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Academy Award-Winning Costumer Designer Catherine Martin on Working with Husband Baz Luhrmann

Academy Award-Winning Costumer Designer Catherine Martin on Working with Husband Baz Luhrmann

Academy Award-winning costume/ production designer Catherine Martin took part in “Tribeca Talks: Master Class: Get The Look” during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on April 17. The event featured a conversation between Martin and Vogue’s International Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles. Martin, or “CM” as she is known in the industry, has helped to create some of the most distinctive on-screen movie moments of all time, designing films such as “Moulin Rouge,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Strictly Ballroom.” She has worked on all of director Baz Luhrmann’s projects — and she is also married to him. 

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Inherent Vice’ Costume Designer Mark Bridges Takes You Into The Closet

Here are some highlights from the discussion:

Getting into the business

“I was the nerdy kid who loved historical costumes,” said Martin of her childhood. “I loved the glamour and make believe of what clothes can do for you.” Growing up on opera, theater and ballet, Martin originally thought she would become a fine artist; but then realized she didn’t like making art all by herself. Now, she has an entire team to collaborate with. “I’ve had the same wardrobe department since ‘Strictly Ballroom,’ and sometimes I think, ‘God, these women are old!’ Then I realize I’m the same age as them,” Martin said to laughter.

Her first meeting with Baz Luhrmann

When they met in college, Luhrmann wanted to collaborate — but Martin wasn’t so sure. “What kind of a name is Baz?” she wondered skeptically. “I didn’t want to do flashy musicals like “Strictly Ballroom,” I wanted to do serious art like Ibsen and Chekhov.” When Martin finally did agree to meet Luhrmann and talk about working together, she was late, because she had made her own outfit and was still sewing on the buttons before running out the door. 

The importance of clothes in movies

Clothing should give an audience the correct visual clues. “You need to justify each piece of clothing, in serving the story,” Martin said. The social and historical context of a character’s wardrobe needs to be researched heavily for every project. This authenticity is necessary in supporting a narrative, and showing a viewer what it’s like to really be there. 

Designing a whole new world

You have to set up “rules” for the world you are creating. Martin always asks of her imaginary cinematic worlds: “what do the people there believe in, what’s practical, what do they need to survive each day?” Even with all the green screen in “The Great Gatsby,” Martin claims she and Luhrmann designed everything as though they were really going to build it, outside of CGI. The buildings had to make spatial sense. 

Complexities of designing “The Great Gatsby”

Although we think of the 1920s as the past, back then it was all about the future. “It was a psychological and technological revolution,” said Martin. Women stopped wearing corsets, began smoking and chopped off their hair. Hemlines soared upward. “We would have 200 sketches for just one ballroom scene,” Martin said of “Gatsby.” She picked out all the varied lace and beaded fabrics herself. “I love a button,” said Martin, explaining how important a button can be on the screen, because of how large they loom in close-up. You can’t have Leonardo DiCaprio wearing a plastic button when he’s declaring his love for Daisy. 


In defense of including music or details outside of historical context, Martin said “it makes characters more accessible to an audience.” Of course in this day and age, you see all kinds of irreverent nostalgia; “people have Gatsby-themed weddings all the time!” Martin pointed out. 

Mishaps on set

When making “Romeo and Juliet,” Martin paid a guy off the street $1000 so she could use his car in the movie. She had to frantically paint it the right color, and it dried as it was being driven onscreen. It was “not my finest hour,” Martin admitted. The fish tank where Romeo and Juliet (DiCaprio and Claire Danes) first see each other also shattered twice during filming. On set of “Moulin Rouge,” Martin described desperately trying to kick a misplaced, shiny nylon tiger-skin rug under the couch so no one would see it; but when she went to check on the scene and make sure the rug was out of shot, Nicole Kidman had brought it out and was rolling around with it, faking an orgasm. 

What is she proudest of?

The clothes in “Australia.” “They are probably the quietest things I’ve done,” Martin said, “but I’m very proud of the simple, beautiful tailoring.” 

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: 4 Tips That Will Help You Budget Better for Costume Design

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