Interview: Catherine Martin on her love of design and the inclusive story behind Elvis

  • Peter Gray
  • June 22, 2022
  • Comments Off on Interview: Catherine Martin on her love of design and the inclusive story behind Elvis

When you walk into a room to interview Catherine Martin, a production and costume designer with no less than four Academy Awards to her name (fun fact, she’s the most awarded Australian in Oscar history), you know you’ve chosen the correct shirt when it kicks off an enthusiastic conversation about its origins; to set the scene I was wearing a simple black t-shirt with the words “Ew, David” across them, a not-so-subtle reference to a catchphrase from the television series Schitt’s Creek.

Though it may not have been the shirt per se, it did let Catherine rave about Catherine O’Hara’s wild costumes on that show, and I take that as something of a win leading into what would be a spirited, deep chat about her love of fashion, the emotional investment she has in her new film Elvis, and why inclusivity is more important than ever.

Showing the film at Cannes is one thing.  Getting that reaction is another.  How has it been to receive such positivity with Elvis?

It was such an emotional experience.  The director of the festival handed Baz the microphone and he made this really beautiful speech about what Cannes meant to him and to his film career.  They gave him his first chance when they screened Strictly Ballroom.  We’d been there four times.  It was just so exciting to be back in a room in a town where people actually wanted to see movies in a theatre.  During COVID and the bumpy road of getting (Elvis) made that was always the dream.  It was incredibly moving.  The whole experience of the screening was.

To hear the audience applaud in the middle of the movie when Alton Mason performed “Tutti Frutti”, and then to just keep going for each musical number…and then to see him so emotional, because it is his first movie role, and he really put himself out there.  To be next to Austin, he was so emotional because it was the first time he’d seen the film in its entirety.  It was a crazy, emotional experience.

With this movie, and I don’t know what it is about it, but I’m very emotionally involved in the story.  I think Austin, and all the cast, by the way, but I think Austin does such a good job of decoding an icon into a human.  He’s so human that you feel for him.  It just makes your heart break.  I get very invested in that character journey.

I’m half-French (too), so I’m always nervous whenever I do French press because I have to do it in French.  I haven’t been back to France because of COVID, and at 57 I’ve finally said “I’m going to make mistakes (but) it doesn’t matter.”  I went on French TV and it was great to tap into my Frenchness and talk about the movie and to see the French and my relatives really embrace the movie.  It was very meaningful to me.

I remember seeing Strictly Ballroom and Romeo & Juliet when they came out, so I was quite young, but I distinctly remember seeing Moulin Rouge in the theatres on opening night.  I was 17 and it was the first time I’d been in a cinema with people applauding.  And it wasn’t a premiere, it was just a regular screening.  I think as someone who loves film, as well as being queer, it really made me think how we don’t just get films like this.  And they’re such beautiful films to look at, and that’s a testament to you, so where did that love of fashion and design come from?

I’ve always liked clothes.  Until I was 5 I would only wear red shoes.  Like, why? (laughs) I was always focused on what I was wearing.  I wasn’t particularly stylish, but I know it was a focus.  I started sewing when I was 6, and I’ve always loved fabric and clothes.  My grandmother was a staunch Presbyterian from Linfield, and they would have this parade every year that would raise money for the church.  It was a cavalcade through the ages of these period clothes, and I would look forward to that every year.  There was some kind of glamour that took you out of your suburban existence, and I’ve always had that romance about things being a little bit better than they are in real life.  I think that’s driven me.

I’ve always loved fashion.  I think at some point in my teenage years I wanted to be a fashion designer.  That kind of got lost in rebellion.  I ended up at art school and didn’t like it.  I ended up in the rag trade, and then eventually got to NIDA.  I’ve just loved costume designing and I’ve loved the process of working with Baz, because he’s so focused on the clothes.  Sometimes it’s a burden, but, mostly, it’s fantastic because his attention to the sets and costumes means there’s resources given to you because he really cares about it.  He cares about every button and every fabric choice and every shoe.  Every detail he cares about.  That means it also forces you to be at your best.  I think it just comes from a shared love of the romance of telling a story.  I think Baz is very committed, and I’m very proud of to be a part of this work, because he’s always looking for a universal story.  An inclusive story so no one is shut out from that experience.

And even though this story has a sad ending, I think there’s something about Elvis’ music that symbolises something wonderful about humanity.  His ability to rise above the shortcomings as a human but still make something really beautiful.  You don’t have to be a particular kind of person to connect with a song that Elvis sung.  He created something beautiful and universal, and I love that.  We’re both dedicated to making stories more inclusive, because, quite frankly, it makes the world a more romantic, glamorous and interesting place.

Absolutely.  The one thing I do love about Baz’s films is that they’re so unique and distinct.  There’s no other filmmaker like Baz Luhrmann.  I think that’s what’s interesting about watching these films.  This is Baz, this is his vision, and I know I’ll feel something! Whether that’s through the story, the costuming or the music, there’s going to be something…

Yeah, you’ll be able to come out and know you’ve had an experience.  He very much wants to connect with an audience and give them something outside of their ordinary experience but, at the same time, connect profoundly to their experience.  It should be accessible and understood and felt by everybody.

We need more inclusive, cultural things.  And everyone sitting in a theatre and communing is a really important part of being a human.  I think we need to be focusing less on difference.  I’m not denying that being different is important, but I want less polarisation and more let’s meet on all the things that everyone loves.  Why are we talking about things that don’t even matter? Like, in France, there has always been unisex bathrooms.  Gender is such a non-issue, and I don’t even know why we’re arguing about it.  Let’s focus on what’s important and come together.

Elvis is screening in Australian theatres from June 23rd, 2022.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.