Aussie Cinema Legend Catherine Martin Talks About Baz Luhrmann and Her Latest Film ELVIS in This Interview

Oscar-winning costume designer, production designer, and producer Catherine Martin has worked alongside partner and fellow-creative genius Baz Luhrmann to bring the extravagant worlds of bohemian France (Moulin Rouge!), the rugged outback (Australia), and the world of the wealthy (The Great Gatsby), to life. Now, they turn to their biggest project yet, the story of the Godly Elvis Presley and the manager – Colonel Parker – who helped usher him into existence.

In Elvis, Catherine Martin’s creative prowess is on full display with extravagant costumes, immersive sets, and immaculate producing capacity. With stellar performances from Austin Butler as Elvis, Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker, and Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, Elvis is a true cinematic experience to behold.

In this interview, CM talks about being inspired by Nightmare Alley in the production design, bringing that CM touch to Elvis’ costumes, and what it means to make Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin films in Australia.

Elvis arrives in Australian cinemas on June 23rd.

As an Elvis lover, I was moved by how brilliant it was. It is a real treat.

Catherine Martin: I’m so happy because Austin put so many years of his life into lovingly interpreting Elvis’s humanity that I’m so thrilled when that comes across and people are touched by it.

There was a moment during the film where I forgot that it was Austin on screen. I thought that it was Elvis. That’s how much he really sinks into the role. He’s done such a great job.

CM: Oh, absolutely. And that was tireless work and research. You know, he’s even got vestiges of the accent now because he really did a deep dive and was basically in character for two years.

Obviously, so much of the character is boosted by his costumes. And Elvis had so many iconic suits and costumes and things that he wore. How do you bring that Catherine Martin touch to his Elvis attire?

CM: Well, it really starts with the story that Baz wants to tell and what his visual intent is, and how he wants to translate the story into images. And my job is to do that, to listen to what he has to say and look at the images that he’s torn out of magazines or done a scribble of, and try and translate them into reality. To me, designing costumes is all about supporting the story. We’re not telling a documentary, although we want lots of touchstones that bring the audience back to familiar images of Elvis.

So it’s a combination of approaches. In the 68 Special, it’s the reproduction of costumes. Albeit we discovered very early on that we couldn’t just imitate, we needed to find a way of connecting the costume to Austin’s interpretation. The changes were very subtle: pocket size, position, collar height, jacket length. We weren’t completely reimagining the black leather suit from the 68 Special. But then there are other things like when he’s having his last big confrontation with the Colonel in the car park. That suit is based on a suit that Elvis wore in the same year that the fictionalised scene is taking place and we’ve used a different fabric and a different color to underline and to help tell the story,

It really carries across so well. One of the other aspects which I really appreciated was getting to see the cinematic influence of Nightmare Alley on the production design. Can you talk about how you folded that into the production and maybe were there other films or texts that influenced Elvis?

CM: Nightmare Alley was Colonel Tom Parker’s favourite movie, and he famously was a carny and toured carnivals in the 30s and 40s. That’s kind of how he got into the country music business. So it was Baz’s idea to have the kind of first real interaction between the Colonel and Elvis at the carnival, kind of in Colonel Tom Parker’s comfort zone is because it set — I mean, this is me saying it — set him up as a kind of snake oil man, as the ultimate snowman who could convince anyone of anything.

Nightmare Alley has a sort of parallel tale to some degree because it really is about the exploitation of somebody for their particular gifts at their great expense, and there certainly is a parallel in the relationship between Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis. I mean, their relationship was the struggle between the commercial and the artistic, and the toll that it can have on a performer. But at the same time, just like the geek gets the bottle of alcohol at the end of his performance, sometimes the association with the carnival lifted Elvis’ career and it was beneficial to him.

You and Baz have made all of your films in Australia. Can you talk about that importance of making your films in Australia with Australian cast and crew?

CM: So the Australian Government is very generous in its support of movies and has been to us. I think that we have worked with an Australian crew and really value those relationships over a twenty-year period. The skill and artistry of those people is kind of irreplaceable. Similarly the ability to get such great Australian cast, whether it’s Helen Thomson or David Wenham or Richard Roxburgh, they’re just also extraordinary. And it’s nice to come home and be able to use all these homegrown resources. It’s very satisfying. I think both Baz and I are very proud that we can make movies of all scales here and that we have the resources to do so.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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