IN CONVERSATION WITH “ELVIS” DIRECTOR AND MAIN STARS
ELVIS is an epic, big-screen spectacle from Warner Bros. Pictures and visionary, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Baz Luhrmann that explores the life and music of Elvis Presley, starring Austin Butler and Oscar winner Tom Hanks.
A thoroughly cinematic drama, Elvis’s story is seen through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker. As told by Parker, the film delves into the complex dynamic between the two spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America. Central to that journey is one of the significant and influential people in Elvis’s life, Priscilla Presley.
“This story is about Elvis and Colonel Parker’s relationship… a true story told brilliantly and creatively that only Baz, in his unique, artistic way, could have delivered… a director who put his heart and soul… into this film. Austin Butler is outstanding. Tom Hanks was Col Parker.” – Priscilla Presley
“While this story is called ‘Elvis’, it’s also Colonel Tom Parker’s story – the telling of it at least; he’s our way in, our narrator and an unreliable one at that,” states writer/director/producer Baz Luhrmann, whose extensive research into the music icon Elvis aided in his discovery of the strange partnership behind the artist’s public success and personal struggles. “As I like to say, Colonel Tom Parker was never a colonel, never a Tom, never a Parker, but a fascinating character all the same. He was a carnival barker dedicated to finding that one great act.”
“Nineteen-year-old Elvis Presley had lived for a period of time in one of the few white-designated houses in a Black section of Tupelo, Mississippi,” the filmmaker continues, “where, along with a group of neighborhood friends, he absorbed the music of both the local juke joints and the Pentecostal revival tents. As he grew up, he fused this with his love of country music. Parker had no ear for music whatsoever, but he was absolutely struck by the effect Elvis’s whole package had on young audiences. As the Colonel says in the film, ‘It was the greatest carnival act I had ever see’.”
Luhrmann further adds that “In the mid-1950s in parts of America, carnivals were transitioning into music, mainly country and western. But Parker was always looking for the extraordinary – the one that made the most money, had a great costume, excited the audience, had a strange twist… Just something special, like Elvis.”
BAZ LUHRMANN is a master storyteller and pioneer of pop culture working across film, opera, theatre, events and music. His signature blend of fantasy, romance and decadence fuses high and low culture, a unique sonic and cinematic language and trademark theatrical aesthetic that continuously captivates audiences and ignites imaginations around the world.
The Oscar-nominated director, writer and producer burst onto the scene with the first of the ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’, ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (1992), followed by the ambitious modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (1996) and Academy Award-winning ‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001), which brought back the movie-musical and cemented Luhrmann’s cult-like following amongst audiences and industry alike.
The adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ (2013) added to his potent resume, winning two Academy Awards and becoming Luhrmann’s highest-grossing film to date.
IN CONVERSATION WITH BAZ LUHRMANN
What was behind your decision to do a film about Elvis and his rise to fame?
He was in my life as a kid a bit and I was a fan then. I always loved the way Shakespeare or someone would take a life and explore a bigger idea. I really wanted to look at America in the fifties, sixties and the seventies, and Elvis is right at the center of that, those times culturally. Elvis, the rebel, he’s like the original punk. He grew up in the black community at a certain point, with black music, white music, melding things. And then you have Colonel Tom Parker played by Tom Hanks, never a colonel, never Tom, never Parker. And he’s the big snake old salesman. He’s the guy that puts his name on everything and just says whatever he needs to, to snow you. So the tension between these two lost boys who grow up and together suddenly overnight explode the world, and then they transcend and they fall like Icarus, that’s an opera, it’s like an operatic story and it’s a story meant for the cinema. It’s a cinematic movie. It’s a theatrical movie.
What was the most important thing that you really wanted to embody and showcase in the film?
