Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy interview: ‘Elvis’ costume and production design
“I’m sort of part of a family business, so it’s kind of inevitable,” explains Catherine Martin, who is a producer, costume designer and production designer on Baz Luhrmann‘s film “Elvis.” “I end up wearing a lot of hats because I have the great pleasure of being there at the very beginning. At the conception of the ideas. Baz describes me as one of his first audiences. One of the ways he develops the script is by telling the story over and over again to his closest collaborators. I kind of get it, because I’m in it for the long haul. I really enjoy the totality of creating a world from soup to nuts.”
Martin joined us for a webchat with her colleague, production designer Karen Murphy. Watch the exclusive interview above.
“Elvis” stars Austin Butler as Elvis Presley along with Tom Hanks as his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It follows the music icon through his childhood, becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s and his death in 1977.
For her costume designs, Martin had to balance the recreation of iconic looks for Presley with developing various designs for the different decades we see each character in. “Baz was really clear that he wanted each of the decades we described to be distinct and to support each of the eras,” she explains. “With the 50s, because Elvis’ style, what was deemed rebellious, or punk, or sexually confronting in 1950, has now been absorbed into the lexicon of classic men’s dressing. So one of the things Baz got us to focus on, was to find a way of reinterpreting, or really digging into historical truths, like things that were in Elvis’ wardrobe, but trying to find a way of making sure that a modern audience could connect with his very present sexuality and his moves, in the way that he dressed. The fact that he was a teen idol. That he was able to galvanize youth. That this look at this particular time in history was very challenging. It was trying to find that punk-ishness or that edginess that has kind of gotten lost because we have come to see the 50s as this fabulously stylish period.”
Murphy says the standout production design is a credit to preparing the team. “It’s a long pre-pep period,” she describes. “It gives you all the tools that you need to go in with so much history and knowledge. One by one the team comes onboard and you share that with them, so you end up with a very knowledgeable team of people who can also help us with all aspects of the design. From cars, to graphics, to set building and painting. Everybody’s got that information because Baz has encouraged us to speak to as many people as we can. To do trips, to kind of understand who Elvis was and all those periods that he lived through. The politics at the time — all of those things are very important. They’re not necessarily design elements themselves, but I think the politics and the way people were dressing at the time just informs the rest of the design. It’s always a joy to be involved in a Baz Luhrmann project.”
The pair also credit set decorator Beverley Dunn as a “decorating warrior.” “Nothing is ever too much for Bev,” says Martin. “Whether it’s digitally printing kilometers of carpet in a pandemic where you can’t get trucks from one state to another. Or where your resources are limited and you say, ‘I want every single snowman statue and snowball ornament for an office and we’re in Queensland, which is the equivalent of the state of Florida. So a snowman is not synonymous with where we are. She never balks at at any of that. One of Bev’s great strengths is she understands the level of detail and the amount of stuff sets actually require. Sets are like black holes of stuff.”
Martin is a four-time Oscar winner for her work on “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby.” She also received nominations for “Romeo + Juliet” and “Australia.” Martin and Murphy both won Art Directors Guild awards for “The Great Gatsby.”