Boasting a history with the Coen brothers dating back to their early films, makeup and hair department heads Jean Ann Black and Cydney Cornell were excited to delve into the pair’s latest effort, old Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar! An airy La La Land mystery set in the ‘50s, on Hollywood backlots and Romanesque sets, Caesar! required a multitude of looks. The research process began with a look to the past—to the films of Esther Williams, for example, and sword-and-sandal picture Quo Vadis—and from all accounts, the resulting process was as enjoyable in its collaborative nature as it was rigorous in its demands. Below, Cornell and Black—who, between them, also worked on Oscar contenders Passengers, Allied, and Rules Don’t Apply—discuss the timelessness of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre, collaborating with actors, and designing two looks for Tilda Swinton.
Bearing in mind your long histories with the Coen brothers, what was it that resonated with you about this particular project?
Cydney Cornell: I would say it was the opportunity to reunite with some really creative people. I haven’t had a chance to work on a film like this in a really long time and it was just reuniting with some really amazing people. It was very exciting to me; I wouldn’t have turned it down for anything.
Jean Ann Black: I have been with the Coens for a very long time, so for me this is a collaboration that I couldn’t pass up, of course. When you work with Joel and Ethan, just stylistically and creatively, they’re so open to letting everyone have a sense of where they’re going, and they give us so much creativity to work with. It’s just such a joy to be part of such a project.
How did the Coens express their vision for the hair and makeup in the film?
Black: The Coens, even though they may have a period, there’s a timelessness in their movies, and so creatively, the look they gave us was the ’40s and ’50s, leaning heavier on the ’40s—basically, a sense of the movie, like Quo Vadis, Esther Williams, Roy Rogers. You already can’t go wrong with looking for research into those things. So they gave us a broad spectrum to delve into, and then Cydney and I met, of course, with costume designer Mary Zophres and cinematographer [Roger Deakins]. It’s just such a great thing because you really do have the ability to be able to go all around and meet with everyone and get everyone’s sense of a vision that comes from Joel and Ethan. It’s fantastic.
When you’re looking to re-create, through hair or makeup, the look of a specific period, where does the process begin?
Black: The first thing I do is I watch movies and I do research with books and videos, and anything I can reach out to, to really help me expand. The technical aspect of it comes closer to when you’re shooting and when you start doing the tests. With the fact that we had to deal with a lot of swimmers, I went back to the old Esther Williams movies to find out how they kept the makeup on the swimmers all day. Then I actually had one of my assistants try the different makeups in the swimming pool; I actually had the swimmers that we were going to use do the same.
It was things like that. We had the diversity of going between the ‘40s and the ‘50s and creating something, so it could be a little more stylistically ours. Then the fact that there were five movies in a movie really gave us a large range to choose from. That was the beginning of Technicolor. I think Mary Zophres and Roger Deakins’ really masterfully captured the looks and the fact that you could really see different colors coming in from that period in terms of eye makeup, eye shadows, lipstick.
You had the fun of being able to do that and finding makeup that wouldn’t be affected by water. It was a very interesting project to delve into in that way.
There was a tremendous amount of background actors involved with this project, and you worked with all of them. How did you navigate that process?
Black: That actually wasn’t that easy because when you have all the Romans and the Israelites, it really adds to the stress. So many people had beards and all that, because during that period, Quo Vadis and movies like that—Ben-Hur, etcetera, etcetera—those were all movies that the makeup is really quite heightened. There’s nothing that’s really realistic about it, yet you want to create something that looks real without looking just terribly fake. It was kind of fun to be able to go outside the edges and create something over the top, but that still fit into how the period looked.
We had to tan all the extras that would come in the day before. We spray tanned them so that on the day, we didn’t waste so much time because they were already tan, but many of them had to be “distressed,” meaning dirtied up, and a few little fake looking whip marks here and there, and ears and hair and dirtying up. It was quite a process to get everyone ready for the shoot day so that we wouldn’t waste anyone’s time. Otherwise, we would have had to have called everyone in at like twelve o’clock at night to be able to have them done by the time we were ready to shoot.
It’s important really in organizing your time and figuring out what is the best way, monetarily and physically, to have this all happen so that no one’s waiting around and you’re not spending so much money on overtime.
What was the process in designing the two distinct looks for Tilda Swinton, who plays twin reporters in the film?
Black: They wanted a sort of weirdly villainous character, but not too much so…The idea of them being twins, and yet they come in at different times, and there were only going to be subtleties of how they would look different. There’d be slight variances, of course, in the costume. I decided I would put a mole on each of them, but in different places. Then, Mary Zophres had the feather that went one way, the other one went the other way. Of course, I think one of the greatest things is working with all these actors, to be able to collaborate with them. Tilda gave us a lot of time, coming in—It was so much fun to create that altogether. You want the actors to be happy; It isn’t just your show. They’re going on screen.
Cornell: I think that the starting point was the palette of all the characters, the different hair colors, and what would be right for each of them. We narrowed it down to an auburn color for Tilda’s character, and because of Tilda’s restricted time working with us, we used the same wig. We had a wig made by Peter Owens in England. We had the same wig, I used it in a longer style, and then I did a quick-change pin-up and put her new hat on for her, and they did the new costume for the second look. It was something that was designed to happen very quickly.
