If you think designing costumes for a 21st century black-and-white silent film is tough, try designing costumes for the silent black-and-white film within the film you’re creating. This was the rather odd challenge veteran costume designer Mark Bridges (“Boogie Nights,” “The Fighter”) found on his cutting table with the Weinstein Co.'s “The Artist,” French director Michel Hazanavicius’ love story set in a bygone era.
And while there were few words or colors in the film to tinker with, Bridges’ perfectionism remained steady. He says he double-checked everything at the 10-minute call, whether it be the need for a last-minute alteration or retying a necktie: “I’m constantly vigilant about what goes on camera because once it’s on there it’s on forever, so I’m not leaving much to chance, I gotta tell you,” he says. “I sleep very well knowing I’ve done everything humanly possible to make it as good as it can be.”
What did you think when you first got the script and heard it was going to be filmed not only in black and white but also as a silent?
My first thought was, “This sounds great; it could even be an antidote for all the computer-generation, all the techno stuff and new frontiers in 3-D. Let’s just get back to basics.” And it’s interesting that it has indeed done so well. I guess I called that one.
Was your research phase simplified since you were able to shoot everything here in Los Angeles?
I had eight weeks in L.A., and because we’re so set up here — with costume shops and tailors and wonderful cutters and milliners that work on our schedule — it worked really well. [For my research] I try and pull together all the photographic images evocative of the script and then put them in order. I do it as a paper printout with cut-pictures and create my own book, which I can show the director, production designers, my assistants. I make them for all my films, and they’re fun to look at.
Did you pattern the lead characters George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) after particular silent film stars?
Both the director and I separately came to the conclusion that Peppy was very much like Joan Crawford, who started at MGM in 1925. She had sort of the same career arc, played small and then the public really accepted her, like Peppy’s rise to fame, which happened for Crawford in a silent film called “Our Dancing Daughters.” And for George, I used pictures of John Gilbert, who I felt was similar, an elegant man who had sort of the same career arc. I also used Douglas Fairbanks’ off-screen pictures.
How did the lack of sound and/or the black-and-white aspects of the filming affect what you did with the costumes?
Actually, the silence was very freeing because you don’t have to worry about microphones rubbing against taffeta, dangling jewelry and such. As far as the colors go, I’d take a black-and-white photo of the fabric I wanted to use and then know how that color and value would translate to black and white using the [art department’s] color chart as a key. Peppy’s first dress where she bumps into George at the premiere is actually kind of a bright orange, but it reads as that wonderful medium-gray tone, and I built in the contrast with the collar and bow.
You also had to create a black-and-white silent film inside this world of black and white and silence. How did you achieve this?
I discovered very early on that the textures were what were going to read, and also what were going to tell the story. You might not see it the first time, but if you see the film a second time you’ll see there’s a kind of flatness to it for real life, and then to try and communicate that we’re using a movie costume, I tried to use sequins, beads, etc., so you get it texturally. Telling the story through textures you get that language down relatively quickly.
Michel also had a thing about when actors were at the height of each of their stardoms, they’re very contrasting — they stand out and everyone else is kind of medium value. Like when George is in his tie and tails she’s in a medium-value dress, and when she’s saving him in the end he’s sort of gray and she’s in the fur coat and very pale dress. And when Peppy’s running up the stairs, she’s in pure white and he’s coming down and just blends into the background with the same background colors. So the contrast is somehow telling the story too.
When you took an archival look at 1920s clothes, what most surprised you, if anything, about that era?
For the women’s clothes, it’s the fact that they’re alternately simple looking but upon closer examination they’re actually complicated cuts. There were a couple of dresses that we made for Peppy that had the grain running in two or three directions: The bodice would be straight but then the sleeves on the bias and the skirt on the bias; and you’d never see it from a very simple, simple dress.
But I always implored the cutters to copy the grains exactly because that’s part of what makes it so ‘20s. And the prettiness of the skirts, right next to different grains, on those low bands, was typical of that period. But we’ve forgotten it with mass production as it is a little more expensive and complicated way to sew. When the late ‘50s and ‘60s came in, we just made everything simple and straight, really.
What pieces in the film were vintage pieces?
I think all of the hats were vintage pieces. A big reason we remade things was simply because of the fragile quality of the items and how active Peppy and George are. Things that weren’t to get much stress we used vintage, like with her sitting in the car when she has the hat veil and the fur. That was a real suit, very textured and typical 1929, and was so beautiful, and since she was just going to be sitting in the car it was fine. We found the original hat and then, for some reason, I had it in my mind I had to have veiling for that scene because she’s a movie star now sitting in the back of her limousine. Some of the bedroom clothes are vintage; for instance, she wears a great vintage nightgown that’s a combination of sexy and romantic with satin that picks up light and looks luxurious. So it’s all a series of moments.
“The Artist’s” 1920s costuming has coincided with runway fashion’s revival of 1920s fashion. Was that something you were aware of at the time?
I’ve got to tell you, I’m completely oblivious to what’s going on in the fashion world. I’m old enough to have seen it before. I’m like, “Didn’t they just do that in ’88 and then in ’99?” It’s just not on my radar. Because all I’m trying to do is research, archive, re-create, excavate, illustrate. I’m not looking for cute shoes unless I’m doing something really contemporary.
People have said to me, “Were you aware of Ralph Lauren or whomever and their ‘20s looks?” and I’ll look at it and don’t really see much 1920s other than they have a cloche hat on and palazzo pants, which I remember in ’78, ’87 and on and on.
Have you been surprised by the film’s reception?
I certainly am, because when we were making it, it was just a small labor-of-love film that we all really wanted to do and no one really knew what kind of business [it would do] or how popular it would be. But I knew it was good and I certainly put my heart and soul into it, and because of my history of loving movies, I obviously hoped it would do well. And I really thought Michel knew what he was doing and had such a passion for it; it’s great that it ended up with this kind of reception.