When I first met Ellen Mirojnick back in 2017 at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, she served on a student-focused panel about costume design and breaking into the design industry. The hour provided a master class of costume design led by those that designed some of the most iconic looks in cinema. Along with her co-panelists (including The Irishman’s Sandy Powell), Mirojnick regaled the students in attendance with stories from her 30-odd years of experience in the film industry.
Mirojnick talked about working with frequent collaborator Michael Douglas on her Emmy-winning designs for Behind the Candelabra. She talked about helping Hugh Jackman find his way into P.T. Barnum with the iconic red topcoat in The Greatest Showman. And she talked about her first job designing costumes for a low-budget film called The French Quarter. It was this anecdote that provided the quote of the day.
The film’s director asked her to assist with an actress, commenting that “her breasts don’t look very good. They aren’t cinematic.”
How did Mirojnick respond?
“Put her on her side and give her a cleavage. That’s the best I can do!”
I go into that detail to give you a sense of the playfulness and good humor Ellen Mirojnick has. She talks about that instance as her full introduction into the strangeness of the film industry. It prepared her for a career in which anything could happen, requiring her to constantly think on her feet.
Over our near 1-hour conversation, she talked about costume designing some of my favorite movies and about working with cinematic icons Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer on Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. The film, which required both physical and virtual designs, features dozens of intricate costumes worn by the main cast in addition to hundreds worn by extras. Some costumes even serve to further the plot of the film itself. It was a massive effort that exercised her creativity in unique ways. Her detailed work on the film has already merited recognition at this year’s Costume Designers Guild nominations in the Excellence in Sci-Fi / Fantasy Film category (as well as Excellence in Contemporary Film for The Laundromat).
Here, Mirojnick talks about creating the fantastic designs for the film, about working with Jolie and Pfeiffer in their fitting sessions, and about what each outfit illustrates thematically. But, sadly, what you won’t read here is our 20-minute conversation about costume designing one of my very favorite guilty pleasures, Paul Verhoven’s 1995 camp classic Showgirls.
That one’s just for me. But here’s a taste, courtesy of Ellen Mirojnick: “Ohhh, it wasn’t the design aspect. It was the fittings. That would have been a movie in and of itself.”
Awards Daily: As I look back at your history, you have a mix of both period and contemporary costumes in your resume, but you’ve worked on a great deal of contemporary costumes on films like Basic Instinct and Wall Street. When you look at awards like the Oscars, do you think there’s a bias against contemporary costume design?
Ellen Mirojnick: Well, I do. I actually do. When I first started and did contemporary film, I loved being part of telling stories and being able to be a visual storyteller through the characters. I honestly didn’t think about contemporary versus period. I loved doing contemporary so much. You are basically creating history. You’ll be working on a film that takes place in a modern time, and you’re documenting that period of time. When you do a period film, you must of course do research, but you’re interpreting that period for the film that you’re about to design.
There is a very big responsibility that we have as designers to lay the foundation of what the periods of time that we’ve lived in have been. In ten or twenty years, other designers will look back at the films or television created at that time to see what it was like. What did people look like? What were they wearing? What cultural aspects were present at that time? It’s an important documentation. I hate that, over the years, [contemporary costumed films) aren’t taken to be as important as a “costume” film or project that one had to research and interpret. You do the same work in contemporary film, and in fact, it could be harder.
I am a big fan of looking forward to the day in which contemporary film and design is taken seriously. In which it’s elevated to an equal playing field. It is a project that has been designed. It is a costume designed piece no matter how you go about creating. I do contemporary work by building everything like I do for period projects. I’m telling a story, and it has to look a particular way. We have to fulfill the director’s vision. You have to weave the characters’ story in such a way and maybe you can’t go to the store to find it. It’s still designing a film even though it’s a contemporary film. The Academy really hasn’t seen it that way despite the many years we’ve fought for it. Hopefully, someone will get nominated for a contemporary film that takes place in the modern era. We need to consider all work no matter the subject matter.
AD: I have recently pointed to something like last year’s A Simple Favor in which the costumes informed the characters as much as anything in a period film would. It was nominated at the Costumer’s Guild but not for the Oscar. I think people believe that these modern designs are just bought in a store and thrown on an actor.
EM: You’re absolutely right. It is a big argument that, maybe one day, the Academy or BAFTA can set a precedent. All it takes is for someone to break the past and nominate a contemporary film that is a true contemporary film. Regular people no matter what their economic status is. Something that will break the ceiling.
AD: You’ve costumed great actors like Michael Douglas or Sharon Stone, but what was it like walking into the Maleficent fitting sessions with Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer?
EM: Well they’re two entirely different actors. Designing for icons, which I think they are, is kind of thrilling. I have to say that I’m still like a little girl in that way. I sometimes have to pinch myself and remember that I still have to do my job. Both are very different personalities, but both are so professional that you don’t let the icon status enter your frame of reference. You’re there to create the character with them. It’s an exhilarating feeling when you have designed and created something that is working, and they’re embodying the character. Truthfully, you forget that they’re icons. They’re actors. They’re great professionals. For me, it’s just thrilling.
