On each of her films with husband Baz Luhrmann over the last 30 years, costume and production designer Catherine Martin has found learning opportunities while honing in on very specific worlds and aesthetics that have helped elevate her craft.
“It’s like I’m doing a PhD in a particular style of film,” she says, “every time we do a new movie.”
In the case of Luhrmann’s newest film Elvis, starring Austin Butler, she would take a deep dive into the life and times of the King of Rock and Roll. The goal, as much for Martin as for Luhrmann, Butler and other department heads, would be to present a carefully considered interpretation of Elvis Presley that would be respectful of the icon’s history, rather than “slavishly chasing…an exact carbon copy” of the performer and his environs.
Martin recalls in conversation with Butler for Deadline’s video series The Process that the most important thing of all on Elvis was to capture for the audience a sense of how it felt to be inside the performer’s shoes. “There’s only one Elvis,” notes the four-time Oscar winner. “There was always going to be a perspective [in the film] because it’s not a documentary, and you were always going to bring that characterization and your physicality to the role. We needed to find that intersection between all those things that kind of liberated the character from impersonation. It’s an interpretation, not an imitation, and unlocking that.”
Released by Warner Bros. in June after world premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Elvis examines the life and music of Presley (Butler) through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The other principal challenge of the project for Martin — once she’d settled how she’d toe the line with her costume and set designs between historical accuracy, artistic license and the pragmatism of what would work best visually for the camera — was simply one of scale.
Butler himself would have around 90 distinct costumes charting the evolution in Elvis’ look over multiple decades, with Martin also dressing a “punishing” number of background performers. She also oversaw around 90 sets, created either on stage or on location for the Australian shoot — including two full blocks of Beale Street erected “in a big field in the middle of nowhere”— looking to preserve “really enormous attention to detail” even while working at the highest possible scale.
In the end, of course, her work paid off in spades, with Butler crediting the designer for helping him to make the role of Elvis his own. “What you did for me was invaluable to what I was able to experience because [of] the attention to detail that you put in and the research that you put in,” the actor tells his collaborator. “You care so much not just about the way that [the costume] looks, but about how I’m going to feel in it. So, whether it was those ’50s trousers and the way that they moved on my legs, or the jumpsuits and the endless fittings that we did for those, or the exact leather that you used for the ’68 leather ensemble, it all allows me to then feel truthful in what I’m doing. Your attention to detail…allows me to feel that I’m looking out of Elvis’s eyes.”
Elvis recently won Martin three AACTA Awards including Best Costume Design, Production Design and Film. She and Karen Murphy shared production design duties on the film also starring Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kodi Smit-McPhee and more. Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner wrote the script, which was based on a story by Luhrmann and Doner. Luhrmann and Martin were joined as producers by Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss.
In conversation with Butler on The Process, Martin also discusses costume design as an act of “translation” and filmmaking as “alchemy,” the supportive, focused atmosphere Luhrmann cultivates on set and why Hanks compares the director to “a jazz musician,” and her admiration of the “extraordinary” performance by Butler, who she considers “the hardest working actor in the world.”
She also touches on gravitating toward design as “a passionate crafter” from an early age, learning to sew from her mother, skills picked up early on in Sydney’s rag trade that have come in handy since, her audition process for and experience at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, her observation that “the camera lens is voracious” and what that means for her work, how she goes out balancing her busy personal and professional lives, and more.
Butler speaks for his part to his nerves in taking on Elvis‘ title role, the “moment of truth” he faced on set early on, while filming the ’68 Special sequence, his love of the costume fitting process with Martin, and how the worldbuilding fostered by Luhrmann and Martin created an “out-of-body experience” for him.
View the full conversation above.