Last night we went to Iona, the beautiful Victorian home of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin. We drank champagne, rubbed shoulders with arty people and admired the trophy room, which also featured a wall of portraits of The Great Gatsby cast. We were there for the launch of Catherine’s collaboration for Designer Rugs — an Art Deco-inspired collection that was initially designed for the film — but really we were so awestruck by the house and its soaring ceilings that we didn’t see much of the rugs. I’m seriously thinking about getting one though, and framing a picture of Leo as Gatsby, so that I can recreate my very own Iona.
Earlier in the day I sat on a couch with Catherine. Some of our conversation is featured below.
Alice Cavanagh: Let’s talk about the Art Deco period. What fascinates you so much about that period?
Catherine Martin: I think why I’ve always been attracted to it is because it synthesises the two sides of my personality. In the Art Deco period, two styles sat side-by-side. You had the historically derivative styles of Art Deco that were sort of lionised in the 1925 exhibition, which are taking historical antecedents and seeing them through modern eyes and using these things in an entirely exuberant, decorative way. And then you have, at the same time, an incredibly intellectually-rigorous, Bauhaus-lead modernist movement — this idea of trying to reinterpret form, function, structure; trying to re-educate the eye so that nothing superfluous is used; trying to tame the visual environment to serve the modern man. And I love those two things together, ’cause I think it’s a bit like, “Fuck art, let’s dance”.
The Westchester in situ at Iona. This style is in Gatsby’s bedroom in the film.
I would say that you have perfect taste. What do you think defines someone’s personal taste?
That’s a very interesting discussion because one of the things that I’ve been known to have quoted my husband on — and I really agree with him — is that taste is the enemy of art. What I find in my life is the more I stand on my high horse and say things like, “I will never use brown,” (when I was at NIDA I said, “I will never do a design that uses brown,” because I was reacting to all that 60s and 70s sepia scenery) — and, of course, what do I go and do? I go and do a movie,Australia, and everything’s fucking brown. There’s not one thing that isn’t brown, right? Or when I was at NIDA I said, “I’ll always be doing Ibsen and Strindberg and intellectual things and I’m a minimalist,” — you know, all the sets I did at college were all a floor and one piece of furniture on the stage.
And now it’s changed so much!
Now you’re like, “Bring in the props!”
I know! More shit! Bring in more shit! So, I always find that the more I pontificate about what I will do and what I won’t do, the more I’m challenged in my life to kind of — it’s like when Baz said, “I’m really interested in doing Moulin Rouge, blah blah blah,” I remember thinking, “A can-can show? How am I going to make that work?” because I just thought that that’s impossible … Maybe it’s not taste, it’s discernment. You have to decide what’s appropriate.
Night Bird, a version of which is featured in the Buchanan’s dining room in the film.
So, what about The Great Gatsby, then? It’s such a specific brief and obviously people have such a clear vision in their mind from the book, and then there’s the film… How far did you push that? Or did you feel like you really had to stick to a certain level of ‘appropriateness’?
Baz said — because the book was written and takes place in the summer of 1922, but it was actually published in ’25, and it foreshadows the crash that comes in ’29 — he said anything from 1920–1929 we can draw upon to tell the story. So, that was one of the rules. We’re not making a documentary, we’re trying to tell a story, and Baz was all about the book. Of course, it’s going to be his interpretation of the book and the collective interpretation; it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. We worked really hard to use all those things from the 20s. For instance, there are things like the men’s pants and the slimness of the suits that are probably much closer to 1920 than to 1929.
They were a bit more wide-legged in 1929 weren’t they? Boxier suit-shapes.
Yes, by 1929, we’re talking about an Oxford bag and it was starting to get bigger. But we’ve chosen [the slim pants] because it’s a silhouette that a modern audience kind of understands.
More flattering, as well?
And it’s much more flattering. [Leans forward and whispers] They look better in them.
Leo DiCaprio in a slim pant: much better.
Exactly. Those things are to help you understand. Gatsby is an iconic character. It says he was the most optimistic person, you know … He looked at girls the way all girls wanted to be looked at. He smiled the smile that someone wanted to be smiled at [with]. So, you’re obviously trying to make him have an iconic look and you want people — as many people as possible — to access those messages in the book.
Did you read a lot about the Fitzgeralds?
Oh, we looked at everything. And, for instance, we have a lot of associations in terms of commercial associations in the movie, which directly link to his life. For instance, he [Scott Fitzgerald] was a Brooks Brothers customer, so I collaborated with Brooks Brothers. And Tiffany’s, Fitzgerald was also a Tiffany’s customer—
What about Zelda, what brands did she wear?
That was more loosey-goosey. She wore a bit of everything.
How long were you guys working on Gatsby for? It seems so appropriate for you — for your design aesthetic, and also for Baz, who can obviously create this other universe so well.
He mentioned it years ago. He listened to a talking book on the Trans-Siberian Railway and he absolutely loved it. So it’s sort of been in the back of his mind for years and years and years and years. But in terms of actually physically starting the wheels in motion, I’ll have to double check, ’cause it could’ve been ten years and I can’t remember. It’s like having a baby: you forget the pain.