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Behind the Candelabra’s Costume Designer Explains All the Fabulous Outfits (and Speedos)

You've had a week to recover from the ostentatiously opulent fashions of Behind the Candelabra, but it hasn't been easy, has it? You've started hoping Gilt will offer a caftan flash sale. You've refused to leave the house without marabou or fox fur. You've even comparison-shopped for bedazzlers on eBay. And that's okay! We can't stop thinking about the Candelabra fashions, either, so we got costume designer Ellen Mirojnick on the phone to dish about some of the HBO movie's craziest ensembles. What kind of work went into making Michael Douglas into Liberace and Matt Damon into his twink lover Scott Thorson? According to Mirojnick, it took a lot of hard work and even more sequins.

One of the most eye-popping moments in the movie is when Liberace exits a Rolls Royce onstage, his sixteen-foot train trailing behind him. "Wow, that one!" laughed Mirojnick. "That coat was inspired by a coat designed by Anna Nateece, his furrier. It's an iconic, white, virgin Norwegian fox coat, lined in sequins — but ours is fake fur." It's also a little more mobile than the original, though just barely. "That coat, in real life, was twice the weight of the one that Michael Douglas wears onstage in Candelabra," said Mirojnick. "What we did not keep in mind at first was that the coat was going to come out of a car. We had to fold in a particular kind of way, with two costumers underneath it, so that as he got out of the car it would come out basically in one piece. It was tricky!"

As for Matt Damon's corresponding chauffeur outfit, Mirojnick said she'll never forget the day Damon saw it in the fitting room. "I thought that Matt probably thought to himself, ‘Oh no, this cannot be happening.’ He took a little breath," she said. "His feet went into the boots, the chauffeur costume went on, and that shot that you see in the movie of the camera panning up from his feet to the top of his head … just picture it in the fitting room! He was just exactly the same way. He could not believe what he looked like — it was a great, shocking surprise. But you know, once the actors were just so committed to these roles, their fun of transformation really did occur in the fitting room. When Matt put that costume on, and we put on the hat — and it’s the same with Michael — you put those rings on, and those men just immediately transformed into Liberace and Scott. I mean, it was really just magical to see it occur in the fitting room before putting it before the camera."

Why delay the inevitable: Of course we talked to Mirojnick about the fact that she put A-list movie star Matt Damon in two jewel-encrusted Speedos. "Did you love it?" she squealed. "I loved it!" And she wasn't alone. "Matt Damon loved all of it," said Mirojnick. "We didn’t know each other before this film, but he said to me, ‘I hate fitting, but I’ve never ever loved fittings more than doing this movie and working with you.’ He tried everything and he just enjoyed the process so much that it was like ‘Show me more, give me more. Oh, one fur coat? Let me try another one! Oh, let me try that one!’ He just had the time of his life. He was like a kid in a candy store. Wouldn’t you be?"

But Mirojnick had a very serious question for us: "Did you like the white one or the black one more?" When pressed, we picked the black Speedo, simply because it really did tie Damon's whole look together. "I thought that little ensemble was perfect!" Mirojnick said. "And I made it as an ensemble; I designed that little cabana look to be an ensemble! Nothing could be on its own without some kind of accompaniment or embellishment; you always needed to have one extra piece. All of Scott Thorson’s outfits were designed to be ensembles because they were all put together by Liberace, really." And yes, the crystal-studded fabric was part of the plot, said Mirojnick: "Richard LaGravenese’s script really did call for Scott Thorson to be wearing a diamond-encrusted Speedo! And I can’t exactly go to the store and just buy one, so I just made it." How many crystals is just the right amount to affix to Matt Damon's crotch? "As many as you can possibly get on it!" she laughed.

