In this exclusive conversation, we delve deep into the world of costume design with costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, the creative genius behind the costumes of Christopher Nolan’s monumental film, Oppenheimer. We explore the intricate details and thoughtful choices behind the Oppenheimer costumes that transport us to the pivotal era of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his associates. Mirojnick’s insights reveal the depth of her research, her collaboration with an exceptional team including Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, and the subtle nuances in costume design that make Oppenheimer not just a period piece, but a powerful and emotionally resonant cinematic experience.
Spencer Williams: I am so excited to welcome Oppenheimer costume designer Ellen Mirojnick.
Ellen Mirojnick: Hey Spencer. Good morning. How are you?
Spencer Williams: I’m great! I’m so excited to be talking to with you. This is a big privilege.
Ellen Mirojnick: It’s my honor.
Spencer Williams: Let’s dive into Oppenheimer then, shall we? What a huge film. I’ve seen it twice already, and I am ready for my third…
Ellen Mirojnick: I am also going in to see it again. It’s really quite a layered, magnificent portrait. It’s Christopher Nolan’s genius. He is a magnificent artist. It’s quite extraordinary how he weaves this magic together into a masterpiece of a film. I’m quite proud of this film. It’s a “once in a lifetime.” I feel blessed.
Spencer Williams: Wow. That leads me to my first question. This is such a powerful cinematic story. What originally drew you to this story and the project?
Ellen Mirojnick: Chris Nolan asking to meet me. *both laugh* In all fairness, I listened to as much of the book as possible before the meeting just to have an idea. I don’t know if it was because this was the 80th film or show that I did. I don’t know if it was the set or the project, but there was nothing like this experience – in my entire career.
Spencer Williams: That’s incredible, especially considering the career that you’ve had. I don’t know many people who have had that experience. You mentioned the book, a 2005 biography titled American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It details his extraordinary life and deep tragedy, as seen in the film. I am curious to know more about what your research looked like. What was your process like in preparing for this film and designing the Oppenheimer costumes?
Ellen Mirojnick: Starting Oppenheimer, the amount of visual material was vast. We didn’t have to make it up. Certain photographs would be more inspirational than others. There was quite a lot of information that we had to pack into the film. I put together these storybooks, selecting photos that best represent each decade and each character. For example, at the beginning of Los Alamos and building up Los Alamos, there was a Western feeling. So, I snuck in some Western research there. This type of environment was very rough and tumble and not sophisticated. I just needed to feel that, and the real photographs from Los Alamos at that time did feel like that.
We were not after making a precious period film. So close, but not on the nose. When we began the film, Chris was very clear about his vision and that it was being done from Oppenheimer’s point of view. How do you allow it to be precise but not obvious? There had to be leeway in the periods to have everything slide from decade to decade to decade without taking anybody out of the story.
Spencer Williams: This leads me to my next question. When I think of a physicist, I think of lab coats and kind of a nerdy guy. I was fascinated by how Oppenheimer presented himself, especially before Los Alamos. There’s a bit of a style there, even if his silhouette never changes.
Ellen Mirojnick: He’s very stylish and conscious of how he presents himself. He’s a genius, and there’s so much turmoil inside that nervous system of his brain; there’s an explosiveness inside of him. In some ways, he is unconventional for a physicist and very presentational. Oppenheimer was also a ladies man, and he liked very fine things. It was clear from the research that from the beginning to the end of his life, his silhouette basically never changed. And that was very clear to me from the get-go. Obviously, the one thing that wasn’t clear was that they were black-and-white photos. We had to think about the textures and what colors would be relevant. During a meeting, Chris had turned and asked what we should do with the shirts. And I remember just saying, “They’re blue”. I mean, no…, I didn’t know for sure that they were blue, but I thought it would be blue and shades of blue.
Spencer Williams: I loved seeing Oppenheimer at one of the first parties. I remember thinking, “Wow, this man has style and swag!”
Ellen Mirojnick: You know, Cillian Murphy is the most collaborative and committed actor that you could find, and because Oppenheimer had a particular feel to him… I mean, he was empowered, he was the leader, he was the head of the town. He was everything! The silhouette was something that we worked on, and we were very careful about how you led up to where he ended and made sure that it didn’t look forced.
