Strictly love and business

Husband-and-wife partners in film, theatre and entertainment production company Bazmark Inq, Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin reveal the secrets to their successful partnership spanning the arts, business and family life.

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Husband-and-wife partners in film, theatre and entertainment production company Bazmark Inq, Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, have been collaborating since they first met at NIDA. They reveal the secrets to their successful partnership spanning the arts, business and family life.

Creating decadent, flamboyant worlds with exquisite attention to detail is trademark Bazmark Inq, the production company set up by Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin to manage their various creative projects. It’s fair to say they have their fingers in many pies, as well as films, including Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, Australia and The Great Gatsby; they’ve staged musicals, operas and events such as a fashion show for Collette Dinnigan at the Louvre in Paris; created two short films for Chanel; guest edited VogueAustralia; consulted on an election campaign; and designed a Miami hotel.

Luhrmann has also recently become the co-owner of a record label with Sony’s RCA Records. Named Bazmark Records, it will house the company’s music projects related to television, theatre and film, and sign new artists.

On the side, Martin runs her own homeware brand which has collaborated with various companies, for example, Designer Rugs on rugs, Mokum on wallpaper and fabrics and Anthropologie on a couple of bedding and furnishing lines.

A life based on stories and ideas

Together with their two young children – Lillian and William – they’ve moved the company headquarters from Iona, their historic mansion in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, to New York City. Within the Bazmark household there are few boundaries between work and home life. “It sort of weaves in and out, work and life are kind of one,” says Luhrmann. “But we try and get some separation with the kids, we are trying to do more of that lately.” When the children aren’t at school they accompany their parents to work, whether that’s a film set or the editing suite.

They married in 1997 having met when Luhrmann’s experimental theatre company was looking for a design team for his production of Lake Lost. Luhrmann, who’d graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1985 with a degree in acting, hired Martin and Angus Strathie, who were design students at his former college.

They’re currently in production on The Get Down, a 13-part original series for streaming media company Netflix set in New York City in the 1970s about how a city on the brink of bankruptcy developed hip-hop, punk and disco. Backed by Sony Pictures, it will be released in 2016. Luhrmann and Martin are executive producers on the series, with Luhrmann directing the first two episodes and the season finale, while Martin is the costume and production designer.

The risky business of film production

In working with big production budgets such as the reported $105 million spent on The Great Gatsby, there’s a lot at stake. But it clearly doesn’t run like a conventional business. “Making anything creative isn’t a business,” says Luhrmann. “I wish it was, and it is called ‘show business’. If we all had endless time and money, we’d all be able to make something eventually because we’d live forever and get it done. But making it within the time period and a budget is part of the art form.

It doesn’t work like a perfect business model, which is why it’s exhilarating and it’s also full of fear. Is it a risky business to be in? Yes, I think it’s one of the most risky. And like anything truly risky it has tremendous upsides and scary downsides.”

Luhrmann stresses that it’s not his own money at stake but the studio backing the project. “I’m not running that piece of business,” he says. “We are working for large organisations with tremendous amounts of funds and within the scheme of things these numbers seem huge, but it’s relative. I’ve never had my own personal money at risk. There was a piece in the local papers in Sydney that we were selling our house because of Gatsby; that’s just kind of naïve about how the business works. No one has ever offered for me to invest in the films because a studio such as Warner Bros figure it’ll make a profit. And it did, the studio made an extremely attractive profit out of The Great Gatsby and the soundtrack was also profitable.” According to Box Office Mojo, The Great Gatsby took $US351 million at the box office worldwide.

Running Bazmark Inq has its own challenges. “The tricky thing in our business is we are family people, we have to move around a lot, we live in two different countries,” says Luhrmann. “We try to maintain as domestic a lifestyle as possible, but that’s a small part of our lives as well as the whole circus part of it. We’re in so many different media and creative projects that the business side is a real juggling act because one moment you have tremendous cash flow and the next moment you have none and you may have a lot of projects with pending incomes but not necessarily [flowing through] – it’s always about timing.

“It’s never as predictable as a business where you can give a pretty good assessment of where the cash flow is going to be at any given moment.”

Collaborating in life and work

Luhrmann and Martin (aka CM) have worked together for so long that they have their own personal and very direct language. On set there’s a clear delineation of roles, with Luhrmann providing the vision and Martin bringing it to life visually.

CM brings to the table very unique points-of-view and ideas of her own and that’s true of anyone I work with. I’m really clear about what I want musically but when you work with Jay Z he’s got some ideas too. So, they’re true collaborations.”

Signing off on every single decision is a responsibility that weighs heavily on Luhrmann. “I was never really born to it, I never really felt that comfortable with it,” he says. “Maybe I was trained to do it a bit by my father, who’s a military guy. I don’t really enjoy responsibility at all. I shoulder it as professionally as I can when I’m working and creating, but when I’m not I like to be as irresponsible as I can possibly be and I’m quite good at that.”

For Martin, set and costume design is about bringing an idea or vision into physical reality. “What I enjoy is that I’m part of a story-making process – the genesis of which resides with Baz,” she says. “And from those ideas, the visual cues, the references he gives me, I get a chance to actually try and work out the puzzle and translate that into concrete reality within a constrained time and budget.

Bringing a performance to life

During the production process there’s a very clear moment where he thinks, ‘it’s not working’, and then ‘now it’s working’, according to Luhrmann. “Once it’s working it’s a bit like a child. Once it’s born, the rest of it is in the lap of the gods. And sometimes you can’t get it born; that’s the terrifying thing, you can’t get it to work.”

While most of the creative projects Luhrmann has been involved in begin as one of his ideas, occasionally he is approached to work on other projects. This is how he and Martin got involved in designing the Faena Saxony Hotel in Miami with Len Blavatnik, who co-owns the hotel with real estate developer Alan Faena.

Martin’s also focused on doing what she loves, saying that being passionate about what you do is crucial for a career in the arts. “If you don’t buy into the process, if you don’t enjoy what you do, it just makes every day just that little bit harder,” she says.

International recognition

Their first breakout hit was Strictly Ballroom, which started in 1984 as a group-devised student musical at NIDA. It made its debut as a film in 1992 and in 2014 an updated stage version was created. Martin says Strictly Ballroom was when she realised she could make a living as a costume and production designer.

“My early design career was very much about working for the experience and the love of the art and certainly remuneration was the very last thing on my list,” she says. Her hard work has paid off with Martin winning four Academy Awards, the most won by any Australian. She won two Oscars for The Great Gatsby (best costume design and best production design) and two for Moulin Rogue! (best art direction and best costume design, awards shared with fellow designer Strathie).

While Martin’s reputation as a costume and set designer means she gets approached to work on other films, her dance card is full. “Baz and I are partners in a business together, Bazmark Inq, so my first priority is always to the work that we’re doing within our own company,” she says. “It’s always very flattering to be asked to do something but my creative life within our company is so very satisfying and so all-consuming that it really leaves no opportunity or desire for me to work outside the Bazmark world.”

Martin can’t face documenting the number of hours they dedicate to the business. “I don’t think the two of us ever like to use the word ‘slowing down’,” she says, “but a better balance between work and life – both sides of the coin being lived to the fullest – is something that we really talk about.”

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Winter 2015). For more articles and interactivity, download the iPad edition of Business View for free via our app, NAB Think.

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