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Costume designer Mary Zophres on the inspirations behind the Coen brothers’ meta-movie ‘Hail, Caesar!’

“Hail, Caesar!”
George Clooney plays movie star Baird Whitlock in the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!”
(Universal Pictures)

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.

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.”   

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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.

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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.

Another big set piece was the Esther Williams-style water spectacle starring Scarlett Johansson. The Coens wanted a mermaid so Zophres had to design a suit that Johansson could swim in. After much research and debate over fabrics, she originally planned for one sequined, beaded suit, but ended up using four separate suits, gobbling up much of her budget. “We really didn’t have a ton of money for this movie,” she said. “For how lavish and expensive it looks, we had to pinch every penny.”     

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.”

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