I think the most important thing, which is why I thought I’d never probably make it, is to find an actor who could truly embody Elvis. It’s easy to do the impersonation, it’s easy to do the tropes, but who could embody the humanity of the man that he was and more importantly, he was incredible. If I learned anything from all the time I spent in the south and meeting people, he knew his love of gospel music. He was a very spiritual person. And there’s sensitivity to him. I mean, you can be good looking and sing. Well, there are a dime and a dozen, but why were audiences, men and women, so touched by him? It was almost being in a religious tent, so I wanted to show the humanity of it and I couldn’t have done it without someone like Austin, who himself shared that situation with Elvis, where he lost his mother at a very young age. And I think it brought within invisibility to channel open-hearted kindness and humanity and compassion actually.
How did the first reactions, a 12-minute standing ovation, from the world premiere in Cannes make you feel?
I was discovering Cannes when I was 29 and I made a film called ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and nobody wanted it. And I’ve been there twice afterwards. I think you often see actors get an Oscar and they cry or something, and you think it’s not real, but it’s real because so much is riding on getting people back into the theater. It’s a fact that Cannes audiences aren’t always that kind. I’ve been there when they booed. We had another film coming in after us and the director was worried as we couldn’t get people out of the theater. So that feels good.
To bring to life the man whose electrifying art and image have permeated the four corners of the world for more than six decades, the filmmakers conducted an extensive search before coming across Austin Butler. Says Luhrmann, “I knew I couldn’t make this film if the casting wasn’t absolutely right, and we searched thoroughly for an actor with the ability to evoke the singular natural movement and vocal qualities of this peerless star, but also the inner vulnerability of the artist. I had heard about Austin Butler from his stand-out role opposite Denzel Washington in ‘The Iceman Cometh’ on Broadway and then I got a call from Denzel, whom I do not know, going out of his way to state that this young actor had a work ethic like no one else he had seen before. Through a journey of extensive screen testing and music and performance workshops, I knew unequivocally that I had found someone who could embody the spirit of one of the world’s most iconic musical figures.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH AUSTIN BUTLER
How did you prepare for the role of the iconic Elvis Presley, to best embody him?
I began by absorbing everything, because I wanted to read every book that had been written on his life. I watched every bit of footage countless times and listened to every interview that he ever gave. And so I started by just reaching out there and taking in everything that I could. And then at the end of the day, what was the fascinating part for me, was peeling back the layers of either the icon or superhuman Elvis and the caricature Elvis and getting to his humanity and his deep spirituality and his inner life. That’s what was fascinating for me.
At the world premiere in Cannes you and the film received a 12-minute standing ovation. What feelings did this evoke for you?
It was enormous for me. I hadn’t seen the film before and I’d never been to Cannes. So the feeling of going in and the lights going down, I felt so nervous and I felt my heart pounding. And then, as the film went on and there were certain performances where people applauded, you just feel the energy in the room. I dedicated two years of my life to this experience and I felt such a responsibility. So to finally get to share that with people and to feel the love after the film, it meant so much to me.
How was it working with Baz Luhrmann?
Baz is just the best. He’s been one of those filmmakers that I’ve admired for as long as I can remember. I remember watching ‘Romeo + Juliet’ when I was very young and just being so impacted by the fact that you can make a film like that, and the spectacle of it and the way that he edited his films and used music in his films. I’d always wanted to work with him. And then getting this opportunity to get to collaborate and just know him as a person, he’s one of the most kind, generous human beings I’ve ever met. And we just had an absolute ball doing this together.
You’ve changed over 90 different looks for the film. How was that for you to experience?
Geez, a lot. We had so many wardrobe fittings, Catherine Martin is just so brilliant and her attention to detail is exceptional. We spent a lot of time feeling the clothes, cause you move differently in different fabric. She was amazing at allowing me into that process and it really changes the way you feel. And that’s the thing with this film, it’s really ambitious in trying to tell his entire life essentially in two and a half hours. So that was one of those things that helps with the evolution tremendously.
