Oscar-nominated 'Gatsby' designer wasn't originally a fan of Fitzgerald's novel

Posted by · 10:17 am · January 21st, 2014

“The Great Gatsby” turned out to be a bone of contention between director Baz Luhrmann and his wife, costume designer and production designer Catherine Martin. He had loved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book for many years, while it didn’t exactly bowl her over when she first read it as a teenager in Australia. As a 15-year-old, it alienated her, and she couldn’t quite understand the central love story.

“It’s hard for a 15-year-old girl to understand that,” Martin says. “And so when Baz pitched the book to me, I was extremely resistant.”

Over the years he finally wore her down one day, told her he was sick of her “pontificating” and handed her the book once more, pleading with her to read it again. So she did and three hours later finished what she now considers one of the best books ever written. The themes were so striking for her and it was so beautifully written. She adored it.

“And he just found that extremely irritating because I had been a naysayer and now I was the book’s biggest fan,” she says. “So we still laugh about that!”

Whenever Martin starts in on a project – and this marked her third collaboration with Luhrmann as a costume designer and her fifth as a production designer – she says she never thinks in pictures. She always thinks psychologically about the relationships and the themes, particularly with something like a work of literature, which allows you to get inside the heads of the characters.

“It’s much more ephemeral and dreamlike, the experience of reading a book for me,” she says. “I don’t concretize it. And I think many people concretize the images, which is why people are routinely so upset when very well-loved books are made into movies, because you’re not quite sure how the book should have looked but it wasn’t like that.”

The most fundamental design directive Luhrmann gave Martin was that he wanted the world the characters inhabited to reflect the modern, “unnostalgic” version of New York that Fitzgerald knew and loved. “You had to feel this visceral, alive, pumping, modern metropolis,” she says. “And it needed not to feel like a sepia, tasteful kind of removed or slightly distant place. It needed to feel absolutely present and alive and possible. The combined vision that he had with the actors about the characterizations of each of the people had to be helped and expressed through, or counterpointed by, the environments they found themselves in, as well as the costumes they wore.”

Through a series of workshops and script reads, the actors themselves began to inform Martin’s designs. Carey Mulligan’s “finesse” and “febrility” allowed Martin as a modern woman to enter into Daisy Buchanan’s head and understand who she was. Luhrmann is an expressionistic filmmaker who views costume and production design as the outward expression of the inner life of a person. Subtlty, elegance and clarity were key.

“It’s the privilege of working with great actors,” Martin says, “because ultimately costumes are just clothes. It’s the actors that transform them into the images that we perceive. ‘Annie Hall,’ for instance, when Diane Keaton wears baggy men’s pants and a waistcoat and a funny hat and the tie, she becomes the iconic image of Annie Hall. She transforms that collection of clothes. I wear those clothes and I look like I’m dressing for Halloween. It’s the actor’s ability to transform those clothes that is the amalgam. It’s the alchemy that makes the character.

“If you look at the best models in the world, or the actors that promote product, they’re bringing something extra to the product,” she continues. “It’s not just, ‘I’m slim, I’m beautiful.’ It’s actually pushing the envelope. It’s selling the dream. It’s allowing you to believe that there are possibilities that you cannot envisage that go with the sweater or the woman’s purse or whatever it is.”

Meanwhile, Luhrmann is color-obsessed, Martin says, and the very first thing they did was analyze all the descriptions in the book by doing word searches for colors mentioned throughout. White, silver and gold were predominant, leaving them with a very brilliant and high-key palette to work with. Being a summer story, that made some sense, but then there was discussion about how color influences the mood of various scenes.

“For instance, if you go to the 1923 renovation of The Plaza, it’s different, but it’s not unlike the current renovation,” Martin says. “They were very white, bright rooms. Very sparsely furnished. Even the suites, there was no artwork, just mirrors. And when we did all this research, and because we had such a great association with The Plaza and it’s such a character in the book, Baz felt that this environment was not the right kind of heavy oppressive place for the penultimate conflict in the book to take place. So we then had to look for other inspirations and another palette that somehow had its roots in The Plaza but could be extrapolated to create a much darker, heavier, more oppressive, hotter environment. We looked to the Oak Room and we used the oak paneling from the Oak Room and got the idea of making this room a much more heavy and intensive place where you could imagine this terrible fight over Daisy ensuing between Tom and Gatsby.”

In the production design sphere, digital work is increasingly creeping in as a hugely supportive element. In recent years, in fact, heavily computer-generated work in films like “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” has walked away with the Oscar for Best Production Design. For Martin, she’s in the fortunate place of being involved with a Baz Luhrmann film from the moment he decides to make it and convince others to be a part of it through to the delivery of the final color-timed frame, so she’s a significant part of that process every step of the way.

In “The Great Gatsby,” the environments and sets were all geographically detailed. Something like Gatsby’s mansion and Nick’s bungalow and their relationship to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock are all mapped out way before shooting in a real geographical space. They all had their own internal architectural reality and were described, drawn and modeled so that Luhrmann could understand their spacial relationships.

“All these complex and detailed geographical and design points were not left till post,” Martin says. “I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to work hand-in-hand with Chris Godfrey, who is our visual effects supervisor, helping to realize Baz’s ultimate vision. Because Baz sees no division between any of these many art forms that go into making a movie. Whether it’s the dissolving of Daisy’s letter in the bath when she realizes that she’s going to marry Tom Buchanan and she still, I suppose, loved Gatsby somehow, to how the Buchanan mansion might look, we still had some members of the art department working on furnishing the visual effects department with architectural details, window details, right up until weeks before the final visual effect was delivered.

“So I think it’s an absolutely intrinsic part of production design. And the art department, I think, needs to work hand in hand with visual effects. Certainly that’s been my experience in working with Baz. And in fact I think we would probably have a visual effects art director on the next film, because you need someone who understands the process, to make sure that all the right information is going up to all the multiple houses.”

The result of all of this is another pair of Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design for Martin. She has been nominated singularly for Best Production Design on 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet” and Best Costume Design for 2008’s “Australia,” but the only other time she was recognized in both categories was for 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” She won both Oscars that year, and in a season as contested as this, where voters might be looking to spread the love a bit, the opulence of “The Great Gatsby” could well bring her one or two more Academy Awards.

We, along with Martin, will find out if that’s so on March 2.

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