Costume Designing "Mank" and "The Prom"
Gary Oldman portrays Herman Mankiewicz in a scene from “Mank.” (photo by Nikolai Loveikis/courtesy of Netflix)
Insights from Trish Summerville and Lou Eyrich into their work, including collaborating with directors David Fincher and Ryan Murphy, respectively

Trish Summerville has thus far been nominated for five Costume Designers Guild Awards in her career--two of the honors coming for David Fincher films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2012 and Gone Girl in 2015. Summerville won for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and again two years later for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Her other two Costume Designers Guild nods came for Westworld (TV) in 2017 and Red Sparrow in 2019. Westworld also earned Summerville a primetime Emmy nomination in 2017.

Now for this awards season, Summerville reunites with Fincher on Mank (Netflix) which centers on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed by Gary Oldman) as he races to finish director Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane on a tight timetable, secluded in a bungalow in a desert town miles removed from Los Angeles as he recuperates from a car accident in 1940. Attending to him are his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) and his German nurse (Monika Grossmann).

In the process, through Mankiewicz’s worldview--marked by his abiding social conscience and wit, at times caustic--we are introduced to not only Hollywood but life in the 1930s, ranging from the struggle of the rank and file during the Great Depression to the grandeur of Hearst Castle and high society. We also become privy to Mankiewicz’s own inner struggles with alcoholism, as well as a professional battle with Welles (played by Tom Burke) over screen credit for what became the classic Citizen Kane. The Mank cast also includes Charles Dance (as William Randolph Hearst), Amanda Seyfried (as Marion Davies, Hearst’s wife), Tuppence Middleton (as Sara Mankiewicz, Herman’s wife), Arliss Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Sam Troughton (as John Houseman), Tom Pelphrey (as Joe Mankiewicz, Herman’s brother), Toby Leonard Moore (as David O. Selznick) and Ferdinand Kinsley (as Irving Thalberg).

Summerville jumped at the opportunity to again team with Fincher, deeming him “one of my favorite people in the world and also to work with. He has a hilarious sense of humor that a lot of people don’t get at times.” On Mank she collaborated closely with Fincher, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and production designer Donald Graham Burt on the overall tone, look, feel and coloring. “The reason David has collaborators who want to work with him is that he himself is a collaborator,” observed Summerville. “He gives you a lot of room. It’s not ‘my way or the highway.’ He always wants you to show him more stuff, what else do you have. He’s open to ideas. There’s a lot of trust and dialogue.”

Much of that dialogue and preparation went towards addressing how to best work with black-and-white film. Fincher not only wanted vintage black-and-white lensing to capture the time period but also for Mank to play as if the audience were watching the movie inside an old-fashioned theater back in the 1930s. Summerville quipped that the desired look for Mank was “Fincher vision.” In that vein, she had done some smaller scale projects in black and white previously. This would be her first full-fledged black-and-white feature. She had the luxury, though, of being able to do a number of camera tests prior to shooting. She would place period-piece garments in various settings and take black-and-white photos of them to help determine how the colors would translate. She got a handle on what colors read well in black and white, what goes too flat or absorbs too much light. This played a role in shaping her approach to costume design for Mank.

Also pivotal was historical research--not just of the era but the people themselves, their sense of style or lack thereof. For example, even though Hearst was a fabulously wealthy man, he was not on the cutting edge of fashion, instead wearing attire that was dated and didn’t fit particularly well. He was a throwback in many respects, including, pointed out Summerville, wearing clothes more of a late 1920s silhouette and still carrying a pocket watch which was no longer in vogue.

By contrast movie studio chief Thalberg was a man of the world, well traveled, married to a starlet (Norma Shearer) and thus more fashionable. When socializing at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Thalberg is dressed in a stylish double breasted creme linen suit, for instance.

Mank himself was a gambler, an alcoholic who sweated a lot of it out through his skin. His body had a personal humidity, his collar was often left open, his necktie loosened. He’s a bit disheveled.

Again, Summerville’s attention to historical detail helps to define or at least reinforce the nature of each character, doing further justice to the story. Her work isn’t a fashion show but rather an integral part of character development, helping actors get into character through wardrobe.

Summerville’s costuming ran the gamut from the larger than life Hollywood glamour at a Louis B. Mayer birthday party or a Hearst Castle circus party to clothing that’s a bit worn on workers struggling to make ends meet, including those who have to resort to making propaganda films smearing the California gubernatorial candidacy of Sinclair Lewis. The stark reality is that so many were unemployed during the Great Depression, with folks on the dole or grifting. There was a lot of wear and tear on their clothes. Older era clothes were deployed at times and Summerville had to age clothes so they would look realistic on those in society who were down and out.

