartbreak and dreaming, as well as optimism. Those gut feelings I felt while reading the script is what I was going for in the close.

All of this was guided by really good notes and expression of what his (Damien Chazelle’s) intention was. He showed us this graph of the emotion in the film. It starts off at traffic, and it reaches a peak at the planetarium. There were more scenes that ended up in the montage sequence that I represented with the lack of color and a desaturation and removal of color. I used more black, white and blue. By the epilogue, it peaks back up, the what if. We recall all the designs and color throughout the film, and we put it in the end.

Damien had written out this graph, and between that and the music was really handy. We also had three days where we went through the script page by page and talked about the score. He had already pre-recorded a lot of it but was very open to suggestions. Once I had that meeting, read the script and heard the music, it was a very emotional design coming out. This happened because of all of those things. Once you’re in the zone and having these pow-wows, of course, it’s going to look this way. It was very intuitive.

AD: I love how Chazelle’s mind works, and that graph sounds so very unique but great.

MZ: He’s part of the new generation of auteurs. He has an original voice, and a vision. He has a firm grasp on how to make a film, and what he wanted his film to look like. His approach is rare, that auteur quality is something I found so inspiring. He was a great leader. He wasn’t one of those directors who wanted more cleavage or more leg. He has such sophisticated taste. Someone asked how many rounds we had for the yellow dress, and he loved the sketch and the idea of yellow, and we painted a print on it. If Emma and I liked it in the fitting room, I can’t think of a single moment when he didn’t agree. We were all in sync which is a nice way to work. We were in sync because of this information he gave me, he’s able to communicate and that’s the biggest job a director has when dealing with department heads, that ability, and he’s a master at that. He has such a great future ahead.

AD: You mentioned colors, on that note, how do you costume a scene like Another Day of Sun that has so many colors which are so vibrant with that background?

MZ: Of all the dance numbers, we shot that at the end. We did have the benefit of knowing what we had shot already. We did the pool party, and the duets and those scenes had their own color palette. Then we the hilltop party where her roommates go, and that too had its own palette. We made a lot of those dresses for the girls. We had a color palette that was evident in all these dance numbers. Originally in the draft, we had talked about traffic being very earth-toned and monochromatic. They’re going to get out and dance, and we’re going to tell the audience that it’s a dance number. As we were shooting, we were a month away from shooting the traffic scene, and Damien, Marc Platt and I were having lunch. I said, “Are you still sure about the color?” We all felt that we had used this color in the movie that it might be good to use some in the beginning. So we did just that and we split it up with grey and brown earth tones, and certain characters that had parts to have a pop of color. At the end of that number, when they’re in front of the van, it’s a crescendo at that point, so the clothing to me in most of those numbers work as instruments themselves. If it’s a xylophone, you’re using part of the keys, and by the end, you’re using all of them, and to me, the clothing works as another part of the music.

Damien loved the idea of the ramp, and we knew we wouldn’t have access to base camp, we didn’t know how hot it was going to be, it was 110 degrees that day. It was the hottest weekend on record for October. We knew these dancers would be sweating and dancing their hearts out. We tried to find multiples and we shopped around. That scene to me I wanted it to be more shopped-for. All those girls have the same silhouette, and the shape is a short swing dress. By the epilogue, the dress is longer and fuller skirted and has more volume. The volume in Emma’s skirts get bigger and bigger, and the same goes for the dancers.
In that opening number, we wanted it to be an appetizer of the rest of the movie.

AD: There’s such a timeless quality not just to Mia’s dresses, but the other female characters where you could take her out of the current and place her in the past and the dress would look timeless. How did you achieve that?

MZ: That was on purpose. It’s how I approached the film. We first wanted it to be flattering to Emma as possible. When you watch an MGM musical, you see how the dress flies. We wanted the same, and the yellow dress that you see, doesn’t quite become a full circle, but by the time we get to the green dress it becomes a full circle. To get that, you either put pleats in it or you cut the skirt and use panels. I didn’t want pleats.

With necklines, I thought there were some that were really suited to Emma. If I pulled this, it could work in a film set in the ’20s, but that it could also be worn on the streets today. That’s how I did the whole film. I used a sweetheart neck for a reason because it is a heart. The green dress is a sweetheart neckline, they used it in the ’40s, but Versace will have it coming up in its 2017 line, and it’s just a beautiful neckline on a woman.

