Costume designer Trish Summerville has collaborated with David Fincher on films such as “Gone Girl” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and with other filmmakers on large fantasy films including “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “The Dark Tower.” None of that prepared her for tackling Fincher’s passion project, however. “Mank” not only found her designing clothing from Hollywood’s golden era, but translating those costumes specifically for a black and white digital canvas.
“We had to make a really big decision on how we would go about translating the degrees and tones that we needed on screen, but not to be too jarring and distracting to the actors while on set. Because a lot of the women’s clothes that actresses wore were in corals and short truce, lime green, bright purple, a lot of bright t-shirts,” Summerville recalls. “So for us, that would have been too distracting to have all those colors to the naked eye on set but would have translated lovely in black and white. It was just kind of figuring out what colors we could use that adjusted that a bit and tones we would go in, and just keep the pallet a little bit more stabilized in different scenes, especially scenes where we have larger background numbers. We just kind of wanted to keep the color palette very contained.”
Currently in production on Francis Lawrence’s “Slumberland,” Summerville revisited her work on the Netflix release which included a lot of time showcasing the character and real-life historical figure Marion Davis, portrayed by another first-time Oscar nominee, Amanda Seyfried.
The Playlist: What was your reaction when you found out about your Academy Award nomination?
Trish Summerville: Well, I don’t know, I heard my name and then you kind of wait to think, did I really just hear my name? It was thrilling. It’s really exciting, and then listening to the rest of it, when I heard Dave was nominated best director, I screamed. I’m on a job right now, and it was in my office, it was our workroom, and somebody peeked their head in on me because I probably screamed pretty loud. It was “Yes!” And then when the nominations proceeded, it was very elated and just overjoyed. It’s such a fantastic project, you put so much of your heart and soul into and stuff and you’re just happy your peers appreciated it and understood the concept and the overall look of it. Yeah, I was thrilled, really really thrilled, and super honored. Yeah, I’ve made jokes several times. When people say being nominated is the honor it really is. I mean, it really, really is.
I think you’re overseas right now for your current gig. Will you be able to return for the telecast or are you going to have to go to London or Paris?
I’ll able to go back to the States, I’m on a job now, it’s pretty much established. There’s a couple of scenes that are not established, which my assistant designer is here for, and I’ve spoken to the director Francis Lawrence and he was really lovely. He said, “Of course, if they’re having a ceremony, of course, you have to go”. So, I’m able to fly back home and do a little quarantine and then go to the ceremony and celebrate with my Mank friends.
That’s really great. Let’s go back to the beginning though. Obviously, you’d worked with David before on two other films. Were you aware that “Mank” was a project he’d tried to make years ago? Or was it just a surprise when he sent it your way?
I had heard him talk about it a few times, but nothing in the sense of when he’s making it and how he’s making it. It was more just about a script that his dad had done and what it was about. So, I got a book on Herman Mankiewicz and The Mankiewicz Brothers and started reading that. And then when he brought it up that they were going to make it, I was really thrilled. And then when he added into it, that it was going to be in black and white, that was an extra bonus on it.
You’ve worked in all sorts of different genres, but this is really the first 30s/40s period piece that you’ve done. What was the most exciting aspect of that for you?
It is definitely the first period piece I’ve done. I’ve only done a few videos or commercials and things like that [in that regard]. But definitely the first period film I’ve done and [those specific] two decades. It was really challenging in a way because you want to get the period right. But then also with the level of the black and white, you want to figure out how it’s going to translate the best onto the screen. So, it’s doing all your period research is one element of it. And then the other part of it is doing just little tests to figure out what’s going to translate and all these tones and the variety that you need to keep the audience interested in what they’re viewing.
Obviously knowing it was in black and white, how important was it to you to be authentic to the color schemes of the era, or did that not matter as much because of what you were trying to convey on screen?
I think it goes to the latter part of what you’ve just said because the color scheme of that era for film was much different than what we would use now. A lot of the colors that we used then translated so well into black and white on screen were pretty bold colors expressed in women’s clothing. So, we had to make a really big decision on how we would go about translating the degrees and tones that we needed on screen, but not to be too jarring and distracting to the actors while on set. Because a lot of the women’s clothes that actresses wore were in corals and short truce, lime green, bright purple, a lot of bright t-shirts. So for us, that would have been too distracting to have all those colors to the naked eye on set but would have translated lovely in black and white. It was just kind of figuring out what colors we could use that adjusted that a bit and tones we would go in, and just keep the pallet a little bit more stabilized in different scenes, especially scenes where we have larger background numbers. We just kind of wanted to keep the color palette very contained.
Right. I was going to say that I spoke to production designer Donald Graham Burt a couple of weeks ago, and he talked about how important it was that the sets didn’t look like real places that you would go because he was afraid the actors would get distracted. I’m guessing that was the same thinking for you as well?
