A behind-the-scenes look at the extravagant glitz of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis”
Almost a decade has passed since Baz Luhrmann’s visual feast Gatsby the magnificent graced our screens – and who could forget? Leonard! Carey! Prada costumes! Luhrmann’s singularly luscious and over-the-top cinematic style is instantly recognizable and simply invites the viewer to think, “How did they even do that?”
Turns out the answer is: Slowly. And with good reason. Now, nearly a decade later, Luhrmann’s latest release, Elvis, takes turns examining one of the most iconic and unforgettable showmen of the 20th century. In a far-reaching biopic that ranges from the dusty backwoods of the segregated South to the neon-drenched, positively dazzled scenes of 1970s Las Vegas, Luhrmann returns with a cinematic ride that’s every bit as visually arresting as Gatsby. And after getting a taste of the film ourselves, we’re sure to share that costume design fans will find this movie nothing short of thrilling. To learn more about the film’s dreamy ’50s, ’60s and ’70s fashions, we caught up with Catherine Martin – producer, costume designer, as well as Luhrmann’s life and creative partner. His work on gatsby won her the Oscar for Best Costume Design and we wouldn’t be surprised if she won similar accolades this time around as well.
On the morning of the film’s Cannes premiere last month, we caught up with Martin on the phone to find out more about how the pandemic has changed the way he works, about his collaboration again with Prada and Miu Miu for some of the costumes. of the movie. , and on (the character of) Priscilla Presley’s iconic wig. We delved into archival Prada pieces as well as the intricacies of costume design during a pandemic. Martin was so generous with her time that she may have been a minute or two late for the Cannes premiere of the film itself, for which we apologize, but when a film’s costumes are also good, sometimes just talking about it.
The films you make with Baz Luhrmann are incredibly huge in scope, and Elvis covers several characters over several decades. How do you even begin to approach a project of this magnitude?
Baz always has a clear vision of what he wants things to look like, and he often doodles or shows you a picture he found on the internet. The process always starts with telling the story and what kind of story Baz wants to tell: the background, how it’s going to be told, who the characters are, and how the storyline develops. Really, it starts with researching and understanding the script, and how Baz wants to envision it in terms of style, and what he’s looking for in terms of sets, costumes, and telling the story to the audience.
My next question was going to be about how the costumes Elvis differed from Baz’s previous film’s costume, Gatsby the magnificent.
Well, this story is not completely imagined. It was mired in history. There are images of the people and images of the time. We did a lot of research, we had a lot of photos, we had a starting point.
There is therefore a different sensitivity to the reality of Elvis Presley here, whereas gatsby was based on a novel.
A lot of people who go to see the movie lived through those decades, but not the 1950s for me, to be clear! But it was different because although there was some interpretation it was really trying to be true to the soul of the story, to the humanity of the man and that was really the one of Baz’s goals. It was to expose humanity, the good parts, the not so good parts, and what a product of the 20th century Elvis Presley is. He’s a product of television, he’s a product of being born in the segregated south, of all the social upheaval of that time for better and for worse. It is certainly allegorical but it also concerns real people who have lived. So there is a certain respect and reverence towards the characters portrayed in the film.
How do you balance costumes that make a statement and are visually interesting for the film, but also work with an actor’s performance?
Stakeholders must be integrated into the research process. The performance they create with Baz is really a key part of the costume design process. I’m just a helper in character creation. I think actors are like flowers and clothes are a vase. It’s about integrating what the director and the actor create.
One of the collaborations, for example, was with Alton Mason, who is a stylist extraordinaire. We made him this beautiful lamé suit, but when he saw it he thought it wasn’t quite suited for the exact part of his career portrayed in the film. Little Richard at that time had crazy makeup and hair but he was still a church boy from the neck down. I phoned Baz and he said, “That’s a good point. With what we had in store, we were able to create a look that ended up in the movie that was much more appropriate but not what we originally planned to do.
So collaboration is a big part of your process?
