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||Whether you loved or hated Moulin Rouge, you can't ignore the production designer's eye-boggling kineticism.
Collaborating with her husband, director Baz Luhrmann, Martin designs everything from the sets to the costumes. In fall 2002, the duo launched their first Broadway production, La Boheme, set in 1950s Paris.
ZOE: How would you describe your taste?
CATHERINE: I've always appreciated and I'm not trying to sound pretentious the cheapest, nastiest souvenir. I prefer a plastic globe with snow in it to supposedly high culture. I really don't see the difference. The meaning and value of the visual constantly changes.
ZOE: Moulin Rouge, with its extravagant costumes and sets, is in some ways akin to an amazing music video.
CATHERINE: People ask me if I feel my work is kitsch. The world is kitsch. The eighteenth century is kitsch. The issue of kitsch is irrelevant because it's just our natural taste.
ZOE: You went to school for visual art and design. Were you exposed to a lot of European culture growing up?
CATHERINE: My parents met at the Sorbonne my mother is French and my father was a professor, a specialist in eighteenth- century French literature. Although we lived in Australia, we'd visit France quite often. My brother and I were the most horrible children more interested in the cafeterias than in the museums of Europe but we saw everything. I had extremely eccentric French grandparents who lived in a Deco mansion outside of Paris.
ZOE: Wow. It sounds like the perfect movie set.
CATHERINE: That place was incredible. It was completely falling apart my grandfather did his own electrical repairs. There was an elevator, servants' quarters, and entire wings we weren't allowed to enter. Now I realize that my whole upbringing the travel, the constant encounters with new people, the fact that my mother's English is good but when she's tired she can't really understand what you're saying gave me a tolerance for eccentric behavior. Now I work with eccentric, wacked-out people every day of my life.
ZOE: You're getting ready to launch La Bohème on Broadway. I know that the production originated in Australia in 1990. It was also directed by your now-husband, Baz Luhrmann.
CATHERINE: Yeah, in my final year of art school, I codesigned a big Australian opera in Sydney on which Baz was the technical director. It was very successful, and Baz was given La Bohème as his next project. He was asked to look at the work as if it had been written yesterday, with a totally new perspective.
ZOE: Which is similar to what you did with Romeo and Juliet in 1996. That was set in the present, in a place like Los Angeles, and starred Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
CATHERINE: Exactly. Baz wanted to reveal the story that's always his big thing. For La Bohème, our journey was to make the work as accessible as possible, to try to make people understand, from our perspective, who the bohemians were. We started to look at them as students.
ZOE: How did you go about adapting it?
CATHERINE: The opera is set between 1830 and 1840. So we examined that period. Paris was rebuilding after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. For about a ten-year period, France had a stable bourgeois monarchy. Women wore funny bonnets, bohemian men wore checked pants and big ZZ Top beards. There was a huge middle-class for the first time. You had a bunch of youths who were rebelling against their middle-class families, just like in Rebel Without a Cause. They would come to Paris from the country, tell their parents they were going to the Sorbonne, and get stuck in café society, bumming around.
ZOE: Why did you decide to transpose the action to the 1950s?
CATHERINE: We decided to transpose it to the late '50s 1957, to be exact. Europe had rebuilt after the war, the existentialist movement was petering out, and there were all these rich, dispossessed youths. When you look at that Doisneau photograph "The Kiss" it was taken in 1950 in front of the Hotel de Ville it feels like the quintessential Paris. Everyone identifies with it.
ZOE: I love that photo.
CATHERINE: As the concept developed, we decided that in our Paris, all the Parisians will be dressed in black and white. The bohemians, on the other hand, will wear colorful clothes. And the background to the bohemians' lives will be a romantic black and white photograph of Paris. Although the concept seems quite simple, there's a lot of detail involved.
ZOE: You must contend with a staggering amount of detail every day.
CATHERINE: People say I'm a detail queen, but I think that Baz has even more of an obsession with it than I do. Maybe we rev each other up. On the set of Moulin Rouge, John Leguizamo, who played Toulouse-Lautrec, found me on the floor with a scenic painter saying, "I don't think the gold lines are thick enough." The lines were meant to be brass and had just been drawn in gold texture. And John said, "You know what I hate about you? You're so slap-dash." He thought I was crazy because nobody was ever going to pay attention to those lines. [laughs] I just said, "Well, I am. I'm going to walk over it every day for six months, and so are you."
ZOE: It sounds like you guys run a pretty tight ship.
CATHERINE: We do put in every ounce of effort. I believe that all the pride and refinement you put into your work goes down the line, and everybody working with you, from the actors to the set movers, mechanists, and carpenters, will all start to feel the same way about a project. Of course, some days, when Baz is telling you, "I don't think that matchbook graphic is good enough," you think, "Oh, please, god, give me a break." But Baz inspires you to push yourself that little bit further. It's an exciting process, because you're trying to be as good as you can be.
ZOE: Once you're given the green light on a project like Moulin Rouge, how do you go about bringing it to life?
CATHERINE: Baz is a very structured, process-driven director. He'll set out a number of tasks for you. As the script is being written, he'll say, "I want to explore the world of can-can. What was it really? Find me every image of can-can dancers." The great joy of being one of Baz's collaborators I'm only one of them, on Moulin Rouge there were hundreds is that you're involved from the ground up. You don't turn up one day and hear, "Oh, could you please design Moulin Rouge." It's broken into little baby steps, and by the time you get to the first standing set, you're totally inculcated into the style of the show. You've gone through the process, you've rehearsed your mood.
ZOE: You're given direction and freedom at the same time.
CATHERINE: Yes. There are no crimes in this process. I think in a lot of creative endeavors, it's all about being right all the time. When I was in drama school there was a big emphasis on not screwing up. With Baz, you're allowed to discover what you should be doing, and you're allowed to make mistakes.
ZOE: You wear all these different hats producer, production designer, costume designer. Do you consider yourself an artist?
CATHERINE: I think I'm an applied artist. What I think of as a pure artist is when someone can sit in a room all alone, and whether it's with a pen or a piece of paper, create something out of nothing a particular vision of the world. I see Baz as that kind of artist. I'm not saying I don't contribute or embellish or help to reveal, but ultimately, the problem already existed. I didn't think up the problem.
ZOE: Are there ever problems you don't want to solve?
CATHERINE: When I'm feeling twisted, I don't want to solve any problems. When I'm feeling on top of the world, I'm really great at coming up with an idea or having a good instinct.
ZOE: What was it like to win the Oscar last year?
CATHERINE: Well, at the time, you're just hoping that you're going to make it up the stairs! The walk from your seat to the stage is the longest walk ever.
ZOE: And afterwards?
CATHERINE: The reality is that your life goes on. You still have to perform everyday tasks. No lightning bolt comes to save you from having to put your clothes in the laundry bag. The nice thing about winning the Oscar is that you get to share it with all the people who killed themselves to make the show great. We can all say we worked on an Oscar-winning film. Don't doubt in any way that I'm grateful, you just have to keep it in perspective. You know, there's a saying in Australia, "Today's rooster is tomorrow's feather duster."
ZOE: You and Baz have come so far since you both started out in Australia. It's amazing that you've been able to collaborate and be together so successfully.
CATHERINE: My relationship with Baz kind of works, right? I don't like talking about that endlessly because I feel like, "Don't mess with it." Some things are mysteries and you should just leave them like that.