Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick is no stranger to biopics. Notably, she helped bring to life the likes of Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr.) and Liberace (Michael Douglas) with uncanny results. Again, the costume designer tells the story of another larger-than-life protagonist, Robert J. Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the chief mind behind the atomic bomb and focus of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s new film, Oppenheimer.
Epic biopics are fitting for Mirojnick, given her own towering career in Hollywood. She’s largely responsible for turning Wall Street into a fashion manual for the corporate world. Collaborating with filmmakers like Jon de Bont (Speed), Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct), Adrian Lyne (Jacob’s Ladder), and Steven Soderbergh (Behind the Candelabra), she has crafted an array of iconic costumes.
Recently, Ellen Mirojnick took us behind-the-scenes of Oppenheimer, explaining the challenges and inspirations she experienced while capturing the essence of Oppenheimer.
Below-the-Line: So, you’ve had people dress as your characters years after a movie is released, but over the weekend, people were dressing up as Oppenheimer to see the movie. How gratifying was that?
Mirojnick: It’s wild. It really is. Who would’ve thought, you know, a year ago? But it is just absolutely gratifying, and I’m so proud, let’s put it that way. I’m really, really proud of the film that we made. And everyone’s work is just so gorgeous and seamless, and it tells a story that is epic and masterful, and all of those words have been used, but rightfully so. It is just so grand. So when Halloween comes this year, I think Opi has a good chance of leading a parade. Don’t you think Opi and Barbie will be the stars of Halloween 2023?
BTL: I think so. I really enjoyed when Oppenheimer ditches his military jacket, and then when he dresses as himself, it’s such a triumphant moment of self-discovery [laughs].
Mirojnick: [laughs] It’s the man to myth, you know? I mean, it’s a mythic moment. It is. It’s great. It is quite substantial. It just fills my heart with joy. It really does. It’s quite a moment that is so memorable.
BTL: Since [cinematographer] Hoyte [van Hoytema] and Nolan were shooting on 70mm, you see everything about your work. Did that large frame change how you worked at all?
Mirojnick: Well, we knew that from the beginning. You know, this wasn’t a surprise. What is so extraordinary about being asked to be part of Chris Nolan’s team for the first time, which I was so grateful for, is that everyone works in such concert that it really needs to be a beautiful symphony. We look at what IMAX looks like. We do tests, we see what we see. There’s nothing that is done that’s a mystery when we’re working. If something magical happens as a result, of course, you know, that is a possibility with all films. But particularly with Chris Nolan’s, if there is a magical moment that is beyond your wildest expectation, it’s genius.
But as far as working in 70 Millimeter and IMAX, you see the work every day. You know, we do see dailies every day. And it is not selected. It’s all the footage that was printed from the day before. You actually do see the work in progress. There might be certain times that you’ll make a special note if you have to change something or it would be best if you shifted a color or things of that nature. But you do get the opportunity to see everything in progress and as it progresses along. The thing about Hoyte is he’s a genius, and we knew how this was going to basically appear. We do some tests, Chris shows a couple of films that might have some relevance to what we’re about to do.
Hoyte and I had conversations, but they’re not overwrought conversations at all. It’s that kind of beauty of just picking up where the other person left off. It’s a seamless conversation and dialogue to get to what we are going to see as a result or what we are meant to see as a result. Designing for that format is thrilling. There is no hiding, yes, and I think that that’s thrilling. You don’t always get that opportunity, do you? Not in this day and age. I don’t know if in my entire career, I ever had that opportunity, but to see it in IMAX, what it brought to me is so much of a level of intimacy.
BTL: You’ve said Oppenheimer’s hat was a bit of an ordeal, and I’ve heard from so many cinematographers that shooting hats is sometimes difficult.
Mirojnick: This is part of the signature. It couldn’t be difficult [laughs].
BTL: [laughs] Did you ever have conversations with Hoyte about length and shadows for the hat?
Mirojnick: You know what’s so great is that to work in such a spontaneous manner as well in that landscape is just, I mean, how you never get that experience. I never thought for one minute, Jack, that there would be a problem with a hat in terms of shooting the hat. In terms of shooting, the problem that I had was in making the hat. It was finding the right maker for that. It took a bit of work because it was just, it’s in the fabrication. I never saw the hat for real. I only saw it in images, in photographic images. So it was a little bit of trial and error.
Mind you, I sent images to very fine hat makers, but nobody got it right except for Barren Hats [laughs] He did a sensational job. But he knew the fabrication to use; it was an uncut beaver, if I’m not mistaken. And the weight was perfect so that it could form the right size of the crown, and it could feel subtle at the same time as did the brim. So, we could work with it in a way that it could make any number of different shapes if necessary, none of which meant to shade or unveil Cillian’s eyes. It is Oppenheimer’s signature. So it was a very, very, very important hat. And, frankly, Chris had said to me from the very beginning, there are to be no other hats in the film?
