Spotlight On: Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick
By Valli Herman
When you master the art of Costume Design, you have mastered the art of contradiction. Your work must blend so completely with a character, as to be practically invisible. You collaborate, but must also lead.
Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick adds another layer of contradiction to the equation. Having built a career on such legendary contemporary projects as “Fatal Attraction,” “Wall Street,” and “Face/Off,” Mirojnick has recently been earning accolades for such period projects as the movie “Behind the Candelabra,” about Liberace in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and “The Knick,” a gritty drama about a 1900s New York hospital. Audiences and peers have taken notice. Mirojnick is this year’s recipient of the Career Achievement Award in recognition of her many contributions to film and television.
Mirojnick has worked with many acclaimed directors, including Oliver Stone on “Wall Street,” Adrian Lyne on “Fatal Attraction” and “Jacob’s Ladder,” Steven Spielberg on “Always,” Paul Verhoeven on “Starship Troopers,” John Woo on “Face/Off,” Richard Attenborough on “Chaplin,” and Nancy Meyers on “What Women Want.”
A pivotal moment in Mirojnick’s career came when she met Michael Douglas in 1986 designing “Fatal Attraction,” and partnered with him two months later on “Wall Street.” “It was a seminal moment for Michael’s career and the beginning of mine,” she says. “Oliver [Stone] was demanding with his actors, and demanding with me at the very beginning. However, he allowed me to create Gordon Gekko. Oliver was uncertain of my choices at the time, though, I continually assured him that Gordon Gekko was right.” Her intuition proved impeccable. The designer has often created iconic looks that have influenced fashion, but Gordon Gekko launched a mania for his signature style—crisp dress shirts with immaculate white collars, patterned ties, and striped suspenders.
Her ongoing collaboration with Douglas has endured because, “I am always truthful with him. Also, because I am able to see the totality of the film that the director was after,” she says, “He grew to trust my instincts and rely on my vision.” Together they made movie history with “Fatal Attraction,” “Wall Street,” “Basic Instinct,” and most recently, “Behind the Candelabra.”
In another career highlight, the New York native created the on-screen wardrobe for her idol, Audrey Hepburn, in the film “Always.” She has also created costumes for top stars such as Tom Cruise, Nicholas Cage, Glenn Close, Sharon Stone, Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson, Matt Damon and on the recent “By the Sea,” Brad Pitt and the film’s star, writer and director, Angelina Jolie Pitt.
Mirojnick was tapped again by Jolie Pitt to design her next directorial project, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” The Netflix original movie shoots this year in Cambodia and is an adaptation of the memoir about life under the Khmer Rouge.
The designer shares a palpable sense of gratitude when she speaks of working with Jolie Pitt, yet she credits “Candelabra” director Steven Soderbergh with reinvigorating her spirit and her career. Mirojnick won an Emmy Award in 2013 and a Costume Designers Guild Award for the HBO bio-pic that starred Douglas as Liberace, and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson. She teamed up with Soderbergh again for “The Knick,” where Clive Owen memorably plays Dr. John Thackery, in a signature deep green velvet jacket and white—but period correct—boots.
For “Behind the Candelabra,” Soderbergh followed Douglas’ suggestion to hire Mirojnick, after Costume Designer Jeffrey Kurland was unable to begin the project. “Jeffrey was my fairy god-friend who blessed my participation,” Mirojnick says. Creating a credible Liberace required carefully balancing the flamboyant performer with the story’s dark, psychological undercurrent. “I’m really, really spoiled,” Mirojnick says of the film. “No, I’m happily spoiled. It really came at a time when I was disenchanted with an area of Costume Design—the directors, producers, and how many people were part of the committee. Working with the director, really meant working with the producer and the studio and design became quite political, as opposed to creative. I was quite disenchanted, until I met Steven. I feel like a whole new designer,” she says.
The director has a “brilliant and ambidextrous” mind, she notes, and a manner of working that both fascinates and encourages her. “He allows an ease. You have an ease without the tension of ‘Is he going to like it, is he not?’ You’re hired as a Costume Designer because he trusts that you are going to create the world he is going to shoot,” she says. “Just being able to work on that story, with that man being our leader was pretty extraordinary.”
The praise isn’t just flattery; it’s part of a conscious effort to recognize and reward the work of her colleagues and acquaintances. “I’ve been trying to be mindful for years because I was really ‘rage-ful,’ and subsequently, the rage was part of my artistic expression as well,” she says. “Since I was a tiny, little girl, whether I painted or drew or wrote, it was filled with a fury of some sort. For the last 15 years, I have absolutely been a student of being generous, mindful, and openhearted. I purposely support other designers because I don’t think we do it enough,” she says. “Giving credit where credit is due.”
That sharing spirit shows up not just in the notes she sends, the dinner invitations, or the calls to offer congratulations, but also on set. “My goal is always to create an environment for my team that is nurturing, creative, and highly productive.”
Costume Designer Ann Foley, who was assistant Costume Designer on “Candelabra” says Mirojnick is “very kind and very supportive,” and actively encouraged Foley to move into the ranks of designer. Unlike many highly visual and creative people, Mirojnick is exceptionally verbal and precise in her descriptions. Foley says watching Mirojnick clearly communicate her vision to the director and the actors was an important education. “But she makes it look effortless because she is a genius at deciphering character,” Foley adds.
Mirojnick also passed along many important lessons to her daughter, actor Lili Mirojnick, who plays Bernadette Tedesco on TNT’s “Public Morals.” “I grew up being around crews, not just in the costume department,” Lili Mirojnick says. “I have the utmost respect for every single crew member.”
That’s Lesson One. Of the others? “The tools that she has given me are completely invaluable. Everything from knowing how to present the best version of myself to the valuableness of Spanx,” she says with a laugh.
Mirojnick herself reflects with gratitude the turn of events that brought her to a new place in her career. On winning an Emmy for Candelabra–her 60th project–the designer took to her blog to recount her feelings.
“That moment changed my life forever. […] I had hoped and prayed for an opportunity to get out of that grinding design rut and back in to the joy of design I once remembered. But even this was beyond my wildest dreams. It beamed me into the limelight and brought me back home–to my true love of design.” She found, in the end, that the projects she felt were uninspired also were good lessons.
“With the support of Emmy’s golden light, I’ve learned to embrace myself, my body of work, and my past, as it’s a road that will forever lead to a greater tomorrow.”