Bafta-nominated costume designer Ellen Mirojnick on turning Michael Douglas into Liberace, the joy of Matt Damon's sparkling Speedos and how working on the biopic has opened her eyes to a whole new world
"It's the greatest experience I've ever had in my career," says costume designer Ellen Mirojnick of Behind The Candelabra, the Liberace biopic that sparkled onto UK cinema screens last year.
It's quite a statement when you consider Mirojnick has been in the costume business for three decades and worked on films including Basic Instinct, Cocktail, Fatal Attraction and Wall Street.
Tonight she'll attend The Baftas, where she's nominated in the Best Costume Design category alongside her contemporaries who worked on American Hustle, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman and Saving Mr Banks. It's her second Bafta nomination; her first was for Chaplin in 1993.
In Candelabra, Mirojnick was tasked with recreating the elaborate stage costumes that Liberace became so synonymous with throughout much of his decades-long performing career; multiple-piece outfits dripping with sequins and pearls and heavy with furs. One would assume that this was the trickiest part of her task, but that wouldn't necessarily be correct. While such outfits came with their fair share of hurdles - like time and budget - it was in fact Liberace's 'off-duty' wardrobe that demanded the most attention. Indeed, the majority of the film focuses on him at home with his lover Scott Thorsen, whose 1988 book, Behind the Candelabra: My life with Liberace, the film is based upon.
British Film Institute donate entire costume collection to the V&A
"When you think of Liberace, you think that he was potentially always walking around in smart clothes, and very, very, very fancy clothing," says Mirojnick. "So that part of it alone, to create their private world, that was daunting."
It was access to the Liberace Foundation, founded by Lee (as he was called by his friends) himself in 1976, which allowed her invaluable insight into the pianist's private world via swathes of personal photographs.
"There were two things that became very, very clear. One: he was a performer, an entertainer; he was Mr Showmanship. That was his life and everything else was geared around that," she explains. "Two: his stage costumes weighed tonnes, tonnes, tonnes and so, as soon as he was off the stage, he wanted to have no weight on his body."
|Douglas in one of the many extravagant robes he wore to play Liberace|
Enter the kaftan; Liberace's fresh-off-stage outfit of choice and what Michael Douglas, who expertly depicts him in the film, spent most of the shoot in. "He had a kaftan for every occasion, or a robe for every occasion, and that was really what we keyed into," explains Mirojnick.
When it came to Thorsen, played by Matt Damon, Mirojnick and director Steven Soderbergh wanted his wardrobe to have elements of both a 'trophy wife' and a twin to Liberace, such was the complicated dynamic of the couple's relationship. The latter element is most evident in the scene where the couple spend a hedonistic night dressed in matching white suits and furs, something that was again inspired by a photograph from The Liberace Foundation's archives. But it's subtly peppered throughout; where Liberace wears a turquoise kaftan, Thorson wears a co-ordinating shirt, for example.
|The 'Lasagne' cape. Photo: HBO|
In fact, it was one of Damon's custom-made 'trophy wife' ensembles that gave Mirojnick the most joy to create. "Matt's rhinestone-encrusted Speedos and cabana set, I totally love that. It was really fun to make," she chuckles, entirely unashamedly.
Both Damon and Douglas, the latter of whom Mirojnick has worked with extensively throughout her career, took a little coaxing initially when it came to their costumes. "They were cautious in the beginning - not wanting to make it a joke because of their commitment - they were very, very serious about it," she explains. "And then, they stepped into [the costumes] and everything was open to 'give me more, show me more!' Their curiosities were so open. To watch these men, separately from each other, transform into these characters in the fitting room, it took your breath away."
|Damon as Scott Thorsen and Douglas as Liberace, left, and Damon in the matching white suit and fox fur coat. Photos: HBO/Rex|
Not 'making it a joke' was also key to Mirojnick's approach. "I had to check myself everyday to make sure it wasn't jokey or campy or too kitschy and just keep them as real men, in a real love affair. I always knew that there was nothing that I could ever make fun of."
READ: Miley Cyrus and Rihanna get the Liberace look
Mirojnick designed every piece of clothing worn by both characters throughout the film, including all of the extravagant stage costumes. Having seen many of Liberace's original costumes by Michael Travis up-close during her research for the project, it was something she found particularly "intimidating".
But instead of recreating the originals exactly, they were instead reinterpreted in line with the film. "They were all based on the set and the pianos - the pianos specifically that [production designer] Howard Cummings was preparing to use," she says. "Then what we did is we went and looked, based on those pianos, what costumes he actually wore."
|Michael Douglas as Liberace wearing a shell-inspired stage costume. Photo: HBO|
The same went for the fabrication - the originals often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create, a budget which obviously could not be matched. Liberace's iconic 16ft white fox fur cape blanket-lined with sequins - one of the few original pieces that was directly replicated - was reformed in faux fur. Taking 10 days to make, it was by far the heaviest piece made.
Intimidating as it was, the film has introduced Mirojnick to a whole new world. "I think I'm addicted to sparkle. It lights up your eyes in a way that you just go to another planet," she says more than a little wistfully.
Having witnessed Douglas perform live in Vegas for some of the scenes, she's been inspired to explore the world of live musical performance further. "Even though we did it quickly on film, there's something thrilling about the liveness of the show going on and the performers coming out on that stage and inhabiting and living that stage and being part of it."
Watch out Vegas, Ellen Mirojnick's coming for you.
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