AD: How many costumes did you end up designing for the film?
EM: Everything. I don’t know what the number is. Let’s put it this way, Michelle has about 8 costumes that went before the camera. Angie’s costumes were about 6-10. For example, the costume that she wears to dinner has several iterations. She’s wounded and flies off and then rescued. The costume when she wakes in the dark fae’s land is parts of the same costume she wore to dinner. That costume alone has three different evolutions. And her battle costume still comes from the original costume. The prince had about 10. The king only had 2. We had an army to design. We had fairies to design. We had townspeople, nobles, maids, servants, and livery. All of the queen’s people. Some of the king’s people. It was a lot of costumes.
What was really thrilling about it was that it was so many separate worlds. You had the bustling town becoming a city, growing by leaps and bounds. There was the castle. There was the moors, the fairyland. And there was the dark fae land which was totally different. All of that together in the creation of Maleficent was really a great, great challenge and fun to design. Having to do as much practically as possible so that it wasn’t just put on the CGI list.
AD: Talking about that CGI list, did you design the looks for the fairies even though they are prominently CGI characters?
EM: We just made changes. The aunts were from before, but we kind of changed the costumes slightly. Only by drawings though. We just changed the aunts slightly. They’re a little sexier.
AD: But not Showgirls sexy.
EM: (Laughs) No, not Showgirls sexy, but I think if Joachim (Rønning, director) could have made them that way, he would have been happy.
AD: The costumes in the film actually serve as a plot device in the story with Queen Ingrith’s (Pfeiffer) hidden passage. You must have been excited for that particular scene.
EM: It was great fun. It actually came somewhat late in the filming, so we did have some time to work with it. What was wonderful about it was that you actually had Queen Ingrith’s (Pfeiffer) costumes on display. They were beautifully displayed, and they would work as a plot device. At the time, we didn’t know which costume would be the turn (the activation of Queen Ingrith’s secret passage).
Joachim came in and decided which one would be the head turn, but there were far more costumes in that room than we see her wear. We supplemented it with other costumes we designed to fill in the space. We had to create other costumes that would be close to Queen Ingrith but wouldn’t be worn by Michelle. There was jewelry. There were crowns. It was her full wardrobe in the closet. It was very exciting to walk on that set and see all of this.
AD: Tell me about Queen Ingrith’s look for the climactic battle at the end of the film? It looks like a feminine suit of armor lined with pearls.
EM: Yes, she is wearing very feminine armor. Let’s put it this way: she was a woman of means, but she was also a woman who grabbed everyone’s means. She had many motives – greed is good, actually. The one thing that we always kept in her storyline in terms of the design was at no moment should we know by looking at her that she is evil. When we first drew Queen Ingrith and we didn’t know it was going to be Michelle, she was very formidable. We always had a question of “Do we make her look stronger by the fabrics we choose?” We basically drew something while designing the character that basically looked very much like a chest plate or additional pieces of armor.
The response that we got from the powers that be was not positive. They didn’t like it, and neither did we frankly. It was very predictable. So, staying on the course of femininity – so much of the story has to do with three different kinds of woman – we decided to do the jeweled armor and look for a fabrication that could look as much like it was woven with metal as you could find. And that’s what we did. The fabrication was an Italian tapestry that was woven with silver. If you stand back and look at it, it looks hard where it needs to be hard. The pieces that she wears are all hardened pieces. There wouldn’t be a weapon that could penetrate it. It just made sense to create a set of pearl and diamond armor for Queen Ingrith.
AD: Of course. Well, this has been a fantastic conversation, but I have one final question for you. Tell me about Aurora’s wedding dress at the end.
EM: That dress is all silk chiffon, silk georgette, and silk organdy. The intention was that it represented her return to a natural setting. We lived through Aurora trapped in the castle and not being happy in that life and her biggest desire to return to nature. We created hundreds and hundreds of flowers, feathered and silk – all hand done. It was to be a field of flowers that travelled up and around her wedding dress so that it would be a dress that returned Aurora to nature. The back of the train was very important because it represented a field of flowers. I don’t think it was really represented totally in the film. But she becomes a queen and returns to her roots. Nature and love says it all.
AD: OK, so I lied. I have one more question for you. Maleficent, the character itself, is an iconic character within the Disney legacy. Did you have free reign to design for her or did you have to stay within the confines of the original character?
EM: No, it was pretty free. We all know what she looks like and what the silhouette is. We tried to have the same type of silhouette but make it a bit more modern. Give it some freshness. All of the shapes are the same type of shapes as the original character. We engineered them in a way to be a bit more modern.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil will be available to stream on Amazon Video and iTunes starting December 31, 2019. It will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on January 14, 2020.