Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in "Interstellar."


November 7, 2014

Though it has many of the hallmarks of a big action movie, the sci-fi “Interstellar” is more of a think piece that poses new questions about the future.

Director Christopher Nolan leads a star-heavy cast into an interstellar voyage in search of a habitable planet. The estimated $165 million film stars Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, Anne Hathaway as Amelia, Wes Bentley as Doyle, Jessica Chastain as Murph and Matt Damon as Dr. Mann — and boasts a costume department of nearly two dozen people.

Costume Designer Mary Zophres launched into the project without the benefit of a script: She simply met Nolan and talked about the project first.

“My first, gut instinct was that you should not anticipate what the future is going to look like,” she said. “In fact, there is no attention paid to sartorial aspects at all. It’s unimportant.” The spacesuits had to look familiar and not so that they would blend seamlessly into the dystopian story.

In “Interstellar,” climate change has turned Earth into a barren wasteland where only corn can grow. Expenditures on anything but basic survival are unthinkable — except that there’s a secret NASA mission to fly through a wormhole in space in search of new food sources.

Zophres designed the spacesuits to look as if they were cobbled together from spare or recycled parts. The final look blended the early Apollo era’s puffy, clumsy suits and the more streamlined look of a test pilot’s protective gear. Aged with plenty of ashy dirt, the gray-tinged, white suits also mirror the ultra-modern spaceship and the lunar-like landscapes the team visits.

“I didn’t want them to feel futuristic. My approach was to always give myself a check–I felt that anything you add to this spacesuit has to be for practical or utilitarian purposes,” she said. Except for an American flag arm patch, there is nothing decorative on the suits.

Though Zophres isn’t known as a designer of special effects costumes, the spacesuits allowed her to try new design and construction techniques. She collaborated heavily with many departments. The special effects and stunts crews fireproofed the suits so that they could launch rockets embedded in the forearms.

“Those rockets actally had to ignite and emit smoke,” she said.

The sound and electrical experts wired a cooling fan and speakers into the helmet so that the actors could hear and be heard. Working with SCPS Unlimited of Redondo Beach, Zophres was able to design the helmets on a 3D computer program, review a miniature model, then “grow” it on the 3D machine, which printed the final product.

More challenges came when the story moved to a “water planet.” Zophres created a version of the suits that could be immersed in thigh-deep water during the scenes shot in Iceland. The actors dressed in an insulating dry suit layer, and Zophres built in warming equipment and coated the suits in latex.

“In the end, there was no way to make the spacesuit completely waterproof. And we couldn’t use waterproof material because it is too noisy,” she said.

Shot in a tight, intense 12 weeks, Zophres had no time to test concepts. Instead, she and SCPS built the suits almost piece by piece, with Nolan weighing in as the parts were designed and assembled.

The suits have a heroic feel to them, with the NASA emblem and a nameplate emblazoned on a sturdy chestpiece that helps anchor the backpack, which holds oxygen tanks and battery packs to run fans to cool the actors.

“I’m really happy with how it looks,” said Zophres. “It’s cool, lived in and doesn’t draw attention to itself. The movie isn’t about the cool spacesuit. It’s about the story . . . and taking care of the planet and what are we going to do if we don’t.”

“Interstellar” is now in theaters.

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