Production Designer
Catherine Martin
and Her Costume Co-Designer
Angus Strathie
Talk About Designing
Baz Luhrmann's
Moulin Rouge

There's a shot in Baz Luhrmann's new film Moulin Rouge of Ewan McGregor as the poet Christian sitting at a window typing. Emblazoned across the facade of the building, indeed right across the window, is a huge red sign reading: “L'amour.”

The L'amour sign has become something of an iconic image for Luhrmann and his longtime production designer — and wife of four years — Catherine Martin. It first appeared in red neon in their bewitching 1990 production of La Bohème for Opera Australia, set in 1950s Paris, the video of which brought them to international attention. Since then, Martin has managed to slip it into their movies Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, not to mention their marriage ceremony, held onstage at the Sydney Opera House in 1997. In Moulin Rouge, it's a metal sign, frontlit — the early electrification of the Moulin Rouge being one of the decadent club's many great novelties in the 1890s. Asked about the sign, Martin, or CM, as she is generally known, laughs. “It's an old horse, and a good one, but I think it's seen its last trot for a while.”

Moulin Rouge doesn't just spell the end for the L'amour sign. It is, says Martin, the culmination of the vivid, ultra-theatrical aesthetic that characterized both Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet. And, if the 12-minute promotional clip is anything to go by, in bringing that cycle of work to a conclusion, Moulin Rouge outdoes both of its antecedents in its madcap, trippy, operatic, almost orgiastic visual lavishness.

Luhrmann has long been fascinated by the milieu of the Moulin Rouge in the late 19th century, says Martin. For her part, she was keen to do a period film. “And Baz wanted to finish off this trilogy of ‘Red Curtain’ films so that he could then completely change direction. Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet were like an apprenticeship, I suppose, to tackling something that he has always had an interest in: the musical.”

The “Red Curtain” style, which has defined Luhrmann's filmmaking to date, utilizes a distinctive storytelling technique. Each film tells a simple story based on a myth and set in a heightened or created world that is at once familiar yet exotic. “Each of the ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy has a device that awakens the audience to the experience and the storyteller's presence, encouraging them to be constantly aware that they are in fact watching a film,” says the blurb on the Moulin Rouge website. “In Strictly Ballroom, dance is the device; the actors literally dance out the scenes. In Romeo + Juliet, it is Shakespeare's heightened 400-year-old language. In Moulin Rouge, our ultimate ‘Red Curtain’ gesture, music and song is the device that releases us from a naturalistic world.”

“It's a deliberately artificial world,” says Martin. “Behind the red theatrical curtain you find a world of…..” She pauses. “Fantasy is wrong. Baz calls it real artificiality; you create an artificial world but you can see 360° of it. Everything has an equivalent from this world, and it's a world that makes you accept that the people in it break out into song. The interesting thing about the audience reaction at the focus groups is that no one mentions it's a musical. It's like they almost don't register that people are singing.”

From a design perspective, Moulin Rouge was never going to be a straightforward, strictly period piece. For starters, while the movie is set in 1900, the songs the characters sing were written a century later: “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,” “All You Need Is Love,” “The Sound of Music,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Physical,” for example.

The basic design premise, says Martin, was to convey to audiences what it felt like to be there. Thus while the set and costumes both quote the period, they don't follow it slavishly. Elements are tweaked for effect but there are no glaring anachronisms. “We consciously tried to keep within a period context,” says Martin. “So, when we were coming up with sexual stereotypes for the Can-Can girls, you couldn't have a vinyl costume, because vinyl didn't exist, but you could maybe have a leather outfit. If you look in the hardcore S&M books of the late 19th century, people did wear leather corsets and spiked boots. What we tried to do, I suppose, was look at it with a contemporary eye, try and understand what it would have felt like to be there, and then think about what things make you feel like that today.”

The myth Luhrmann and script co-writer Craig Pearce have drawn on for Moulin Rouge is that of Orpheus in the underworld. As for the aesthetic, one could hardly think of a location that lends itself more to a heightened or created world than that of the Moulin Rouge. When it opened in 1889, all of Paris was there. It was a place of extraordinary license, a place where the rich and powerful mingled with the beautiful and penniless, where aristocrats, artists, and prostitutes rubbed shoulders (at the least!), a place where you could indulge your fantasies and be anyone you wanted to be. Luhrmann has described his vision of the Moulin Rouge as “a Can-Can-besotted version of Steve Rubell's disco-crazed Studio 54 with Bangkok's sex market meets Mardi Gras carnival.”

