Catherine Martin Talks Bringing ‘Elvis’ to Life Through Costumes and Production Design

Costume designer, production designer and producer Catherine Martin and her collaborators helped bring her husband, Baz Lurhmann’s, visually grand story “Elvis” to life, building the iconic sets in Australia, including Elvis Presley’s mansion Graceland.

She also built more than 90 costumes for Austin Butler’s Elvis, a mix of re-creations and fictionalized outfits, and over 9000 costumes for the film overall. She earned a Costume Designers Guild Award nomination for the work, and landed three Oscar nominations for her work on the film including outstanding costume designer, production design and producer.

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Here, she talks about how “The Wizard of Oz” impacted her, as did Luhrmann’s respect of crafts.

Where did your love for fashion and design come from?

“The Wizard of Oz” is such a seminal movie for me. I remember my father explaining to me how revolutionary it was to go from black and white to color, and that it was a real change. So when [Dorothy] opens the door, she’s in black and white, and when you cut to what she sees, it’s in color, and there are no visual effects. It’s just an editorial trick, but he always explained how those things were mapped.

When I was watching some terrible soap opera or whatever, and there was a dream sequence and another flashback, he would tell me that they were just reusing footage from previous episodes to keep the budget down.

I was always interested in making things. I wanted to learn to sew on the sewing machine when I was 6, and my mother taught me and I loved the act of making things because you could have an idea and then out of nothing, you could make something. I was always into crafts, candlemaking, painting and art. I just loved it, and that’s what I wanted to do.

Baz Luhrmann is a visual person. What does it mean for you as a creative to be there in the room with him as it happens?

It is an incredible privilege because he is so invested in the visual storytelling aspect of filmmaking. He cares. I think [cinematographer] Mandy [Walker] would say that too.

Because he respects and values what we do, that means the culture of respect is present throughout the process. You see sound, visual effects and everyone as part of an interconnecting ecosystem that creates something larger.

“Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” are part of pop culture. What comes to mind when you think of them?

One of the funny things is that from being a minimalist at drama school I seem to have been in a bizarre dance of death with Swarovski crystals.

With “Strictly,” we needed to recycle them because we never had enough. I remember being in trailers and picking the crystals off one costume to put it on another.

On “Elvis,” no one is quibbling over the number of Swarovski crystals you have, but it doesn’t matter how big or small the project is, you’re still struggling to make, at whatever level to push the boundaries of the resources you have. If you’re not saying, ‘Well, I don’t really have quite enough of that. Or I really need to do better here,’ then I don’t think you’re trying hard enough. I think it’s that desire to romantically elevate whatever you’re doing to make it just a little bit better than what is possible.

What I hope I kept from “Strictly” was that desire to not just think it is a low-budget movie, but how can we serve the story? How can we make it as beautiful as possible? How can we elevate what we’re doing? How do we do this in a better way? How do we add value to the experience? You don’t start with that constraint, you start with the idea, and you come up with the best idea you can, and then you try and work out how to make that with what you have.

How does being both production and costume designer help your creative process?

What I love is that we’re all about creating the character, the atmosphere and supporting the story. When you’ve worked with an actor,in a very intimate way on a costume, and then they come in and they’re on the set, and it feels like they’re in Graceland — they can suspend their disbelief of where they are, even for an instant. I hope that there is a synergy between the support of the costume and the support of the set to find the story that they want to tell. To me, they are working in constant concert.

It means that stylistically, you’re consistent. It also means that because you’re only dealing with yourself, it means you can be more consistent in the rules that you’re applying.

Is there a costume or set that you designed that you are most proud of?

I vacillate. The first big exterior set I did was in “Romeo + Juliet.” The first big exterior set was Verona beach with that disused broken-down cinema. So, I have a great love of exterior sets.

But those two blocks of Beale Street [for “Elvis”] mean a lot. It was a tour de force to build Beale Street in Australia.

To find a place with the right topographical orientation to the sun and to be able to see your team just kick goal after goal after goal. Every price tag was in every window, the fruiterer was a vision. What Beverley Dunn did on that street was unbelievable. What Damien Drew did with the vehicles, overseeing being the art director on that whole set was just extraordinary. That whole department did an amazing job to make something in suburban Australia.

WHAT: CDG Awards
WHEN: Feb. 27
WHERE: The Fairmont Century Plaza

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