Designers With Oscar Pedigree Delve Into "Joker," "Jojo Rabbit"
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in a scene from "Joker" (photo by Niko Taverinise/courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Costume designer Mark Bridges, production designer Ra Vincent discuss work on their respective films

Costume designer Mark Bridges is a three-time Oscar nominee, twice winning Academy Awards--in 2012 for The Artist, and in 2018 for Phantom Thread. His other career nod came in 2015 for Inherent Vice. The Artist was directed by Michel Hazanavicius while both Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread were helmed by Paul Thomas Anderson, with whom Bridges has a lengthy and distinguished shared filmography spanning such titles as Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood and The Master.

Bridges has also enjoyed fruitful collaborative relationships with such directors as Paul Greengrass (including costume design for Jason Bourne and Captain Phillips) and David O. Russell (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which landed Bridges nominations for Costume Designers Guild Awards).

Now Bridges is once again in the awards season conversation but this time on a film, Joker (Warner Bros.), which marked his first collaboration with director Todd Phillips. Still there was a measure of continuity for Bridges on Joker in that it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, aka The Joker. This marked Bridges’ third time working with Phoenix, the first two being The Master and Inherent Vice.

Joker is a character study departing from the superhero/supervillain blockbuster norm. Phoenix portrays a socially awkward loner, Fleck, whom we see evolve into the Joker. And his environment--a dysfunctional, decaying Gotham City, patterned in some respects after a 1980s’ NYC--becomes a character in the film as well, impacting Fleck’s psyche. It’s a world of despair, alienation and bullying, shedding light on how the Joker came to be, even evoking empathy for him at times.

Bridges said he and Phillips had tried to work together in the past but scheduling conflicts got in the way. For Joker, Bridges recalled that Phillips’ “passion about the project intrigued me. Plus there was the added bonus of having worked with Joaquin a couple of times. I had not done anything like this really. The Joker character came organically through story rather than reproducing a comic book drawing.”

Bridges was drawn to this proposition. He put together a presentation covering all the main characters, noting, “It was good to work with a director like Todd, especially one who co-wrote the script. He was able to give me definitive answers” relative to costume design, what ideas worked or didn’t. 

Citing the adage “clothes make the man,” Bridges delved into the psyches of all the characters, particularly Fleck, thinking about such backstory as how long he had his clothes, when he got them, how he took care of them, how much money he spent on his wardrobe. “Arthur lives with his mom and works these weird side jobs,” related Bridges. “He’s not totally integrated into society and kind of down on his luck. He wears inexpensive clothes...Even on a commuter train, he’s the only guy not in a suit and necktie. We show him as somehow different or not fitting in.”

Fleck takes a darker turn that too is reflected in his wardrobe with Bridges citing such items as a charcoal bracelet, a deep maroon shirt, choices that support the storyline and the character’s changed mindset. Fleck’s clown character which becomes a bridge to the Joker has a quasi-Charlie Chaplin look and feel with shoes that give him the gait of the famed Little Tramp but with a 1970s’ sensibility that coincides with a Gotham in decline. Even the Joker costume itself consists of bits of wardrobe seen elsewhere in the story as elements of Fleck’s past come into play in his present-day Joker persona.

Bridges credited his team with helping to bring the desired looks to fruition, a prime example being Katalina Iturralde whom he referred to as his “breakdown artist.”  Bridges said of Iturralde, “She touched every garment, as far as aging and dying.” He described her as a brilliant textile artist, making clothes and suits for Phoenix, giving them a real feeling, blending colors and textures to reflect his character and state of mind, bringing at times “a wonderful painterly effect” to the clothes. 

As for what’s next for Bridges, at press time he was working on News of the World (Universal Pictures), another collaboration with Greengrass and Tom Hanks (who was the title character in Captain Phillips). News of the World is set in the post-Civil War era with Hanks portraying a Texan traveling across the Wild West bringing news of the world to local townspeople. He agrees to help rescue a young girl who’s been kidnapped. Luke Davies penned the adapted screenplay based on the novel by Paulette Jiles. News of the World is slated for a Christmas 2020 release.

