After completing his work on Phantom Thread—the Paul Thomas Anderson film which earned him his second Oscar—costume designer Mark Bridges was looking for a “very different” kind of challenge, finding just that in Todd Phillips’ Joker.
A standalone origin story for the Joker, set apart from all past explorations of the iconic DC villain across various media, Joker gave Bridges his chance to put his stamp on an enigmatic and terrifying comic book character, whose story resonates powerfully with the world we live in today.
“I was looking for something that I hadn’t done before. I always try to mix it up, and it was going to be in New York,” Bridges reflects. “It just seemed like the right thing to get me inspired.”
Set in Gotham City in 1981, Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill, aspiring comedian with an uncontrollable laugh, who has lived a troubled life, finding himself constantly disregarded and abused by the society around him. Pushed beyond his ability to cope, or deny the ugly horror of all he sees in front of him, Fleck winds up in a dangerous downward spiral, involving gut-wrenching violence, and his irrevocable transformation into the riot-inspiring madman known as Joker.
Previously collaborating with Phoenix on The Master and Inherent Vice, Bridges worked closely with the actor to manage Arthur’s visual transformation from a frail, Chaplin-esque clown into a sleek and much more confident criminal.
With Fleck—a working-class character, whose clothes should appear well-worn and generally sourced from vintage stores—the challenge was to craft this poor man’s silhouette, without being able to actually source any of his clothes. “We had to make everything for him, because he had a stunt double the whole time. There’s a lot of physical stuff. We couldn’t just find this golden piece in a thrift store and hope that it would work, because two or three guys needed to wear the same costume. So, that’s why everything had to be manufactured, and then aged to look like it was from a thrift store, or very off-hand,” the costume designer explains. “Of course, I was inspired by pieces that we sourced, either from a rental house or a vintage store, or just found, walking down the street. But then we had to recreate it in multiples, and make it look like the original.”
Apart from Phillips’ psychological thriller, Bridges’ work can be seen this season in Marriage Story, an altogether different kind of film than Joker, centered on a couple going through a bicoastal divorce. Below, Bridges discusses his designs for both films, and the “Easter eggs” to be found within Baumbach’s personal Netflix drama.
DEADLINE: What were your early conversations with Todd Phillips like, once you’d signed onto Joker?
BRIDGES: We really began, as I always begin with directors, getting a lot of visuals from the period. He’d written in the script that it’s in the past—let’s say, 1981 Gotham—which is basically New York City, 1981. So, I looked at a lot of films, gathered a bunch of stills [of] people on the street, the desolation of the Bronx at the time, the homeless people, and that’s where we started. It’s always better with visuals. To talk about clothes, it’s very different things in other people’s mind’s eye. So, if we’re both looking at the same image, it’s very clear about, “Yes, no, maybe.”
We knew that Joaquin was going to be losing a significant amount of weight. I think he lost almost 50 pounds. The first time I saw him, he was about 35 pounds heavier than he was when we started shooting, so that was ongoing. You know, “Do we like this jacket?” At first, we camera tested a sort of short Ratso Rizzo trench coat. Todd wasn’t really feeling it, and I think it was covering too much of Joaquin’s weight loss. He was very concerned that we show Arthur’s physique, [given that] he was doing all this work to lose weight, and I think it’s important to show it because it’s sort of the exterior of what is going on inside his brain. He’s very sickly, quite ill. So, that was important.
Then, of course, it’s like Arthur still has his feet in the ’70s, as far as flared pants or a wider-collar shirt. [Because] Joaquin wanted to show that frail physique, things are a little small or a little tight-fitting, which went perfectly well with how clothes fit in the ’70s.
The Joker suit came from something that was written in the script about Arthur owning an outdated jacket—a suit, in terra cotta. I didn’t feel like that was a really strong color, so I suggested the burgundy, which was really hot in the ’70s.
DEADLINE: Were your costumes informed by those in the ’70s character studies that inspired Joker?
BRIDGES: I think it was really just a character study. I mean, I’d think about what kind of means Arthur has. He works at a crummy job, he lives with his mother, he doesn’t have a lot of money. When he does his laundry, he probably puts all his mom’s clothes with his, all in one load. Everything that he’s had since practically high school, he still owns, and it’s sort of in a pile in the corner, in the living room of that apartment. So, that informs choices.
Then, of course, we’re trying to make a piece of art. So, [production designer] Mark Friedberg and I really worked together on what colors to use, and how to tell this story with colors, and I had kind of a backstory for [Arthur]. I told you about all the laundry [going] together—every single piece of clothing in that film was over-dyed to look kind of like bad laundry. So, that’s part of its look, too. We did everything in a very painterly way. I had a beautiful textile artist working with me the whole time. Everything was touched by that textile artist, to make the clothes be like a painting, and it didn’t make them beautiful. It just made them real and specific to this film we were making.
