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Renowned costume and production designer Catherine Martin and her husband, director Baz Luhrmann, are known for the bold visual style of their collaborations and, not for nothing, Martin also is a four-time Oscar winner, having earned the costume and production design honors at the Academy Awards for Moulin Rouge! in 2002 and another pair in the same categories for The Great Gatsby in 2014. This year, she earned a trio of nominations for Warner Bros.’ Elvis, for costume and production design, as well as best picture since she also is a producer.
Reflecting on her collaboration with Luhrmann, Martin has learned that “we’re in the business of allowing an audience into a world, connecting the audience to how it would have felt to be somewhere.” Effectively, their work “translates those visuals into an all-enveloping world that helps support the story so people understand who the [characters are] and where they are.”
She notes that Luhrmann also considers his movies will have about 30 percent close-ups, which for Martin means that costumes are akin to the set on which the face of an actor sits. And even with crowds, “the clothes go hand in hand [with the environment] all the time.” She reveals, in fact, that Luhrmann doesn’t sign off on a costume unless he’s seen it — even in a most basic form — on set: “You know how to anticipate the environment and the clothing talking to each other.”
At the start of each project, Luhrmann presents his thoughts on how it will all look. “There’ll be a whole series of musings, ideas, visual suggestions,” Martin explains, noting that Elvis was a little different because they were creating a world that already existed. “The first approach was to really understand the environments that Elvis lived in, the historical context that he lived in, the wardrobe, the period.”
This involved constructing authentic-looking sets for the film, including the theater where Presley — played by Oscar-nominated Austin Butler — performed at the International Hotel (later the Hilton, now the Westgate) in Las Vegas. “It’s enormously wide, and we built it on the largest stage that we had” at Village Roadshow Studios in Gold Coast, Australia, where the movie filmed, Martin explains. “I think it really tired poor Austin out when he had to perform full-out running up and down that stage.”
They even created an operational gold curtain on the stage. “We deliberately made it real because we wanted Elvis to be able to interact with it, touch it and pull it up above his head,” says Martin. “We ended up using exactly the same fabric bought from the same company [that created the curtain for the International].” In addition to the stage itself, the team constructed the backstage and about half of the auditorium’s seating. On some days, as many as 450 extras participated in filming.
That amounted to a herculean effort from the costume department. Roughly 9,000 individual background cast outfits were created for use throughout the movie’s many performance re-creations, according to Martin.
Butler, meanwhile, had nearly 100 costume charges, including re-creations of the famous jumpsuits made for Presley by the late costume designer Bill Belew. “We worked with the preeminent jumpsuit maker who has kept Bill Belew’s flame alive,” Martin says.
In the costumes that Butler wore for performances, finding the right fabric was crucial in terms of “what actually draped really well and was going to wiggle beautifully,” says Martin, adding that getting this right also involved proper tailoring. Describing Butler as the “fitting-room GOAT,” she says, “Austin was subjected to I don’t know how many fittings with different pants and stretchy, heavy outfits. He was just an extraordinary collaborator. So nice, so hardworking, so patient.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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