Meet the Woman Angelina Jolie Calls for Costumes

Ellen Mirojnick - H 2016
Courtesy of Claudette Barius/HBO

Veteran Ellen Mirojnick unbuttons a 40-year career collaborating with top stars and directors — and, in Jolie's case, both.

Ellen Mirojnick has designed costumes for 61 films and several major TV projects — and pretty iconic ones at that: Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Basic Instinct, Speed, plus such period pieces as Chaplin, Behind the Candelabra and The Knick. In anticipation of her Feb. 23 career achievement honor from the Costume Designers Guild, Mirojnick, 66, spoke with THR from the Cambodia set of First They Killed My Father, her second project working with Angelina Jolie as director.

Looking at all of your many projects – which include G.I. Joe, The Chronicles of Riddick and What Women Want — they couldn’t seem less alike!

I do like to mix things up. But the truth is, I haven’t been entirely conscious of rotating genres. At the end of the day it comes down to the director, the material and the team involved. Sixty-one films might seem like a career’s worth — but I actually don’t work all the time. My creative spirit has had resurgence in recent years, and I’m very excited of how this next chapter is looking — so far.

What does this career achievement award from your guild mean to you?

It means the world to me! To be acknowledged by this extraordinarily talented group is the best gift I could ever imagine receiving. It’s overwhelming!

Given all the varied periods and types of film and TV projects you’ve done, is there a through line that’s your signature?

I would say my signature is defined by the character’s truth and emotional content. I always try to translate the character with laser-like precision.

Your first major film was Fatal Attraction in 1987 — what was your thinking when it came to Glenn Close's look in the film?

[Director] Adrian Lyne looked at every cos­tume designer in New York City at the time. My career was just beginning, and I was the least likely choice, so he hired me. Our aesthetics were quite the same — the way we viewed fashion, color and sensuality. We thought it was important to feel how the body moved beneath the clothes. He insisted that Glenn look entirely different than she had before. We pored over imagery and ideas before we shared them with her, and she was up for just about everything. I remember we didn't want to use too much black — we loved white and tones of gray — but most importantly, she needed to be a modern woman and not stereotypical.

You went on to do Wall Street right after, and later, Black Rain, Basic Instinct and Behind the Candelabra — so it appears you have a longtime history/association with Michael Douglas.

While interviewing with Oliver Stone for Wall Street, he mentioned he was considering Michael Douglas for Gordo Gekko and wanted to know about Michael’s work on Fatal. I told him it was the best work he’d ever done. Little did I know what an instrumental role Michael and I would play in each other’s careers. We would eventually collaborate on more than a dozen projects. He came to quickly trust my understanding of character and story. As a producer, he appreciated what I was able to contribute to the production. As an actor, we developed a unique shorthand. It was the macro and the micro at work. But trust was the main ingredient that allowed our magic to happen.

How was Sharon Stone's dress in the Basic Instinct interrogation scene — where she uncrosses her legs — conceived?

Oh, the white dress! The interroga­tion scene starts before she enters the room. She changes clothes revealing her naked body as Michael Douglas' character watches. There were story beats to consider — she had to step into it eas­ily, grab her coat and get out the door without fuss or attention. Sharon wanted to have a lot of mobility with her arms and legs in the chair. Coat on or off, crossing and uncrossing her legs — those were beats to build the tension. It was always the intention to not wear underwear — if you remember what Michael's character saw as she slipped on her dress earlier in the story, she was completely naked. No one ever remembers that!

Chaplin was amazing for costumes — for Robert Downey Jr. and for the actresses in it. How much research went into that?

There was enormous amount of research. It wasn’t hard to find information regarding the characters. We designed each decade by color, and the “films within the film” in gray scale, as they needed to appear in black and white. It was quite a great design challenge. We looked at Chaplin’s films, we studied the stars of each decade and we built the entire principal wardrobe. The Little Tramp was originally designed in London, when the film went through an earlier incarnation. But once I was asked to design the film in America, Robert wanted the Tramp jackets and pants to fit differently. I redesigned the costume to allow for Robert’s need of freedom of movement. We shot the scene of him creating the Tramp before principal photography. That day, Robert walked on to set, down the wooden walkway and he became Chaplin’s Little Tramp — as Sir Dickie Attenborough cried.