Spencer Williams: It’s not very often I get to ask about hats, but I feel Oppenheimer’s hat played an important role in his characterization.
Ellen Mirojnick: One of the first notes I got… Chris said point blank, “Nobody’s to wear hats.” Oppenheimer is the only one who wears a hat. And why is that? Because that is the movie we were making. He has a particularly iconic image, and it always includes this hat. It was quite important in the story and for the character’s evolution. The hats are part of the preciousness that I was talking about before. In period films, there will almost always be men’s and women’s hats. Matt Damon’s character had a hat, and we had some for Albert Einstein due to some story points. Other than that, there were no hats. It was perfect for the vision. It’s not a biopic. It is really a portrait. That portrait slides from the beginning to the end of his life but in many different ways. If there were hats, it could, I don’t know that it would, but I’m just suggesting that it could take you out of the story and the intimacy of the story.
Spencer Williams: So now that we have the hat on Oppenheimer and talked about silhouette… When we get to Los Alamos, you touched a little on the slight Western inspiration. I couldn’t help but feel like he was a sheriff in this town when he was walking around it. He felt like “the man”. I am guessing that was very intentional.
Ellen Mirojnick: Yes, it was very intentional, and that’s where he really blossoms. He has the power. There is that great moment where we get that uniform off, and the next shot you see is the hat, the pipe, him staring out the window with those magnificent blue eyes, and he walks out, and clearly, he’s become the man. I love that hat, which is a hybrid that has more of an extended brim. It’s not a fedora brim, nor is it a cowboy brim, but it’s a combo.
Spencer Williams: Oppenheimer wasn’t the only character in this film. There were tons of costumes, and I kept thinking Ellen must’ve had the most brilliant massive team to put this together, especially when we saw those large scenes at Los Alamos or the hearings. How did this collaboration come together? What was it like working with your team?
Ellen Mirojnick: I had a brilliant team. It was hectic as hell; it’s just the truth! *both laugh* We were constantly on the go, fitting, producing, and going! We did cover so, so much ground. We were constantly fitting. Without the brilliance of the team, it would not have been possible. They were an amazing, patient, and productive team that worked, worked, and worked! There was not one minute where somebody wasn’t working. In the Los Alamos scene where everyone is gathered together, the scene was never actually thought to be one that would be very colorful. Chris and Emma Thomas asked a couple of days before we shot it if we could do it very colorfully. They wanted a bold color and something that we hadn’t seen before. Fortunately, because of the brilliance of this team, they pulled it together, sent it up to New Mexico, and we fit it the next day.
We got tired. We ran out of fitters. Costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, God bless his soul and bless our friendship… He came and fit the two parties that took place – the one where Oppenheimer meets Kitty and the one that’s supposed to be the Plaza Hotel. Jeffrey fit all the women.
Spencer Williams: Oh, wow. So sometimes you have to phone a friend! *laughs*
Ellen Mirojnick: I had to phone a friend… I mean anybody, “Are you sure you want to help? I’ll give you a few hours.” He did a stupendous job with the rest of my team. With a little help from your friends, you go a long way because you can’t do it alone.
Spencer Williams: I applaud everyone that was on your team and their contributions! There are some other characters that were just as fascinating to discuss, such as Kitty Oppenheimer, played by Emily Blunt. She goes through her own sets of challenges throughout the story alongside Oppenheimer. What did Kitty’s costume say about her throughout her life?
Ellen Mirojnick: I hope that what you felt from Kitty was that she was an ambitious woman who transferred her ambition to her husband, who never let ambition out of the marriage. She transferred it to her husband and lost herself along the way. Kitty came from a well-bred background and had a sophistication about her. What was important about Kitty was that she also was not allowed to be precious in terms of “period.” What was really important to me was that we created her character in a way that the costumes, if you will, were somewhat natural and thrown away. I didn’t want her clothes to feel like costumes. She wears a simple blouse and a sweater. She really does get lost in herself. We wanted to express that idea in a bit of a tomboy way. She lost her femininity. But we certainly learn that she was a woman who stayed by her man without a question. It was on the foundation of ambition and what she wanted him to accomplish. She becomes somewhat of a plain woman, and I say plain, in the respect of not dowdy. She’s lost a sophistication that she might have found in an urban environment, Europe, or elsewhere.
