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Vogue Australia, May 2022

Telling the story of Elvis Presley calls for a visually immersive experience. Enter the powerhouse creative duo of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin. Martin—a four-time Academy Award winner—was tasked with bringing this incredible narrative to life. Here she shares her insights on dreaming up five of Presley’s life chapters.

To celebrate the release of Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, Elvis, his creative partner in life and work Catherine Martin is the guest editor of our Jul/Aug issue, out June 16. Or, pick up this special issue in a duo pack with Vogue’s June issue from June 6, from selected national Woolworths stores. The Academy Award-winning designer has had a hand in curating this very special issue, which bears all the hallmarks of her flamboyant and visionary style. For the full story, purchase a copy of the magazine or become a Vogue VIP and take advantage of our digital and print subscription with exclusive offers and content.

Beale Street Memphis
It was incredibly important for my team and I to become familiar with Elvis’s Southern experience. We visited both Tupelo [Presley’s birthplace] and Memphis, and also followed Elvis’s touring itinerary to absorb the topography of the landscape. We were particularly sensitive to re-creating an environment that wasn’t culturally our own.

Travelling to Beale Street to experience it firsthand was invaluable. Nothing replaces actual experience when trying to tap into the spirit of a location. While Baz is always meticulous with research and detail, it was especially so with Beale Street. He wanted it re-created truthfully but also in a way that amplified its part in Elvis’s story.

My team delved through countless Memphis archives to ensure every detail of the set was as historically accurate as possible. We analysed each block in terms of businesses and their shopfronts, everything from signs, street lights and cornice details. It’s rather like being a detective. Beale Street needed to be pieced together, not only from photography, town-planning documents and written history, but anecdotally from documentaries and video interviews of people who experienced it in the ’50s.

One of the highlights of going to Memphis was meeting Hal and his daughter Julie Lansky, the son and granddaughter of Bernard Lansky who famously fitted Elvis for many of his clothes during this period. The Lansky clothing store on Beale Street started as an army surplus store after World War II. It pivoted to become the pre-eminent clothier to the extraordinary Black musicians that frequented Beale Street.

Baz wanted us to reflect a thriving cultural mecca of blues, rhythm and blues and jazz, and the profound influence these Black musicians had on America’s cultural landscape as well as on Elvis. The set had to illustrate his delight and fascination not only with the musical influence of Beale Street but also its style, embodied in Lanksy’s shop window and also the people, none more so than his musical idols like BB King and Big Mama Thornton.

One of the challenges is finding the right topography. We were lucky at Suntown on the Gold Coast that it met not only the sun-path requirements of Beale Street but also director of photography Mandy Walker’s lighting needs. The collaboration with Tom Wood (visual effects supervisor) on the digital extension of the street was truly exciting and the combination of the built set elements are absolutely seamless in the film.

The most satisfying thing about the Beale Street set is it represents how filmmaking is an art form entirely reliant on collaboration. Art director Damien Drew oversaw the creation of almost 90 metres of road including 11 sets with 17 different shopfronts where we had more than 400 background players and 150 period-correct vehicles on rotation. Walking from one end to the other was a totally immersive experience.
Club Handy
Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell was a Memphis-based entrepreneur who owned a number of establishments on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a touring revue of Black-owned performance venues. Mitchell was instrumental in the creation of what was to become known as the Memphis sound. He ran nightclubs for more than 40 years and one of these was Club Handy, situated in the second-floor lounge of his eponymous hotel on Beale Street.

During segregation Black performers were unable to stay in white hotels and the Mitchell Hotel, billed as Memphis’s leading coloured hotel, boasted 30 rooms and had many famous patrons including Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters and BB King. Ernest Withers was a Black photographer located on Beale Street who captured many performers at Club Handy and others on the Chitlin’ Circuit. There is one photo in particular he took of the main stage at Club Handy that we used to re-create many of the design elements for this set, such as the Beale Street mural backdrop that sat behind the stage. We drew upon this photo and more to re-create elements such as the wallpaper and ceiling of the club.

Baz was determined to incorporate as much of the musical story of Beale Street into the mural backdrop with our graphic artists and scenic painters painting details such as musicians on the rooftops of the buildings to the portrait of the club’s namesake WC Handy, Father of the Blues, in the centre of the backdrop.

