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"The Great Gatsby" turned out to be a bone of contention between director Baz Luhrmann and his wife, costume designer and production designer Catherine Martin. He had loved F. Scott Fitzgerald's book for many years, while it didn't exactly bowl her over when she first read it as a teenager in Australia. As a 15-year-old, it alienated her, and she couldn't quite understand the central love story.
"It's hard for a 15-year-old girl to understand that," Martin says. "And so when Baz pitched the book to me, I was extremely resistant."
Over the years he finally wore her down one day, told her he was sick of her "pontificating" and handed her the book once more, pleading with her to read it again. So she did and three hours later finished what she now considers one of the best books ever written. The themes were so striking for her and it was so beautifully written. She adored it.
"And he just found that extremely irritating because I had been a naysayer and now I was the book's biggest fan," she says. "So we still laugh about that!"
Whenever Martin starts in on a project — and this marked her third collaboration with Luhrmann as a costume designer and her fifth as a production designer — she says she never thinks in pictures. She always thinks psychologically about the relationships and the themes, particularly with something like a work of literature, which allows you to get inside the heads of the characters.
"It's much more ephemeral and dreamlike, the experience of reading a book for me," she says. "I don't concretize it. And I think many people concretize the images, which is why people are routinely so upset when very well-loved books are made into movies, because you're not quite sure how the book should have looked but it wasn't like that."
The most fundamental design directive Luhrmann gave Martin was that he wanted the world the characters inhabited to reflect the modern, "unnostalgic" version of New York that Fitzgerald knew and loved. "You had to feel this visceral, alive, pumping, modern metropolis," she says. "And it needed not to feel like a sepia, tasteful kind of removed or slightly distant place. It needed to feel absolutely present and alive and possible. The combined vision that he had with the actors about the characterizations of each of the people had to be helped and expressed through, or counterpointed by, the environments they found themselves in, as well as the costumes they wore."
Through a series of workshops and script reads, the actors themselves began to inform Martin's designs. Carey Mulligan's "finesse" and "febrility" allowed Martin as a modern woman to enter into Daisy Buchanan's head and understand who she was. Luhrmann is an expressionistic filmmaker who views costume and production design as the outward expression of the inner life of a person. Subtlty, elegance and clarity were key.
"It's the privilege of working with great actors," Martin says, "because ultimately costumes are just clothes. It's the actors that transform them into the images that we perceive. 'Annie Hall,' for instance, when Diane Keaton wears baggy men's pants and a waistcoat and a funny hat and the tie, she becomes the iconic image of Annie Hall. She transforms that collection of clothes. I wear those clothes and I look like I'm dressing for Halloween. It's the actor's ability to transform those clothes that is the amalgam. It's the alchemy that makes the character.
"If you look at the best models in the world, or the actors that promote product, they're bringing something extra to the product," she continues. "It's not just, 'I'm slim, I'm beautiful.' It's actually pushing the envelope. It's selling the dream. It's allowing you to believe that there are possibilities that you cannot envisage that go with the sweater or the woman's purse or whatever it is."
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