LOS ANGELES — Shoppers at Saks Fifth Avenue’s Beverly Hills store hardly bat an eye when they spy a celebrity there, but quite a few stopped dead in their tracks on Monday when the elevator doors opened in the men’s salon to reveal a full-blown movie set — cables, cameras and all. Welcome to “Shopgirl,” the Steve Martin novella-turned-movie, starring Claire Danes in the title role and the author as her older lover. In the book, a salesgirl meets a wealthy customer and love blooms over the glove counter at Neiman Marcus — but since this is the movies, the action takes place at Saks, not Neiman’s.
The camera sweeps through the streets of Los Angeles during the opening title sequence, down Wilshire Boulevard, through Beverly Hills, right through the front door of Saks, dodging customers in the bustling cosmetics department and up through successively less-populated floors until it finally arrives in the glove department, where a bored-looking Danes daydreams the afternoon away.
“We’re trying to create a lonely, dream-like space,” says production designer William Arnold, who took 10 days to transform the men’s designer department into a grand ladies’ salon of old, repainting and repaneling the dark space and filling it with mannequins wearing evening dresses by Oscar de la Renta, Badgley Mischka and Bob Mackie, among others. The men’s department was chosen in part because of the magnificent Regency chandelier, dating back to the store’s I. Magnin days and the filming of “The Women.”
For what seems like the millionth time, Danes shifts her position and again stares dreamily into space, until she’s finally allowed to take a break and perches in a director’s chair to work a crossword puzzle. “It’s the perfect on-set activity,” she says, twirling her pen in the air. “But now I’m finished with it and I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my day.”
Danes picked up “Shopgirl” while she was in Denmark a couple of years ago and fell in love with the story instantly. “I zipped though it, and found it thoroughly engaging, even though Steve modestly describes it as an easy read,” she says.
Danes describes her character, Mirabelle, as a passive type. “She’s quiet and still,” the actress says.
“I don’t know how entertaining that is, but hopefully
I fill that stillness with some emotion.
“The atmosphere dictates a lot of that for me,” she adds, gesturing to the set, “so I don’t have to struggle to imagine what it would be like to be so estranged from people.”
Back in the wardrobe trailer, parked in a lot adjacent to the store, costume designer Nancy Steiner takes a moment to flip through Mirabelle’s rack, filled with Danes’ 90-plus costume changes. “Steve told us she’s a vintage girl so I borrowed Forties and Fifties dresses from costume houses,” Steiner says, pointing to a few with peplums, rhinestone buttons and high waists. “Claire was made to wear these clothes.”
Newer pieces include the Fifties-influenced Prada dress Martin’s character gives Mirabelle, as well as a pair of gray satin Christian Dior gloves. “This movie has a lot of similarities to my last project, ‘Lost in Translation,’” notes Steiner. “They both star ‘Saturday Night Live’ alums as older men, and there are lonely young girls with young slacker guys.”
In the rest of the film’s locations, from Mirabelle’s apartment, in a drab Silverlake building, a coffee shop, a laundromat and the Melrose art galleries she frequents with her friends, Danes bundles up in long sweaters and baggy skirts, a sharp contrast to her work garb.
But no matter what the costume, Danes thinks her character is one with plenty of appeal. “I really identified with Mirabelle,” she says. “Everyone I know can relate to that loneliness somehow, even men.”