Giving The Glitter Man His Glitter
Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, takes its tagline from its extravagant subject: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Too much was the standing order for Liberace (a.k.a. The Glitter Man), who dazzled audiences with his virtuosic piano playing and even more virtuosic taste for fashion and decor in the 1970s and ’80s. That put a lot of pressure on costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, who was tasked with creating clothes for one of the twentieth-century’s most famous clotheshorses—the more fur and sequins, the better. Along with the film’s hair, makeup, and production teams, the BAFTA- and Emmy-nominated designer transformed her longtime collaborator Michael Douglas (the two have worked together since Fatal Attraction) and Matt Damon into bronzed, bedecked visions of Liberace and his lover, Scott Thorson. From Atlanta, where she’s working on her next project, the street-racing action flick Need for Speed, Mirojnick spoke to Style.com about flamboyance, functionality, and sixteen feet of white fur.
Behind the Candelabra premieres Sunday, May 26, on HBO.
Tell me a little about the research you did to prepare for this film.
First and foremost, I watched as much video as I possibly could. There’s quite a lot of videos of Liberace’s shows—you know, his early TV shows, his stage shows—up until through Radio City, so that spans, like, thirty years. We were actually very fortunate to be able to, through the Liberace Foundation, work with an archivist and see everything, as much as we possibly could. I would say it was quite a lot of research and quite a bit of a cross-section from his personal life on through his stage life, so it was pretty great.
Did you get feedback from the actors that the costumes helped them to develop their characters?
Yes, absolutely. It was very evident early on that one of the challenges that I had to meet was what was going to be that piece that would help Michael Douglas and help Matt Damon transform. There was a magical element that occurred with both men, and it had to do with the rings that Michael Douglas wore as Liberace and Matt Damon wore as Scott Thorson, and in Michael Douglas’ case, putting on the white fur iconic coat. To watch him walk and watch him move with the sixteen-foot train…he needed to understand that there was a different body language. As soon as he put that coat on and his body started to move, he molded into Liberace beautifully. And in the case of Matt Damon, as soon as he put his jewelry on, he melded into Scott Thorson.
Given the materials, did you run into issues of weight and mobility for these pieces?
Oh, absolutely. What we discovered in research is the weight of Liberace’s costumes—the design and the weight was extraordinary. Michael Travis did work for Liberace in the same period of time [as the film depicts], 1977 to 1982, and he is an exquisite designer. His work was extraordinarily textured, many different levels of embellishment and stoning, and so on. And those stones in those days were hard-punched, which meant that metal in itself added weight. Now we are able to have a creation that is not as heavy, and clearly [the costume] was not something that had to be worn every night, twice a night. But the weight… for example, the coat that we made did weigh more than twenty pounds, but the [original] coat probably weighed seventy-five or more. His costume could weigh seventy-five pounds in real life.
You’ve said that your role as a costume designer is to interpret the director’s vision for his characters. What kind of discussions did you and Steven Soderbergh have as you were fleshing out Liberace and Scott’s characters? What was his vision for these two?
We looked at all the visual research that we had accumulated—photographs, books, show pamphlets, and especially the black-and-white imagery of Scott and Liberace—we looked at all of it. There were elements that Steven responded to, for example, their twinlike effect. He said, “Look, I just really want you to do it straight. I want it as is, no tricks.” And he wanted to create a story that was authentic. So we basically had the luxury of designing the entire film and just delivering it to Steven, and he captured it in the most magnificent way. He really was after the reality of what—if you could believe this—really existed, of what they were, who they were to one another, how they lived their lifestyle. And there were some photos that were actual terrific inspirations, and then you just go off from there and design.
Were there some of the outfits from the photos that you re-created more or less verbatim, or were they all sort of subject to reinterpretation?
They were subject to reinterpretation. When you replicate it exactly, there usually is a really good reason why you would do that. In the case of this film, it is an interpretation—it’s a story that was written based on a piece of material which was Scott Thorson’s book…. We did not go after any ridiculous or campy flamboyant approach. Camp is not in my vocabulary. Flamboyant is up for discussion in terms of what the audience sees. It was based on a reality is what I’ll tell you, and then you can take it from there.
But isn’t it fair that some version of camp was their reality?
I would not say that, because I don’t really believe it. In my interpretation, palatial kitsch is one thing, but it doesn’t have to do with camp. There is no purposeful campy approach at all. If you see the film and you think it is, well, that’s your subjective opinion. In my process it was not a purposeful, campy approach. We did not make fun of anything or anyone—we took a very serious line of reality to create the story.
You mentioned Michael Travis, who was Liberace’s designer. Did you have a chance to consult with him on this?
No. He’s an older gentleman who isn’t well now. I did talk to him once, but this was a very long time ago. He was lovely, and he’s an extremely powerful influence. These guys just went for broke when they designed the performance pieces. It could take a year for a costume to be in the works; it could take hundreds of thousands of dollars. From what I gather, they made new costumes yearly. Each time they really redid their show. And the costumes are extraordinary. Extraordinary to look at. The work is just breathtaking. So, he was a great inspiration, Michael, and one that I hope that, if he did see the film, he would just know that maybe [Liberace] was looking down and make sure that we got it right.
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon have sixty costume changes each. How does that compare with the number of costumes you create for an average film?
Many more. I would say it’s at least twice as many, if not more, and all of it was custom. This was kind of a master undertaking, truthfully, and a challenge to meet the timeline and the budget. So the amount, the money, and the time—we only had thirty-five shooting days—was kind of like The Amazing Race. Truthfully, that really was what it was like. But as long as everybody was happy in the end, that’s all that really matters. To see all of it come together—hair, makeup, wardrobe, sets, production design—it was brilliant. Steven being so happy to be able to shoot a seamless story and get what he wanted, it was wonderful. Because it was all about the magic of what we actually do, creation and storytelling in the most powerful and cinematic way. This, of course, was extra-glittery and extra-fun. It was the best project I ever worked on, to be honest.
Is this the most sequins you’ve ever used on one project?
I think so. I would say, yeah, this probably was the most massive amount of sequins or stones I’ve ever used on a project. But then again, I am really, really sparked by the light. So all that glistens is something I respond to really well, and I love it. I love to see that sparkle in the light. I think bringing that light to everyone is just a joyous feeling. But on the other hand, I dress in black mostly all the time, and I don’t have any adornment on my purses.