Baz wanted us to conjure the electric atmosphere when all of these extraordinary artists, such as Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, were performing. Because of Covid delays and rescheduling, the set remained standing, unshot for more than a year, so we had a little one-year birthday party for the set.

Club Handy initially started out as a one-wall set that was intended for a singular vignette moment. But as the script and Elvis’s story developed, Baz knew that Club Handy needed to become a fully fledged environment. Art director Tuesday Stone, along with set decorator Bev Dunn, layered the set with historically accurate details gleaned from Ernest Withers’ photos including posters of bands and artists of the time that performed at Club Handy, as well as re-creations of original portraits that were painted directly on the wallpaper.
Graceland
Baz and I were extremely fortunate to be provided with unprecedented access to Graceland and its archives. As we donned our white gloves and carefully sifted through the extensive archives of Elvis’s life, we were very cognisant of how special this moment was.

Angie Marchese, vice president of archives and exhibits at Graceland, was unbelievably generous with her time and insights into Elvis’s history, responding to our constant queries throughout our pre-production and production of the film. Along with the actual experience of Graceland and its archives, we used countless photos of Graceland in books that have been published over the years.

One truly exciting moment was being able to see in person the blue paint that donned the walls in the 1950s. This was made possible by Angie allowing us to see inside the rarely opened closet in the vestibule, where vestiges of this blue paint still remain.

Baz wanted to capture Elvis’s excitement at purchasing Graceland, which coincided with his rising stardom and subsequent wealth. We illustrated this by expressing on screen the evolution of both the exterior and interior decor of the house. Elvis arrives in 1957 to a working farm and the exterior of Graceland changes by the summer of ’68 to be the exterior we know today. These changes were conjoined and compressed in order to underline Elvis’s story arc.

Similarly, the interior had three iterations—the moving in, the establishment of the blue-and-red ’50s look, and subsequently the interior of Graceland as it we know it today. Elvis was always intimately involved in Graceland’s redecoration and renovations. Its look is a testament to his iconic style.

We wanted to re-create Graceland as accurately as possible so that the audience, many of whom are familiar with every nook and cranny of the property, would be immersed in the immaculate reality of Elvis’s life. Baz felt it was also important for the audience to be let in to the unexpected 1950s decor, giving them an intimate and surprising glimpse into Elvis’s life at Graceland.

The six-metre sofa that Elvis ordered almost immediately on moving into Graceland (of which we made a reproduction) proved a challenge to actually bring into the set. It was a moment that connected us viscerally to the life of the house. We imagined the day Elvis accepted delivery of this enormous piece of furniture and wondered how long it would have actually taken the delivery men to put it in place.

As Graceland is arguably the best-known Elvis landmark, the onus was on art director Matt Wynne and supervising art director Ian Gracie to piece together all the details of Graceland from site-visit photos, a site survey we had commissioned, and contemporary photos to ensure that Graceland was faithfully re-created. The expert integration of visual effect extensions, the set and the Graceland gates make the illusion of reality seamless.
International Hotel
Although there are some photographs of Elvis’s suite and Baz was lucky enough to visit what was left of it in Vegas before the suite was completely renovated in 2018, there were limited visual references for this set.

Of course we leaned heavily on the plans and drawings of the hotel to deduce as much as possible of what the structure of the room might have been, however Baz was clear that Elvis’s suite needed to represent the gilded cage that Vegas was in Elvis’s life story. He described to us a luxurious sarcophagus that underlined Elvis’s loneliness, isolation and withdrawal from the world. This brief was the basis for the eventual design of the room.

In the script, there were two other hotel room-based sets at the International. One, which eventually didn’t make the movie, was Jerry Schilling’s hotel room and the other was Colonel Tom Parker’s suite, which did.

My team and I came to the conclusion that, as with most hotels, the International Hotel rooms were repetitions of each other and using portions of the bigger set, Elvis’s suite, we could repaint, redress and refurnish to create the other two. This allowed us to economise on the most expensive item in the set which were the enormous plate glass windows that loomed over the Vegas landscape.

For Elvis’s suite we drew on Regency-style architectural details from Graceland and also incorporated a sunken lounge into the television area using as reference a sunken lounge we believe was originally in the lobby of his suite.

