Mark Bridges
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Mark Bridges: “I’m there to satisfy the piece”

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Short Profile

Name: Mark Bridges
Place of birth: Niagara Falls, New York, United States
Occupation: Costume designer

Bradley Cooper's new film Maestro, with costumes by Mark Bridges, is streaming on Netflix now.

Mr. Bridges, do all your experiences as a costume designer feed into one another, or are you starting each project totally from scratch?

At this point, I’m just a big conglomeration of a bunch of films, from Phantom Thread, to Marriage Story, to News of the World, to Joker, and The Fabelmans! Hopefully each experience is building on to the next one. I bring everything I’ve learned with me, especially the mistakes and failures because one important thing is trying to get ahead of any problems. I often solve them by thinking back, you know, “We really screwed that up in 1997, so here’s how we fix it now.” Hopefully you're bringing all of that forward with you.

Can you give me an example?

Take The Artist, which I worked on in 2011. Much of that film was presented in black and white, which presents a lot of its own challenges. I learned a lot on that film about how to focus a frame. What shows up and draws your eye is the person wearing the most contrast, or the person who was on top of the pinnacle. You’d see John in his black and white tie and tails, but as he sort of goes down that ladder, he becomes more gray. We did the opposite with Peppy, once she hits the heights, all eyes are on her because of that built-in contrast. I drew from that for Maestro, but I used a lot of texture, things like beading or sequins, to help draw the eye on Felicia, for example, who always had a bit of sparkle to her. It lends a bit of tooth to all the scenes as well, it makes you really feel like you’re there.

“We all are so personally involved with our work on films — you want to give your best to evoke emotions.”

You also had some real-life references to draw from; photographs and accounts from the Bernstein family, as well as Felicia’s own wardrobe.

The photographs of Lenny and Felicia were an inspiration. It helped to find out who these people were and how they presented themselves to the world at different periods in their lives. And you’re right that we also drew pieces from Felicia’s wardrobe, it was a very unique situation and almost like a little easter egg that made the scene that much more special. It makes the actress feel the energy… Felicia Bernstein only wore those dresses at their country house, and we discovered them in the closet when their daughter Jamie brought them out. We only used them for a couple shots but it was just very special.

Apparently you had a similar moment on The Fabelmans, which is based on the life of its director Steven Spielberg, where you used one of his mother’s dresses.

We had photographs of Steven’s family and his parents, and oddly enough, we also had home movies from a time when it was kind of expensive to make home movies! So I was doing a lot of research from that and figuring out how to get the costumes to look right and work perfectly. That film, I think, was a very emotional journey for Steven in general. I think it was special for him to know that there was something of his mom’s there on set, like its presence is really felt. I remember one of the first days on set, when Steven saw Michelle [Williams] and Paul [Dano] dressed as his parents for the first time, standing together, and he was very moved by it. And that moved me in return because I had been entrusted with this huge important job of illustrating his family. I was so proud of that. We all are so personally involved with our work on films — you don't want to miss a minute, you want to give your best to evoke emotions, whether it be during the script or even moments on set like that… It speaks to the power of clothing and imagery, and getting it right.

How much does your research process involve conversations with directors like Steven Spielberg, Bradley Cooper, or Paul Thomas Anderson?

Well, with Bradley, we knew each other pretty well because we’d worked on Licorice Pizza together. So having that good relationship and that trust formed as designer/actor already, it wasn’t such a big leap to designer/director. With Paul, we have a language and a familiarity because of all our years too. Paul has always got a fresh story. I mean, we're delving into the history of dianetics for The Master, or fifities culture in London for Phantom Thread, or seventies culture in The Valley for Licorice Pizza. There’s always a fresh eye. And a lot of times, he's just like, “Show me what you got.”

“That’s part of my speciality in this job: it’s really dealing with a person and a performance. We’re making sure that they can do what they need to do in front of the camera.”

You rely a lot on visuals during those initial meetings, right?

Yeah, I put these research books together for all my directors and basically we flip through them and it becomes: “Yes, no, no, yes, this could work, let me see it on somebody…” And that’s a through-line whether it's Paul or Noah Baumbach or Bradley Cooper. I try to get it so that looking at the same thing, I don’t want to be creating some vague thing because I was thinking of a black dress, and you were thinking of a black dress but in reality, they look totally different. So those visuals help to cut to the chase, and so that's how I work with all my directors.

You once said that when working with Paul Thomas Anderson, you’ll go so deep into each character that you’re even thinking about how they stand or walk or move.

Right! That’s part of my speciality in this job: it’s really dealing with a person and a performance. We’re making sure that they can do what they need to do in front of the camera, whether it’s directing an orchestra for Maestro, or, you know, the dance scenes in Silver Linings Playbook. The director, David O. Russell, had gotten very used to looking at Jennifer [Lawrence] in these particular shapes and silhouettes during rehearsal, so he suggested that we do her costume in similar shapes. It came down to making costumes that Jennifer would be comfortable in, making it so that she can do her best when those cameras are rolling. I'm there for the actors, and I'm there to satisfy the piece.

Does the actor usually get a say in what they’re wearing?

My fitting rooms are kind of a laboratory for figuring it all out. Usually, the actors and I are seeing the same reasons why a costume doesn't work or why it does work. Sometimes we’re there to find a trail and build onto it. I never feel like there's any tension in a fitting room because we're all just trying to discover who this character is and what their outward look is, while the actor is doing all that important inside work. I'm just trying to help them give an outside shell to these characters, and I enjoy that part so much.