While the worlds Martin designs for Luhrmann are consciously, exuberantly, wittily artificial, they are also meticulously and painstakingly researched over several years. For Moulin Rouge, this of course meant time in Paris, where Luhrmann and Martin researched the the period in libraries, spoke to historians, walked around Montmartre, and attended the show at the Moulin Rouge a few times. They tried to get plans of the original club, without success, but did manage to get hold of a plan from one of the Parisian authorities that had been submitted in 1902 for a renovation of the facade. “It was helpful, because it allowed us to get some concrete sense of scale,” says Martin. Martin also read novels of the period and a book called The Women, which she says “is basically a review of all the prostitutes in Paris, what they would do, and how much they cost,” and spent a couple of days at the Metropolitan Opera in New York going through costumes.

Her recreation of the Moulin Rouge itself, built in its entirety at the Fox Studios in Sydney, where most of the film was shot, was fairly accurate historically (the 10m-high elephant in the garden included). The Parisian scenes outside the window, created using miniature models, were less so. “It's a completely artificial vista,” says Martin, “an ode to Paris rather than [a recreation]. I saw a comment from someone on the Internet saying, ‘Why is it that in movies set in Paris, you can always see the Eiffel Tower out of every window?’ Well that's exactly what you can do in this movie, you can see the Eiffel Tower out of every single window!”

Martin reconfigured the Moulin Rouge slightly differently for cinematic purposes. Historically, the garden and the main dance hall were side by side, but Martin had the facade lead to the garden and then to the dance hall so that there could be a continuous camera move through them. She also incorporated a themed brothel room, which didn't really exist (though the Can-Can dancers were prostitutes). “There were themed brothel rooms all through the Right Bank, but we placed one inside the Moulin Rouge and made our own Gothic furniture and Gothic chandelier, which was inspired by the period but was possibly a little kookier. Some of the furnishings are also a little kookier.” Apart from a tapestry and a candelabrum, which were rented from England, most of the furniture and furnishings were manufactured in the Sydney workshop or rented from Australian antique dealers.

In addition to serving as production designer, Martin originally planned to design all the costumes, but admits she was vanquished by the task and brought in Angus Strathie (who designed the ballroom gowns for Strictly Ballroom) as costume co-designer. It turned out to be a wonderful collaboration. For months they sat and talked, flicking through fashion magazines and reference books and tossing around ideas. Each costume evolved from countless drawings until they reached exactly what it was Luhrmann (who signs off personally on everything from floor finishings to frocks) was after.

“Every time we presented a period costume to Baz, to his eyes it looked like the Wild West,” says Strathie. “A lot of [film] musicals were set in that period and did have that rather twee feeling, so we had to find another way of presenting it all. I'd find myself getting paranoid, going, ‘Does it look authentic? Should it have five or six buttons?’ But then I said, ‘Let it go, Angus, it's not that sort of movie.’ It was all about finding our own rules and then being quite rigid about those.”

Had they the time and the budget, the designers would have liked to make all the costumes. As it was, they made 450 and hired clothes for the extras from Italy. “But even the hired costumes were styled,” Strathie notes.

One of the main challenges was finding a way to give contemporary audiences the same kind of frisson watching the Can-Can as 19th-century audiences experienced. “In 1900, it was something extraordinary and exciting, as opposed to a kick-line of faceless girls in white petticoats,” says Strathie. “We had to find a way to make that extraordinary for now.”

Their solution was to treat each Can-Can dancer as an individual and give her a sexual fetish, and then a nationality when they couldn't think of any more fetishes. The choreography had to stay essentially the same so they had to find a shape and weight of skirt that looked authentic and moved properly and then not deviate from that shape. Above the ruffled skirt, each costume looked different. Some were embroidered; one girl had a skirt covered in pearl buttons, which made it so heavy that she needed braces to keep it up.