For the Colonel’s suite very few substantiated images exist. However, there are written descriptions of the Colonel insisting that the International redecorate his suite in his favourite colour, blue. The Colonel had a lifelong love for and obsession with elephants and you’ll see these used as decorative motifs throughout the set. We also revisit his Snowmen’s League banner, prominently displayed behind his desk. He was very proud of his ability to snow people; that is, to convince people to do things they didn’t want to and unburden them of their funds. Parker started a Snowmen’s League to celebrate these traits; the credo was “Free to get in, a fortune to leave”.

In Elvis’s suite, we looked to dark colours, heavy drapes and painted the ceiling navy blue to match it to the carpet. The heavy, rich draperies and dark furnishings underlined the sarcophagus-like nature of the room. For the Colonel’s suite we leaned into Americana and carnival-barker tchotchkes and promotional posters. One of the most successful set elements was the combination of navy and gold. This overall darkness created a hermetically sealed space that was suffocating and felt impossible to escape.

The richness of the dressing in the Colonel’s suite was a tour de force by set decorator Bev Dunn. It’s a perfect example as to how objects can enhance an audience’s understanding of character through the collection of their trinkets and treasures. It’s possible to feel and understand Colonel Parker’s history from carnival barker to promoter on top of the world just from the artefacts in his suite.


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HOME / VOGUE LIVING / DESIGN
Catherine Martin's exclusive insights behind the scenes of Elvis
CATHERINE MARTIN
28 MAY 2022
Telling the story of Elvis Presley calls for a visually immersive experience. Enter the powerhouse creative duo of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin. Martin—a four-time Academy Award winner—was tasked with bringing this incredible narrative to life. Here she shares her insights on dreaming up five of Presley’s life chapters.



1/16
Extras with masks, a familiar sight while filming Elvis during the Covid pandemic, stand by to shoot outside Harry’s Cafe on the Beale Street set. Photographed by Elvis Senior Art Director Damian Drew.

To celebrate the release of Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, Elvis, his creative partner in life and work Catherine Martin is the guest editor of our Jul/Aug issue, out June 16. Or, pick up this special issue in a duo pack with Vogue’s June issue from June 6, from selected national Woolworths stores. The Academy Award-winning designer has had a hand in curating this very special issue, which bears all the hallmarks of her flamboyant and visionary style. For the full story, purchase a copy of the magazine or become a Vogue VIP and take advantage of our digital and print subscription with exclusive offers and content.

Beale Street Memphis
It was incredibly important for my team and I to become familiar with Elvis’s Southern experience. We visited both Tupelo [Presley’s birthplace] and Memphis, and also followed Elvis’s touring itinerary to absorb the topography of the landscape. We were particularly sensitive to re-creating an environment that wasn’t culturally our own.

Travelling to Beale Street to experience it firsthand was invaluable. Nothing replaces actual experience when trying to tap into the spirit of a location. While Baz is always meticulous with research and detail, it was especially so with Beale Street. He wanted it re-created truthfully but also in a way that amplified its part in Elvis’s story.

My team delved through countless Memphis archives to ensure every detail of the set was as historically accurate as possible. We analysed each block in terms of businesses and their shopfronts, everything from signs, street lights and cornice details. It’s rather like being a detective. Beale Street needed to be pieced together, not only from photography, town-planning documents and written history, but anecdotally from documentaries and video interviews of people who experienced it in the ’50s.

One of the highlights of going to Memphis was meeting Hal and his daughter Julie Lansky, the son and granddaughter of Bernard Lansky who famously fitted Elvis for many of his clothes during this period. The Lansky clothing store on Beale Street started as an army surplus store after World War II. It pivoted to become the pre-eminent clothier to the extraordinary Black musicians that frequented Beale Street.

Baz wanted us to reflect a thriving cultural mecca of blues, rhythm and blues and jazz, and the profound influence these Black musicians had on America’s cultural landscape as well as on Elvis. The set had to illustrate his delight and fascination not only with the musical influence of Beale Street but also its style, embodied in Lanksy’s shop window and also the people, none more so than his musical idols like BB King and Big Mama Thornton.

One of the challenges is finding the right topography. We were lucky at Suntown on the Gold Coast that it met not only the sun-path requirements of Beale Street but also director of photography Mandy Walker’s lighting needs. The collaboration with Tom Wood (visual effects supervisor) on the digital extension of the street was truly exciting and the combination of the built set elements are absolutely seamless in the film.

