Marking his third collaboration with director Paul Greengrass, News of the World offered costume designer Mark Bridges the chance to tackle his first Western, and an earlier period than he’d ever before done on film.
The Universal Pictures title centers on Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Civil War veteran who journeys across the country to share the day’s news with small-town folks. While in Texas, the lonesome traveler encounters a 10-year-old girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel), who was abducted by the Kiowa tribe at a young age, looking to return her to her family.
Heading into production on News, Bridges knew he would be handcrafting pieces for principals, while sourcing costume rentals for a legion of background performers. Greengrass’s idea was that the costumes should look well worn, reflecting a country that was in tatters.
To create period-authentic looks for Kidd and other major characters, Bridges engaged in deep research, alongside assistant designer Kristen Kopp, going through the same kinds of steps he would on any project. “My thing is, I want to be true to the script, so I have to read the script to see how the action happens. Also, I love pictures that will evoke images or give me ideas,” he says, in the latest installment of Deadline’s Production Value video series. “I also love to put my hands on real clothes from whatever period I’m doing. There are costume houses that have archive pieces from periods that you can look at and take notes from, and find out how the construction really was in the period.”
In prepping his designs, Bridges first took a trip to the Autrey Museum in LA. “Then, we have the internet now, or even eBay selling photographs from that period, search engines that bring up Western clothes. We’re looking at photographs of period things for sale, at old photographs, tailoring sites,” he notes. “I remember when we used to just sit endlessly and look through books. I still love to do that, [though], because not everything is on the internet.”
While considering looks for principals, Bridges was also pulling costumes for background and supporting players, and this process proved challenging, given the time frame in which News was shot. Because many other projects were being made at the time which were set in the same era, “[the rentals were] actually quite picked over,” he says.
Fortunately, in many cases, those that were still available were exactly the kind that Bridges wanted—pieces that looked like they were on their last legs. “There was a built-in texture to what we acquired. So, I always see these things as good omens, actually, or make use of them. You know, I wasn’t there, cursing my fate,” he says. “ [But] I do feel like we went to Santa Fe with the barest minimum of clothes that we could have had, and had a great staff who made do, and made people look great.”
Really, an experience like this speaks to the level of flexibility that Bridges needs to bring to each project, and to each step along the path of its creation. “Sometimes, you’re sketching [things] in, and then as you find out more, or start working with an actor, you discover more nuance. Or a director will call you and say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and then you have to devise a way to have it play on screen in a moment’s notice,” he says. “But I love challenges like that, I really do, and figuring things out. Sometimes, it’s maddening; sometimes, it’s thrilling. You just take it day by day and try to be prepared for anything.”
A native of Nigara Falls, New York, Bridges felt a strong draw towards costumes, even at an early age. “For some reason, I was always the kid who thought Halloween was the greatest holiday ever,” he remembers. “We would go to…a thrift store and buy garments to turn into costumes—hobo, little old lady, a Roman.”
His interest in Halloween then turned into an excitement about theater, and by the time he reached middle school, he was designing costumes for school plays. At the same time, he found himself critically dissecting costumes made for film. “I was looking at a film yesterday on Turner Classic Movies. I remember seeing it in the theater, and I remembered the costumes,” he says. “So, it’s always been there.”
Later, experiences studying theater at Niagara County Community College and Stony Brook University cemented Bridges’ idea of where he wanted to be. “I wanted to be in the shop,” he says. “I wanted to be mixing all of the things that I love to do: drawing, fabrics, creating, working with actors and a script toward a common goal.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Bridges moved to New York City. At Barbara Matera Ltd., a costume house for major Broadway productions, he worked as a fabric shopper, diving fully into a world he’d once dreamed of from afar. “When you’re a kid between undergraduate and graduate school, doing what you love, they’d give you a swatch of fabric and say, ‘Go and buy however many yards of this,’ so I learned my way around town. I learned about fabrics,” he says. “Looking at what they were making in the shop taught me about what quality is.”
On technical and creative levels, Bridges would also learn a lot from his time at the Tisch School of the Arts, where he earned an MFA. “Tisch really taught me what design was, and the techniques, and graphics, and rendering style, and concept. So, that took me to another level of what quality means,” he says. “[Then], there was something behind my decisions that served the story, taking it out of just the realm of, ‘That’s cute shoes’ or something.”
Connections forged at Barbara Matera Ltd., though, were the final piece of the puzzle, which helped him build a career. “You’d turn around and there’d be Milena Canonero, working on The Cotton Club, or Irene Sharaff, or Ann Roth. People who were legends in costume design were there,” he says. “I’m just a wide-eyed 23-year-old, wanting to be in this world, and loving every minute of it.”
