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After the flash of 'La La Land,' costume designer Mary Zophres tones it down for 'First Man'

After the flash of 'La La Land,' costume designer Mary Zophres tones it down for 'First Man'
Costume designer Mary Zophres says she knew the flight suits "had to be stars and look like the real deal. We built all those suits as a team and NASA’s incredible archives were invaluable." When Buzz Aldrin came to set, he said the suits looked great, Zophres says. (Daniel McFadden / Universal Pictures)

Fifty years after Neil Armstrong took those giant steps onto moon soil, his first biopic, “First Man,” directed by Damien Chazelle, lands in theaters with Ryan Gosling as the astronaut. The film’s costume designer, Mary Zophres, worked with Chazelle on his Oscar-winning “La La Landand already knew she wanted to work with the director again.

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“I really, really enjoyed working with Damien on ‘La La Land,’ ” for which she earned an Oscar nomination, she says with enthusiasm. “So I wanted to do this Armstrong film. Not only is Damien a great director, but he’s such a good leader. He galvanizes people; it’s unbelievable how inspiring he can be. I said, ‘I’ll follow you and do anything for you.’ I always ask myself, ‘If someone else did the costumes on this film, would I be upset?’ And for this one, it was a yes.”

The costumes you created for “La La Land” have a different role than in “First Man.” The former has them center stage and highly colorful, and in “First Man” they recede and are low-toned. How did your design approach differ?

I knew very early on this was not a parade of costumes and that it was meant to have a more documentary feel to it; therefore I had to have huge amounts of restraint. That said, each film I do I approach much the same: The costumes reflect the script, the characters and the storyline. So in some ways both films were very much like every other movie I’ve done where you tell the story of characters in time in a precise and concise way.

And even though in “First Man” the costumes might not be upfront, everything was very carefully selected, especially for Ryan and Claire (Foy, as Armstrong’s wife, Janet). If I ever felt they were taking foreground without a very specific reason …

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in a scene from "La La Land."
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in a scene from "La La Land." (Dale Robinette / Lionsgate / AP Photo)

Such as the NASA flight suits — they had to be forefront …

Yes! They had to be stars and look like the real deal. We built all those suits as a team, and NASA’s incredible archives were invaluable. It’s always such a compliment when people think they’re originals.

Did you need direct approval from NASA on all their designs?

Each time we did something graphic — such as on a T-shirt or a patch — we ran it through Universal, so they probably had a check system, though we didn’t do that directly. There were also several NASA point people for costumes specifically. In fact, I emailed with Buzz Aldrin’s assistant back and forth a lot in the film’s beginning, and he came to set. It was a huge validation for me when he said, “Wow! [The flight suits] look great.”

It was a lot to get right, especially for all the people who freeze-frame such things. It’s a big deal, and you’ve got to get it correct.

I was struck by how the 1960s were filled with bright, colorful clothes, and yet in here the palette was highly subdued. It had that early ’60s, Kennedy-esque look through the entire decade. Why?

A lot of it was based on the research we had access to, both NASA and family photos. The palette was a reaction to that. And remember, Damien wanted that au courant documentary quality to the film, so the colors had to be a bit faded, not techno bright. I proposed to Damien early on that it’s not the Brady Bunch, and the research backed us up, so we took a very conservative approach to the way the people dressed.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong in "First Man."
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong in "First Man." (Daniel McFadden / Universal Pictures)

It was such a separate look from the counterculture thing going on, especially toward the end of the decade.

Remember, the story centers in Houston, and they were in a secluded suburb outside of Houston and had maybe three stores they shopped at — Sears and a couple of others. (We think Buzz likely shopped elsewhere, maybe Neiman Marcus). People were watching television and reading national publications, but they were shopping in their own towns — no global shopping yet. The coastal cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco had something completely different going on with clothes and that typical ’60s hippie look.

How did you manage not to overload on the white short-sleeve shirt, black skinny-tie engineer look of the era?

Well, I tried not to have that, especially at Mission Control and all those shots. NASA didn’t have a formal dress code at the time, but a suit and tie was required, and then it relaxed later on. I looked at Sears’ period catalogues and paid attention to the colors that were available and also checked the material’s content. There were light yellows and ivories and such. And I also used shirts with texture, natural fibers where you could actually see the warp and weft of the cotton — the vertical and horizontal — since there were so many close-ups. Today’s material just looks thinner and flimsier for some reason; it doesn’t have the same texture that a white cotton dress shirt from the 1960s had. When you wash them, they sort of come alive vs. disappear.

What were Ryan and Claire’s fittings like? How involved were they in their costumes?

Ryan had 80 changes (I think many were cut), and Claire had 40; Ryan also wore four flight suits. We used at least 25 vendors nationwide. So they were very patient: Some of those fittings lasted hours, but they were fun.

In fact, on Ryan’s first fitting we found the perfect pair of trousers: I’d found a pair of 1960s dead stock [unworn] with the tags still on. They were Ryan’s perfect size; I don’t think we even had to hem them! It was the very first fitting and the second trousers we tried; I remember saying, “OK, that’s Neil.”

When I told a friend I was talking with “First Man’s” costume designer, they said, “Costumes, what costumes?” Do you hear this comment with these costume-in-the-background-type films? Does this reaction bother you?

That’s what is supposed to happen, right? If you’re doing your job, in general, costumes are the unsung heroes of film. When you’re doing your job, they do what they’re supposed to do; they hang on people, and it’s all really about telling that central story.

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