Ra Vincent
On the strength of writer-director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (Fox Searchlight), production designer Ra Vincent last month earned an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award nomination in the period feature film category. This marked his third career ADG nod and first as a production designer--the first two coming as a set decorator for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2013, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in 2014. The former Hobbit movie made Vincent an Oscar nominee in 2013.

A coming-of-age satiric hybrid comedy-drama, Jojo Rabbit centers on a 10-year-old boy--the title character (Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, portrayed by Roman Griffin Davis)--growing up in World War II Germany. His imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, a strangely inspired rendition of whom is played by Waititi. The lad lives with his mom (Rosie Betzler, played by Scarlett Johansson) and for a time unknowingly with a Jewish girl (Elsa Korr, portrayed by Thomasin McKenzie) who is hiding in the attic to escape Nazi persecution. When Jojo discovers and gets to know her, he begins questioning what he’s been told about Jews--and for that matter, the world.

Seen through a boy’s vivid imagination, Jojo Rabbit presents a different POV of Germany during World War II, full of bright colors and natural beauty, a major departure from the drab, oppressive look and feel normally depicted. This child-like vision, though, wasn’t a figment of the imagination. Research found some resurrected color footage of Germany during that era. That imagery reflected a world alive with color, akin to what Jojo experiences.

Waititi assembled a team led by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Vincent and costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo to create Jojo’s world in a spectrum of color, breaking through the brown and gray of many World War II era films--without pushing too far into the surreal which helped to maintain the reality of the time period. Vincent shared, “We all felt we had a unique opportunity to create a fresh look for a World War II-era film. Since the audience is seeing through the eyes of Jojo, our creative palette couldn’t use just color, but heightened color and we could make the environments more joyously abstract. At Jojo’s age things are a little more rosy-tinted and the world seems bigger and more amazing. So, we really set out to try to recreate this feeling, the feeling we all have in childhood, but within 1940s’ Germany.”

To bring Jojo’s fictional hometown of Falkenheim to life, the production turned to a couple of small towns in the Czech Republic which Malaimare said dovetailed perfectly with the period piece, looking historic with minimal signs of modern times. This afforded him the freedom to often shoot 360 degrees without compromising the quest for authenticity.

Many of the interior sets were built on stages within Prague’s Barrandov Studios. Vincent’s design encompassed a wide swath of environments, perhaps the most critical being the Betzler house, reflecting the artistic nature of Rosie, described by Vincent as “a stylish woman.” The space is a renovated Baroque German cottage circa the 1930s containing a modern Art Deco flair, a very nurturing environment for a child’s imagination. But within that vibrant setting is the attic where Elsa is in hiding, a melancholy color neutral space. Vincent was also conscious of creating sets that gave DP Malaimare the same 360 freedom in camera movement that he enjoyed on location.

Helping Vincent meet the film’s challenges was his already established working relationship with Waititi. He and Mayes had collaborated with the director earlier on Thor: Ragnarok. “We didn’t have to start from scratch,” related Vincent. “There first has to be a meeting of minds for a personality match between a director and production designer. When you commit to making a movie together, it can be scary stuff. You’re talking about a big chunk of your life. That relationship needs to be pretty tidy.” 

That tidiness quotient was met based on their getting to know one another on Thor: Ragnarok. “We get along in a social sense as well. I would still be sharing a beer with him (Waititi) even if I weren’t in the business,” assessed Vincent. “He’s pretty straightforward with me and creates a bunch of boards that describe characters’ environments. The way he writes is quite conducive to visualizing. The characters are so well formed. That takes away a lot of the guesswork. Once we decided on the tone of the film and the environments of the characters, the technical process kicks in, working with the DP and costume designer.”

Also gratifying to Vincent was the experience working with local crew. “I was without my standard crew in the Czech Republic. We hired an all local crew and got extraordinary contributions and work from them.” Vincent said there’s great “satisfaction” to be derived from allowing people to do their job. “If you get someone who is passionate about their job and given opportunities, they can do great things.”

As for what’s next, Vincent at press time was embarking on an untitled film by Waititi. “When you have a collaborative relationship with somebody you enjoy working with, it’s a good idea to continue working with him,” affirmed Vincent.

This is the 13th 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 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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