With several Westerns under her belt prior to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—the Coen brothers’ latest—Mary Zophres knows the many challenges that come with the territory. Earning her first Oscar nomination for True Grit back in 2010, the costume designer has shared the experience of so many artists, who have confronted the well-worn genre, and the precedent that’s been set with its countless iterations to date, which have seemed to approach it from every possible angle.
The Coens’ go-to designer since Fargo in 1996, Zophres was fortunate with the director’s latest, finding such originality in it that this kind of concern went instantly out the window. Comprising six short stories written over the course of decades, Buster Scruggswas utterly fresh and distinctive, in the vignettes it drew up and the characters it brought forth. “It was such an interesting turn,” Zophres says, “taking these iconic [portraits] of the West, but turning them upside down a bit.”
With an original and entirely memorable vision was present, Zophres was able to turn her attention elsewhere—to all the challenges the Western presents, on a practical level. “Westerns are hard on the departments. You’re in the elements, everything is dirty, you’re filthy, and it’s a lot of work,” the Oscar nominee shares. “You end up having to make everything, and make it look like it’s 20 years old, or like it’s been on the trail for three months without being cleaned.”
On many Westerns—and certainly, on Buster Scruggs—the majority of costumes must be made from scratch. “You can’t rent something and then return it to the rental house with a bullet hole in it,” Zophres reflects. Working tirelessly in concert with her dressing departments—to find fabrics, make multiples, and age everything appropriately—the designer found no shortage of challenges on the film, finding in her many collaborators the possibility of getting a remarkable job done.
When did the Coen brothers approach you with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs?
They first approached me towards the end of 2016 and said, “We’re coming to LA to pitch these stories that we’ve written. The last one is coming, and we have a draft, but it’s not a final draft.” They had the first five stories, and they were like, “We don’t know if we’re going to get a green light. But we’re going to send it to you, so we can talk about it when we get there.”
[Typically], we have our initial meeting, and I’ve done some research based on the written material, and we can just discuss the direction of the look. So, that’s what we did. In between the initial phone call and me getting the script, there was probably a month’s worth of time that I had to pull together some research. That was in the beginning of the year, and then by April, I had started prepping it.
It must be exciting any time the Coens approach you with a new script, but this project was something different, a compilation of stories they’d refined over decades. What was your response to the script, and what excited you about taking this on?
I was very excited because first of all, their scripts, to me, read like really good novels. It was full of complex and rich characters, some of which I was challenged by, in a way where I was like, “How in the world am I going to do that?” One of them being the bank teller [in “Near Algodones”]. It was scripted that he comes barreling out of the bank, covered in pans, and it just presented itself to be a really exciting design challenge—and that wasn’t the only one. The specific characters driving “Meal Ticket,” for instance…there were certain stories where we did know the actor that was attached, so I knew that Liam Neeson was going to be playing that character [of “Impresario]. Liam Neeson is rather handsome and confident, and cuts a beautiful figure, right? So, you can start to imagine: What do you do to make him have that desperation in the character?
Immediately, I thought it was a really interesting design project. First of all, of course, [there was] Buster, a singing cowboy, and it was scripted that he was in white. I suggested that we do cream, and a lot of other different things, but he was on his horse, singing in front of Monument Valley. These images were specific, but not overly specific, and allowed you a lot of room to develop in every department. You’re given the CliffsNotes, hints as to what they want it to look like, but then we could explore it in each of our departments, and manifest what we interpreted. Obviously, we bounced those ideas off of Joel and Ethan, and then it becomes the language of the film as a whole, which is such a fun process.
Honestly, the other thing I thought when I read that script, after reading “Meal Ticket”— the one with Liam and Harry Melling—was, how are they ever going to get a green light? It’s so dark and so bleak, that story, and so heart-wrenching at the same time. But they are the Coen brothers; luckily, we got a green light and started a couple months later.
Obviously, each story has its own unique palette. But was there a desire to create some overall sense of unity between them, in their looks?
I think the idea of how to combine them was just an overall, innate instinct that we all had going through it. We did talk about certain palette uses to bring all of them together, but it’s a natural outcome of a Western, at times. Because doing the research, from my point of view, clothes came in a very specific range of colors, particularly for men. We talked about the colors of where we were going to be filming, and what sort of palettes we wanted to use in general, like the browns and Earth tones, to tie all the vignettes together.
That was something that we touched on very briefly, because the main focus was how different all of them are. That was interesting to them, that they each had a distinct and different feeling, and the distinction between the stories is what they gave us hints on. It wasn’t overt, but I know that the first story, because he’s a singing cowboy, it obviously is a reference to the singing cowboys from the 1940s. And the saloon in that part of the film…It’s just the nature of the story, as a heightened reality. The idea was to ground all of the stories in a reality, and then turn the notch up on some of them, whether it’s with color or pattern, or just stylistically.
That’s what we did for the first one, which is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” In my mind, when I was pulling the stock and dressing the background, Buster’s obviously in cream, and The Kid was scripted [as being] in black, but everything in between was a more heightened palette. Whether you notice it as a viewer, I don’t know, but I think you sense it subliminally. I used a lot of plaids, a lot of stripes, some shiny fabrics on the women in the bar, and just amped up the dressiness of that first story.
