Dressing the spectacle

May 30, 2001 at 12:00 am

A film as brash, lush and visually complex as Moulin Rouge has a keen aesthetic sensibility behind it, the one belonging to the husband-wife team of director Baz Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin. She’s the artistic director, ultimately responsible for everything the camera sees. Although Martin’s career has encompassed production design for numerous theater pieces (including Luhrmann’s Australian Opera production of La Bohème, set for a Broadway revival in 2002), designing a backlot streetscape for 20th Century Fox’s new studio in Sydney (where Moulin Rouge was filmed) and staging a runway fashion show in Paris, she began as a costume designer at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. She collaborated with NIDA classmate Angus Strathie on Moulin Rouge, and eagerly discusses the increasing interdependence of fashion and cinema.

Metro Times: Obviously, you do a lot of research for a film like this, but is there a point where you go, “I have all this information in my head — I’m throwing it out and just going forward with what I think it should be?”

Catherine Martin: Angus and I were classically trained in the sense that to us, in a period movie, everything on camera that you see in close-up is hand-stitched as per the period: The edge of a bonnet would be hand-rolled, the bones in a corset would be whale bones. We were forced by Baz’s vision to take, I think, a much better road, which was to take the period and explore the feeling of what it would have been like for a 19th century person to actually be in the Moulin Rouge at that point. To ask, “How do we communicate the excitement of the can-can to a contemporary audience?” We made certain rules, like we could only use what had been available in the 19th century, but we could use it out of context, say.

MT: How different is a costume designer’s job from a fashion designer’s?

Martin: With fashion, they’re more akin to a fine artist in a sense, although they do have pressures of the commercial world upon them. But it’s very much about their own vision in a given time and place. Whereas a costume designer is working on a story and trying to illustrate and help and support the characters. So it’s very much an applied art form where you’re dealing with a series of problems, and hopefully you’re trying to make that script and story as plausible as possible within the circumstances that they exist. So you can have very realistic costumes if that’s necessary, or outlandish ones. I think that if you look at something like the Lion King onstage, they’re not real costumes, but within the context of the piece, they totally support the story and they expand the characterization of each of those animals.

MT: But don’t costume designers sometimes set the fashion trends, like the case of the Annie Hall menswear look?

Martin: I think one of the interesting things — and why clothes in movies are so powerful — is that the Annie Hall look is the result of Diane Keaton wearing the clothes. It’s her attitude; it’s her ability as an actor. That’s why actors are so appealing, because they project something that attracts us. They kind of channel a feeling of the times or a type of character that allows us to live a story through them. So you and I wouldn’t be the same in Annie Hall’s clothes as Diane Keaton: She creates this character, this persona, and the glamour of the persona that goes with it. That is why fashion designers now turn to actors to make clothes live at premieres or at the Oscars, because there’s something intangible about the personality of that person that brings something extra to the clothes. Actors, because it’s their profession to project personality and to project story, kind of push those clothes into the stratosphere. And you want to own, as a person, a piece of that glamour. I know I do.

MT: Do you see a blurring of the lines between costume designer and fashion designer, particularly when a fashion designer turns to a movie for inspiration?

Martin: With extraordinary artists like Jean-Paul Gaultier or John Galliano or Thierry Mugler, their couture collections are the expressions of their individual visions, and you certainly see themes and costumes, personas and characters explored through clothes. So I think you’re right in saying that it’s a blurring of those lines, particularly if you do a modern-day film and you are buying clothes off the rack. Who’s designing the clothes if you buy a CK suit and put an actress in it? Are you the costume designer or is Calvin Klein? That is an interesting point of discussion. But I suppose it’s about the eye that chooses the garment for that particular scene on that particular actor.

MT: You’re very collaborative in your approach, but does an actor have a say in what they wear?

Martin: With every actor in this movie, and every other movie I’ve worked on with Baz, every actor has input into how their costume is developed, what they wear in what scene. Because ultimately, the clothes are on a hanger — they’re just clothes. It’s the actors that make them come alive.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]