Film & TV

'Mank' Costume Designer Trish Summerville on Designing for Real-Life Old Hollywood Figures

L'OFFICIEL speaks to the costume designer about outfitting characters like Orson Welles, Marion Davies, and more Hollywood figures in David Fincher's 'Mank.'
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In Netflix’s newly released Mank, Hollywood’s latest movie about the movies, glimpses of the era's glitz and glamour are thrown amidst the alcohol-sodden life of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), or Mank, as he works on what would become his and Orson Welles’ magnum opus, Citizen KaneFor Costume Designer Trish Summerville, she wanted to show a piece of Hollywood history through an honest portrayal. “I don't want to do a pretend version of what Hollywood should be,” Summerville tells L’OFFICIEL

Like many buzz-worthy films in history, excitement for Oscar-contender Mank built thanks to a key name tied to the project: David Fincher. The exacting director was a draw for Summerville, who previously worked with him on Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Everything else—like doing a period piece, filming in black and white, and working with an all-star cast—was a plus from there, according to the designer.

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Amanda Seyfried plays actress Marion Davies, and Gary Oldman plays the titular Herman J. Mankiewicz.

To capture cinema’s Golden Age through the costumes, the designer wanted to be as accurate as possible, researching the weight, color, and print of fabrics from the ‘30s and ‘40s, and testing what would read best in black and white. Working in grayscale proved to be more demanding, as creating the range of tones on-screen required close collaboration with Director of Photography Erik Messerschmidt on the lighting. Summerville says she tested all the fabrics and trims by photographing them in black and white on her phone, “even down to the buttons,” because it can look dramatically different to the naked eye than on-screen. Ultimately, she found that greens, salmon, and eggplant translated best in monochrome, while black itself looked too flat and had to be substituted with dark navy or charcoal. 

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At the beginning of the film, Mank is recovering from a broken leg.

Summerville’s planning even included mapping out Mank, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and the other men’s suits, to ensure visual variety within a scene. “My assistant Corey [Deist] and I made this chart of who’s in what scene together, including swatches of the fabrics that we were building their suits and shirts out of, and photographing ties,” she says. “There was a variety of pinstripe, glen plaid, checks, and solids, and then we also changed it up with who was wearing a two-piece suit, three-piece suit, if there was a peak lapel, double-breasted, single-breasted, and we also considered who would be dressed more classic and who would wear the current fashion.” 

For Oldman’s Mank, Summerville wanted to be true to his real-life character, who didn’t own too many suits and had a more lived-in sensibility. “His shirts probably started fairly pressed earlier in the day because his wife took really good care of him, but then his posture, his demeanor loosen that all up, or the sweating of all the alcohol in his system rumples his shirt, and he has nicotine stains and some ash on his clothes from smoking,” Summerville shares. To make his look more believable, the costume designer put crumpled receipts and broken cigarette bits in Oldman’s pockets, and the actor took a pair of vintage shoes home with him to break them in and “help with his stride and what his gait would be as Mank.”

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Oldman's character has a purposely rumpled appearance.
I don’t want to do a pretend version of what Hollywood should be.

Photo research informed many of Summerville’s costumes, specifically for Orson Welles’ character, played by Tom Burke. Welles was between 24 and 25 during the writing and production of Citizen Kane, so the costume designer wanted to reinvigorate the younger images of the actor and filmmaker who is often remembered for his large, bearded appearance of his older years. Luckily, “he was vain, so there are quite a few posed images of him,” Summerville says. “He would wear really pressed shirts but then have elongated, exaggerated collars that were over three inches long, monograms on his shirts, and really full, drapes lightweight wool trousers, so we kept him in that fashion of the photographs that we found.”

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The real-life Orson Welles on the set of 'Citizen Kane.'

Juxtaposing the menswear in the film, Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies quite literally sparkles, while L’OFFICIEL star Lily Collins, who plays secretary Rita Alexander, provides a polished foil to Mank’s rumpled look. For Davies, Summerville wanted to “keep her fabrics more refined and in light tones” so that the viewer’s eye is always drawn to her, as seen in her slinky, reflective gold lamé dress for L.B. Mayer’s birthday party and the airy organza and plaid chiffon frock she wears while picnicking with Mank. While the starlet is always seen dressed up, providing a dose of Old Hollywood glamour, Collins’ character presents a more conservative view of fashion from the period. Summerville notes that because Alexander is sent to Victorville to work with Mank, she wants to look professional, prim and proper, so she packs pieces she can mix and match as separates since she doesn’t have an endless supply of clothes. As the film progresses and Alexander’s kinship with Mank grows, she begins to loosen up and dress more comfortably around him in trousers and with a bandana in her hair, reflecting their familiarity.

A level of realism even gets brought into the most whimsical costumes of the film, which appear in a costume party scene hosted at William Randolph Hearst’s castle. In her research, Summerville discovered a wealth of photographs from the extravagant Hollywood fêtes of the era and was able to pin-point the circus theme of the real-life party that was held the year in which the scene takes place. At the event, Davies dresses as a majorette in a marabou jacket and hat, which Summerville recreates only with a slight adjustment tot he headpiece. The designer also altered Hearst’s lamé costume to be more tailored, and dressed Mayer as a lion tamer, although she couldn’t find images of the MGM head from that particular party. 

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L.B. Mayer attends the costume party as a lion tamer, while William Randolph Hearst goes as a ringleader.
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For a circus party, Marion Davies dresses as a majorette.

While a costume party provides a touch of nostalgia and frivolity during our current times, the one in the film also serves as a turning point, which drives home Summerville’s focus on paying tribute to Hollywood history beyond its glamour alone. “I’m really interested in every walk of life and those real-life parts of it, rather than them getting glossed over.”

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