Catherine Martin is a rarity in the below-the-line world: she heads up two major departments — production design and costumes — on most of the films directed by Baz Luhrmann, who happens to be her husband.
How can one person take on two such complicated tasks simultaneously, especially on pictures as lavishly art-directed as those of the Australian helmer? “I have a lot of help and a loyal team,” says Martin. “I don’t do everything myself but I’m all over it, over all the details. I drive people crazy.”
The main advantage of taking on both jobs, she adds, is that “when Baz gives a directive I can encapsulate it into one package. It’s a lot of work but I don’t get sandwiched between him and another collaborator.”
With “The Great Gatsby,” Martin says, “the process started with a profound analysis of all source material — as it does on all of Baz’s films — in this case the (F. Scott Fitzgerald) book and the context in which it was written.”
This was accompanied by field research, including visits to Princeton U., where Fitzgerald’s archives are kept and tours of Long Island mansions where the story takes place — even though the movie was shot in Australia.
All the visuals were then fed into the screenwriting process, at which point Luhrmann and fellow writer Craig Pearce could better understand “what the world that they’re describing was like.”
In the meantime, Martin’s departments were developing storyboards, Photoshop collages, drawings, 3D maquettes, cardboard models and other reference images to create a parallel story in images. The script development process included workshops with the actors, often with costuming. “We did one 3D test with Leo (DiCaprio) and Tobey (Maguire) 18 months before we shot the film,” Martin recalls.
But “Gatsby” presented Martin with more than the usual challenges since it was Luhrmann’s first 3D production. “I loved it because it’s an enveloping experience that allows you to connect more deeply and emotionally with the actors, but it wasn’t easy,” Martin says. “Fortunately Baz has a feeling for technology and worked with the on-set stereographer to change convergence on the fly, getting real feel into the performances as we were shooting.”
Martin acknowledges that her job is “overwhelming at first, because every director wants … the whole world on day one, and that’s impossible.” Her solution: “You break it down, you work with your team, and you have to be able to extract their talent so the work can reach its full potential.”
She singles out associate production designer Karen Murphy and supervising art director Ian Gracie, who have collaborated with Martin since “Moulin Rouge,” as well as assistant costume designer Silvana Azzi Heras and vfx art director Christopher Tangney.
As for Luhrmann, he’s a consummate perfectionist. “He’d still be working on ‘Gatsby’ if he could,” says Martin. “We say jokingly that his films aren’t finished unless they’re taken away.”