We had a lot of really amazing actors. They were coming from all over the world—we had them for maybe a day or two or three, and all their work had to be done. Scarlett Johansson has such a distinctive yet classic old Hollywood look, as well—that was one character I wanted to make sure I talked to you about. I think she came in from France with her baby…She showed up with a really cool hairstyle, shaved on the side, long on the top. That was a first time thing for me where I had to have a wig made for someone who was going to swim underwater, and it had to be a long “updo” of the period. That was something that was really exciting and nerve wracking at the same time.
It was hard to figure out which cases we could use on a nursing mother—she was nursing her baby so I had I to look into all kinds of adhesives, read the chemical contents to make sure they were safe to use on her, and that it would hold under water. It was really quite an ordeal. Then we watched the first take and she swam, and picked up the crown under water and it worked. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life that her wig didn’t fall off. [laughs]
Black: The thing that I was stuck with, Scarlett is such a natural, timeless beauty. One of the great things of working with her is she really brings 100 percent when she sits there. I think she was this way with both Cydney and I—she’s very trusting of our ideas. She was really easy to collaborate with. We had two distinctive looks for her, one that was requiring her submersion in water for hours, and the other being a really high, Hollywood glamour look that was quite stylized.
In most periods, makeup fits in, but it’s the hair and the costume that really set the silhouette of a period. What you want to do is effortlessly make that all look like it belongs together. It was great on this movie because often times, hair can be their own thing, and costumes and makeup. This is was a really wonderful chance to create each character and really have the collaboration of Cydney and Mary Zophres. It really made us feel like we really created this character that was all one and made sense. Then, of course, she brings the rest to it, which is the performance.
Do you always find such a collaborative relationship with actors on set?
Cornell: I would have to say that because I’ve had a lot of experiences on different movies with different directors, and these actors come into working with the Coen brothers with such an open mind, and wanting to let everything happen. They’re so excited to work with the Coen brothers and they know they trust that it’s going to be part of a bigger picture. Never have I ever had that experience in any other circumstance, the openness and the excitement to just let anything happen. That’s the pleasure of working with this group of people, for me.
The actors don’t come in and say, “No, you can’t cut my hair shorter. I have to have this for my next movie. I never want to wear red hair.” They’re so open. They’ll cut their hair short, even if their next movie they have to have long hair. This is the one that they save themselves for. They’ll do anything.
This was a unique situation with the cast members. Even though they’re big shots and they have, in a lot of cases, their own personal hair and makeup people in movies, Joel and Ethan choose who they want to have work for them. They’re really open. It’s the best experience you can ever have in a creative world in film.
Black: There are a few movies in your career where you really feel like you’re working on something very special, and with a whole group of people that are there for the same reason. That reason is to help Joel and Ethan Coen reach the goals that they have and the desires they want. I think most actors on the movie came with a real keen knowledge of their face and what works best for them. Yet they, just as Cydney said, were open to doing anything as long as it helped the movie. I think that’s always really a great way to work with people. It isn’t always the case on every movie.
Cornell: The actor has to feel great, it has to be the right period. It has to be amusing.
Could you elaborate a bit about your process in working with Mary Zophres?
Cornell: For one thing, I can’t believe that she did all of that herself. She is able to handle an enormous amount of really great work. That was amazing to me.
Black: Mary is one of those people that she starts…Of course most costume designers do, but Mary already probably before she even starts, she sits with Joel and Ethan, and she knows what they’re going for. Cydney is not bullshitting—that woman singlehandedly did so much work and created so many different looks, just genre after genre. It was truly an amazing process to just watch her, and then to be able to add onto that, and create a character from what Mary gave us, what Cydney did, and then what I was able to do too.
Cornell: There was so much work to be done on this movie. I do remember every week we would get a certain genre done, but at the same time, we were prepping for a whole ‘nother segment. Jean and I just went over some pictures together from the movie and it’s just really astounding, the amount of work. We just sort of run with it whereas as Mary really had a lot of preparation. Oh, helmets and stuff…she had to pull together hundreds of the Roman helmets.
Then, oh my gosh, there was an element of hair and makeup and costume on everybody—just those Roman helmets alone, we had to decide, “Does hair show out the edges of the helmets, or does it not show?” We had to make everybody’s the same. Then those Roman soldiers have been travelling for hundreds of miles on horseback, so they had to have a tan. Their legs had to be tan because they were wearing those leather skirts. We had a ton of hair and make up people, forty or something like that, to help us.
Black: I think Cydney and I both, without an incredible team…I had Julie Hewett, Zoe Hay and Rolf Keppler. They really helped organize all that happens and manage it, and make sure that all the supplies are there, everything’s there for you. People that work with you, your team, can either make it or break it for you. I think Cydney and I both had amazing people on our team. I’d like to acknowledge them.
Another great thing about Joel and the others, I’ll say this, Cydney. The other great thing about Joel and Ethan that a lot of directors don’t do is that Joel and Ethan, almost everyday— or at least three time a week—would come into the makeup trailer and sit with you, and really give you a sense of, oh yeah, that looks or how about having good, less of this? It was so fun to be so collaborative with two such really, really intelligent stylistically great people.