Mary Zophres has been the head Costume Designer on every Coen Brothers film for nearly 25 years. From Fargo to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, she hasn’t missed once. The Academy recognized her work this year in nominating her for best Costume Design for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s her third nomination in this category following 2010’s True Grit and 2016’s La La Land. We discuss her career with the Coens from beginning to end, and how costume equals character.
You have been the costume designer on every Coen Brothers film since Fargo in 1994. What keeps you coming back to their projects?
I was the Assistant Costume Designer for Richard Hornung, who was their Costume Designer on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy. I was the Assistant on Hudsucker and a Costume PA on Barton Fink. I knew them (the Coens) about as well as you could know anybody as an assistant. I was a big fan of their work before I started working for them. I was an Assistant Costume Designer in New York and I moved to LA for a movie that went down. So, I went back to being a PA to work on Barton Fink because I was such a big fan. I had started to work as a Costume designer on my own. Richard was supposed to design Fargo and he was ill. He had been ill for some time, but functioning well. It (his health) took a turn for the worse (Hornung died in 1995) and he realized he couldn’t do Fargo. He recommended myself and one other person and they (the Coens) gave me the job. I was thrilled. I think I screamed in the room!
And then you got to be the Costume Designer on a classic film.
It was a low-budget film. I think we had 6 or 7 million dollars. My costume budget was around $30,000. They were really happy with what I did for the film and I’ve been lucky that they’ve hired me ever since. I stick with them because I find their scripts to be unlike any other scripts that I’ve read in all my years in Hollywood. They’re full of interesting characters, in wildly different genres, and they are a unique pair of filmmakers. Anyone who watches one of their films can tell that there’s something different going on than in more mainstream movies. I think they like working with the same people – although I do try to surprise them. They don’t believe people can work in only one type of genre the same way they aren’t only capable of working in only one type of genre. They feel like if someone understands their scripts and the world their scripts evoke, they will make their choices on intellectual understanding. I think they found somebody in me they feel like they can have a conversation with and who understands their point of view. I always check with them before I start another film because I love working for them. I never take it for granted, I never assume they are going to hire me. I try to make sure I maintain the high standard they expect from me. I hope it continues forever. If they retire, I might retire (Laughs). Hopefully they’ll keep on making films! I know it’s a unique connection and collaboration. I feel very lucky for having it.
What was it like working with Richard Hornung?
I was so lucky to have trained under the Costume Designer who worked on their previous films. That’s where I earned my designing muscles. Richard was one of the best Costume Designers to ever work in Hollywood. I feel like I learned from the best. I was going to apply to graduate school and he said, “Don’t go to graduate school. Work for me. It will be like going to graduate school except you’ll get paid” (Laughs). I saw how he would conceptualize design and sketch them out – how he would use fabric – and all those basic nuts and bolts of the doing of designing.
The Coen Brothers are known for having very specific scripts. Down to the placement of the commas. What is it like working in such a detailed world for you as a designer?
One thing that I do trust is my own instinct and I understand the world they are trying to create. Sometimes I suppose things and they are like…no (laughs). But you always have to try. They storyboard their films from beginning to end. That’s a wonderful reference. Particularly when you can see what you should be focusing on in the scene – what you shouldn’t take any shortcuts with. Oftentimes they will even have the lens they are going to use (written on the storyboard). It will say POV or ECU – it’s literally detailed. That aside, there is plenty of room during rehearsals for spontaneity – sometimes the storyboards are not used exactly as they are drawn. But they are the footprint for the story they are telling.
You said earlier that you like to surprise them. Can you provide an example of a time you did that?
We were on Intolerable Cruelty and there was a character named Baron Von Espy – he’s there to testify in the film that Catherine Zeta-Jones is a gold digger. There was a tracking shot of him coming down the aisle to get onto the witness stand. I looked at the storyboard of the tracking shot and saw he was only going to be filmed from the chest up. I asked if there was any way we would see Baron Von Espy’s shoes? Joel was intrigued and asked me what I had in mind. I showed him this drawing that I had done of a square-toed 60’s styled, low-heeled shoe I wanted to put Baron Von Espy in. Joel got a smile on his face and told me to do it. When you watch the film, there’s two tracking shots and they edit them together. They go from his head to his feet, and from his head to his feet, and from his head to his feet. It helps tell the story of who he is. He has one scene in the film! I could have gone way more flamboyant with the shoes, considering how he was dressed, but the subtlety of the shoes made it funnier. The fact that he had a bit of a heel. It changed the way the actor walked, It added development of the character through costume.
