Award winning costume designer Ellen Mirojnick has been a part of some of the biggest, most exciting films and TV programs over the last 30 years. With work stretching various genres and styles, she’s collaborated with some of the industry’s true heavyweights, including Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne, Paul Verhoeven, John Woo, Richard Attenborough, Renny Harlin, Mark Rydell, Angelina Jolie, and the late Tony Scott, to name only a bunch. An Emmy and Costume Designer Guild Award winner for her spectacular work on the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, Ellen continually applies her love and passion for the arts to each project she takes on, with results that are always eye-catching and wholly appropriate to the material. Podcasting Them Softly is proud to present an interview with Ellen, as she discusses her inspirations, some of the key films on her resume, her dynamic work on The Knick, and what she has in store for the future. We hope you enjoy!
- How did you get your start with costume design and what are some memories from your first job?
I was designing junior sportswear in NY. My husband was working on a film in New Orleans called French Quarter. The film didn’t have a costume designer. I was visiting, they offered me the job, and I was hooked! I did everything from designing the costumes through full wardrobe on set, including sewing. And I can’t sew! So I had holes in my fingers and had to continually wipe blood off the clothes!
- Who were some of your inspirations when you were starting out, and growing up, what were some of your favorite films, or the films that spoke to you the most?
Well of course Edith Head. But my favorite film was Auntie Mame, so I couldn’t get enough of Orry-Kelly’s work. I’ve always loved movies! As a kid and while growing up, I went all the time to the cinema. The only films I didn’t see were scary ones. I loved all of Audrey Hepburn’s films, Auntie Mame as I said, and Some Like It Hot was a favorite. I really responded to film noir, the French New Wave, and I just really loved sitting in the movie theater dreaming in the dark.
- What was your first “big break” in the industry?
I had a few big breaks. I was given a film to design and was immediately a Costume Designer. I would say my career as we know it began with Fatal Attraction.
- You have worked with some absolutely legendary filmmakers – Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne (multiple times), Oliver Stone (multiple times), John Woo, Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Soderbergh (multiple times), Paul Verhoeven, and Tony Scott, just to name a few. Has there been one filmmaker, on this list or not, who you feel you’ve been especially “in tune” with?
I was in tune with all of the above when we worked together, all were momentous experiences! But the legendary filmmaker who I love working with and would say I’ve been “in tune with” the most is Steven Soderbergh. I call him The Grand Master.
- Which currently working filmmakers would you love to collaborate with?
I would love to collaborate with Steve McQueen, or somebody brand new, who is passionate about telling stories. Christopher Nolan, I love how he is fascinated by alternate or parallel universes. Marty Scorsese would be the ultimate New York State of Mind, and I’d still love to work again with everyone I’ve previously collaborated with.
- After working with Soderbergh on the fantastic Behind the Candelabra which won you an Emmy, he brought you on to his revolutionary new TV show The Knick. What’s it been like working on that show?
There aren’t enough words to describe working with Steven. I feel blessed to be a member of this amazing team. We were all tremendously excited to do something as adventurous as The Knick. 10 hours of storytelling, the complexity of the characters, a true time in history with the early 1900’s, and yet strangely, it still feels very much like today. It was absolutely ELECTRIC putting the pieces together. We built a hospital and a city through a lens we hadn’t seen before. It doesn’t get much better, needless to say, when watching great actors exploring the unknown! Steven has an idea and we get to explore it. He is very trusting with his crew, and he allows us great freedom interpreting the material. He doesn’t micro manage! The goal, as it’s been said by others, is that the actors come onto the set and you know everything works when he picks up the camera and begins to shoot, it’s time for action! The show has been a magnificent challenge, and my joy comes from meeting the various challenges every day, and working with my team, especially with Production Designer extraordinaire Howard Cummings.
- The Knick feels like cinema turned into TV. How has this show differed from other TV programs you’ve worked on?The Knick doesn’t compare with anything. When you are involved with a project that breaks the rules, the rebel in me, as with all the members of the team, rises far and beyond anyone’s wildest dreams! I have only done the occasional TV pilot, all of which have sold and went on to become successful series. And one other TV film, Cinderella, which was lots of fun. But the Knick is great storytelling, chapter by chapter, with great actors loving their characters and their challenges. We shoot it like you shoot a film and I don’t know anyone else that can shoot 560 pages in 73 days! Steven can and does!