The most satisfying thing about the Beale Street set is it represents how filmmaking is an art form entirely reliant on collaboration. Art director Damien Drew oversaw the creation of almost 90 metres of road including 11 sets with 17 different shopfronts where we had more than 400 background players and 150 period-correct vehicles on rotation. Walking from one end to the other was a totally immersive experience.


2/16
A red 1948 Dodge Convertible parked on the Beale Street set. With computer graphics, these facades were extended to create the illusion of buildings. All the buildings on the Beale Street set referenced real shopfront on the street in the 1950s. Photographed by Elvis Senior Art Director Damian Drew.


3/16
A fruit seller’s produce offering at Toney’s Fruit Stall. Photographed by Elvis Senior Art Director Damian Drew.


4/16
The interiors of Busch’s Bar on the Beale Street set for Elvis. Photographed by Elvis Senior Art Director Damian Drew.


5/16
The coloured-only drugstore on the Beale Street set. Photographed by Elvis Senior Art Director Damian Drew.


6/16
Alton Mason as Little Richard performs ‘Tutti Frutti’ on the stage of the Club Handy set of Elvis. Photographed by Kane Skenner.

Club Handy
Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell was a Memphis-based entrepreneur who owned a number of establishments on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a touring revue of Black-owned performance venues. Mitchell was instrumental in the creation of what was to become known as the Memphis sound. He ran nightclubs for more than 40 years and one of these was Club Handy, situated in the second-floor lounge of his eponymous hotel on Beale Street.

During segregation Black performers were unable to stay in white hotels and the Mitchell Hotel, billed as Memphis’s leading coloured hotel, boasted 30 rooms and had many famous patrons including Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters and BB King. Ernest Withers was a Black photographer located on Beale Street who captured many performers at Club Handy and others on the Chitlin’ Circuit. There is one photo in particular he took of the main stage at Club Handy that we used to re-create many of the design elements for this set, such as the Beale Street mural backdrop that sat behind the stage. We drew upon this photo and more to re-create elements such as the wallpaper and ceiling of the club.

Baz was determined to incorporate as much of the musical story of Beale Street into the mural backdrop with our graphic artists and scenic painters painting details such as musicians on the rooftops of the buildings to the portrait of the club’s namesake WC Handy, Father of the Blues, in the centre of the backdrop.

Baz wanted us to conjure the electric atmosphere when all of these extraordinary artists, such as Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, were performing. Because of Covid delays and rescheduling, the set remained standing, unshot for more than a year, so we had a little one-year birthday party for the set.

Club Handy initially started out as a one-wall set that was intended for a singular vignette moment. But as the script and Elvis’s story developed, Baz knew that Club Handy needed to become a fully fledged environment. Art director Tuesday Stone, along with set decorator Bev Dunn, layered the set with historically accurate details gleaned from Ernest Withers’ photos including posters of bands and artists of the time that performed at Club Handy, as well as re-creations of original portraits that were painted directly on the wallpaper.


7/16
Patrons dance to Little Richard performing. The work of street photographer Ernest Withers was used to furnish the club with historical detail. Photographed by Kane Skenner.


8/16
A partially built Graceland set on Stage 8 at Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast. Photographed by Tuesday Stone.

Graceland
Baz and I were extremely fortunate to be provided with unprecedented access to Graceland and its archives. As we donned our white gloves and carefully sifted through the extensive archives of Elvis’s life, we were very cognisant of how special this moment was.

Angie Marchese, vice president of archives and exhibits at Graceland, was unbelievably generous with her time and insights into Elvis’s history, responding to our constant queries throughout our pre-production and production of the film. Along with the actual experience of Graceland and its archives, we used countless photos of Graceland in books that have been published over the years.

One truly exciting moment was being able to see in person the blue paint that donned the walls in the 1950s. This was made possible by Angie allowing us to see inside the rarely opened closet in the vestibule, where vestiges of this blue paint still remain.

Baz wanted to capture Elvis’s excitement at purchasing Graceland, which coincided with his rising stardom and subsequent wealth. We illustrated this by expressing on screen the evolution of both the exterior and interior decor of the house. Elvis arrives in 1957 to a working farm and the exterior of Graceland changes by the summer of ’68 to be the exterior we know today. These changes were conjoined and compressed in order to underline Elvis’s story arc.

Similarly, the interior had three iterations—the moving in, the establishment of the blue-and-red ’50s look, and subsequently the interior of Graceland as it we know it today. Elvis was always intimately involved in Graceland’s redecoration and renovations. Its look is a testament to his iconic style.

