In directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s Netflix film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” six oddly marvelous vignettes romp through a darkly humorous imagined Old West. It was costume designer Mary Zophres’ creative duty to dress all the characters for the ride.
“There was a lot of instinct I used on this film as it was a bit strange,” says Zophres, whose longtime collaboration with the brothers has given her three Oscar and four BAFTA nominations. “Is it a comedy or serious? Are we doing a real western or a heightened one? And each story is entrenched in a different world. Still, as always, I had so much fun.
“And I always remember Joel and Ethan wrote these great characters; I’m just the lucky one who gets to design them. The singing cowboy dressed in white; it’s complete gratification.”
You had two big films come out this year, “First Man” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” What was the difference in your approach?
While I’m proud of how “First Man” looks, and although we went to painstaking depths to catch the exact look for that film, I wasn’t technically designing a space suit; I was re-creating NASA’s. On the other hand, “Buster Scruggs” is so thoroughly designed; each story was built from scratch and I’d never really read or designed for any of these types of characters before. So it offered a lot of challenges. It was a clearly gratifying design job.
There are six vignettes within the anthology. On the title segment, why is Buster dressed in ecru and not traditional white?
It just looked better to my eye. For Buster, the script said white, but to me it’s a somewhat off-putting color. I offered Joel and Ethan the slightly off-white idea, and they liked that. I felt brown could help sculpt the outfit into the landscape, while the chaps offered another layer of color. It was also clear the script was referencing the singing Hopalong Cassidy-type cowboys of the ’40s, so I used shirt piping, which was so popular then.
How did James Franco arrive in that great duster in “Near Algodones”?
The duster was scripted. I thought of “Once Upon a Time in the West” and asked the Coens if that was the idea, and they said yes – that spaghetti western genre. It gives the character an element of hubris, of him thinking he’s a bit better than the bank teller and a bit of a badass: the good-looking cowboy strutting in somewhere to take this guy down, no problem.
The challenge in that story were the two Indian tribes and how to correctly differentiate each. For the big hanging crowds, we used black, gray, brown fabric colors and I put the solo girl in a beautiful blue; we made her costume and had her hat made, and I think she’s just a vision. She was actually a local girl from New Mexico.
In “Meal Ticket,” Liam Neeson’s big coat was almost a character in itself.
The landscape was so different in this one — bleak, cold and miserable up in the Pacific Northwest. And it’s such a dark story. I had to make his character appear struggling in life, so bear fur seemed too luxurious. I did some research and found shearlings were used then, but when we tried to dye them, they wouldn’t take evenly. Eventually, we got IKEA shearling bath rugs, cut them up and sewed them together — about 30! It was a hugely important costume and very time-consuming, but it came out lovely.
Did you know Tom Waits was going to be the prospector in “All Gold Canyon”?
No, we didn’t know when we started prepping, and then they said it was Tom Waits, and I almost had a heart attack as I’m such a big fan. I found a photo of a real prospector, and that’s what inspired me. Tom’s pants were made, suspenders made, boots made. And the fact that Tom Waits loved his costume was so great; it was one of my favorite fittings of all time.
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” was both a lovely and yet ultimately horrifying vignette. What was it like to design?
I really loved designing that film. Again, I wanted it to look different than the others, so we used lighter-weight fabrics, a lighter palette, and more casual look. I wanted to keep Zoe [Kazan] realistic but to bring out the blue in her eyes, and since there was a bit of romance, which is rare for the Coens, I played up on that archetype — the good-looking cowboy — and put her in the perfect blue dress and bonnet. And that bonnet is the real deal; we made the dress but that bonnet is from the late 1800s.
On “The Mortal Remains,” everything was shot tight, up-close and stationary.
Yes, the final story is like a stage play; it was heightened and pushed to the limit, and they wrote it to look that way. We went bolder on the alive side of the coach: ochre, maroon, teal and olive. [The Englishman] is in a three-piece suit all in the same fabric, and for [the Irishman] we used a bigger colored plaid.
The other side of the stagecoach was darker. I used silk taffeta for Tyne Daly with a great bustle hat. The trapper’s coat I made mangier than Liam’s and with a coonskin hat. We made a specific decision not to put this side all in black as we didn’t want to give it away that they were, in fact, already dead, even though they were all in dark colors. I love Tyne Daly’s costume; it might be one of my favorites in the whole movie.