In tune with the passage of time

Mark Bridges on the costumes for Bradley Cooper’s Maestro

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paul Thomas Anderson’s longtime costume designer (Hard Eight; Boogie Nights; Magnolia; Punch-Drunk Love; There Will Be Blood; The Master; Inherent Vice; Phantom Thread; Licorice Pizza) Mark Bridges on Bradley Cooper’s Maestro: “It was very important to me to keep the audience in tune with the passage of time.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s longtime costume designer (Hard Eight; Boogie Nights; Magnolia; Punch-Drunk Love; There Will Be Blood; The Master; Inherent Vice; Phantom Thread; Licorice Pizza) Mark Bridges on Bradley Cooper’s Maestro: “It was very important to me to keep the audience in tune with the passage of time.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the press conference for Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (Spotlight Gala selection of the 61st New York Film Festival), starring Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as his wife Felicia with their three children Jamie (Maya Hawke), Alexander (Sam Nivola), and Nina (Alexa Swinton), were producer Kristie Macosko Krieger (Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated producer for The Fabelmans, West Side Story, and Bridge Of Spies), screenwriter Josh Singer (Oscar win with Tom McCarthy for Spotlight), Jamie Bernstein (daughter of Leonard Bernstein), costume designer Mark Bridges (Oscar wins for Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread), prosthetic makeup designer Kazu Hiro, production designer Kevin Thompson, production sound mixer Steve Morrow, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conducting consultant and conductor for new recordings, Music Director of The Metropolitan Opera).

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein with his wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan) in Maestro
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein with his wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan) in Maestro

At the beginning of Maestro, I couldn’t help but think about Gay Talese’s latest book, Bartleby And Me, which was published earlier this fall and includes the following description, told to Talese by Frank Sinatra’s haberdasher: ”Sinatra bought luxurious orange Scottish cashmere sweaters not only for himself but for many of his friends and such employees as his pilot, who always wore an orange sweater when flying Sinatra around in the singer’s Lear jet”. We see Cooper as a white-haired Bernstein at the piano at home. Tears roll down his cheeks, as cameras from the press are reflected in the mirror. He wears a burnt orange cashmere polo sweater. It looks soft and comforting and autumnal.

Powerful, larger-than-life 20th century icons are catnip for biopics. Lenny is a tornado sweeping through the lives of everyone in his path, including the likes of Jerome Robbins (Michael Urie), Aaron Copeland (Brian Klugman), Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) and Adolph Green (Nick Blaemire). He cannot sit still and the film flashes onto many important episodes of the famed conductor and composer’s world.

From getting a chance to step in for Bruno Walter to a dream sequence in which he himself dances as one of the three sailors in On the Town, Cooper demonstrates his talents and drive. Felicia, as played by Carey Mulligan, is engulfed by him from the beginning of the courtship and only later during their marriage allows some unspoken truths to surface.

Josh Singer, Jamie Bernstein, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kazu Hiro. Mark Bridges, Kevin Thompson, Steve Morrow and Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Josh Singer, Jamie Bernstein, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kazu Hiro. Mark Bridges, Kevin Thompson, Steve Morrow and Yannick Nézet-Séguin Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

An actress herself and used to the limelight, Felicia wears dresses that are elegant and nuanced. As he did throughout his illustrious career, and especially for Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges lets the fabrics, the trimmings, the cuts tell tales on their own, as well as those of the wearer. A pale sea foam silk dress, Sixties’ shifts in brilliant hues, a white turtleneck for the porch, a cotton marinière shirt to be one of the boys - the clothes signal meaning.

Bernstein, so we hear, loves music so much that it keeps him alive. And he loves people so much that it is hard for him to be alone. His love life is complicated and Felicia, who keeps everything buttoned up (note the many gorgeous buttons on her garments) asks him not to tell their daughter (Maya Hawke) the truth about the rumours swirling concerning his male lovers. When Felicia herself has enough of his philandering she puts a pillow with his toothbrush outside the door, plus his initialled velvet slippers (which look just like the ones Merle Oberon embroidered for Noël Coward).