Lou Eyrich
Lou Eyrich has earned a dozen primetime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Costume Design and two for Outstanding Drama Series--all for Ryan Murphy shows. She’s a four-time Costume Design Emmy winner--for American Horror Story in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16, and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace in ‘18. She also took the Outstanding Limited Series Emmy for American Crime Story: The Assassination  of Gianni Versace in ‘18 as one of its producers.

Now Eyrich’s hat is in the Oscar derby as a contender for her costume design on Murphy’s feature film The Prom (Netflix). Adapted from the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical of the same title, The Prom, directed and produced by Murphy, tells the tale of Broadway stars (portrayed by Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman) whose sputtering careers need a jump start. With Streep’s and Corden’s characters fresh off a Great White Way flop, they and two others whose careers are on the outs (played by Kidman and Andrew Rannells) reason that attaching themselves to a cause will give the illusion of altruism and in turn benefit them professionally. The cause they find takes them to a small Indiana town where an independent-minded Emma Nolan (played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) is banned from the high school prom because she wants to go with her girlfriend, Alyssa Greene (Ariana Debose).

Our self-obsessed theater stars jump on the gay rights bandwagon, with proponents and opponents alike singing and dancing in a fun-filled ride that at the same time--in classic Hollywood musical fashion--raises awareness of intolerance and brings people together. The cast also includes Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerry Washington.

“I’m incredibly grateful and blessed to have made contact with Ryan Murphy some 20 years ago,” related Eyrich. “There’s never a dull moment. He always pushes me creatively dating back to his first TV show, Popular, and later Nip/Tuck and many more (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Scream Queens, Feud: Bette and Joan, Pose, Ratched, and the features Running With Scissors, The Prom and the upcoming The Boys in the Band).”

And beyond costume design, Eyrich’s involvement with Murphy also often entails serving as a producer, spanning such shows as American Crime Story, Pose, American Horror Story, The Politician, Hollywood, Ratched, 9-1-1, 9-1-1: Lone Star, and the forthcoming Halston miniseries.

For The Prom, Eyrich’s costume sensibilities had to encompass the spectacle of Broadway musicals, replete with sparkle and joy (reflected in a prime color palette of purple, aqua, raspberry pink and green), yet all the time rooted in character development and identity. 

On the latter score, consider the attire of Greene who’s afraid to come out of the closet to her conservative mom (Washington). “Alyssa is trying to be the good girl,” explained Eyrich. “Her mother is dressed in pastel, in a style reflecting her conservative ways. Mother and daughter go shopping together. Alyssa dresses like her mom, tries to be like her mom, to please her mom. She hasn’t learned to express herself, what she is feeling and thinking. Emma meanwhile experienced rejection from her parents (for being gay) so she’s been raised by her free-spirited grandmother. Emma gets her clothes from the thrift store. She’s kind of like a modern-day Annie Hall...She wears oversized paperbag pants. Yet she takes something she found on the cheap and whips it into something modern, bringing her style to it. She’s not afraid to be her authentic self. We didn’t want to make her clothing overly tomboy or anything that specific. She doesn’t need to be defined in any way. She can throw on a vintage dress if it moves her to do so.”

As for the Broadway entertainment flair, Streep, Corden and Kidman bring that to Indiana, infusing the community with a newfound song-and-dance energy that’s conveyed in part by their wardrobe. Eyrich made sure the spectacle was in the attire while also keeping a practical consideration paramount--safe shoes with all the singing and hoofing about. “I wanted to make sure we weren’t the department that shut the production down because an actor tripped on her heels,” quipped Eyrich.

While all the musical numbers kept Eyrich’s dance card full, she couldn’t resist at times being on hand for the production. “I would get so caught up in watching the performances,” she shared. “I would want to stay for take after take, I was so captivated even though I had so much to do.”

At the same time, that conflict underscored what made the process less daunting. “At the beginning with all these numbers you wonder how are we going to pull this off,” said Eyrich. “But we all became a family. The dance rehearsals were joyous. While the project was big, it was a pleasure to be involved. I was grateful to be a part of it. And what made it possible was all the prep we did.”

Serving as a prime catalyst for the positive esprit de corps was a sense of purpose as The Prom conveys a much needed message of tolerance. “We all wanted to tell the story,” shared Eyrich. “We were excited to share the story. It was important we get everything right.”

This is the sixth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, March 15, 2021. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021.

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