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Catherine Martin: Beyond compare

Academy Award-winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin reflects on her career, gender equality and G’Day USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Catherine Martin

Over the past three decades costume and production designer Catherine Martin has dazzled audiences with her work on five feature films, three operas, two stage shows, a musical, and a television series – receiving four Oscars, five BAFTAs, and a Tony Award in the process. Her work has influenced high-end fashion as well as helping to pull in hundreds of millions of dollars at the global box office.

And that’s just a mere selection of highlights.

It’s not surprising then that Martin – or CM as she oft-called – is the 2017 recipient of G’Day USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“It sort of feels like you’re a bit of an old relic doesn’t it,” Martin laughs. She’s speaking from New York where she has been working on the final six episodes of The Get Down, which was created by her husband Baz Luhrmann and she executive produced. “It kind of feels like you’re ready to be put out to pasture (but you’re thinking) I’m only just starting! I’m at the beginning! It’s a strange situation to find yourself in, but a very nice one nonetheless.”

It’s not the first time Martin has been recognised by her peers for her contribution to the industry in both costume and production design. She holds a record-breaking four Oscars under her (fashionable) belt – more than any other Australian in history. Two were for the sumptuous reimagining of 19th century Paris in 2001 film Moulin Rouge! while another two were for The Great Gatsby, which brought to life the champagne-infused 1920s in vivid detail. But just look at her other works and you can find a common thread: from Strictly Ballroom, to Romeo + Juliet, Australia, The Get Down, and even Luhrmann’s Chanel No. 5 advertisement, each is a sensual feast created in painstaking detail.

Catherine Martin with Hugh Jackman on the set of Australia

As a child, Martin was always drawn to the tactile and “making things with my hands” – her imagination conjuring up an image she would then try to materialise in real-life.

At the age of six, she started sewing on her mother’s machine. By 16, that passion for textiles, fabrics and the social history of clothes had transformed into a dream of becoming a fashion designer.

“I used to make a lot of my own clothes (and) come up with crazy home-made projects, dying and cutting up my parents’ beautiful linen sheets,” Martin says. “They were very understanding.”

At this point, in the early 80s, something profound was happening. Martin watched as the work of Australian fashion designers and collaborators Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson began appearing on the world stage. Princess Diana stepped out in a knitted koala jumper, designed by Kee, whose opal print was also used in Karl Lagerfeld’s 1983 Chanel collection.

“These women with this very strong Australian aesthetic were able to have a voice that spoke beyond the shores of Australia and it was in that moment you saw it was possible to realise a dream beyond borders.”

Funny then, how Martin’s own creations went on to have global impact. Bustiers and boning appeared on runways, shopfronts and in Vogue at the time of Moulin Rouge! and the 1920s permeated fashion shows in the lead-up to The Great Gatsby’s release.

Production Designer Beverley Dunn and Catherine after receiving their Oscars for their work on <em>The Great Gatsby</em> Production Designer Beverley Dunn and Catherine after receiving their Oscars for their work on The Great Gatsby

Martin puts that down to Luhrmann’s ability to sense what’s in the zeitgeist and instinctively know what will affect people.

“A lot of the scenes in Gatsby are about finding your moral compass in an age of plenty and extravagance – it’s when America is at the height of its powers and before the (stock market) crash, so there’s only optimism,” she says.

“What’s really interesting about what’s happening in America right now is we’ve been through a period where it was difficult for people to find something to fight for… It’s interesting that Gatsby has preceded these events and we find ourselves back in the 60s now, marching. Someone was saying the other day that we’re fighting for equal rights and I think no, we’re fighting to maintain the rights we fought for. For many years we thought, ‘they’re inalienable rights, nobody’s going to come and threaten them and try and take them away from us’, but it’s obviously possible.”

It’s been well-documented that women’s representation in the screen industry is lacking. In Australian feature film, statistics released in 2015 showed women made up just 16% of directors, 21% of writers and 30% of producers. In response, Screen Australia launched Gender Matters to try and combat the issue.

Martin says she has been fortunate because “in the partnership I’ve worked in (with Luhrmann) my gender has not been an issue”.

“But I think absolutely enjoying female voices outside of the traditional areas that women have inhabited, like costume design, is a very important thing,” she says, adding that she is buoyed to see headlining actresses speaking out about the pay gap.