To portray one of the most important people in Elvis’s life, the filmmakers cast Olivia DeJonge, who was born in Melbourne and lived much of her young life in Perth. “With Elvis and Priscilla, I think that there was a kind of delicate, innocent romance in the beginning,” Luhrmann surmises. “By the time they met, Elvis had found it near-impossible to meet anyone who didn’t have some kind of ulterior agenda, so he and Priscilla quickly formed a protective cocoon. She was also there in the end as a friend, a true friend, and I believe that connection and support was there all the way through his life. So, I had to find someone who, like Austin, is mature beyond their years and could play this character for a long span of time. Olivia is just that; she’s very smart and has great self-possession.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH OLIVIA DEJONGE
What is the most beautiful thing about your character Priscilla and her relationship with Elvis?
I think the most beautiful thing about the relationship was the continued love and care that was there after their divorce and the continued love and care that was there after his death.
How did you prepare for this role?
It was a lot of reading. I read a lot about her, I watched a lot of her. I listened to her Graceland tour every night as I went to bed, so it was really a lot of preparation, as well as just familiarizing myself with how she held herself in public. I think the way that she moved was very self-aware. I worked a lot with Polly Bennett, our movement coach and choreographer, to sort of perfect that. I think her voice was really important and I worked a lot to soften my own brash Australian accent, to sort of try and bring that to her on the screen.
What will you carry with you forever from this film and working with this cast and crew?
Just even from playing Priscilla, I think I learned that there’s a lot of strength in softness. And I will take that with me, that sort of lesson with me for the rest of my life. In terms of working with Baz and the whole crew, they are such hard workers, they’re so hardworking. And I think to be on a set like that, there is lessons that you take with you for the rest of your life.
You were actually filming in Australia, your homeland? How was it for you to film ‘at home’?
It was honestly a little strange. I remember being like “This is the most American story to ever be told and we’re shooting it on the Gold Coast in Australia”. It was very strange, but also the Gold Coast is incredibly beautiful. And so on days off, it was stunning to be on the beach. I think that there was also this very relaxed atmosphere, which I think was kind of what we needed for a big film like this, feeling relaxed. Also we were in the middle of the pandemic too, so we were already pretty isolated. It felt like kind of a big film, but also like we were doing this special little thing, just the cast and crew, all of us together. I think it really worked out well, shooting in Queensland.
You changed a lot of different amazing looks in the film. How was it going through the process of trying all these different looks throughout the film?
It took a really long time. We did countless fittings, both for hair and makeup, like weeks and weeks before we even shot the film. It was definitely a process. I remember the first time I put the giant beehive on. You think it’s funny, you have to move differently when you’ve got the long nails and when you’ve got the big hair, because we don’t wear stuff like that these days, especially not hair so big, which has 10 pounds, but there’s new movement that comes with that. There’s a new self-awareness that comes with that, but to step into a character in terms of the film, the way that we were able to, with the team that was surrounding us, it was a lot of fun. And it was an experience that I’ll never forget.
How was it co-starring with Austin Butler in this amazing film?
He’s done such an incredible job with his portrayal of Elvis and his interpretation of who he is. And he’s really translated the soul of the man onto the screen, which hadn’t really been done before. And I think to see that transformation up close, in the way that I did, was really very inspiring. I’m very proud of what’s on the screen. And I think it’s really exciting to see what he’s gonna do next and to see where this whole journey takes him.
And how was it working with Baz Luhrmann?
Baz is amazing. I love working with Baz. I had so much fun making this film and I know I sound like a bit of a broken record, but seriously, Baz is this creative genius man who works on the fly and is very kind, very trusting. He pushes you beyond what you think you can be pushed to. And he is really an ideas man. He has a lot of interesting ideas. He is also very receptive and very open to suggestion, which I appreciated as a young actor. Stepping onto something like this, it could have gone the other way, where it was like the script is the script and you have to do this or nothing, but he was very open and collaborative.
interview by JANA LETONJA & TIMOTEJ LETONJA