We wanted to re-create Graceland as accurately as possible so that the audience, many of whom are familiar with every nook and cranny of the property, would be immersed in the immaculate reality of Elvis’s life. Baz felt it was also important for the audience to be let in to the unexpected 1950s decor, giving them an intimate and surprising glimpse into Elvis’s life at Graceland.

The six-metre sofa that Elvis ordered almost immediately on moving into Graceland (of which we made a reproduction) proved a challenge to actually bring into the set. It was a moment that connected us viscerally to the life of the house. We imagined the day Elvis accepted delivery of this enormous piece of furniture and wondered how long it would have actually taken the delivery men to put it in place.

As Graceland is arguably the best-known Elvis landmark, the onus was on art director Matt Wynne and supervising art director Ian Gracie to piece together all the details of Graceland from site-visit photos, a site survey we had commissioned, and contemporary photos to ensure that Graceland was faithfully re-created. The expert integration of visual effect extensions, the set and the Graceland gates make the illusion of reality seamless.


9/16
Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley sits pensively on the stairs in the interior set of Graceland. Photographed by Hugh Stewart.


10/16
The infamous Peacock stained-glass windows on set. Photographed by Damien Drew.


11/16
The Music Room on the Graceland set. Photographed by Damien Drew.


12/16
In the Music Room with a view of the reproduced six-metre sofa. Photographed by Damien Drew.


13/16
Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, enjoying the aftermath of a dinner party at the dining room on the Graceland set, wearing a baby-doll nightie, matching underwear and satin mules, all from Miu Miu. Photographed by Hugh Stewart.


14/16
The decadent textures and tones of the immersive sunken lounge in Elvis’s suite on the International Hotel set. Photographed by Hugh Stewart.

International Hotel
Although there are some photographs of Elvis’s suite and Baz was lucky enough to visit what was left of it in Vegas before the suite was completely renovated in 2018, there were limited visual references for this set.

Of course we leaned heavily on the plans and drawings of the hotel to deduce as much as possible of what the structure of the room might have been, however Baz was clear that Elvis’s suite needed to represent the gilded cage that Vegas was in Elvis’s life story. He described to us a luxurious sarcophagus that underlined Elvis’s loneliness, isolation and withdrawal from the world. This brief was the basis for the eventual design of the room.

In the script, there were two other hotel room-based sets at the International. One, which eventually didn’t make the movie, was Jerry Schilling’s hotel room and the other was Colonel Tom Parker’s suite, which did.

My team and I came to the conclusion that, as with most hotels, the International Hotel rooms were repetitions of each other and using portions of the bigger set, Elvis’s suite, we could repaint, redress and refurnish to create the other two. This allowed us to economise on the most expensive item in the set which were the enormous plate glass windows that loomed over the Vegas landscape.

For Elvis’s suite we drew on Regency-style architectural details from Graceland and also incorporated a sunken lounge into the television area using as reference a sunken lounge we believe was originally in the lobby of his suite.

For the Colonel’s suite very few substantiated images exist. However, there are written descriptions of the Colonel insisting that the International redecorate his suite in his favourite colour, blue. The Colonel had a lifelong love for and obsession with elephants and you’ll see these used as decorative motifs throughout the set. We also revisit his Snowmen’s League banner, prominently displayed behind his desk. He was very proud of his ability to snow people; that is, to convince people to do things they didn’t want to and unburden them of their funds. Parker started a Snowmen’s League to celebrate these traits; the credo was “Free to get in, a fortune to leave”.

In Elvis’s suite, we looked to dark colours, heavy drapes and painted the ceiling navy blue to match it to the carpet. The heavy, rich draperies and dark furnishings underlined the sarcophagus-like nature of the room. For the Colonel’s suite we leaned into Americana and carnival-barker tchotchkes and promotional posters. One of the most successful set elements was the combination of navy and gold. This overall darkness created a hermetically sealed space that was suffocating and felt impossible to escape.

The richness of the dressing in the Colonel’s suite was a tour de force by set decorator Bev Dunn. It’s a perfect example as to how objects can enhance an audience’s understanding of character through the collection of their trinkets and treasures. It’s possible to feel and understand Colonel Parker’s history from carnival barker to promoter on top of the world just from the artefacts in his suite.



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