I don’t know how any of the artists handled the pressure on Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. Not only does the coming-of-age film span a large chunk of time, but it’s famously about the celebrated director’s family life. I would’ve crumbled immediately. Looking back is never easy, but costume designer Mark Bridges relied heavily on his conversations with Spielberg to accurately depict the joys of growing up with a loving family with the pain of realizing your parents are human beings.
At the top of our conversation, Bridges revealed that his biggest tool was Spielberg himself. A lot of audiences and critics have noticed that The Fabelmans is one of Spielberg’s most emotionally revealing films, and when it came to initial talks with the director, Bridges knew that he could rely on him for information.
“The thing that sticks out in my mind is him referring to his mom, Leah, as having a very distinct personal style. I was worried that it was going to be fur coats and tutus, you know? I was a little nervous that I would do that character justice by whatever that style. Steven needed to be able to relate to that character. We would send him pictures of scout badges or troupe names, because he had been very involved with boys scouts his entire life. I was given access to family photos and films that he made as a young man. I took away from those primary references and tried to interpret as best I could.”
When you watch The Fabelmans, you might notice that Michelle Williams’ Mitzi doesn’t often wear dresses (she usually opts for pants). In one scene, her family watches her rehearse her beloved piano, and Bridges has dressed Williams in a romantic, yellow dress fit for the occasion.
“It was inspired by a black-and-white photo of his mom,” he said. “I had a picture of her during Hanukah sitting at the piano. We took our liberties with the color. We spoke to, I think, one of the sisters who said it was pale grey, but in our film, yellow was perfect with that setting.”
The camping trip in The Fabelmans changes everything. When Sam sees his mother dancing in front of everyone, her white nightgown magically flows in the night air. It’s partially see-through, but there is an innocence exuding from her as well. It’s a seemingly simple garment, but it needed to accomplish a lot of things all at once. It has to make Mitzi feel a certain way and we realize that Benny sees her in another way entirely.
“That’s an interesting garment, actually,” Bridges said. “Steven’s sisters wanted to remind me that when they were living in Arizona, she was into ethnic things like turquoise jewelry or a Mexican wedding dress. She even bought a part of lederhosen, because she thought they were cool–but I never found a place for them. I got a Mexican wedding dress, but I recut the skirt with a thinner fabric so it would give the impression of nudity. You could see through it, but not really. The real ones are more tube-shaped and straight. It was the kind of thing where you customize a piece for a dramatic moment.
There’s a film of his mom that he recorded in his living room where his mom is dancing around in a blue nightgown. When she goes by the window, it’s a little see-through, so that’s where it comes from, I think. There is a shot of her going by the window in the living room, and then you think of what Leah really liked and how you can customize it for the dramatic moment. White is very bold to bring on a camping trip but also for a DP. Janusz Kamiński photographs that without blinking an eye. He’s such a genius. I am given the freedom to do what I think is right, because everyone around me is so talented. That’s why that scene is so successful.”
When Sam becomes serious about his filmmaking, everyone is impressed when a new film is screened. Not only does he have friends willing to take part in Sam realizing his vision, but we have to remember that these kids did everything themselves. It’s the sheer definition of ragtag, young filmmaking. In order for the costumes in Sam’s films to echo a young man’s imagination, Bridges created costumes very similarly to how Spielberg did as a kid.
“Steven excitedly told me what he had to do to make those costumes for his films originally,” he said. “They once tried to dye t-shirts black, and they came out grey. They printed out Nazi insignias to put on all the shirts. We took a page from that and did it in that low-tech way. We also dyed the shirts, and it’s hard to get a dense black. We kept in the mindset of where these kids got these things. A lot of the helmets were helmet liners that their fathers may have brought back from World War II. Army Surplus, at the time, was quite fruitful before the ’60s emptied them out. At that time, kids could get things rather cheaply. We really tried to recreate what Steven had to do.”
When Sam begins dating Monica, the film expands to include younger people, and we see different colors and textures from when Sam was younger. On the senior ditch day, Bridges uses pale pinks and greens, and Monica’s prom dress is a highlight from the second half of The Fabelmans. You can tell that Monica feels beautiful in her dress, but Bridges revealed how he was drawn to a specific vintage piece.
“That’s a real vintage dress that I found,” Bridges said. “I was drawn to it for the purity aspect to it–that’s her face to the world. The front of the dress–the way that the sash was created in the front–looks like a cross. There’s a bow up top and it goes out on the sides with a long tail in the front. Steven had been shooting with it for half of a day and then I hear, “Where’s Mark Bridges? Monica’s dress has a cross on it!” There’s an element of me going with a gut reaction, and that felt right to me. Clothes have character, and the character of that dress met up with Monica. It just seemed right. Divine Intervention, so to speak, helped us.”
There is a lot of character-driven pieces that I would want to nab from Bridge’s designs for myself. In the scene between Gabriel LaBelle and Seth Rogen where Sam is selling his camera, LaBelle’s Sam is wearing plaid jacket that I would wear everywhere. Rogen’s Benny sports a green hat that seems like a small detail, but he puts it on Mitzi in a key moment (“That was something that Steven asked for…he thought it would be perfect for that,” he said). Bridges has a particular piece of casual eveningwear that he would want to take.
“At some point, in the middle of the night when Mitzi is playing the piano in her Lanz flannel nightgown–which Leah really wore–Paul’s character is wearing this avocado, cotton robe,” he said. “I thought it was such an interesting garment. It was the moment of the ’60s and, in Arizona, he doesn’t need something heavy. I thought the color really spoke to me, and it would be perfectly smart today.
The Fabelmans is in theaters now.