Mirojnick: And nobody else wears a hat but Cillian, and that is a very big and bold statement in a film that transcends different periods of time in which people did wear hats. To work in that context, when you see the film, you understand why there aren’t any hats except for Einstein, who we see three times, all of which he is wearing some kind of hat. The military wear hats, but that is something that would look silly if they didn’t, when they should have. So it was quite a statement, one that I’m very happy with the result.
BTL: Am I wrong or wasn’t Oppenheimer’s style influential?
Mirojnick: I think that Oppenheimer, from the very beginning, you knew that he came from a wealthy family, and his father was in the fabric business, so he knew what that was in his suiting and outerwear and things of that urban nature. And then as Oppenheimer gained his tortured confidence, let’s put it that way, he was a ladies’ man, he loved presenting… I don’t know, what word would you use? I wouldn’t use the word smart, I wouldn’t use the word elegant. I would use the word…
BTL: Elegant simplicity?
Mirojnick: There was an elegant simplicity, yes. The one thing about Oppenheimer as well that was very clear to me after looking at the research with Chris was simply that Oppenheimer’s silhouette never changed from the time he was in Berkeley in the ’30s once being there until the end of our story, his silhouette never changed. The fabrications changed, whether it was a two-piece or three-piece, but his silhouette never changed. His pants were always full. His jacket was always a little bit larger. His hat was, when he finally makes his statement, his hat is a bit larger. Everything is slightly larger. We didn’t do it; it was our interpretation of images that we researched. But I think that what was important about that is it became an iconic, a mythic image.
BTL: My personal favorite accessory is his beautiful belt buckle.
Mirojnick: [laughs] I was wondering if you were going to ask me about that. In actuality, there really was a belt buckle that was quite similar to that, so we recreated it and so on. And he used that belt buckle actually to strike a match. That’s what he used it for, you know, like how people use the side of something. He used that belt buckle to strike a match to light his pipe or a cigarette. And he was so fond of New Mexico and his ranch. I believe that land spoke to him. Los Alamos has a lot of spiritual significance, as does all of that land around where his ranch was.
I think that we’re talking about something bigger than all of us, you know, but I think that it wasn’t about, “I’m gonna wear a buckle that people are gonna go, ‘Wow.'” It wasn’t about that. I think it was, in the same nature as wearing his hat, it was of his essence.
BTL: You’ve now had the honor to do costume designs for Chaplin, Liberace, and now Oppenehimer, these fiercely independent people.
BTL: Any similarities you saw between these like three singular individuals and how they presented themselves to the world?
Mirojnick: They were all very, very independent people. They were men. It’s real. I’ve never been asked this question, Jack, so, okay, forgive me as I think about it.
BTL: Take your time, please.
Mirojnick: But I think that it’s very, very interesting that you bring that up. But I find each man had his own genius, and that genius permeated their entire being. Not only permeated their entire being, but it was a soul’s calling on each man’s part. By contrast, it wasn’t, “How am I gonna look like I’m rich and famous? Or how am I gonna look like I’m an individual?” I think that it was a soul’s calling to elevate their presence, elevate their spirit, elevate what they brought to others, what their calling was in their lives. I think that there is something that is very, very unique and special about each one of them.
I do think that the connection is a soul’s calling when you are called to, to that, to that height. There is something, and I mean, it is the same as a rockstar. I know we throw that word around quite often, but you’re still looking at Mick Jagger today. You still would be looking at David Bowie if he was alive, and maybe you look at him even though he’s passed. You still look at Charlie Chaplin’s films.
They have a very special connection to other humans, and they are meant to communicate it in some way, each in a very individual way. I think that each man had a very particular style, but created characters that rose above that tortured soul in presentation. Am I right?
BTL: Beautifully said. Yes, I agree. Even in these very flawed, sometimes frightening characters, there can be beauty in there somewhere.
Mirojnick: Absolutely. Actually, now that I’m thinking about this, I’ll think about this till the end of the day, if not further, but each man was complex. He had a lot of complexity in their lives, a lot of torture in their lives, and needed to express it in some way. I think that they had outward expression and brought to us their comic or musical genius.
In the case of Oppenheimer, it was his musical genius, his huge genius, his musicality, and his full genius of understanding, I don’t know, the language of mathematics and music. And so, they each brought something special, and it’s not just about the tortured part of them, it’s also about their brilliance and their contribution to the world. That’s what makes them so special, unique, and inspiring.
BTL: I like how you described it — a “soul’s calling.”
Mirojnick: Absolutely. It was something deep within them that drove them forward. And I’m always honored to have the opportunity to bring those characters to life and to help portray the essence of who they were.
Oppenheimer is now playing in theaters.