So, it was more a character study, and making the choices of, How old are his clothes? How badly kept are they? How aware is he of what he’s wearing? How with it, style-wise, is he? It always comes back to who this person is, where they come from, and how they feel about themselves.
It was really a standalone movie, not connected to the comic books, and that was from the first meeting with Todd, all the way to the last day of shooting. We were our own thing.
DEADLINE: Could you elaborate on the way in which you coordinated with all of Joker’s department heads to create such a rich and striking color palette for the film?
BRIDGES: Mark Friedberg was very in tune with Lawrence Sher’s photography. Mark brought me a book of photographs of muscle cars in the ’70s that were taken at night, in urban settings—muscle cars that were weird mustards, and vibrating blues, and these rust golds—and it was just really exciting to me. It felt really period, but it also felt fresh and cool, so I latched into that with Mark, and we were on the road to making decisions, based on the visuals from that book.
Then, of course, I’d keep Todd and Lawrence really informed, as the fittings [occurred], where I’d say to them, “What do you think of these colors?” We were all in the same building, so we could just pop up to another floor and show each other ideas. So, it really worked well, and it was a good experience, as far as being unified, as to what we were doing. Of course, Todd was shepherding the project the whole way—there, every day, [for] every decision. Every day with Todd felt very, very creative.
DEADLINE: How did you manage Arthur Fleck’s visual transformation into the Joker over the course of the film?
BRIDGES: I think he starts out in a very juvenile mode. He’s schlumping around in his white socks and his little gold jacket, and still being a clown, which takes a little bit of joyful sense—just trying to make a buck, and live with his mom, and enjoy a TV dinner. I think as his medicine changes, he’s unable to get that.
You see, as the world continues to abuse him, he goes darker in his colors. In his last interaction with the social worker, when he’s like, “I only have negative thoughts,” he’s in a charcoal sweater, and it’s taken a turn. Then, he goes to Arkham in a scab-colored knit top. It’s gotten darker. So hopefully, those choices of darker colors reflect what’s going on inside.
And of course, he becomes a little more unhinged in the privacy of his own home, whether it’s wearing his mother’s pajama bottoms, or just dancing around in his underwear. It becomes less this staid, unformed adult and becomes a little wilder every time we see him.
DEADLINE: What do you enjoy about working with Phoenix, having collaborated three times now?
BRIDGES: Every time I work with him, it’s a fresh page because we’re creating somebody new, whether it’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice. This is a fresh page in the notebook, as far as Arthur Fleck—different body, different hairstyles, different situation, different person’s mind. So, we’re always starting fresh. It’s really nice to have the familiarity in the fitting room, but it’s always a new challenge with him, and we have a great back and forth, because he respects me, and I absolutely respect what he needs to make this happen.
DEADLINE: You also recently designed the costumes for Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama Marriage Story. What were some of the challenges and highlights of working on that film?
BRIDGES: Noah’s so interesting. We’d worked together before on a film called Greenberg with Ben Stiller, so it was great to work with him again. It was, again, character-driven, trying to put an exterior to the inner lives of these people—but also, on the exterior, communicate that they’re East Coasters, and watch the separation as they literally separate from East Coast to West Coast. We see Adam [Driver’s Charlie] has stayed very much an East Coast man by his color palette, the way he dresses always sort of too wintry for the LA weather, when he does come to LA, and then we watch Nicole, Scarlett [Johansson]’s character, go from the New Yorker and turn back to her roots, as a California person. Hopefully, the clothes subtly reiterate their growing apart, and show that there’s a whole distance between them that continues to grow.
Then, of course, it’s a personal story for Noah, in a way—not that it’s literally like his divorce that he went through. But there are pieces of it, so there are beautiful things that he had written into the script about the costumes. His ideas about having Charlie in certain costumes at Halloween have deeper meaning. I don’t want to [give spoilers], but there were a lot of things that Noah wrote into the script that are really Easter eggs, for people that he’s known, or are compilations of people that he had come across during this journey of his divorce. So, it’s a very personal film, but also, it’s amazing how people relate to it, and it speaks to a larger audience.
DEADLINE: Up next, you have News of the World, on which you’ve reteamed with director Paul Greengrass. What can you tell us about that film?
BRIDGES: It’s an 1870s story. Paulette Jiles wrote the book, and Tom Hanks is the man who reads the newspaper to these towns who don’t have any means of getting the world news. He sort of travels around, and it’s his journey, and the people that he meets along the way. We’ve got about 20 shooting days left, we’re in Santa Fe, and it’s really a nice departure. Again, you go from Phantom Thread to Joker, to Marriage Story, to 1870. So, it keeps it interesting for me. But I’m always trying to serve the character, and tell a story with the choice of a shoe, or hat, or jacket, or color. I feel like I’m a storyteller, and it always comes down to that.