Spencer Williams: On the other hand, we have Florence Pugh, who plays Jean Tatlock, and her costumes also speak to her personality and mindset.
Ellen Mirojnick: I always felt with his women, Jean represented love and passion, while Kitty represented ambition and a character that we didn’t see much of who she was.
Spencer Williams: Jean’s colors are exactly what you said; there was a passion to her. There’s a spice, and you could tell that there was a fire between these two characters – Jean and Oppenheimer.
Ellen Mirojnick: Without a question. You must know who you are looking at, especially since nothing was cut out of this film. It also was not unlike the time, as there were other women at the party they met, and the colors were similar. But what was really important was to understand Florence’s body, how she moved, and what we were trying to say about her without keeping it subtle at the same time.
Spencer Williams: Especially because she didn’t have too much time in the film, so those moments really had to count.
Ellen Mirojnick: They are little periods at the end of small sentences, but they pack a punch. The intention was clearly to show her passion.
Spencer Williams: Ellen, this has been so wonderful, and I’m just so blown away by this film. I can’t wait to go back and see it. Looking back on this project, I was curious: what did you take away from this project? And what do you hope the audience takes away from the project?
Ellen Mirojnick: I hope the audience takes away the beauty of this masterpiece. I really do—the beauty of this story and this story in history. The film is very relevant today, instead of just being a historical reference. It is a story of consequences and purpose. His life was filled with conflict and consequences. it’s a story that we all live through today because of his actions, which were so purposeful at that time. Look what happened with the touch of a button. The world changed, and the world changed in a way that we are still living the consequence of. It begs each of us the question, “What will you do? What will you do to potentially change the world to make it better and not continually go down that path?”
Artistically, I hope people take away from it viscerally the magnificence of what is before them – physically what’s before them, the visceralness of the story, and how it lands in their hearts. It captures a period of time in a way that hopefully will speak to you in the most modern way now.
Spencer Williams: Definitely. In the last two minutes of the film, I just burst into tears at the end. I thought it was so powerful.
Ellen Mirojnick: It’s really a powerful story. We think we know the story, but we don’t, right? We thought we had learned the story and knew the story of the atomic bomb, what happened to it, and so on. But you don’t know the story, and you don’t know the story of the genius man who made that happen and what happened to him, which is purpose and consequence. The power behind it, really the power behind this film, is so central to your heart.
What I took away from this project professionally was that there’s nothing like working with the most magnificent team on the planet. One day on set, my assistant Josh Quinn, as we waited for dailies, a gaffer named Adam told us, “You’ll never experience anything like this in your lives. You’re doing a good job.” I remember being very, very tired at that moment in time. We were shooting at high altitudes. “This is a once in a lifetime”. By the film’s end, you will feel like you played the Super Bowl. He told us, “You’ve played the Super Bowl, and you won it.” It was quite uplifting. He was really so generous in sharing this. We’ve worked on difficult things before, but he was perfectly right. After the last shot in Berkeley… on that day in May, we were on a field, no less, we were on a football field. I believe I really did feel like I won the Super Bowl, and that was a feeling I would never forget. But you can’t do it alone. You must have the most magnificent team because that’s what it takes. That’s really, really what it takes. And so I feel really blessed and honored to have been asked to be part of Chris Nolan and Emma Thomas’s team.
I won the Super Bowl. It doesn’t get any better than that. What’s more rewarding about it is now that people have seen the film, are so moved by it, love it, and are really affected by it.
Spencer Williams: Well, you really did win the Superbowl, as Oppenheimer was such a triumph. Your team won the Super Bowl! Everyone in the movie, outside of the movie, everyone won. And it’s just such a victory. People will be talking about this film for decades to come. With that, Oppenheimer costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, thank you so much for joining. This has been a pleasure, and I’m so happy for you. I can’t wait to see this again; I am about to get a ticket!
Ellen Mirojnick: Oh, thank you. I’m so happy you enjoyed it, and maybe I’ll meet you in the theater. I’m going too.
Spencer Williams: Absolutely! We could share a large popcorn.