"Look, Baz has been interested in the story of Elvis since I met him," laughs Catherine Martin.
A.frame asked Martin if she remembers when her creative partner and husband, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, first expressed interest in making a movie about Elvis Presley. A costume and production designer by trade, Martin met Luhrmann in the late '80s, while both were enrolled at Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art. She designed the costumes and sets for his directorial debut, 1992's Strictly Ballroom, and has been his chief collaborator on every film since, in the process becoming the most awarded Aussie in Oscar history.
Martin won two Oscars for 2001's Moulin Rouge! and another two for 2013's The Great Gatsby, both times for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. (She received nominations for her production design on 1996's Romeo + Juliet and for her costume design on 2008's Australia.) With Elvis, Martin has earned an additional three Oscars nominations, for Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and, for the first time, Best Picture.
"It's extremely meaningful, because to be recognized for being one of the initial team, one of the people on the ground who actually helps to birth Baz's babies, is kind of extraordinary," Martin tells A.frame. "I do it as a matter of course — because that's my role — but to actually be recognized for it, it's just really meaningful."
Still, Martin didn't initially understand Luhrmann's interest in the King of Rock and Roll. "It was something we used to discuss a lot, because I kind of didn't understand Elvis's position in American history," Martin admits. But as he described to her the life and times of Presley, Martin began to see it as something of an American opera: Love, tragedy, and death in the so-called Golden Age of America. "And, to me, that became incredibly interesting."
Within their partnership, Luhrmann is the visionary auteur who dreams up a musical biopic of maximalist proportions. Martin is one of the key artists responsible for helping to bring those dreams, no matter how oversized, to life. "I see myself as being a visual translator," she explains. "Baz will tell me what he wants — he may have tear sheets, pictures, research material, whatever — and it's my job to take ephemeral ideas that don't exist in reality and make them a reality."
On Elvis, that looked like designing more than 90 costumes alone for Austin Butler to wear as Elvis, while collaborating with Prada and Miu Miu to wardrobe Priscilla (played on-screen by Olivia DeJonge). Martin designed some 90 sets with exacting detail, which were then built from scratch in Australia, including two full blocks of Memphis' iconic Beale Street and multiple stories of Graceland. On top of it all, she handled the producorial duties that come with making a movie, albeit made all the more difficult amid the time of COVID.
A typical day for Martin, in so much as there was a typical day, began "anytime from 4 in the morning till 7 in the morning," depending on what costumes were on set that day. "The mornings are all about setting the tone for the day and making sure that all the different elements of design and production are working together." Martin captained the wardrobe department to dress the cast and background actors, sometimes hundreds of them at a time, before spending the afternoon in fittings for the next day's looks. All the while, she maintained a presence on the set itself, alongside her fellow production designer Karen Murphy and set decorator Beverley Dunn. Which is to say nothing of the budgeting, casting, and scheduling that fell on her plate as a producer. And she did it on "French hours," forgoing breaks so that Tom Hanks (as Colonel Tom Parker) wasn't "hanging around in a claustrophobic rubber all-over bodysuit for endless hours where we weren't actually shooting."
"The one thing I underestimated on this movie — I kind of shut my eyes and didn't realize — was just what a machine it was going to be," she reflects, "in terms of the number of sets we were chomping through and the number of costumes. There was a lot going on."
Amid the blitzkrieg of rhinestones and N95 masks, Martin savored the small moments of magic. She recalls one fitting with Butler "where we were banging our heads against a brick wall" over a jacket worn during a pivotal performance at Russwood Park. In the film, it's the moment Elvis reclaims his image as a rebellious rocker and embraces his power to incite pandemonium with one wiggle of his hips. "We were having a lot of issues making this really structured '50s jacket work with the movement, getting it to feel fluid, and cool, and in the spirit of Elvis. I had done so many iterations of the jacket — more shoulders, less shoulders, slimmer, bigger, tighter, oversized, tinier."
"And one day, we were watching him perform at Russwood, and Austin suddenly looked at the screen and went, 'He never does his top button up in his jackets. He only ever does the bottom button," Martin remembers. "Austin, as you can see in his performance, is probably one of the world's greatest experts in Elvis. So, if there was anything you can't get to work or didn't understand, he was a really good resource. As soon as we discovered that, we went back to the first jacket that was ever tailored for that scene, and we realized something that had been right there under our eyes all the time. But because I'm a costume designer and there are all these rules about men's jackets, I tie myself in knots about it! I got myself into such a tizzy about it that I hadn't thought, 'Just look what Elvis is doing.' The minute we did that, honestly, it sounds so stupid, but it changed everything."
It's an anecdote that speaks to something bigger for Martin: She knows that when you're wearing so many hats, fabulous as they may be, you don't do it alone. On Elvis, she had her "comrades in arms," producers Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss, "who I was with every day for so many years;" art directors Ian Gracie and Damien Drew; costume supervisor Kerry Thompson; and director of photography Mandy Walker, who is now an Oscar nominee herself. ("I can't tell you my pride surrounding that," Martin says of Walker making history as the third woman nominated for Best Cinematography. "I didn't realize how meaningful it was going to be for me and how emotional it would make me. I cried like a baby.")
"I love the fact that we're going from nothing – it's literally an idea that was in someone's head — to words on a page. That's something from nothing," Martin muses. "And then, from those ephemeral ideas, an entire ecosystem grows and something concrete is made."
"The Best Picture nomination is not just a recognition of Baz's vision, but also a recognition of all the people who tirelessly put their energies into making this movie, every day, even at 5 in the morning, or 3:00 a.m., or at times when you didn't feel like it, but people do it anyway," she adds. "I'm so proud of the movie and I'm so proud of what everybody does, because as corny as it sounds, there is no 'I' in 'Team.' Filmmaking is collaborative, and no one does it by themselves."
By John Boone