One of the best scenes of the movie takes place at the Bernsteins’ Central Park West apartment on Thanksgiving, with a gigantic Snoopy floating by outside, and Felicia letting us in on a Chilean proverb to “never stand under a bird that is full of shit.” The future holds musical triumphs, plates of cocaine, the license plate MAESTRO 1, and much much more in this very full film about a very full life.

Mark Bridges on working with Bradley Cooper: “Bradley was tireless in coming to fittings.”
Mark Bridges on working with Bradley Cooper: “Bradley was tireless in coming to fittings.”

My comment and question to Mark Bridges was the first of the press conference moderated by Justin Chang.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I have a question about the costumes for Felicia. They are so nuanced and beautiful and at the same time they are often the first signifiers of the decade we are in. Could you talk a little bit about that!

Mark Bridges: You say they are tied to the decade?

AKT: They are signifying the decade. They are often the first thing we see that tells us time has passed!

MB: Absolutely! It was very important to me to keep the audience in tune with the passage of time. When we’re telling the story, you know, we need to understand that they meet in the Forties and they are still in love and connected during the Fifties when he runs backstage and he needs his touchstone during a break in conducting.

And then we go to the Seventies, I think you’re understanding that developments are happening in the relationship, as well as fashion is changing and the people are changing within themselves as well. So hopefully you see a colour palette change, you see a hem length change, and that helps the story move along and connects the audience with that passage of time.

Earlier in the press conference Mark Bridges spoke more about the 40-year passage of time:

Maestro poster
Maestro poster

We’re always trying to tell a story; we had to do a 40-year passage of time, the ups and downs of their lives, different social circles that they ran in. So figuring that out we had a lot of visual references with a well-documented life. But that’s where the imagination comes or you find an amazing piece that you could go off from for each period. I worked very closely with Bradley.

Bradley was tireless in coming to fittings. He’d give me three hours on Tuesday and then three hours on Wednesday and three hours on Thursday - he was dedicated to coming to those fittings. We really worked very hard! He mentioned it last night: “Do you remember how much we worked on these costumes?” And I was like: “I sure do.” He was tireless in that respect.

And Carey was a real joy, too, because her acting process is such, you know, I’m giving an outside shell to their inner life. And so it was incredibly exciting to work with an actress like Carey and figure these things out. And also when I do research - there’s a great biography about Leonard [by Humphrey Burton], and, of course, Jamie’s book Famous Father Girl [Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein]. And you’re reading this and taking flights of imagination but also reading between the lines on what this is and what it could be in terms of clothes and telling a story.

He continues:

One of our favourites is a costume that was taken in 1976, I think. It’s a small period of Leonard’s life where he had a beard. And we see him make this announcement: “An artist must pursue whatever they need to do.” It was really striking. It’s the striped shirt with the neckerchief. It was perfect for that moment because it echoed what he was saying verbally, so it was visually. That’s a colour photograph and it’s perfect for that moment in the film, so why not use it?

Maestro’s Spotlight Gala North American premiere was at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall
Maestro’s Spotlight Gala North American premiere was at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And Bradley jokingly called it his Pirates of Penzance costume. So we really got a kick out of that. It’s that meeting of research and appropriateness for the script and appropriateness for a director and an actor all happening at one time, and that’s one of our favorite costumes.

The remaining screening during the 61st New York Film Festival of Maestro is on Friday, October 13 at 3:45pm - Walter Reade Theater

The New York Film Festival Spotlight selection committee, chaired by Dennis Lim, also includes Florence Almozini, Justin Chang, K Austin Collins, and Rachel Rosen.

Maestro will be in cinemas in the US on November 22 and on Netflix in the UK and the US starting on December 20.

The 61st New York Film Festival runs through Sunday, October 15.

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