Buster Scruggs and True Grit are both westerns, but No Country For Old Men in a way was your first western. Just a modern one.
When I was doing No Country For Old men, it was a completely new genre for me. To me, the strongest drive in their films are the characters. The have impeccable casting, really interesting faces in their films, and very fine acting. I think it all comes down to creating those characters. And No Country For Old Men was the same (process of) creation as on the other films. It was more about when and where it was set for me. We were meant to be in West Texas, it was in the early 80s – before the internet – in a pretty remote part of the state. The landscape spoke volumes to all of us. It defined the palette of the film. Chigurh – played by Javier Bardem – was sort of the darkest spectrum of the palette. I saw him as someone who was tying to fit in. To me, it was like giving him a backstory. A reason why he was wearing those clothes. You want to do that for all the characters while working within the language of the film. If you read the book, there’s very little given about Chigurh. He was trying to fit in because he knew that he didn’t. He would have purchased something in a store nearby. He would have worn cowboy boots, but I wanted his boots to seem like they could have been a weapon. I made them pointy enough that he could probably kill someone with them.
Chigurh is a fabulously enigmatic character.
In my sketch for that character, I found a piece of research that inspired me to do that darker denim jacket on him. It was a picture of a convict from the Warner Brothers research library. Not everything is uploadable. You will miss infinite amounts of wonderful research if you rely only on the internet. This picture I found of the gentleman looked remarkably like Javier Bardem. He had this wonderful haircut. It was a side-part with the bangs flipped over his face, a little below his ear – a little bit of a page boy cut. I showed that to Joel and Ethan and they loved the idea of that for his costume. Then I sent that picture to Paul LeBlanc who was the hair designer on the film and he took that hairdo to another level (Laughs), but it all came from this piece of research. Joel and Ethan rely on me to be involved with hair and makeup too. It’s all a collaboration.
For Buster Scruggs, was there a challenge presented by its episodic nature?
It felt like designing six different movies. Even though they were all in the western genre, they all had a very specific tone. Particularly the speaking parts and anyone who got shot needed to be built. So, there was a lot to be done. At the same time that’s what made it really interesting and a challenge in a very good way. The first episode “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, we knew we were going to create Buster from head to toe and incorporate from the singing cowboy genre of the 1940s and 50s. So, here we are entrenched in a sort heightened Hollywood version of the old west. “Old” being the operative word. We wanted to keep the episode in the time-frame of the 1870s except for the character of Buster. It was a like a mash-up, but because the story was so heightened it totally worked. And then you move on to the segment “Near Algodones” which has a character charging out of a bank wearing pans, That I had never done before (Laughs). That was hard to figure out, but really fun. I would imagine I will never do that again (Laughs). We also hearkened back to the spaghetti westerns like Once Upon a Time In The West with the handsome, rugged cowboy and made it ridiculous a shit keeps on happening to him. The last one “Mortal Remains” was more like a stage play. Very heightened and more theatrical in every way. In my design and the lighting, but it still has a subtlety. I feel like the Coen Brothers are not subtle and subtle at the same time. I feel like my designs are the same way. You also never want to be a distraction. You want to look at the character onscreen and accept them. Their look sticks with you, but it’s not a distraction to the story.
Which costume was the most difficult on Buster Scruggs?
The Artist in “Meal Ticket” was quite challenging. They hired the best actor for the role in Harry Melling. He happens to have arms and legs (the character does not). They wanted to rely as little on CGI to make his arms and legs disappear. It was a very collaborative effort and something I had never done before. There was a lot of trial and error. We had a lower budget on this film so we couldn’t afford to make prototypes and throw them out the window if they didn’t work. And we didn’t have access to the actor who was in a play in London. We used stand-ins and body doubles. We figured out using a shirt with four arms would work. That was a huge breakthrough. It gave the actor a place to put his arms in the back while being filmed from the front as well as when being filmed from the back. That was a very stressful challenge.
Buster Scruggs brought you your third Oscar nomination. Considering it was a Netflix film and the bias against streaming films, were you surprised by the recognition?
I was completely surprised and really honored. My antenna was not up at all. I didn’t wake up early on the day the nominations came out. We were having morning coffee. My son and I were literally taking our vitamins (Laughs) when I went over to my phone and found all these congratulations. I thought oh my god, that’s today! I’m thrilled beyond belief. It’s totally exciting. Especially when you are taken so by surprise by the nomination.