Bringing a biopic to the big screen involves tinkering with a lifetime to encapsulate the essence of a person in a manageable runtime. Each choice can be examined under a microscope as if the production were a documentary. In the case of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin — who was also credited as the film’s producer and production designer — knew the line between reality and creative interpretation was crucial.
“It was about trying to get a feel and try to tell the story, or our interpretation of the story, as truthfully and respectfully as possible,” Martin said of how the Elvis Presley biopic was made. Turning decades of a famous life into a feature requires a lot of storytelling techniques that sometimes work better than the truth.
Although many of Elvis’ famous jumpsuits were painstakingly recreated, they are not displayed in chronological order. “Buzz wanted to use the jumpsuits to kind of evoke Elvis, so we started with a very pure white jumpsuit and they got crazier and crazier,” says Martin. “It was a deliberate choice, but it’s not historically true.”
Elvis fans may recognize that he wore a different outfit during his opening night performance in Las Vegas, but the filmmakers felt “we need to see Elvis as a popular culture god so many people remember that moment on stage, and it would be confusing to see a costume we We couldn’t articulate it as clearly as we thought,” adds Martin.
While the costumes themselves were meticulously crafted, that didn’t mean Martin’s work stopped there. As the costume is tailored for the stunt, this time the stunt was … dancing?
“Yeah, absolutely,” says Martin of the outfit Austin Butler wore as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “It happened all over [of his] clothing [for various reasons]. He had long sitting pants for the leather outfit he wore in the ’68 special so when he sat down, the top of the pants went over the boots,” he explains.
Butler also had a version of the same outfit with baggier knees for kneeling on the ground and an early version for standing in place. “We had a couple,” says Martin [of pants] He is that [wore as he] Walked gallantly down the aisle to the television stage, specially designed for best viewing from the back.”
Martin noted that filmmakers, actors and audiences all have different expectations for an on-screen portrayal versus a live experience. Elvis, of course, wasn’t busy changing clothes for every movement he made, and his pants could occasionally reveal his socks while sitting.
Add in a well-known supporting character like Little Richard, played by Alton Mason, and the cuteness continues. Martin worked on a performance outfit that was ready to go, but at the final fitting Mason questioned whether it was too much for the character at the time.
“I called Buzz about it, [and there was] Quite a long discussion [about it]. We all agreed that yes, we needed to explore something that was more church boy and less of the performer he had become,” says Martin. “I think it produces better results than we expected” since there’s more contrast between the low-key costumes and the hair and makeup of the scene.
The original dress wasn’t for nothing, though: Martin’s daughter wore it to one of the film’s premieres. “I hope Warner Bros. doesn’t come along and steal that suit,” Martin said. “I have that suit now.”