In the latest Joel and Ethan Coen movie, “Hail, Caesar!,” a comedic ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking, hundreds of extras dressed as Roman soldiers led by George Clooney (playing a movie star playing a general) march across the screen, their presence marked with a striking shade of crimson bedazzling the ornamentation on their helmets and the capes that hang on their backs.
How that particular shade of red became the red for the Roman epic – one of several movies-within-the-movie – illustrates the happenstance that occasionally influences the filmmaking process. Two years ago, the brothers Coen were with their longtime costume designer Mary Zophres when she excitedly shared an image of a helmet from 1959’s “Ben-Hur.” Fresh off Zophres’ home printer, the photo’s depiction of the helmet’s red thistle brush immediately besotted the brothers, who declared it the exact hue that would serve as a primary visual motif for the film. In an industry where color is finely calibrated, it was the pigment equivalent of plucking a starlet from the soda counter at Schwab’s drugstore.
George Clooney stars in Joel and Ethan’s Coen’s “Hail Caesar!,” a comedy backlot comedy about Hollywood’s Golden Age comedy that features five movies within the movie.(Alison Cohen Rosa)
For the film’s titular movie within a movie, costume designer Mary Zophres watched her share of gladiator movies and religious epics, including “Quo Vadis” (1951), “The Robe” (1953) and “Ben-Hur” (1959), to outfit the hundreds of extras.(File photo)
George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, a movie star playing a Roman general in a movie.(Universal Pictures)
Josh Brolin as studio executive Eddie Mannix, who spends most of the film in a double-breasted mauve-brown suit that costume designer Mary Zophres found at Western Costume. To further distinguish Mannix, Zophres asked that Brolin grow a mustache, one that was inspired by Walt Disney, and let his hair go a little gray. The actor was also given a perm to add some wave.(Alison Rosa / Universal Pictures)
In 2013, Mary Zophres worked with Brolin on “Gangster Squad,” and she wanted him to have a completely different look in “Hail,Caesar!”(Wilson Webb / Warner Bros.)
Scarlett Johansson as aquatic star DeeAnna Moran and Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix. Costume designer Mary Zophres gave Mannix an homburg to distinguish his look from that of “Gangster Squad,” in which he wore a fedora.(Alison Rosa / Universal Pictures)
The Coens really wanted a mermaid, so in addition to absorbing Esther Williams’ aquatic oeuvre, Zophres needed to look at how filmmakers depicted women with tails. Among the movies Zophres watched were “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” (1948) with William Powell and Ann Blyth, and Williams’ “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949) and“Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952). Wiliams displays her form-fitting bathing suit from that film.(MGM)
Mary Zophres’ sketch for Scarlett Johansson’s mermaid swimsuit.(Mary Zophres / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran wearing the sequined, beaded mermaid costume designed by Mary Zophres.(Alison Rosa / Universal Pictures)
Mary Zophres’ sketch for DeeAnna Moran’s downtown outfit was inspired by period fashion magazines.(Mary Zophres / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
Scarlett Johansson has a femme fatale moment when she goes downtown in “Hail Caesar!”(Alison Rosa / Universal Pictures)
For Tilda Swinton, who plays the dueling twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, Joel Coen told Mary Zophres, “This is the person that you should spend the money on.” Though inspired by the rivalry of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the Coens and Zophres wanted the characters to have a bold visual effect.(Alison Rosa / Universal Pictures)
The sisters played by Tilda Swinton cut a decidedly stylish swath through the film, differentiated from each other by the direction in which the feather in their hats points. This is Thora ... or maybe it’s Thessaly?(Alison Cohen Rosa / Universal Pictures)
A pair of Gene Kelly-Frank Sinatra vehicles – “Anchors Aweigh” (1945), pictured, and “On the Town” (1949), influenced the musical sequence “No Dames!” in “Hail, Caesar!”(MGM Home Entertainment)
Channing Tatum as song-and-dance man Burt Gurney hoofing it with a fleet of sailors in the musical number “No Dames!” The uniforms had to be “teched’ so they didn’t appear too white on screen.(Alison Cohen Rosa / Universal Pictures)