The second story, “Near Algodones,” the reference and inspiration for that was the film called Once Upon a Time in the West, especially the opening sequence in that film. If you watch it, there’s a lot of sound effects, like the sign creaking back and forth, and the bucket hitting the side of the well, and the use of sweat and dirt [characterizing] the rugged, stereotypical Western. Everything’s a little bit more dramatic in that film.
For the third story, “Meal Ticket,” the three words were “bleak, despair, and really cold.” That was a matter of getting the costumes right, the despair right, and also trying to turn a person that had two arms and two legs into somebody that, on film, looked like they had no arms and no legs—and that was a challenge unto itself.
I remember we watched The Big Trail for “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” because there’s not very many films that have lots of covered wagons, and it just got you in the spirit of certain things. “All Gold Canyon” is taken from a Jack London short story about a prospector, and “Mortal Remains,” I’m not sure what the inspiration was. But that was the last story that we got, and that was meant to be like a stage play. So, those are the directions that we got. We had lengthy, in-depth discussions about each of the stories; they were each like doing movies, and some of them were as complicated as some bigger movies that I’ve done.
But in prepping, you don’t prep one at a time. You’re prepping all six at the same time, so you had to keep it very clear in your mind, and just make sure they’re separated, and each have distinct characteristics and looks. But also, they were appearing in one movie, and that was always their intention, to be watched in one viewing, in the order that they are. It’s almost like listening to an album. We were all very much aware that it was going to be viewed in this certain order.
Some artists are daunted by the Western genre, with all that’s been explored in the past. Has this been your experience, working through the Western on Buster Scruggs—and earlier, on True Grit?
Like I said earlier, when I read this, I was intrigued by the specificity of all these characters, and how interesting they all were to me, and I feel like you don’t want to repeat yourself when you’re designing. I always look for material that’s different than something else I’ve done. I’ve been lucky enough to design for [the Coens] for a long time, and they’re constantly writing different types of rich, interesting characters that I’ve had the good fortune to design.
In this case, whether I would go jumping to do another Western—I had already done two—the answer’s probably no. But when I read this, what intrigued me was how interesting it was. What I do love about doing films in all genres [is] the research, and the research comes from lots [of places]. It’s not just books. Sometimes, it’s paintings; sometimes, it’s illustrations. In this case, one of the other things that tied the stories together was the illustrations in the beginning.
Joel and Ethan never came out and said it, but the way it was described in the script was that the illustrations were very much in the style of N. C. Wyeth, an illustrator from the turn of the century, who was from the East Coast, but was very much intrigued by the West, and started going West and drawing. He is such a beautiful illustrator, and he would create these drawings of things that he saw. He lived on a farm; he went and lived with cowboys that were rustling cattle, to capture what he was seeing, and his illustrations were one of the things that made the research interesting. Because it’s just something you hadn’t thought of before.
Then, you get more in-depth with the research, and for Westerns, it’s a lot of reading of diaries, which is fascinating. It really puts you there, as opposed to just looking at photographs. Photography had not really blossomed, and certainly candid photography was not really a possibility in the late 1800s, so I feel like you cannot rely on photographs from that time to tell you really accurate information.
“All Gold Canyon” is mostly silent—a film told economically, and visually—with its focus on Tom Waits’ prospector alone. What was that story like to work through?
That was my biggest thrill because I’m a big Tom Waits fan. I had proposed to Joel and Ethan that he wear a very broad plaid pant, and they liked that idea. We made the costume before we saw him, because he lives in Northern California and was busy; we only had one fitting with him before he came to location.
It was very time-consuming because you have your hero costume, and then you have to make multiples, and then you have to age the multiples. It’s stressful for everybody, so you want to lock in the costume as soon as you can. The one thing that I did rent for him was his hat. I had about 50 hats to choose from for him, and I really wanted it to be a big, beat-up, very unstructured hat that he has worn through rain and sleet, and then dried again, and worn again.
He came to his fitting and I had two options for the pants; I did have a backup pair of pants in case he was horrified by the plaid. You don’t ever want to send an actor to camera in something they’re not comfortable in, but he’s a pretty bold dresser himself and he loved the plaid pants. He put on his costume and started singing “Mother Machree,” and it was one of the best moments I’ve ever had in a fitting.
For those boots, we copied a boot that we found in a rental house. I really loved it, but it was flimsy, and we needed to make it pretty sturdy, because it’s scripted that he’s walking in and out of the water. That’s where the idea of having the high boot came in, because we knew he’d been walking in at least ankle-deep water.
We had the rental boot to try on him, and then we took his measurements and had the hero boot made for him for filming. That was a huge highlight, and probably the most smooth of all the costumes. The aging department just really had a lot of work to do, once we honed in on what he was going to wear. It’s a lot of work, for the dressing department on a Western, and I owe a huge debt to my ager-dyer; his name is Rob Phillips, and he’s my secret weapon. The movie looks beautiful, and it’s a lot to do with Rob, because he did such a beautiful job.