Bringing a biopic to the big screen involves sifting through a lifetime of minutiae to encapsulate the essence of a person within a manageable runtime. Every choice can be examined under a microscope as though the production were a documentary. In the case of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin — also credited as producer and production designer on the film — knew the line between reality and creative interpretation was of utmost importance.
“It was about trying to get a feeling and trying to tell the story, or our interpretation of the story, as truthfully and respectfully as possible,” says Martin of how the Elvis Presley biopic was shaped. Distilling decades of a famous life into a feature required a lot of storytelling technique that sometimes worked better than facts.
While many of Elvis’ famous jumpsuits were painstakingly re-created, they don’t appear in chronological order. “Baz wanted to use the jumpsuits to help underline the kind of unraveling of Elvis, so we start off with a very pure white jumpsuit and they become crazier and crazier,” Martin says. “This was a deliberate choice, but it’s not historically true.”
Elvis fans may recognize that he wore a different outfit during his opening night performance in Las Vegas, but the filmmakers felt “we needed to see Elvis as the popular culture god so many people remember in that moment of time on stage, and it would be confusing to see an outfit we couldn’t reference as clearly in our minds,” Martin adds.
Though the costumes themselves were crafted accurately, it didn’t mean Martin’s work stopped there. Just as costumes are adapted for stunts, this this time the stunt was … dancing?
“Yes, absolutely,” says Martin of the costumes Austin Butler donned as the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. “That happened across all [of his] costumes [for various reasons]. For the leather outfit he wears in the ’68 Special he had longer seating pants so when he sat, the top of the pants went over the top of the boot,” she explains.
Butler also had a versions of the same costume with a baggier knee for kneeling on the ground and a pristine version for standing in place. Martin says, “We even had a pair [of pants] that he [wore as he] walked down the corridor towards the television stage heroically, specifically tailored to look the best from behind.”
Martin notes that the filmmakers, actors and audiences all have different expectations for an on-screen portrayal versus a lived-in experience. Elvis, of course, wasn’t busy changing clothes for every movement he made and his pants may have sometimes revealed his socks when sitting down.
Add in a well-known supporting character such as Little Richard, played by Alton Mason, and the ingenuity continues. Martin worked on a performance outfit that was ready to go, but in the final fitting Mason questioned if it was too much for the character at that point in time.
“I called Baz about it, [and there was] quite a long discussion [about it]. We all agreed that yes, we needed to explore something that was more church boy and less the kind of performer he became later,” Martin says. “I think it creates a better result than we could have ever hoped for” since there is more of a contrast between the low-key outfit and the hair and makeup of the scene.
The original costume wasn’t for naught, though: Martin’s daughter wore it to one of the film’s premieres. “I hope Warner Bros. doesn’t come and steal that suit back,” says Martin. “I have that suit now.”