While working at the shop, Bridges also struck up relationships with assistant designers on the rise, like Richard Hornung, who back then, was working for the legendary Santo Loquasto. “You’d see them there, and then Richard became a designer in his own right,” he says. “He did a Broadway show or two, was always a theatrical artist, but then did Raising Arizona for the Coens, and Less Than Zero, films like that.”
As Hornung worked with the Coens, Bridges was a year out of graduate school, working as an assistant stage manager for the Broadway show, Oh! Calcutta! to make ends meet. Quickly, the pair hit it off, leading Bridges to work with Hornung on Miller’s Crossing. Then, Hornung asked the fledgling designer to relocate to LA, so that he could continue working with him on films like The Grifters.
“It was crazy. I’d never assisted or worked in LA, but the Broadway show had just closed, and I didn’t really have anything to do,” Bridges remembers. “I was free and ready to roll, and I’d always wanted to do films. Hollywood was a big goal for me, so I was like, ‘When do you want me there?’”
While assisting Hornung on films like Barton Fink and Doc Hollywood, Bridges was also working to establish himself as a costume designer in his own right. “I was doing my own small shows, too, because I didn’t want to only be known as an assistant designer. I was really only working for Richard in that capacity,” he says. “So, that’s how that went, and we worked on some great films together. I learned a lot. I think his sensibility is with me everyday.”
Soon, though, Bridges would grow into his own sensibility, and “a different kind of Hollywood” than Hornung—who passed away in 1995—ever experienced. One of his first big breaks was when he was hired for Hard Eight by a 25-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson. “[We] had very little money for Hard Eight, but had a good time making it. It was a lot of fun. We lived at the casino that we shot at. Of course, we didn’t have much money, but it was shot in Reno, and at the time, Reno was really the land of thrift stores,” Bridges notes. “So, it was perfect. I needed clothes for no money, and they had all the resources right there.”
In his relationship with the auteur, Bridges found longevity. In the decades since Hard Eight, the pair have reteamed on seven other acclaimed features—including Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. And recently, they joined forces once again on a highly anticipated film that has yet to be titled, starring Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie and Cooper Hoffman. “It’s 25 years we’ve been working together,” Bridges marvels, “so that’s exciting that we’re still going at this point. Paul and I work the way that we have always worked.”
A two-time Oscar winner and four-time nominee, Bridges has had quite an illustrious career. But at this point, he’s famous not just for his work. In 2018, he unwittingly ended up playing a role in one of the most iconic moments in the recent history of the Academy Awards telecast.
At that year’s ceremony, host Jimmy Kimmel ensnared Bridges in a bit for the ages, announcing that whichever Oscar winner gave the shortest acceptance speech would take home not only a statuette, but also a jet ski, and a complementary stay in Lake Havasu.
On that “crazy night,” Bridges was nominated for Best Original Costumes, winning for Anderson’s acidic drama, Phantom Thread. “I didn’t think my speech was any shorter than it was in 2012. You know, nobody wants to listen to the costume designer yammer on, is my opinion,” he says, with a smile. “Like, get it, say thanks and go.”
The last thing Bridges expected or wanted that night was to win the prizes bestowed by Kimmel—and yet, as fate would have it, he did. “So, I get up there. I don’t know what possessed me to throw on the life jacket. I guess as a costume designer, you want to get suited up for the moment,” he jokes. “I just resigned myself to the fact that this is actually happening, and you need to make the best of it. Thankfully, I had experience in front of audiences before, so we made it what it was—a fun gag, a great way to end the show.”
While the moment ended up being, for Bridges, “the icing on the cake of a beautiful night, and a beautiful season of the Oscars,” the jet ski needed to go. “Someone asked me, ‘Do you have any experience with a jet ski?’ and I was like, ‘None good, okay?’ So, that had to go right away,” he deadpans. “I donated it to the Motion Picture Television Fund because it was a motion picture event on television. Plus, they are a great organization, and it always was our business, supporting people in our business.
“So, they put it up on auction because I had absolutely no use for it at all,” he adds, “and if it could do somebody some good, I was happy for that.”
Now over three decades into his career in the costume department, Bridges has taken on all kinds of films. “But I’m always looking to do something that I haven’t done. It’s all different and challenging, and has a new set of problems. Like, can I crack this? Can I do this justice, and how are we going to do it?” he says. “So, that keeps me going to work every day, with something new to figure out and create.”
To check out our conversation with Bridges for yourself, take a look at the video above.
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