Starring John David Washington and Zendaya in the titular roles, “Malcolm & Marie” feels extremely meta from the get-go: The dialogue and tension between a glamorous Hollywood couple — he’s an up-and-coming director on a high after a successful movie premiere, she’s the actor-model/girlfriend-muse he forgot to thank in his speech — builds and unfolds over the course of a very long evening. Cue nearly two hours of the two plumbing the depths of their relationship, while throwing out insider-y industry vernacular by director Sam Levinson, who wrote the film for his “Euphoria” star.
The project was shot in secret in June, when Hollywood was on pause, like much of the country, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “Malcolm & Marie” was on the forefront of health and safety protocols and resourceful moviemaking, down to the costumes, which were an innovative team effort from Law Roach (Zendaya’s longtime image architect) and Samantha McMillen (Washington’s stylist), both designing remotely, with “PEN15“‘s Melissa Walker on-site as part of a skeleton crew of 22, handling fittings, dressings and any additional needs.
From L.A., Roach and McMillen coordinated and costume-designed for their red-carpet clients with a very meta-mindset, too. “We looked at it like [Malcolm and Marie] were a couple that each had their own stylists,” says McMillen.
Roach has helped craft and cultivate Zendaya’s public and red-carpet persona over the past decade, so he was “super flattered and humbled” when Levinson recruited him to costume design for Marie: “He gave me the task of creating a dress that was iconic and that, 20 years from now when we’re watching the film, will still be beautiful and relevant. And I was just like, ‘OK Sam, thanks! No pressure.'”
Levinson imparted the importance of the dress reflecting “the mood, emotion and lighting” of the stylized movie, shot on black-and-white 35 mm film by cinematographer Marcel Rév, according to Roach. The movement of the gown was also essential, as Marie saunters and stomps through the rooms of the sprawling midcentury Caterpillar House.
Roach tapped his own professional experience with the star, along with his industry connections, for further inspiration. “I used my relationship with Zendaya and knowing her body and my interpretation of who Marie was. She was strong and she was sexy and she’s a fashion girl,” says Roach. “So I called my good friend and fellow stylist, Jason Rembert, to collaborate and create the gown.”
From New York, Rembert, who runs the fashion brand Aliétte, shopped for fabrics while FaceTiming Roach in L.A. Ultimately, he sent “10 to 12” options to the crew for camera and lighting tests to land on a slinky, textured lamé in a shimmery pewter. Rembert then designed a take on Aliétte’s criss-cross-neckline, cut-out and high-slit signature gown and shipped it across the country. (Also meta: Zendaya regularly wears Aliétte IRL and in photo shoots, including for her InStyle September 2020 cover, styled by Roach.)
Walker, who set up her “little atelier” of two sewing machines and multiple dress forms on the Carmel Valley set, conducted virtual fittings with Zendaya during the two-week quarantine prior to filming. She coordinated with Roach to reline the gown with silk for added flow and movement. And, with additional feedback from Levinson, producer (and wife) Ashley and Zendaya to “simplify” the gown, she reworked the front straps and opened up the back, inspired by a Bob Mackie gown that Cher wore during a 1975 duet with Raquel Welch.
“It looks like liquid mercury on camera,” says Walker.
In the film, Zendaya wears her own impossibly-high Christian Louboutin black patent pumps, sent by Roach, plus sheer, sultry tights by Wolford. The combination provided an extra “voyeuristic” and “vulnerable” vibe, as Marie sits on the toilet with the bathroom door open while Malcolm yammers on about his fabulous night. But the luxury hosiery became a logistical shooting challenge behind-the-scenes: “Poor Law’s assistants were going everywhere to get us multiples of that hosiery. The mic pack just kept running the stockings over and over,” says Walker, who was constantly fielding deliveries back and forth from Los Angeles.
As the couple’s revelations — and digs — escalate, an exasperated Marie sheds the gown and tights, along with her fake eyelashes and makeup, to take a cleansing bath (and probably a break from Malcolm). For another round, she rejoins him outside, literally and figuratively exposed with a bare face and wet, undone hair. Like with the opening toilet scene, Levinson was influenced by Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut” in imagining Marie’s white tank and briefs, as opposed to a slip, which was in the original script.
“It felt comfortable, but it still felt sexy because we’ve already discovered that Marie is sexy,” explains Roach. “So I was like, ‘What would she wear after she had this huge fight with her boyfriend?’ Like, she wouldn’t put on sweats. She’d put on something that would make her still feel like a woman, but was a bit comfortable and casual. It still fit the mood.”
With ribbing for extra dimension, the Aerie tank walks the sheerness line, but the bottoms were actually a bit too diaphanous, according to Walker. “I just sewed two of them together, so it was revealing enough that she would have been ‘kicked out of a Chucky Cheese,'” she jokes, referencing a line in the film. “But it wasn’t as revealing.”
Later, while proving a point to Malcolm, Marie throws on a long floral kimono, which is actually a vintage piece out of Zendaya’s closet. “There’s a back and forth and a dance,” says Walker, about the actors subtly playing with layers while expressing the script, which she also broke down for the minimal costume changes. “Then ultimately, what makes the actors feel most comfortable and natural, too.”
In Malcolm’s case, his costume arc involved organically adjusting or peeling off the components of his sleek Prada suit. With prep-time condensed and Washington already quarantining for the shoot, McMillen performed her first costume design job away from her client. Luckily, she had just finished styling Washington for his “Tenet” press rounds, so had his most recent measurements on hand and knew which skinny suit brands would best fit his former pro-footballer build. For black-and-white film, Levinson also envisioned Malcolm’s suit in a matte texture, with a slight sheen on his tie and his shoes for contrast.
“A really well-fitted black, iconic, slim suit is what [Levinson] wanted — and, you know, Prada delivered,” McMillen says.
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McMillen handled Washington’s fittings remotely over FaceTime or Zoom, enlisting his sister and co-executive producer Katia for help on-site during quarantine. “She said, ‘How do I do it?’ And I said, ‘Just mark it with a pin and I’ll fix it when when it comes back to me.”
Still photographer Dominic Miller took very detailed photos to guide the tailor for alterations back in L.A. before the final product was shipped back up to Carmel. Tracking down a backup of the suit and a handful of extra shirts also was “a big deal” during sporadic pandemic openings and closing.
Movement and flexibility in Washington’s costume was also tantamount: Elated from his premiere, Malcolm jumps onto the windowsill to bust out James Brown moves to “Down and Out in New York City,” and, later into the evening, throws an emotive tantrum in greenery outside. So the Prada suit and shirt fabrics featured “a bit of stretch.”
Early on, after removing his jacket, Malcolm sits down at the table and cockily throws his tie over his shoulder to devour a bowl of mac and cheese furiously prepared by Marie. Toward sunrise, he rolls up his sleeves, loosens and removes the tie and eventually reveals himself with a white tank and shorts to mirror Marie.
“To me, it was almost like, ‘I don’t want the party to be over. So I don’t want take my tie off. I don’t want to take my jacket off.’ It’s like he waited to peel off his layers,” says McMillen. “Because he’s like, ‘No, we’re still talking, we’re still partying. We’re still celebrating.'”
‘Malcolm & Marie’ streams on Friday, Feb. 5 on Netflix.