Designer Catherine Martin and her director husband, Baz Luhrmann, are a cinematic dream team. He's the Oscar®-nominated visionary director of films like Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet and Strictly Ballroom. She's a two-time Oscar winner—and also has a Tony® under her belt.
Their film Australia—starring fellow Aussies Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman—is an homage to their home country. Catherine takes a moment to reflect on bringing these unforgettable characters to life through costume and opens up about creating her own story—on the big screen and off.
What was it like designing for Australia? You had this Parisian opulence in Moulin Rouge, and here you've got a more earthy feel.
Catherine: I think that every single story kind of has its own impurities and its own challenges. And I hope as a costume designer I'm a helpful part of the storytelling team. And Baz as a director is always asking for the clothes to inform the character and the story.
Watch Catherine discuss how to create costumes that truly fit characters!
So the challenges were twofold, I suppose for me, on this film. It's the first time, and I sort of set this to myself as a professional challenge, where I did both the set and costumes completely alone. And previously I'd done co-costume design and set design, so I'd shared the workload. So it was about seeing if I was professionally ready to take on those challenges, and the world may suggest that for themselves.
The second challenge is, I think, when you're doing anything with clothes that are relatively simple—in the sense that ultimately it's a skirt and a shirt or pants and a top—the challenge to express character is a greater challenge. And I found that very interesting because the clothes are much closer to present day than, say, Moulin Rouge. But there [was] much more subtle expression.
Do you have a favorite costume from this film?
Catherine: You know, I think they're a bit like your children, costumes. Some days you're crosser with one than the other, but you love them all equally but differently. And I always feel that the costume—if it serves its place in the story—then you're very grateful and satisfied that day.
I had the great pleasure to work with two people who are primarily actors, so Nicole [Kidman] and Hugh [Jackman] are actors first. If Nicole is playing the Wicked Witch of the West, she's looking for the biggest, gnarliest, most warty nose. So it's not about whether it looks right; like in that sort of superficial "do I look fat in these pants?" The fundamental drive is to support the character and make sure that the alchemy between the actor, director, the costume, the moment, everything is kind of working together.
Find out what Hugh Jackman thought about accepting his role as The Drover.
One of the most coveted pieces is the red dress Nicole wears at the ball. And, you know, it's a piece that's focused upon. Am I happy it worked in the scene? Yes. Is my favorite piece? I don't know. I mean there are many elements of costume that I feel very proud of.
It seems such a strange thing to focus on, I suppose, but with King George, his pubic cover made of string entailed a huge amount of research. The manufacture of it was extremely detailed, involved hundreds and hundreds of man hours. ... In one of the museum collections in Australia there is a pubic cover that is almost identical to the one that King George wore. What I found fascinating and wonderful is that I got to work with a whole lot of indigenous fabric and was able to recreate this. When you look at the museum version and you look at our version, they're almost indistinguishable, and I'm so pleased we were able to reach that level of authenticity and accuracy. But whether it's my favorite or not, [I] just think it's an achievement.
Together, you and your husband have put out marvelous films. How did your collaboration begin, and how do you work so well together?
Catherine: We met in the workplace 20 years ago, and Baz likes to describe it as a conversation that started 20 years ago and we've kept talking. And those conversation can be extremely heated, argumentative, passionate, amusing—they run the full gamut.
And yes, when you work and you live together, there are heightened tensions because the stakes, in a way, are higher because whatever's going on in your professional life has some affect on your personal life. But on the other hand, because we've been doing it for 20 years, we've gotten quite skilled at carving out personal time and about being sensitive. But as much as there's a temptation to leap out from behind a lamp at home and try to get a costume approved at 12:30 at night because you have to get it on the machines first thing in the morning, you have to learn that's inappropriate use of personal space.
The overriding positive, through good times and bad, we share a story. ... Baz is the storyteller in our family and I am a storytelling helper, and I love my job and amso committed to that path in my life. And what's wonderful is that not only do you get to make stories that end up on the stage or on screen, but you end up making a story in life and being able to share that story. And for me that's sort of progressed. We now share two kids who form part of that story, who are wonderfully refreshing.
How have your children added to the story?
Catherine: They make the story less self-important. ... Your children remind you every single day that you're only as good as the mother that's picking up the underpants or putting the socks in the drawer.
You're brought right back to it, and in this incredible time of financial change, where everyone, including myself—I absolutely include myself in this—where we've all defined ourselves by the things we have, we're going to have to start thinking a bit more about what we do and say. About the stories we tell, about the engagement with other people because when you can't amuse yourself just by buying another handbag. You have to find another kind of pastime, and that often involves sitting in a room with other people talking or making food at home.
The only thing you really are is your story, and you better make it a good one. You better invest in being proud of what you've done, not what you've bought.
Were your kids on the set of Australia?
Catherine: They came all over Australia with us but ... they're not very starstruck. Their obsessions are [different].
They were obsessed with the fact that there was craft catering. The first thing that they were interested in was that there was a multitude of cookies that you could help yourself to. ... Or the fact that I had an espresso machine in my office and when they came to work they could make me coffee and it involved little pots and a machine and pushing buttons. They're fixated on those sorts of things.
See what life was like on the set
Catherine: Sometimes it's very difficult and you feel one side is suffering and I feel like I just have simple rules for myself. Every night, I try and get the kids off to school in the morning, and every night, even if I have to go back to work after they've gone to bed, I always have time to sit down and have dinner with them.
You're an Oscar®-winning designer, and you have a home line
now. How do you balance work and being a mom?
It's not always an idyllic picture. Sometimes it's screaming and complaining about what I served for dinner and you do think to yourself, "Hmm...can someone explain to me why I rushed home from work, felt enormous guilt about my deadline tomorrow and now listened to 3-year-old scream about why they don't like brussels sprouts or whatever?"
But I was brought up having an evening meal with my family every night. ... It's a nice thing to see from my parents that even though it's a struggle some nights, that sitting down and eating together and sharing the day is a very important thing.
As [my children] have gotten older, it's gotten more and more pleasant and they bring their own stories of their days to the table and we all get to share. So I try to keep these rhythmical constants that I suppose become our family traditions and the kids know that happens in a cycle every day. If you keep those kind of patterns, children feel secure and they feel included, and I'm genuinely interested.
Make your home your stage—get Catherine's decorating tips!
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Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, March 8, 2014
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