Production designer Robin Standefer draws a parallel between the look she designed for
Zoolander and the layout of a fashion magazine. "Rather than have a unified design
scheme," she explains, "we opted for something that would be jarring, rather
than flowing from one space to another, much like the layout of Elle or Vogue. You turn a
page and go from a great ad to editorial space and back again, constantly bombarded by
rich imagery. That was an important conceptual way I looked at this: ‘Let me create a
fashion magazine on film!’"
'he really pushed me in a very creative way'
Standefer continues, "I wanted the film to hold together visually, which it does.
(Director/writer/producer) Ben (Stiller) had a lot to do with that because he really
pushed me in a very creative way. He constantly wanted to get to high fashion, to keep it
very clever and funny, to keep turning the channel. He’d say, ‘Yes, but
we’ve seen that before. Let’s try something else.’ He’s a
perfectionist: tough and strong in a way I really appreciate. When a director does that to
you, your work goes right to another level."
The production designer chose some unusual locations for the shoot. For the film’s
climactic scenes surrounding the "Derelicte" fashion show, which takes place in
a subway tunnel, she found a huge abandoned power plant in Long Island City, across the
East River from midtown Manhattan. "Even though it’s grungy," she says,
"it’s also like a cathedral. It functioned beautifully, especially with the
addition of columns and a very cool, greenish color that predominated. I love to transform
industrial spaces like that, but to be really respectful of what they have to offer, to
play with the ghosts of what might have been there."
For the sequence at the day spa run by the film’s Mugatu, the effusive and
unhinged designer titan who finally hires Zoolander, Standefer went in a different
direction. "Ben wanted something different from the traditional all-white day spa
look," she says. "We imagined it was underwater, since Derek was going into a
relaxation mode. I suggested metal, because there’s something very antiseptic and
clinical about metal. Some rooms have very pale white walls, while the massage room,
hallway, practice room and relaxation room are clad in metal."
Standefer also got to design one of the most bizarre sets of her career: the "Soil
Room" in Hansel’s cavernous loft. It’s the place Hansel retreats for
meditation (and, perhaps, more carnal activities) with a floor made entirely of earth.
Standefer planted grass around the room’s perimeter, and strung thousands of glass
beads from the ceiling, giving the feeling of an East Indian palace, adding to its
intimacy. And how does one get all that soil into a fifth floor loft? "We filled a
mini-backhoe with dirt downstairs," explains Standefer, "brought it up in the
freight elevator, and dumped it into the room."
Costume designer David C. Robinson considered the film a dream job, allowing him to mix
glamour with utter outrageousness. "It was great to do a comic spin on the fashion
world," he says. Yet we didn’t want it to be just silly, but really reflective
of fashion. There’s the goofy stuff, and then there’s another layer for the
fashionistas, who can look at the movie and say, ‘Oh look, it’s the Burberry
Plaid,’ or ‘Oh, it’s the snakeskin suit from Cavalli!’ I knew I’d
scored when not only (fashion consultant) Gabé Doppelt would laugh, but also the
crewmembers. That’s what I was after: getting the humor in both places."
'You can’t outdo the fashion world'
"You can’t outdo the fashion world," says a realistic Ben Stiller.
"You look at some couture shows, and they’re really out there, so you can’t
get bigger than what’s already there. It was a question of matching that, and to have
a real sense of the humor in the outfits. Derek’s specific style was more of an
old-school model, with suits and collar shirts, like an early ‘90s feel. Hansel was
much more about crunchy granola/extreme sports/grunge-model stuff. Robin Standefer and
David C. Robinson worked closely together to make sure the clothes would really pop."
In the sleazily spectacular "Derelicte" fashion show, Robinson and his staff
outdid themselves, creating bizarre apparel from a somewhat unusual source. "We
collected garbage for weeks," he says with a smile. "We went picking through our
trash saying, ‘Oh, look at this! It would be perfect!’ I went to the flea
markets on weekends, and got beautiful pieces of antique garbage, like an old doll from
the thirties, which we pinned to one of the coats. There are a few flashes of beauty among
the old wrappers and cigarette butts."
Robinson worked closely with Ben Stiller on all fashion choices in the film. "Once
we started shooting, Ben the director was gone; I would meet with Ben the actor," he
says. "In prep he had totally been the director, and it was very collaborative.
Robinson continues: "Although this movie is about the fashion industry, in which
vanity is the most conspicuous personality trait, we had, fortunately, a group of actors
with no trace of vanity. Will Ferrell would have gone anywhere with us. At one fitting, I
said, ‘Will, maybe we’ll cut an ‘M’ for ‘Mugatu’ out of the
butt of your pants.’ And he said, ‘Okay!’ We never actually got around to
'She has a toughness that’s inspiring' on
Model and actress Milla Jovovich was, for Robinson, heaven to dress. "Because
she’s an actress and wants to be the character, you get that collaboration, which I
love. She’s also a model who understands how to wear clothes and how to make them
work. She’s unabashed by four-inch heels, or by something that squeezes her waist
real tight, at which some actresses might balk. She can act in anything. She has a
toughness that’s inspiring, and it works for the character."
Robinson sees fashion icon Derek Zoolander as a "total look" kind of model.
"He goes for the whole designer mouthful, like the snakeskin suit and matching
suitcase he carries when returning to his family’s coal-mining town. That was very
much like a suit we saw in a runway show. How can you make fun of that? It’s already
there; it’s so far beyond reality. Real fashion models would probably wear jeans and
a Gucci T-shirt, but that’s not Derek."
Agent Maury Ballstein’s magnificently vulgar running suit outfits were
Robinson’s original creations. "Oddly enough," says Robinson, "those
running suits now are nowhere to be found. We did them all ourselves. It was great for
Jerry Stiller, because all that stuff was so comfortable!"
Jerry Stiller admits lapsing into shock when he first saw his Maury wardrobe.
"Everybody commented about those outfits!" Stiller exclaims. "Maury’s
an older guy who’s married with a family, but he still has a need to stay young, or
at least feel young. He flaunts that by wearing what he thinks the kids wear, and dying
his hair. What betrays him is the hair on his chest, which he can’t dye!"
'as celebrities arrived on the red carpet'
The film’s shooting schedule took place in New York during the 2000 fall fashion
season, permitting Ben Stiller to film the key opening sequence where the entire
"Zoolander" phenomenon began: at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards at Madison Square
Garden. Filming took place outside as celebrities arrived on the red carpet, and inside,
where scenes of Derek losing "Model of the Year" were captured during commercial
Principal photography concluded with ten days of filming in Los Angeles. For the very
last shot, a nighttime image of the Pennsylvania coal mine where Derek’s father and
brothers work, Stiller wanted the added touch of a dog wandering through the shot.
Christine Taylor, whose scenes had long since wrapped, was called at home, late at night,
by the second assistant director. "He said Ben really wanted to get Kahlua, our
Chocolate Lab, into the shot!" says Taylor. "I was a little worried, because our
dog is in no way, shape or form trained for movies. But Ben and I stood off-camera and
called her back and forth, and she was so obedient! It was the most well behaved
she’s ever been, and we were so proud."
Published November 1, 2001