But how to deal with the split knickers beneath the Can-Can frocks, which were a big draw in the 19th century? Martin roars with laughter. “We were trying to make a PG-13 film here, so we had split knickers, but delicately concealed the areas that can be seen [so the girls had] a pink, smooth, Barbie-like area!”

The corsets were also problematic. The girls found they could dance in them, but once they got on the floor, couldn't get up again, so they had to design smaller corsets that gave them a certain shape but allowed for more flexibility. Nicole Kidman, who plays Satin, the most famous courtesan in Paris and the star of the Moulin Rouge, cracked a rib while being lifted in a tight corset. “To her credit, she could have worn the costumes without corsets, but she knew it was important to the look,” says Strathie.

For Kidman's outfits, Martin and Strathie looked to Hollywood and the catwalk as well as to the period. “We altered the period silhouette slightly to make her outfits more chic, because that's who she is in the film and because Nicole has that long, lean physique,” says Strathie. ‘We tried to make her look like a fashion plate all the time, giving her some details of the period but also quoting the classic Hollywood style of the 1940s. She's a diva, but who is she? Is she Greta Garbo? Veronica Lake? Betty Grable?”

Much of the beading and embroidery was done in India, not just because it was more economical “but because it made it possible,” says Strathie. “That is one of the skills that we don't have in Australia.” Strathie also went on a buying trip to India, where he bought saris for the big final Hindi production number, and brocades. Many of the fabrics were found in Australia, though the velvet came from Germany, fur from Cuba, and quite a lot of period-looking fabric from London. A large wardrobe workshop was set up at Sydney's Fox Studios, where fabrics were manipulated and where a dyeing team was kept busy.

In finding the color palette for the movie, “We always knew that red was going to feature heavily for the Moulin Rouge, so the setting is very Victorian, quite dark and rich,” says Strathie. “We decided to make the top layer of the Can-Can frocks quite dark, so that when their skirts were lifted, it was a bright flash of color. The big production number at the end is quite a different palette: brighter and shot against gold. In terms of [Kidman's] costumes, there weren't too many colors that we avoided.”

Much of the detail for the graphics and embroidery was done on the computer: a jacket of lace-cut suede for Kidman, for example, was designed on the computer and a disk sent off so that the suede could be laser-cut.

The producers won't divulge budget figures. The total budget has been reported as being around $A95 million. How much of that was set aside for set and costumes no one will say. Martin admits she wishes she'd had more money for scenery. Some of the scenery money was siphoned off for the miniature models of Paris. “There's one set which, if it ends up being used, will have digital work done to it,” she admits.

“Everyone has to operate within constraints, and we push at the boundaries of those constraints,” Martin continues. “We operate beyond enemy lines. Wardrobe and sets were very minimally over budget thorough no fault of anybody's. Either it was a delay to the schedule, so we had to keep the workroom on, or we had to build an extra set we hadn't counted on, but basically, we stuck to our budgets. And I'm proud that we offer such amazing value for the money in Australia. The skill you get here is amazing. We really do have great craftsmen. Americans would walk into the Moulin Rouge set and say ‘That must have cost blah, blah, blah,’ and I'd say, ‘I wish it had, because then I wouldn't have sweated on every light globe, but that's good because it makes you lean and makes you think.”

Martin is full of praise for Brigitte Broch, her set decorator, who also worked on Romeo + Juliet; Ian Gracie, the supervising art director; and Greg Hajdu, the construction manager. “They used very clever, high-tech construction techniques to get a manmade look,” she says. “Things were laser-cut en masse because it's cheaper and easier. And there would be no waste. If they were using polystyrene to coat the walls for texture, they would use the scraps to make rostrum.

“When I was standing on those sets I felt proud to be associated with all my fellow countrymen who made them.” Martin continues. “What we can make here matches the rest of the world. We have good construction techniques and very aggressive ways of building things.”

Asked how hard it all was, Martin sighs. “More difficult than I could ever have known. It was really, really hard. A lot of the things we are trying to do are complicated and time-consuming. It's a big risk, and I just hope that on May 4 it pays off and audiences like it. It has been difficult and fraught — but enormously rewarding as well.”

Moulin Rouge opens at the Cannes Film Festival in May, with a nationwide US premiere scheduled for June 1.

Photos: Sue Adler ©2001 Twentieth Century Fox.
Sketch courtesy Angus Strathie.