Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a lonely private detective living with Tourette Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Armed only with a few clues and the engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance. In a mystery that carries him from gin-soaked jazz clubs in Harlem to the hard-edged slums of Brooklyn, and finally into the gilded halls of New York’s power brokers, Lionel contends with thugs, corruption, and the most dangerous man in the city to honor his friend and save the woman who might be his own salvation. Motherless Brooklyn also stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Willem Dafoe, and Bobby Cannavale.
Talented costume designer Amy Roth (The Looming Tower, Indignation), the niece of Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth, based many of her stunning creations for this film on unsentimental photographs from the period including the work of Saul Leiter, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank. Working closely with writer/director Edward Norton, Roth stayed away from glossy depictions of the 1950s and instead examined the gulfs between New York’s rich and powerful and the very people they displaced. Sometimes she literally worked with scraps of vintage clothing to showcase how voiceless and neglected some of these characters were.
Danny Miller: I so love your work on this film. I imagine that Edward Norton is the kind of director who gets involved in every detail of his film. Do you remember your first meeting with him?
Amy Roth: Edward’s script really spoke to me, and I did a ton of research on my own before we met. I did a “look book” for him and we just hit it off immediately. He looked at it and said, “That’s my movie!” It was a funny interview because he started moving around in his chair and got very excited. We basically decided to work together then and there which is not usually how it happens. Edward started asking me about the color palette. I told him I thought it should be sort of muted to contrast against the very colorful language and all of these spectacular actors.
Do you think Norton’s own experience as an actor colors his role as director?
He has so much respect for actors. He never wanted to be intrusive at the fittings and always wanted actors to be happy with what they were wearing and to find the character on their own. He certainly had ideas about how some of the characters should look, but then he’d always say, “You should just talk to them and see what they like.”
It always seems like costume designers have more of an intimacy with the actors than almost anyone else on set. Did the actors on this film have a lot of opinions about their wardrobes?
Yes, but they’re all very different. I remember how wonderful Fisher Stevens was on this film, he’s so creative and he started to get very excited with a lot of ideas. “Oh, I love this, can I wear this, too?” He just went through everything and tried on a lot of things. Cherry Jones was the same way. Gugu was more methodical, really looking at herself and questioning. She wanted to make sure she didn’t look like she was above the fray.
Oh, so interesting because I had the impression that her character in the film would wake up in the morning and be very deliberate about everything she puts on and the image that she’s conveying to the world.
Do you use a lot of vintage pieces for a film like this or do you create everything from scratch?
A little bit of both. A lot of the great vintage stuff is disappearing, sadly. You end up building a lot of clothes using some older pieces. But I love to make the clothes. I made all of Gugu’s clothes and most of the suits for the lead actors. Remember that we often needed multiple copies of each outfit because there were stunts involved, so that also affects how many vintage pieces you can use.
I loved that coat that Gugu wore in the film.
Oh my God, that was one of my favorite pieces in the film! I made that for her based on a vintage coat I had seen. I actually found this vintage fabric from the period, it was quintessential 1950s. I had it slightly dyed which scared me to death. They wanted two, and I said too bad because I really wanted the coat and we didn’t have enough material.
We know that Alec Baldwin and Cherry Jones’ characters were based on real people from that time period. Did you study photographs of them to create their costumes?
I did look at those photos a lot and read a lot about Robert Moses because he was so fascinating to me. I understood that this is not a guy who’s very refined. He grew up with money but I saw him as a guy who had his suits made without a lot of thought. He just went to the tailors on Seventh Avenue and didn’t think much about it. His tailor probably chose the fabric and cut of the suits. So I didn’t want to dress Alec in a manner that made him look like he understood the beauty of what he was wearing.
Kind of like Donald Trump who has all these resources and wants expensive things, but has no real understanding of style.
Exactly. With everything monogrammed because he likes seeing his name so much.
Which seems so different from Willem Dafoe’s character who is down on his luck but still understands and appreciates quality.
Yes. With him I knew that he once had money in his life and he would probably hold onto some of the finest things from his past. For him I did find a vintage suit because I thought I’d never be able to create that kind of patina on a suit. So I got him a very beautiful suit from the 1940s. I used a shirt that was threadbare. Nothing was from the 50s, the tie, the hat, the coat.
Yeah, I had a feeling that no matter how poor he was at the moment, he appreciated the finer things much more than Alec Baldwin’s character did.
I remember thinking of those amazing Dorothea Lange photos of people standing in bread lines in the 1930s. You see all these men who are thin and hungry but they are wearing these beautiful, elegant suits.
I also loved the look of Leslie Mann’s character even though she has a small role in the film (as Bruce Willis’s wife). I wanted her to come back later in the story!
I know! Our producer kept saying he wanted to tell her story in the next movie! Leslie came in for just a couple of days. I wanted to ground her in the reality of what this woman would have worn. The only thing I changed was that I put her in lingerie the night her husband died. Edward loved that. We talked about how she probably thought she’d be seeing Bobby Cannavale’s character that night so when she opens the door she thinks it’s Bobby.
Wow, so there’s an example of how a costume choice that you make can influence an actor’s performance and the back story of the character. Her character almost feels like she’s driven in from a different film, possibly one directed by Douglas Sirk! I love the stories of Walter Plunkett torturing actresses on Gone With the Wind by making them wear real corsets and other period garments under their clothes. What’s your take on that?
Oh, I do the whole thing. I have women wear girdles and other things that I could never wear if my life depended on it. But they love it, and it can help the performance because it sort of dictates the way you’re going to stand and sit and walk. And sometimes I’ll veer from that on purpose. We had two white girls in the jazz club scene and I made up this story in my head that they were from Barnard and they’re not wearing their girdles. They’re just going out in their skirts and sweaters and they’re not going to put on a girdle to go listen to jazz.
I wanted to mention that your incredibly talented aunt, Ann Roth, did the costumes for two of my father-in-law Oliver Hailey’s plays on Broadway. Did you grow up learning the trade from her?
Oh, wow, I just left Ann, we’ve been doing some interviews together, I will tell her that! She’s just amazing. She started out in theater at Carnegie-Mellon and was painting scenery at the Pittsburg Opera. But then she met costume designer Irene Sharaff who told her that the boys will never let her get anywhere if she keeps working on scenery and that she should move to costumes! So she started working for Irene, including in the movies, but she’s continued in the theater as well all these years.
Did you start out in the theater, too?
I haven’t but I would love to do some. I’m actually going on Monday to see the new To Kill a Mockingbird stage production that my aunt did the costumes for. My cousin, her daughter Hannah, and I are almost the same age. So when Ann would do a film on location, she’d always bring us and let us help. She was so generous, she just took me everywhere. I got to see so many things I never would have otherwise.