How Mank costume designer Trish Summerville recreated classic Hollywood
Recreating the look of Hollywood's golden age was far from black-and-white for costume designer Trish Summerville.
For David Fincher's new movie Mank — which chronicles screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz's efforts to craft Citizen Kane, as well as the personal baggage behind the film — Summerville was tasked with bringing the Tinseltown of the 1930s and '40s back to life.
In some cases, she was recreating the looks of classic stars, including Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and Orson Welles (Tom Burke). But for the most part, the film (and Summerville) opted for grit over glitz. "It's not super-glamorous," she tells EW. "We're really focused on the daily life of Mank [played by Gary Oldman]. So we were looking for authentic pieces and nothing too over-the-top. We want it to be authentic in the shapes, what fabrics were used, the silhouettes, the colors, that kind of thing — and then translate that into black and white. It has to be subtle."
On the surface, it was a perfect fit for Summerville, who previously worked with Fincher on projects like Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. "Normally I don't use a lot of color; I use a really muted palette," she says. "For Dave's films, it is always pretty muted."
But to get things to render correctly with the black-and-white cinematography, Summerville had to work counterintuitively when it came to her color palette."It's finding fabrics that didn't go flat in black-and-white; you can't have bold contrast," she says. "Colors that are really odd and not great on every skin tone, like salmon or chartreuse or coral, translate beautifully. I made a joke with David, who is not a fan of color, 'Only look in the monitor. Don't look at the sea of color out there.' Especially on our crowd days. Because it could be a bit jarring — but things go confetti really quickly in black-and-white compared to what they look like in color."
Some rules of thumb included avoiding solid black fabrics, which soak up light in a scene. "You'll find these really beautiful pieces and then you see it in black-and-white and then you can't use it at all, it just doesn't translate," she says.
The challenge also came in outfitting a large cast, especially background actors in crowd scenes, with clothing that was nearly 100 years old. "It becomes very challenging to see what's left out there still in the world," Summerville says. "Our big background scenes when we don't have time to build all their clothes, you're just really pressed for where you can find everything. Luckily, we built most of the principal clothing."
Summerville also broke down some specific looks for us, taking us behind the scenes of some of the flashier, more eye-catching ensembles. Her biggest tasks circled around two parties at William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon estate — the first a birthday party for Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and the other a circus-themed costume party drawn from real life.
Summerville used a gold lamé fabric with a bias cut to create this flowing centerpiece gown for Marion. "It was just trying to have this elegance. We wanted everyone's eyes to go to her in the room," she says of the shimmery quality. "All these men are commanding attention, [but] I wanted to be drawn to Marion because she does have an opinion. A lot of women at that time, especially movie stars and starlets, were thought to be not so bright and just eye candy. But she was quite aware of the world."
Summerville also needed a material that would be just as eye-catching in a moonlit exterior scene as it is inside the ostentatious enclave. "For it to translate, we needed something that would pick up the light and reflect the light," she notes. "It's this nice bias cut; there's a lot of movement in the sleeves. There's a lot of drape through the neck line. And then we gave her this long train that we put a loop in so she could actually hold it and carry it around her wrist. She's got a bottle of gin and her shoes in her hand, so she needed to be hands-free."
Life's a circus
My monkeys, my circus — this aphorism becomes literal at a climactic San Simeon party based on real Hearst mansion revels. "Every year they had circus parties," Summerville explains. "We went through all these photographs and picked different costumes we wanted to replicate and mimic."
Summerville was particularly drawn to the choices of some of Hollywood's biggest stars in archival photographs. "There's a great photo of Clark Gable dressed as a cowboy, so we kept that in there," she says of the figures dotting the background. "There's a picture of Bette Davis that's quite amazing and brilliant. It's so in Bette Davis' style. She just has on a regular party dress that is a little bit clown-inspired, like it's striped, but then she just wears a marabou beard. So she's the bearded lady. There's a great photo of her with a cigarette in her hand and this marabou beard on."
Marion as ringmaster
Consummate hostess Marion is a literal ringmaster, sporting an outfit with elaborate marabou epaulets and a matching hat, all of which Summerville reveals was kicked up a notch from the reality of the historical photographs. "There is an image of her on the merry-go-round [wearing] full trousers, so that's what we made," she says. "She wore trousers quite a bit, [even] being with Hearst, who is so traditional and old-fashioned. They played croquet and golf, and you often see her in trousers, especially at San Simeon. I was really happy to put her in pants because she just had this really young, playful spirit about her."
Louis B. Mayer
There's no photographic evidence of the studio mogul attending Hearst costume parties. Instead, Summerville chose this apt lion tamer look to echo his role as the head of MGM, famous for its Leo the Lion logo. The perfect finishing touch? A gold lion lapel pin. "Arliss [Howard] was great," she adds. "He let me put him in the jodhpurs and the high boots and the padded belly. Then we got him a little gold lion head pin to put on his lapel and he had a bullwhip and a crop that he could play around with."
William Randolph Hearst
The newspaper magnate echoes his mistress' ensemble. Summerville gave him a more tailored, dignified look than he actually sported, describing the real Hearst as a bit "schleppy," with an oversized jacket and a massive bow tie. "We have to maintain some dignity. He's such an elegant gentleman. They are the ringleaders, and this is their show," Summerville says. "[The guests] want all this glamour and excitement, but Hearst [is] running the town."
Mank hits Netflix Dec. 4.