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A Day In The Life Of Costume + Production Designer, Catherine Martin

A Day In The Life

Catherine Martin always had a fascination with the arts, from the theatre to film, or fashion and interiors. When she applied to the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and got in to study design, she knew she had ‘met her vocation’ – it was meant to be.

In another twist of fate, it’s also where she met her now-husband, iconic director and auteur, Baz Luhrmann.

But Catherine is pretty iconic in her own right. Having won four Academy Awards for her work in production and costume design on Strictly Ballroom and The Great Gatsby, she’s the most awarded Australian in Oscar history!

As her latest work in Baz’s hotly anticipated Elvis biopic hits cinemas today, Catherine let us in on a day in her life back in her hometown of Sydney.

23rd June, 2022

The inimitable Catherine Martin! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

Catherine is one of Australia’s most lauded film, stage and interior designers, having won 4 Oscars, 5 BAFTAs and a Tony Award! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

Catherine will often make time for a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia while she’s down in Sydney. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

‘[The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia] an absolutely fantastic place to see wonderful contemporary art,’ Catherine says. ‘They have a fabulous permanent collection and also the visiting exhibitions are just extraordinary.’ Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

Kalyu by Martu Artists; Kumpaya Girgirba, Kanu Nancy Taylor, Ngalangka Nola Taylor, Ngamaru Bidu, Wokka Taylor, Muuki Taylor, Jakayu Biljabu, Bowja Patricia Butt, Noelene Girgirba. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

‘Keeping my mind active and alive and reading is a great inspiration to me,’ Catherine says. ‘I really enjoy walking and thinking.’ P.P.F. (Past-Present-Future) Mural by Vincent Namatjira. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

While she, Baz, and their two kids, previously split their time between Paris, Sydney and New York, the family has most recently been living on the Gold Coast while production took place for Elvis! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

The dreamy view of the Sydney Opera House from the MCA rooftop! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

Catherine says travelling was one of the things she and Baz missed the most during the pandemic. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files. Styling – Tess Thyregod

Christina Karras
Thursday 23rd June 2022

Catherine Martin is an expert at bringing worlds to life on screen. She’s done just that as the costume, production and set designer for every one of Baz Luhrmann’s films, including Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and more recently, Elvis.

‘I see my job as translating Baz’s vision,’ Catherine says.

‘He is a very visual director and will always start the process with visual cues, whether it’s his little scribbles, tear sheets or inspiration photos, and it’s my job to visually synthesise and translate his vision into reality.’

‘It’s about taking something like a thought, an idea or something that he described to me verbally into concrete things – a piece of fabric on an actor’s back, or a piece of furniture in Elvis’s international suite.’

And it seems the creative power couple rarely ever clash, thanks to their strong collaborative spirit, honed over decades since meeting as students at NIDA.

‘Baz is incredibly supportive of me and is one of my greatest fans, as I am his,’ Catherine says. ‘And then some days we just find each other unbearably annoying and that is part and parcel for people who have lived and worked together for such a long time’.

One of the most remarkable things about Elvis (which received a 12-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere) is that it was filmed entirely on set in the Gold Coast. Catherine and her team crafted the film’s distinctly American locations, from Beale Street, Memphis to Elvis and Pricilla Presley’s landmark home, Graceland, from scratch, with a surprising sense of realism.

‘The ability of actors to bring the characters to life is always so mysterious and extraordinary,’ Catherine says. But it’s her work that helps Tom Hanks transform into Colonel Tom Parker, and supports Austin Butler’s ‘magic’ performance as Elvis.

Catherine says she finds inspiration in everyday activities like scrolling Instagram, reading books, and going for walks. While she and her family have most recently been living in Queensland, she particularly loves visiting galleries like the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia when she’s in her birth city of Sydney – which is where we joined the fabulous and award-winning creative for a day in her life!

First Thing

I usually wake up between 6am and 8am. The first thing I always do is make a coffee because I cannot function without a coffee! Most mornings I will go to Pilates or do some form of exercise. I like to do that because I find it helps clear your mind and warms up your body for the rest of the day. Although, it’s hard to think about anything else in Pilates but the pain. I find walking is a great place to think.

