“La La Land”

December 9, 2016

Anna Wyckoff

When Costume Designer Mary Zophres worked on the feature musical La La Land, knowledge was power. Her intense seven-week prep began with a three day meeting with director Damien Chazelle, the production designer, and the set decorator. “I have never had that before,” says Zophres, “one on one, sharing information, visuals, and inspiration.” While a strong sense of nostalgia was a cornerstone of the film, Zophres didn’t want the movie to feel dated or trendy. She strove to create a timeless, fresh quality, with costumes that could simultaneously be period and modern.

Chazelle wanted to tip his hat to classics like Jacques Demy’s Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Because the movie was also shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope, Zophres knew up front there would be vivid color and wide angles. Early on, Zophres previewed bits of the score, knew where the beats would fall, and even how some of the camera movement was planned. With this information, the movie came to life and she was able to formulate a game plan. Given the modest budget, the detailed strategy was necessary for success.

The creative departments harmonized for visual decisions. For example, when Zophres chose a certain shade of blue for Mia’s scarf, the art department made flowerpots to match. “The colors would echo accents deep into the background of the frame,” she explains. “To that extent, we did this to each and every shot in the movie, and came up with the ideas for the palette. I have never had a director and cinematographer embrace color the way they did.”

Knowing the camera angles in advance was advantageous. When one scene called for an overhead shot, Zophres suggested circle skirts. She found that being able to design into the movement of the film was liberating. “We had a great script, it was character driven and full of emotion. From the beginning we knew there was going to be dancing and all those pieces came together. When there’s that much advanced knowledge and preparation, it is wonderful and really unusual. It’s what helps make the film work in the end. Because it could have gone horribly wrong, but instead it is a really special film, and that was unbelievable,” says Zophres.

Also to her benefit was having worked with both leads previously, because Zophres knew exactly what shapes were the most flattering on them. For Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician, Zophres made the pitch to Chazelle that he would never wear a t-shirt and jeans or sneakers. His love for the past was exhibited in the formality of his clothes. Sebastian is seasoned, with a respect for the world, himself, and the instruments he plays. His silhouette is slim but not super skinny. “We found a jacket we really liked online, but because he dances in all of these things, we ended making all of his clothes. With our budget it made sense, there were so many times he broke into dance. We decided his shirt would be a 1940s silhouette but modified, we tapered it to show off his body.” Zophres avoided problems by gusseting the shirt armcyes and occasionally using stretch fabrics. She grounded all of his looks with a two-tone dance shoe.

For Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress, Zophres was inspired by several classic film actors including Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly, Julie Christie, and Judy Garland. Because she wanted to nod to the 40s without having the costumes look overly retro, Zophres decided to cut the circle skirts on the bias with a center back seam to avoid any gathering or fullness in the abdomen. She also avoided obvious bust darts to keep the dresses from looking too period. To heighten the arc of Mia’s character, she subtly increased the volume of the skirts as the film progressed. For the final look she added godets to the skirt back. Having dance rehearsals next door allowed for additional troubleshooting, finessing, and inspiration. “We would get goose bumps just watching the dances,” she enthuses.

“The actors were happy in their clothes, and that is half of it, that they felt good. I know it looks like we had a big crew, but it was six of us, including our PA, and two of those were set costumers. As a result, I was crazy busy and I went home exhausted, but had a smile on my face. I’m a sucker for a musical. I think this was a dream job because musicals just make my heart soar.”

La La Land is in theatres today.

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