Definitely. Especially scenes like the bungalow scene and the desert [motel] where Mank is convalescing. I don’t want to have Lily Collins in a pink shirt and a salmon-colored skirt, just because it makes these beautiful shades of gray. I had to have these colors be really appealing for the actors to their naked eye so that they could settle into who they are, what their character was like. But then also, keeping in mind of how really important is it that you just don’t lose everything in that environment and on the scenes when it’s outside and it’s quite bright so stuff wouldn’t get blown out. You have to figure out what tones you would use there. And then also trying to put in small and delicate details that you could choose especially with something around, in the color area or around the face. And it was shooting in Eight K. So my joke was that “as you can see your innermost childhood secret,” that kind of camera. So you should also be mindful of that and making sure things don’t pop too much or become too confetti-like and too distracting again, in that sense.
This is a totally naive question, but just going off what you said, so should we assume that when we see something in this film that if it looks like Mank or another character is wearing a white shirt, in theory, it’s not in real life a white shirt?
With this particular film, I think unless it’s specifically called for a true white, I never used any brand new men’s dress shirts or women’s blouses that are stock light, because it does pop too much. It gives it a glow. And we do a thing that we called “the techie” where you tech a shirt or you tech fabric. And what that does is just shifts the color and takes the harshness and the brightness off of it. And techs can range in and varying tones. Personally, I like a nice tech one ice gray, some people go more into beiges. So, and it also just depends on what you’re using it with. But the only person kept in what we would consider a white, was Marion Davies. And so I wanted her to always stand out in the room because we have so many leading men in this room and she is the starlet of the film. She’s the only star in the film. Everyone else is writers, producers, studio heads. Lily calls them these characters from the steno pool. So for me, it always made sense that Marion’s characters should always stand out because she’d always be the most glamorous person in the room. So with her, I used things that were just a shade off of a bright white.
Speaking of Marion Davis, I read that you had done a lot of research as there were a lot of publicity photos of her at the time showing what she wore, not only in the movies themselves but out and about promoting stuff. Was there anything that you stumbled upon that got you particularly excited?
When we were first discussing the party at the first mansion, the original idea was that it was a German[-themed] or was it like a leader hose that I can’t remember exactly what it was, but it was something to do with leader hoses. Because Hearst had these parties every year and it was always a theme or costume party. And the production vendor starts much earlier than the costume designer generally. And so Don had all this imagery of this party and in my head, I just thought, “Well, if it’s 22 people sitting at a table, everyone’s going to look the same.” It’s all journaled skirts, but we’re not going to see that it’s just going to be suspenders, leader hoses from the waist up and hats. And so then when I started researching it a bit more and I asked Dave, “What year you wanted the scene to take place?” And then I started researching that and I was really lucky to find it was the circus party. So, then we started collecting lots of that information and research. And in that, there was this really great image of Marion Davis in this kind of ringleader, major head costume. And she’s riding she’s on a carousel on a carousel horse. So I got to see that she’s also wearing these really big Palazzo pants and her costume looks like it’s white. So I really wanted to stay very true to that because I did also know that in that scene, she doesn’t have dialogue. And so again, knowing that Mank walks into this room and immediately needs to find her, he sees her. So I wanted her to be the lightest thing in the room. [We] produced those costumes pretty closely to the imagery that we found.
Is there any other costume choice for a particular scene or character that you’re most proud of that maybe, an everyday moviegoer might not immediately understand that the work that went into it, but it was something that you were particularly happy with?
There are two. So I love the home movie garden party scene when Mank first meets Hearst, and Hearst meets Marion. I just love that overall scene. I love the music that’s with that scene. It gives you so much of a feel of the environment you’re in with the music that’s played there. But I love that because it’s a time when we get to see the summer white that normal people just don’t wear. And then these linen suits to them, L.B. Mayer, played by Arliss Howard, is in plus fours, which are a full pant that only comes to just below your knee and you wear it with high socks. I just loved that whole concept. And we did those Indians of how they would have been done and not as Native Americans, but literally as Injuns of how they were thought of doing those costumes in the 30s. Trying to show that we were making fun of how the 1930s portrayed different people on a set. And the Cowboys, you don’t really get to see them in the end, but they’re very over the top and have embroidered shirts and have such big and wooly chops. So I loved that whole sequence because it does show the exaggeration of what the films were then. And probably another garment would be Marion’s picnic dress, which is a black and white plaid organza, and it’s a very delicate fabric. My cutter fitter, Marilyn Madsen, who works with me on it, did a beautiful job mitering up all the lines and the clouds, all neat. And then it was just really airy, the really airy ruffle that kind of goes around the shoulder with an open back, like a tee strap down the back on a bias cut. I just loved that dress and the amount of attention and time that had to go into it to make it look so perfect because the fabric is so delicate and to get the fit correct. It’s probably something that would go overlooked.
Now that you’ve gone through this era of the 30s and 40s, is there any other era you haven’t worked in yet that you’d like to tackle?
Well, recently I’ve been reading Cleopatra and a book on Isis. So I really am fascinated with a lot of Egyptian stories, and I just watched something on Netflix that was quite great where they were going along with the geologists and archeologists that are doing discoveries at the time. And so I’m really quite fascinated with was that, I mean, it was just everything pretty much in that time period to me. I’m just blown away by how did you build printed much less to, weaving of these fabrics and all the enamel in the jewelry and the head pieces. I find it really intriguing.
“Mank” is available worldwide on Netflix.