Behind every opulent film is a seasoned production designer, and few names are as iconic as the four-time Academy Award-winning Catherine Martin. After stunning the industry with her work on movies such as the Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, Martin has joined forces with her life partner Baz Luhrmann once again for the upcoming film about the rise and tragic fall of the king of rock n roll – Elvis Presley.
Directed by Luhrmann, Elvis is a biographical musical that tells the story of the American singer Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) and his exploitative manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Filming for the flick began in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, and took place in Australia, with Martin working hard to recreate iconic American locations such as Beale Street and Graceland from scratch.
Besides her work as a production designer and her efforts in transporting us back into the historic period of Elvis’s popularity, Martin also served as the producer and the costume designer for the film too. Considering Elvis’s scale, grandness, and spectacular look, we sat down with Martin to discuss how she managed to juggle all of her roles, and heard all the collaborative stories that benefited the production from behind-the-scenes.
The Digital Fix: Elvis is such an iconic figure who means a lot to a lot of people. Did you feel any pressure going into making this movie about his life?
Catherine Martin: Yes, I think that you always feel pressure when it’s an icon that so many people have an attachment to. But I think, or I know, that we all, particularly Baz, felt a lot of pressure.
Because Priscilla [Presley] is alive, Lisa Marie [Presley] is alive, and Riley [Keough] is alive. I know; we were all committed to trying to tell the story, trying to reveal the human side of Elvis.
And I think that’s a big responsibility. We all took it extremely seriously. Most of all, I think Austin, who basically dedicated years of his life to trying to tell the story, and trying to tell the story of the man with as much humanity as possible.
You mentioned Austin giving this film years of his life, which brings me to my next question, the elephant in the room: Covid-19. How was it filming this biopic during a global pandemic?
Well, look, we were incredibly lucky with our filming in the global pandemic because we just happened to be in Queensland, where there were very little or no community cases.
So obviously, there were a lot of Covid-19 protocols. You know, we had bubbles and kind of containment strategies. And there were lots of all sorts of crazy things that we didn’t count on.
When we were fitting extras, unlike what you usually do, which is someone tries something on, and it doesn’t work, it goes back into stock. I mean, that’s what happens in stores around the world; people try a pair of jeans on, they take them off, they go back into the stock.
But in between each fitting, they had to go into this special ozone cabinet that would go for 12 hours. [laughs] I’m not quite sure what happened inside the ozone cabinet; it was very Doctor Who.
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But it meant that we needed a lot more clothes. So just kind of strange things like that. But really, we were incredibly lucky. I remember, after the five months that we were on hiatus, just the first day I went back to work, it was like, I was so grateful to have the opportunity to actually work in my chosen field.
You weren’t only the producer on Elvis; you were also the costume designer and the production designer. How did you manage all these roles?
I think quite badly on some days. [laughs] Because it’s hard to juggle everything. And I think that if you think about it, like the totality of the amount of work and what you have to do, it overwhelms you. So you can only allow yourself to be overwhelmed a little bit every day.
But it was a much bigger job than I imagined it would be. I think that’s what’s really interesting with working with Baz. Every movie I’ve worked with him on, I’ve had to really step up for it. Or it’s been a much bigger challenge for whatever reason. And I think it just makes you grow as an artist, as a craftsperson, as a designer, as a person. Because you are put in situations that you’re not used to or aren’t natural.
I think my listening, even at 57, you can learn to listen better, I think. And just be less… not that I ever was particularly defensive, but that you just kind of roll with the punches a little bit more and engage in collaboration in a much more active way. You know, I really enjoyed it.
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I had a great moment with Alton Mason, who plays Little Richard, who’s an incredible stylist. We’d been working with Baz and with Alton on a particular look in Club Handy – a scene in the movie – and we all love the idea that he came up with. He put on the costume in the fitting room, and he made a really good observation.
I always try and get the actors to go in and have their hair and makeup done before they come to a fitting, especially when it’s at the very end. Because I think it really helps them, it helps all of us, it helps Baz, he gets to see everything together, he gets to give final notes, like the hair, the makeup, the clothes.
And anyway, Alton made a really good observation. He said, ‘I’ve got crazy hair. I’ve got lots of eye makeup’, which was how Little Richard was. But I think he still hadn’t synthesised the church boy, and the performer. And he said, ‘I’m feeling that this gold Lame suit is too much. I think it needs to be a lot of pzazz above the neck and more church boy below the neck’.
And I looked at him. I talked to Baz, and I called him, and we discussed it, because he was on set filming. And we all thought, ‘no, this is a really good direction to explore.’
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And it was kind of crazy because we had to make that outfit collectively in the room out of what we had, because he was shooting in the next 48 hours. And I just loved that process.
Feeling free enough to throw something out, start again and make something better. And what you see in the film is a result of that incredible collaboration.
Elvis is out in cinemas now.