Two heads are better than one. If it’s a good idea, I’m never irritated by someone’s input. I think that’s what I love about filmmaking – the collaboration, the connection, being challenged and not being lazy or set in your ways. Admit that you made a mistake. And that’s what’s great about working with Baz. He pushes you to try hard, but there’s never any shame in failing. To fail is to go beyond what you know, and for that I am always very grateful.
Tell me about the ladder to assemble the costumes for Elvis. It’s a big movie, with big sets, tons of extras, and a lot of historical ground to cover. How much Things was involved?
At some point, we realized that the team and I had collected over 9,000 additional individual outfits. Shoes. Underwear. Socks. Trousers. Jackets. Shirts. Hats. You name it. We actually have a photo taken by a drone when all the clothes were in one of the massive Gold Coast stages in Queensland, and it was overwhelming. It kind of made your stomach go for a loop. We also had two different workrooms, one that worked on the background cast, one that worked on the main cast, and those people worked from dawn until dusk. On big extra days, people worked 24/7 because clothes had to be prepped, they had to dress the cast, and there had to be on-site alterations. Elvis alone had over 90 suits – and there were only pounds and pounds of rhinestones.
How did filming during the pandemic affect the film’s costumes?
It was complicated because of the Covid and the protocols. Just like in a store where people will try on a pair of blue jeans and someone will put them back on the rack and then someone else will try them on, it’s similar with extras doing fittings. If an extra tried on something, it had to be carefully cleaned and set aside before the next person tried it on, and for this reason we needed about a third more clothes to keep in stock.
What about supply chain issues? You were filming in Australia, which was particularly closed for much of the pandemic.
It was crazy because we were also on an island in Austria and the transport and supply chains were kind of broken, so we had to be resourceful and reorient things. But it’s an exciting part of the design. When you’re dressing up for a movie, you want it to be as perfect and glamorous as possible, with all the best elements, but most of the time you’ve got a piece of string, a bandage and an old pair of pantyhose and you gotta make it into a party dress.
I have to ask you about the wig that Olivia de Jong wears for her role as Priscilla. It’s huge, but somehow it doesn’t look like a cartoon.
Priscilla’s hair was extremely interesting. Shane Thomas, our head hairstylist and makeup artist on production, really brilliantly reinterpreted the hairstyles. They had to work on Olivia’s face and her interpretation of the character. One of the smartest things about this wig was that it had baby hair laced around the edge of the wigs so you don’t get that harsh Halloween side. Priscilla never had that.
Tell me about the collaboration with Prada, which has custom-made several costumes for the characters of Priscilla and Elvis.
There are items from Miu Miu and Prada, and they were all custom made. The idea was, very similar to Jay Gatsby, Priscilla is a style icon. People know and expect exactly what she would look like. But we found out early on that if his costumes were just carbon copies, it wouldn’t do justice on camera to who the real person was. At the same time, it created a blockage between the actor and the public. We had to find a way to weave skillfully between the actor’s interpretation of the character, the respect and reverence for those people, and who the audience knew them to be. It seemed like a really interesting idea to collaborate with Prada/Miu Miu because it would link Priscilla’s style to an obviously very stylish contemporary reference. It also allowed us to not slavishly copy the clothes and not do them justice, but somehow find something that matched the elevation of Priscilla’s real clothes, but also gave Olivia her own kind of style resource.
You have also collaborated with Prada and Miu Miu on costumes for Gatsby the magnificent. What is it about working with them that feels good and about costuming a film?
I know the DNA of these brands and appreciate how different collections fit together and how we can cross-reference history with archival pieces. The fabulous thing about working with Miuccia is that she is so open to collaboration and cross-fertilization between collections. And Prada also has such amazing workshops that when you create with them, you can actually design an entire outfit. You can think of suede boots that fit an actor perfectly, with the perfectly matching 1960s wool suit, and everything about the connection between skill, fabric, fabric printing technology – all of this elevates the whole design of the costume. With Prada, I have access to all these rare and special things, and the public also feels this attention and attention to detail.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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