Mary Zophres earned an Oscar nomination for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” starring Matt Damon, which made her want to go in another direction for Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobart “Hobie” Doyle in “Hail, Caesar!"(Wilson Webb / Paramount Pictures)
Movie westerns of the time were fairly gritty, and for Hobie, the Coens and Zophres wanted a grime-free yet not rhinestoned appearance, so Zophres looked at“Hopalong Cassidy” and TV westerns, mixed with a little James Dean from “Giant” (1956), and adapted their styles.(File photo)
As Hobie Doyle, Ehrenreich sported a clean, simple cowboy look, utilizing lighter colors.(Universal Pictures)
British wit Noel Coward was the key inspiration for the black-and-white parlor drama “Merrily We Dance’s” fastidious director, Laurence Laurentz, played by Ralph Fiennes.(Mary Zophres / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
Alden Ehrenreich, left, and Ralph Fiennes, on the set of “Merrily We Dance.” There was no specific predecessor for the film within the film, but the filmmakers had a clear vision for its style. Mary Zophres referenced a famous photo featuring the work of fashion designer Charles James. “His gowns are very sculptural and architectural and beautiful and beautifully made,” she said. The gowns and the set are colorful, even though “Merrily We Dance” is black-and-white.(Alison Rosa / Universal Pictures)
Newly available on Blu-ray, DVD and other digital formats, “Hail, Caesar!” stars Josh Brolin as mid-20th century studio fixer Eddie Mannix, loosely based on the legendary MGM executive. Responsible for maintaining order among the fictional Capitol Pictures’ productions and assets, Mannix chiefly watches over its sometimes wayward stars, including those played by Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich and Channing Tatum. The meta-movie nature of “Hail, Caesar!” and its buffet of genres – an aquatic spectacle, a western, a sailor musical and a parlor drama, in addition to the sword-and-sandal saga with which it shares its title – offered a particularly delightful challenge for designer Zophres, who started with the Coens on 1994’s “The Hudsucker Proxy” and has been lead costume designer for all 12 of their features since “Fargo.”
To prepare, Zophres spent months watching classic movies and looking at books and magazines for inspiration. “I love old Hollywood films,” said the designer, who grew up watching them with her mom in South Florida. Though Zophres did not set out to be a costume designer when she studied art history and studio art at Vassar, life prepared her well for the job. “In thinking back on it now, my comfort level with clothing and in costumes is because my parents owned a clothing store when I was a kid.”
Adding to the inevitability of her working on “Hail, Caesar!” is the breadth of Zophres’ non-Coen assignments, such as modern comedies, period drama, action-adventure and science fiction, including multiple films for the Farrelly brothers, Steven Spielberg and Jon Favreau, as well as Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.”
One thing Zophres does not like to do is repeat herself. Three years earlier, she worked with Brolin on “Gangster Squad,” set in 1949, and she wanted him to have a completely different look in “Hail,Caesar!” Brolin was stockier than he’d been and Zophres instructed him not to lose any weight, resulting in a squarer silhouette, giving Mannix the necessary gravitas.
Since the film’s action takes place over a couple of days, Mannix spends most of his time in a double-breasted mauve-brown suit that Zophres found at Western Costume. To further distinguish Mannix, Zophres asked that Brolin grow a mustache, one that was inspired by Walt Disney, and let his hair go a little gray. The actor was also given a perm to add some wave. Zophres selected a homburg for Mannix’s hat.
For Tilda Swinton, who plays the dueling twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, Joel Coen told Zophres, “This is the person that you should spend the money on.” Though inspired by the rivalry of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the Coens and Zophres wanted the characters to have a bold visual effect. The sisters cut a decidedly stylish swath through the film, differentiated from one another by the direction the feather in their hats points.
One day, while shooting a test for the synchronized swimmers’ costumes with a single swimmer wearing tubes of yellow and orange fabric front and back – not even a proper swimsuit – another “happy accident” occurred. The swimmer did a flip with the yellow in front turning into the orange in back that was so spectacular, Zophres told the Coens, “We have to make that part of the choreography! When those girls make that flip from the front side to the back side … it’s like a kaleidoscope.”