- This fall sees the release of Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea, which looks emotionally draining and very much a throwback to 70’s filmmaking. What was it like working with her and Brad Pitt on this seemingly quite personal looking film?
Working with Angelina and Brad was great! I didn’t know what to expect but they were great collaborators. It’s a difficult film that was very demanding and an intense assignment, but rewarding none the less.
- John Woo’s Face/Off is one of the greatest American action pictures ever made, and the stylish costumes, especially the suits, were a big component of that film’s overall sense of visual flair. What can you remember about working on that bullet fest?
I was thrilled to work with John Woo. I was a great fan of all his Hong Kong films. I loved that I always liked his bad guy! Face/Off was originally going to take place in the near future. I came along and suggested that at the core of the film lived the same man, both sides of him, good and bad, just like the work John does best. They changed the film’s time frame to present day and the characters just spoke to me. John had an idea that when Nic Cage walked across the tarmac, his coat would fly open as in Lawrence of Arabia. We were able to achieve it with the aid of wind machines! Everyone thought it was a spectacular leather coat and it went on to inspire many future iconic film characters. It wasn’t leather, but rather, it was a polyester priest robe!
- Strange Days is one of the most ambitious science fiction films ever made, and everything about the look and feel of that film is tremendous, especially the distinct wardrobe worn by every scuzzy character. What can you remember about working with Kathryn Bigelow on this masterpiece of cinema?
Working with Kathryn was quite fulfilling. The film took place at the turn of the decade, the year 2000. It was 1994 if I remember correctly when we were shooting, and 2000 wasn’t that far into the future. I helped to create a world that was a hyper mix, with various ethnicities, different time periods, rock ‘n roll, etc. It was divine ecology with nothing being wasted; the rich were rich, the poor were desperate. I remember wanting it to be decadent and sexy. I think it was ahead of its time for sure…
- One of the most underrated films on your resume is Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls, aka, “The Hat Movie.” That film has an extraordinary sense of style, and the costume work was nothing short of brilliant. What was it like doing a full blown period noir and getting a chance to work with that incredible male ensemble, all of whom looked beyond snazzy in their outfits?
I’m so happy you feel that way about this film as I loved working on it! I love designing for men, it’s pretty clear. I had trouble being thought of as one to design period films, so when I was asked to do this film I felt like I had finally gotten a chance. It was my first period film since Chaplin, and I went into it full on. Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, the late Chris Penn, John Malkovich, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Connelly, and all the supporting players, including Rob Lowe – what a fabulous cast to work with! I loved working on the colors of the suits, and we found original fabrics for all the guys, and all the hats were handmade for the picture. I had a great time, but the story no one knows is that the real life detectives all wore white suits and cruised the strip in a white convertible! The producers thought the studio would be expecting “Men in White”, but after meeting with Frank Mancuso, the head of the studio at that time, he told us we had made the right choice.
- Nancy Meyers is a filmmaker who has a very specific style of storytelling and set decoration. What was it like working with her on What Women Want, which is one of the more thoughtful entries on her resume of entertaining comedies?
Nancy and I have very similar tastes in most areas, which made for a really good collaboration. It’s always a pleasurable working experience when your taste aligns with that of the filmmaker.
- Is there a genre you’d like to work in that you previously haven’t?
I’d love to do a musical or a fantasy, maybe a nitty-gritty thriller or something definitely not pretty. Actually, anything with a great story and an inspired storyteller – that’s what I’m looking for in new projects.
- Who are some of the other current costume designers who inspire you to continuously do great work?
There are so many great designers working today and I don’t want to leave anyone out!
- If you’re able to divulge any information, what projects do you have coming out in the near future, and what are you currently working on?
I’m currently in Cambodia, about to shoot Angelina Jolie’s next directorial project. It’s adapted from the book by Loung Ung called “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter Remembers.”
(This interview was conducted via email in November 2015, and was edited by Nick Clement.)