When you work on contemporary-for-their time films like Speed, What Women Want, Switch, Fatal Attraction — how do you come up with your color palettes? And what’s your way of unveiling the characters through color, shape, costumes in general?

I fell in love with designing contemporary films when I did Fatal Attraction. I love contemporary work because it creates the history that we could eventually use as research. The script is always the bible to follow. Each director’s vision creates the palette. The collaboration dictates the look. Working with the actors and actresses determine how to create the style that best suits the character.

Showgirls was certainly iconic. How did you come up with those looks? How involved was director Paul Verhoeven with the costumes?

I loved working with Paul. It was like working with a mad scientist! He was always there to shock and awe, no matter what we did. I think we worked well together simply because he couldn’t shock me. Whether it was walking into a fitting unannounced when the actress was not dressed, or when he would make me cut up a fully embellished costume so he could see the flesh. He was always after the truth, even in the sleaziest subjects. The intention of Showgirls was to be over the top and then some. The musical numbers were fabulous to design and the characters became livelier the sleazier you designed them. Most people think Showgirls didn’t have costumes — but we had five musical numbers, some burlesque and Versace!

How did you show Diane Lane’s burgeoning sexuality in Unfaithful? How did you make Richard Gere mousy?

Unfaithful was also directed by Adrian Lyne [Fatal Attraction]. Diane’s character was repressed, but we needed to feel there was something bubbling up. We used a blue to elicit a feeling of exotic sensuality, as a departure from her married life, a lure into a mysterious world. Soon after her affair begins, we began to feel her body. Adrian was always partial to a European style: Think classic, sexy French women. Altogether it allows her to feel sexy and sensual from within, without being able to identify what the garments actually are. It was difficult to make Richard mousy, but putting a slouchy, oversized sweater and glasses on him did the trick!

Why a sci-fi film like Chronicles of Riddick?

The question for me is, “Why not a sci-fi film?” The challenge was enormous, having replaced a designer. The unfortunate truth was that the story was never nailed down. We made a lot of magic in a short time. I constantly asked, “Can someone tell me the story?” There were versions, but no one would commit. It was a marriage of sci-fi and fantasy, and anytime someone presents a challenge like that, I’m in.

What was it like working with the late Jerry Weintraub and Douglas on Candelabra?

There was no one in the world like Jerry Weintraub! Jerry could make magic and tell a story better than anyone. We took a field trip to the Liberace Museum in Vegas and saw every Liberace costume ever made. We could photograph and study every inch of them, so the costumes in our film were directly inspired by the Liberace originals. While Jerry got us an all-access pass, we did have limited funds to create the costumes and flamboyance. It was a project that made me fall back in love with designing costumes. We all won Emmys for our work, and I was fortunate to have Jerry present mine. Boy, I miss him.

Now you've worked with [Candelabra director] Steven Soderbergh on The Knick.

Steven is an artist, an auteur, and trusts that everyone he's hired will bring his vision to fruition. It's been years since I've met someone who gives you the free­dom to interpret the text with trust as he does. On Knick, we had a massive amount of turn-of-the-century research. Steven really wanted to shoot the series in black and white. That clearly didn't happen, but it was our key note for design. It all became monochromatic, which was a great backdrop for the richness of blood. [Since the show's] set over 100 years ago, there aren't enough [vintage] clothes in the world to do a show that can stand up to the demands of shooting and modern bodies. We built all the principal clothes, rented the poor Lower East Side clothing and found select pieces around the world.

How did you collaborate with Angelina Jolie as both director and actress on By the Sea?

Angelina's costumes were inspired by vintage pieces she'd fallen in love with. We fabricated all her costumes based on those choices. She has an exceptional visual appetite and a love of European simplicity. And yes, she does have every piece of that wardrobe!

And you're working with her again now in Cambodia, on First They Killed My Father.

Angelina adapted the book and is directing the story of a young girl's experience of the Cambodian genocide in the '70s. Working in this foreign environment has tested every bit of my ability to design and manufacture in a timely manner. We have approximately 20,000 costumes that have been made here. I would liken this experience to what it might be like to swim the English Channel: I feel complete and accomplished.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.