We also knew she had to dance and waltz, and we kept that in mind for Emma when it came to the sleeves so her arms had movement. Emma also has a beautiful neck and beautiful shoulders and arms so we didn’t have to camouflage anything. We just approached it that way with a nostalgic nod to those musicals.

I don’t know if you see them but in every one of the dance numbers she had the matching panty. If you watch Ann Miller in On The Town, she does this spin and you catch a glimpse, but I don’t think you see it in our film.

AD: What about the look of the men, not just Ryan’s character, but you also have J.K. Simmons and John Legend, how did you construct their look?

MZ: J.K. was about keeping it classic. He’s in a jacket and tie. I don’t know every manager would wear what he wears, but he’s of a certain age and he’s in a place that still has a piano player which is not very common. Sebastian had a formal look too with elegance to him. I said to Damien that I didn’t think he would ever wear a t-shirt and jeans or sneakers, and he was fine with that.

John Legend is someone we grew to like and he’s more on trend than Sebastian is. His trousers are leaner. He’s rocking that ochre turtle neck. I wanted to make him fashionable. I didn’t make him crazy until they go on stage. Damien wanted to shock Mia so there’s that pink jacket, but it’s all shapes that are classic. Those are my tastes in general because I’m not a fan of busy prints on screen, and I rarely use them.

AD: How many did you make?

MZ: Everything they dance in was built. We had a really limited budget, so with Ryan’s character we had a simple wardrobe, two blazers, a suit, two trousers, a few dress shirts, and a few casual shirts. We made them all.

His shoes were purchased, and we ended up going with dance shoes, so we had those two-toned shoes, and we loved them so much, we ended up using them in almost all the scenes he appears in.

With Mia, we made all the dresses she dances in. We made the blue, green, purple and the white dresses. The same for the hilltop and the roommate dresses. We made all the women’s dresses. There were between 70 and 80 costumes.

AD: There’s this gorgeous harmony with the costumes and David Wasco in production design.

MZ:  It was fantastic and just so collaborative. We had a lot of good decisions back in the days of prep. I had suggested that it would be helpful if we were in the same location for prep. The choreography department was right outside the costume department, but we could work on problems if something came up and we could work on it there.

In that first meeting, we knew Damien was inspired by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it was something we had all watched, and wondered how they achieved it. It was done through a synchronicity between costumes and set design, and production, and cinematography. If Emma was wearing a certain color, no one was wearing it, but we might repeat it in a flowerpot in the background. When I picked a stark color, it was sent to the art department and they would match it to a Pantone. When the roommate’s colors were chosen, again we’d send them to art. We were going to go with a pink for one of the roommates, but location had found this exterior that was pink, so we all agreed not to use the pink. We chose the royal blue, the yellow, the red, and we decided that those colors were our Technicolor palette, and we’d repeat those colors whenever we had the need and desire for color.

When Emma is auditioning, they’re all in white shirts. Then we decided to use yellow as an accent. We had the bags, the shoes and even an ashtray as that accent.

We knew what the clothes were, and we were all in sync. Sometimes the exterior took precedent, sometimes the costume took precedent. It was collaborative filmmaking, and we were working as one. Everybody on set wanted to make this vision that Damien had, happen. We were all in it, working our butts off, coming up with ideas, but we were following our leader and he was an incredible leader.

AD: How did budget affect your choices?

MZ: I knew I had to make certain things for Emma. I think she had 47 changes in the film. I budgeted and did a very specific budget that it would cost X to make this dress. I did a line-by-line budget. I cut where I could have. I told them the total and I turned it in and I don’t think the producers had seen something so detailed. H&M gave us 25% off. We used ASOS and H&M for the men in the parties as their suits were made from stretchy fabric. That was a dream for the dancers. We were able to do it for a decent price and we begged and borrowed. We borrowed the dress that Emma wears to The Echo, that came from Burberry. You hardly see it, it’s pink and pale, but we got that.

She has this Armani blouse, and she wears it. It’s the scene in Arizona, and they also lent it to us for the movie. Rag and Bone jeans gave us a great discount for the jeans that she wears.

For the traffic scene, we did Marshalls, H&M, Ross, and Uniqlo who saved us because they were doing stretch pants. We tried to shop economically when we could, and I spent the money when I knew we had to, and really it was every bit counts.