In The Great Gatsby, the latest movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic Roaring Twenties novel about an enigmatic self-made millionaire, Australian director Baz Luhrmann recreates the era with the kind of visual panache for which he has become famous. “Baz is always interested at looking at the past through very modern eyes,” noted Catherine Martin, who did double duty as both the film’s production designer and costume designer. “One of the things that Baz said from the very outset was that he didn’t want the world that the book was set in to be a nostalgic New York. It needed to be a viscerally alive, sexy, modern kind of place where women’s hemlines were going up and skyscrapers were going up at the same time.”
Martin is up for two Oscars for Gatsby, one in each category. She previously won two Academy Awards for art direction and costume design in 2002 for Moulin Rouge! also helmed by Luhrmann. (The two have been married since 1997. They met at college in Sidney). This year she is also up for two BAFTA’s, an Art Directors Guild award and a Costume Designers Guild award.
“The directive right from the get-go was to make sure we could, from a documentary perspective, absolutely support all the decisions we made for the costuming and the production design,” said Martin. “At the same time we would help a contemporary audience understand who the characters were, and how the world seemed to them at a given point in time.” The equally glamorous cast is topped by Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, his long-lost past love who has married and who he is attempting to reclaim.
Martin deserves credit for the film’s sophisticated splash (along with director of photography Simon Duggan). The overall look reaches a peak at a frenzied party-of-parties at Gatsby’s lavish Long Island mansion. It features a chic 21st century update of 20’s flappers in dresses, resulting from a collaboration between Martin and Italian fashion celebrity Miuccia Prada. Everyone is dancing to hip hop music by, among others, rapper Jay Z, who was also one of the film’s executive producers.
Despite such anachronistic touches, the film for the most part, adheres to the look and costumes of the period and was based on extensive research. “We were blessed because the photographic image and also filmmaking were extremely prevalent in the `20s,” noted Martin. “So, the time was captured not only in illustrations and drawings, but there are extensive photo archives.”
“It’s very exciting, because you see the birth of our modern contemporary culture,” she observed. “Women went from wearing voluminous Victorian skirts to unstructured outfits after World War I that showed their bodies. It seemed at the time as if they were wearing underwear in the streets.” For a lot of the male costumes, Martin worked closely with Brooks Brothers, which provided more than 2,000 garments for the film, including both formalwear – 200 tuxedos – and daywear, helping to comprise the approximately 1,200 costumes in total. Fitzgerald in his day was a frequent Brooks Brothers customer.
Wearing two chapeaux as costume and production designer can be arduous but Martin said she managed with the help of her longtime crew in both departments. “I have an incredibly fantastic team that’s been with me for years and years – ever since Moulin Rouge!” She cited supervising art director Ian Gracie, her associate production designer Karen Murphy, costume supervisor Kerry Thompson and set decorator Beverly Dunn.
“But I am not going to lie, there are times when some tears are shed and a few times when I lock myself in the bathroom for a minute when I get overwhelmed,” said Martin. But she pointed to pluses as well from combining the two crafts. “For all the moments of enormous pressure there are advantages too,” she explained. “Baz doesn’t have to go to millions of people to discuss and workshop an idea, he can come to me and I can disseminate the information, so in that way the process gets centralized.”
Although Gatsby takes place in the New York area, the movie was mostly made at the Fox Studios in Sidney, Australia in order to take advantage of generous government tax incentives. In addition, the scope of the film required the construction of numerous large-scale sets, along the lines of a Golden Age Hollywood movie, which would have been prohibitively expensive to make in the United States.
Gatsby’s house was built on a number of big sets, with the different parts of the house divided up. The grand hall, the back garden and the terrazzo were on one set. The map room, the grand ballroom, the stairs, the organ and the three-layered garden were all built on one stage. The pool, a very important part of the story, was built as a separate set.
The even more extravagant Buchanan house was built on one of the studio’s largest stages. It encompassed the front of the house, the hallway that leads to the salon where Daisy first appears, and then continued out to the terrace.
Working on complicated sets is one of Martin’s strengths. “Having been trained originally in theater as was Baz, we’re not worried about scenery,” she noted. “Scenery seems like a very natural and controllable thing to do, so building sets doesn’t seem difficult or overwhelming.”
Martin first collaborated with Luhrmann on Strictly Ballroom (1992), initially a stage play which became a film and was the director’s first breakout hit. They subsequently teamed on Romeo + Juliet (1996), their first American film, starring a much younger DiCaprio; Moulin Rouge! with Nicole Kidman, an international sensation that is on many all-time top 10 lists; followed by a Broadway staging of Puccini’s opera La Boheme which garnered Martin a Tony award for scenic design, and Australia (2008) an epic about the country’s history, focusing on the “stolen” Aborigine children issue. For their next project, Martin and Luhrmann are taking a hiatus from filmmaking: they have signed on to design the interiors for the historic Saxony Hotel in Miami Beach, their first such venture.