Even in production design she says there are people such as Karen Murphy, who worked with her on Netflix series The Get Down and The Great Gatsby, who are raising the bar.

“It’s a field that aligned to building and drawing and hammering… I’m not saying that’s what production designers do, but I’m saying, you can see how from a societal point of view, it would be associated with more male figures. But there are many terrific and successful female production designers. We just have to keep being open to giving them opportunities.”

For Martin, her career-altering opportunities came in the 80s, when she was studying at NIDA.

She had set her sights on production and costume design in theatre and opera – film was still not even on the radar. Purely because Martin didn’t know it could even be an option.

“There was no internet, (so) the information, the inspiration, the communication was much more slow and ponderous. As a result your aspirations were metered because you couldn’t see what everyone else was doing,” she says.

But while at NIDA she had an interview with a recent graduate – Baz Luhrmann. The director had come across her work while looking for designers for the Opera Australia production Lake Lost. It was a collaboration that began then, in the late 80s, and continues to this day in both a personal and professional sense (the couple married in 1997 and have two children).

For Martin, bringing Luhrmann’s visions to life on stage and screen has meant consistently challenging and pushing herself outside her comfort zone.

“Baz is somebody who’s always looking to push beyond what is accepted or normal. To push the art-form, to explore new things and as a result, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been put in that position as well. He is an exigent and visionary storyteller, so you have to step up to the plate,” she says.

<em>Strictly Ballroom</em> Strictly Ballroom

Their first onscreen collaboration was for the stage play-turned-film Strictly Ballroom, which Luhrmann has called “the little film that could”. Supported by Screen Australia’s predecessor agencies, it still struggled to pull together its $3.5 million budget and suffered a major setback when it was dropped from the only mainstream cinema screen it had, just weeks before release.

All seemed lost – until Cannes Film Festival called.

And so this Australian film from an unknown director, with its energy, humour and sequinned story of revolution, went on to premiere at Cannes in 1992, receive a 15-minute standing ovation and spark a bidding war.

But this kind of fairytale is no longer such an unimaginable outcome for an Australian film.

“Things have changed so much since then,” Martin says.

“When Baz was making Strictly Ballroom, his first movie, the idea that it would be an entirely Australian cast was very difficult for everybody to process in our industry. Now we have famous Australian actors who headline in their own right.

“Australia’s access to the industry has just completely changed on all levels, whether it’s craft, acting, directing, all those things, it has become a more borderless playing field.”

Over two decades after its Cannes premiere, Luhrmann and Martin returned to glitz of Strictly Ballroom for the musical adaption, which premiered in Sydney in 2014 and is currently playing on the West End.

When it comes to creating these worlds, Martin says she can sketch anywhere (“I can do it in the back of a car if I have to. I do what’s necessary.”), but if creativity is eluding her, she will always turn to research.

“I start to read, sort through images and just try to just envelope myself in the world the story is requiring and hopefully out of that start to have a few ideas.”

Most recently she’s been neck-deep in the world of the Bronx in 1977 for The Get Down, whose first six episodes were released on Netflix in August 2016, with another six set to drop on the platform this year.

“My hat goes off to anyone who does episodic television, because it’s incredibly punishing,” she says.

“It’s not a linear process like filmmaking where you do one thing after another. It’s a layered process where you’re always (simultaneously) developing a script while you’re shooting, prepping and post-producing. It doesn’t let up, because in a period of time where you would make one film you’re making six or seven, so it’s a completely different pace.

“I’m so respectful of all the artists that work in this medium. So much of television is original, edgy and surprising. It’s breaking all kinds of conventions you might be scared to break in a medium that has so much riding on it because of its huge budget, so I’m in awe of people who do this all the time.”

While Martin, Luhrmann and their children are currently based in New York finishing The Get Down, Australia still calls to them across the water like the green light in Gatsby. They may have sold their iconic Sydney house Iona in 2015, but the couple are in the process of looking for a new place in their home city.

“I think that Baz has always been very clear that you need wings to fly, but you also need roots to grow, so we are very committed to working in our home country with colleagues that we’ve worked with for over 20 years,” she says.

“It’s very much about keeping that connection to where we come from and who we are as people.”

Catherine Martin will be presented with the G’Day USA Lifetime Achievement Award at the LA Gala on January 28.