Mirojnick admits that some of her favorite pieces were the robes and caftans that Liberace would lounge in at home. "Every piece of fabric that I found, I just couldn’t resist it!" she said. "Every piece was better than the next. So I just made a series of caftans and a series of robes, and used them whenever I could." Why was the ultra-adorned Liberace such a fiend for simple silk robes? "What I found really, really inspiring in my photographic research is that Liberace had all these pictures of himself with heads of state, and he was dressed in a robe or a caftan," said Mirojnick. "And then all of a sudden, it made sense to me: If you’re onstage in costumes that weigh hundreds of pounds, seven days a week, when you come back and you take off your costumes, wouldn’t you want to be in as little as possible?"

What of this crazy-insane red-and-feathered number Liberace wore onstage? "That's called the Lasagna," laughed Mirojnick. "It was quite the look-at-me outfit, I would say. One of the showstoppers. It was inspired by a costume that was designed by Michael Travis, who was Liberace's costume designer at the time." Adapting those one-of-a-kind pieces was Mirojnick's greatest challenge, she said. "In real life, Liberace’s costumes weighed hundreds of pounds, took a year to create, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ours are fabulous, but they took a smidgen of time to make and certainly didn’t cost that much money."

Have you made your houseboy wear tighter clothes since Candelabra came out? Of course you have. Mirojnick noted that though she dressed her cast in tighter-than-skintight fashions, miraculously, "Nothing tore or ripped! We actually tested it out before: We'd make these boys do different moves to make sure they could walk, talk, and dance, whatever. Just to make sure that Steven had everything he needed to shoot and that all the guys were on point, as they say."

Speaking of tight, here's Rob Lowe's face! You might have been distracted by the ghoulish makeup job that transformed Lowe into the most terrifying plastic surgeon that the screen has ever seen, but what about those garish shirts that he had unbuttoned to convey just the right amount of sleaze? "Did I do it purposefully, is that the question? Yes, I did it purposefully," Mirojnick laughed. "I’ve never done a film whereby it was challenging to this degree — the challenge, on a scale of one to ten, was a ten — but everything fell into place perfectly, including where those buttons needed to be open to. There was no question there. No question at all. And that’s really the God’s honest truth."

When you first see Liberace in the film, you're liable to go blind, because the man is wearing some shiny, spectacular sequins — and lots of 'em. "There's something that this sparkle does to your eyes," said Mirojnick. "It just makes you the happiest person on Earth." Was there such a thing as too much when you're dealing with a figure like Liberace? "I never, ever looked at a costume that was sequined or embellished and said, 'Do you think this is too much?' Never!" said Mirojnick. "If I looked at something for more than a second I would say, 'Ah, put more stuff on it.' As long as Matt and Michael could walk in it, we added more."

Should we refer to this as Liberace and Scott's "out on the town" look? "Yes," Mirojnick laughed. "It was actually inspired by a photograph that does exist of the two of them, a black-and-white photograph where they look like twins, dressed virtually the same in white suits. Steven Soderbergh loved the idea that they were twins on that particular night. I did two matching three-piece suits, custom made by Dennis Kim, our tailor, and they had on matching fox coats as well. The idea that they were twinlike in the back of a limousine, drinking and going to a sex store ... it just made sense!"

As for Liberace's final fabulous outfit, glimpsed during a dream sequence, "That was a costume that Liberace actually did wear," said Mirojnick. "I saw it in a museum — and it was intimidating as hell! That costume had so much magnificent work in it and it was a feast for the eyes, without a question." Though Liberace called it his King Neptune look, Mirojnick suspected it would make for a fitting, ethereal closer to the movie. "Although it was inspired by an underwater delight, it became a heavenly costume," she said. "There were coral elements and oysters and waves and so on and so forth on the inside of the cape. And then we used some of the ideas and the inspiration from that, in that it was a scalloped collar, and the costume itself was sequined and embroidered in seashells — it was double-printed in seashells." Mirojnick paused. "I really do think all in all that Liberace was sitting on our shoulders as I was designing," she said. "There was just a twinkle in everybody’s eye when it all came together. I've never seen anything like it."

Photo: HBO