My husband always says I’m a morning person, but I love a slow morning. I will always wake up half an hour earlier before I leave to go anywhere just so I can get back into bed, drink my coffee, maybe flick through Instagram and read the front page of the New York Times or look at the ABC website. I hate just jumping up out of bed and the cold hard reality of the day hitting you in the face. I like a slow ease into the day.

Morning

I love breakfast. I think it’s probably my favourite meal of the day. I used to eat porridge regularly but my daughter told me I chewed it too loudly, so I’m now onto a poached egg and toast and another coffee. Then shower, get dressed for the day and off to work.

Depending on the day I’ll get there between 9-10am. My first thing is to check in with Chris, who is my 2IC, to find out if there are any urgent jobs on deck for that day.
It can be anything from photo selects from the film to retouching something or reviewing shots that needs to be sent on. I’ve been involved with a lot of the post-production of the film [Elvis], so sometimes I’m reviewing visual effects and giving notes, looking at advertising materials, the end credits. I tend to start the day with any design tasks. Usually my assistant is trying to butt in to get me to answer overnight emails and the housekeeping, which I tend to neglect because I’m more interested in the design side!

Afternoon

I always like to stop for lunch, even if it’s 15 minutes. I think no one should eat at their desk, so I twist everyone’s arm in the office to sit down and have lunch because I think that little respite and that social moment is absolutely important for regenerating. My daughter calls it a ‘pocket of peace’, where you can re-group and get ready for the afternoon.

I tend to prioritise all the work that directly relates to my husband and I’s company – Bazmark – in the morning and the early afternoon. Later in the afternoon, I have a small homewares, fabrics and wallpaper collaboration with Mokum and a rug and carpet collection with Designer Rugs [that I work on]. If colour is involved, I prefer to do it in the morning because the light is better and colour is so light specific.

Evening

I like to be home before 7:30pm, because that’s when the family sits down to dinner. I certainly enjoy a glass of wine when I get home – an aperitif – that kind of sets you in the relaxing evening mode.

It also usually involves a conversation with the wonderful woman that helps me at home, Mary Jane. We often have what she calls an AGM: an Annual General Meeting! But they seem to happen everyday so it’s a bit of a misnomer. But we will often discuss all of the minutiae of who might come to dinner, what the kids are doing, what doctors appointments everybody has that week and what’s happening the next day, or what’s fallen off the house that day. All that really important household stuff that happens.

Last Thing

I am probably in bed by 9:30pm, which I know is totally tragic. I’ll watch one of my great guilty pleasures, which is watching reality renovation television. Baz always says to me ‘you’re a really good designer, why are you watching that design on a dime?’ And I think it’s because I find it really revealing about people’s social conditions and it’s a great insight into how people live, what people are interested in and what people think is good style. It’s a really wonderful window into the social history of interiors right now in 2022.

I love the shows on the Magnolia Network [on USA Cable] – I’m a big Chip and Joanna Gaines fan (of Fixer Upper), I like the Property Brothers, Celebrity IOU is another terrific one. But I love the relaxing element where I can just switch off and watch these shows.

Right now I’m listening to, watching, and reading…

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. It’s an incredible true crime document that has you absolutely on the end of your seat. I watched that travelling recently on the plane and I absolutely loved it.

I’m about to start reading my husband’s guest edited edition of Vogue Australia. I worked on a number of shoots helping to style them, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the other parts of the issue.

A philosophy that I live/work by is…

I have all kinds of ridiculous phrases I use but I’m not sure if they are publishable! I do have a phrase that I use that offends some people, but it’s meant in jest. I use it to myself to motivate me, when I think things can be done better. My phrase is: try harder.

I also have a fabulous 20-sided dice that’s a design dice. It has all kinds of advice for the designer, and you roll the dice and its got things on it like ‘SIMPLIFY’ and all these kinds of adjectives that people give you when they’re trying to give you notes on a design that are completely unhelpful and don’t really direct you in any kind of way. We do it to make ourselves laugh when we have a bit of design block.

Something I’ve learned the hard way is…

Patience and listening. To actually surrender to listening and not feel that your opinion is going to be excluded because you’ve been quiet, and really absorbed what someone else is saying. I have found that a struggle, but the more I listen the more I learn, and the more I feel heard.

Elvis opens in cinemas today, from June 23.

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net