For the past couple of months, Baz Luhrmann, his Elvis leading men Austin Butler & Tom Hanks, and more of their cast & crew have traveled around the world to celebrate the incomparable music legend that is Elvis Presley and to get the word out about their larger-than-life Warner Bros. Pictures biopic – but most importantly, the beloved filmmaker has been on a dedicated mission to encourage people everywhere to head to their nearby movie theater to see Elvis up on the big screen in all its glory.
“I make theatrical movies to be seen in cinemas and that’s why I’ve been killing myself,” Baz tells me during our phone conversation this week. “So that was the kicking off of me going Alright, I will do anything, go anywhere, see anyone, whatever it takes to get audiences not to think that this is something they should see on their phone and order takeout in six month’s time, and keeping it in the theater.”
What might be most interesting about Austin Butler’s electrifying performance as Elvis through the extravagantly stylized eyes of Baz, a far from ordinary filmmaker known for creating such memorable cinematic spectacles as Romeo + Juliet (nineteen ninety six), Moulin Rouge (2001), and The Great Gatsby (2013), is that his latest Elvis film almost did not happen at all.
As production for Elvis was starting in Australia in March 2020, it was major world headlines when actor Tom Hanks, set to play Elvis’s longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker, had been diagnosed with coronavirus. “While I’m making this film and Tom gets Covid, I am sure that this film was going to roll over. We were losing cast, the borders were shut down, Tom wasn’t well. I had to say to Austin I think we might not be doing this film, at least for this yearmeaning it was probably never going to go back.”
Fortunately however, in true Elvis TCB (“taking care of business”) fashion, the show ultimately went on and production was able to move forward.
Elvis tells the story of much of Presley’s life, from his days as a young boy being first introduced to music in his predominantly black Mississippi community to meeting the Colonel as a young man, followed by his rather fast rise to stardom, his family life with wife Priscilla & daughter Lisa Marie, and his tragic demise to drug dependency. The Presley family, including Priscilla, Lisa Marie, and Elvis’s three granddaughters, have been a significant part of the Elvis movie press tour, with Baz referring to them as “American royalty.”
Despite the setbacks of prohibited travel and minimal in-person encounters possible at the start of the pandemic, Baz recalls his initial interactions with Priscilla, saying, “I met with her very early on and she was great. I lost contact with her and Lisa Marie because of the two years being isolated, and she was very understandably nervous about what I might do with the film, do you know? What’s this Baz guy going to do? He can be a bit wacky and could Austin pull it off? When you see Austin, he is very good looking but he’s very boyish. Could this boyish looking guy play all the complexity of Elvis? When I finally returned to the US, one of the first things that I had to do was screen [the film] for Priscilla and I tell you, I have never been so nervous in all my life of a screening. She wrote me the letter and said, I just can’t believe what I’ve seen. Finally, he has got the respect he deserves.”
Priscilla was in attendance beside Baz when Elvis received a 12-minute standing ovation after its screening at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The enormous praise that Elvis received there felt like a full circle moment for Baz, as he says he was first discovered when opening at Cannes with his first feature film Strictly Ballroom in 1992 and returning these 30 years later to opening Cannes again with Elvis.
With now six films under Baz’s belt (including 2008’s Australia) over these three decades, I wondered how his latest Elvis project might standout from his previous work. “I’ve had incredible journeys on the filmmaking process, but nothing will come close to the journey that this film has been – from the five years of research, from the relationships [with the Presleys] – they’re living people, to it almost going away, to Tom getting Covid. I always finish these movies and go That’s it! I can’t do this anymore. It’s too much! But I actually feel energized by this – this is very unusual. I’m not normally like this. I feel like Hey, maybe I should do this more. Maybe I should get on and make more movies. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it.”
As Baz’s career continues to evolve, I asked the Elvis director, producer, screenplay & story writer how his mentality and approach toward the business side in Hollywood has evolved since his early days of filmmaking in the 1990s.
“I recognize now because my projects were so ‘unlikely.’ Nobody said ballroom dancing is going to be popular. No one said a Shakespeare film could make money. Not one thought that the musical could be re-invented, and that’s alright. But to do that, I had to give away a lot of my, what I would call ‘sell my futures.’ So, I didn’t really get a lot of money out of them and I realize now that I have to change my business model. I have to take care of business, ‘TCB,’ because I feel like I try and keep myself strong and energetic and youthful, but I can’t do that. I’m turning 60 this year, so I got to make sure that I change my business model, because I think all artists should have more agency in what they create. Otherwise, you sell your future. I’ve learned a lot about business and it comes from watching the relationship between Parker and Elvis. As BB King says, If you don’t do the business, the business will do you.”
For anyone even mildly aware of what it means to be a Baz Luhrmann film, they know that the carefully crafted soundtrack is pivotal in effectively telling the film’s story. In Elvis, that remains as true as ever, with the intense vocal training that Butler had to endure to sound incredibly like the real Elvis Presley himself. The soundtrack also features the likes of today’s top recording artists including Doja Cat, Kacey Musgraves, Eminem, CeeLo Green, Stevie Nicks, Jack White, Kanye West, and many more.
When speaking about his soundtrack selection process for Elvis, Baz says, “Austin Butler sings the young Elvis and as you know, I’ve had to put out a video to prove it – and it’s classic Elvis. It’s not all remixes – what Doja Cat does, she’s not Big Mama Thornton, she just translates the words into the rap, so you understand what it really actually means. For younger audiences, it allows a door for them to come in and experience the music in a new and fresh way.”
As I concluded my conversation with Baz, I left the visionary storyteller with one final question: After all of your hard work bringing Elvis to life on the big screen, getting to know the real roots of his story directly from the Presley family, and now having the film finally being shown to moviegoers all across the world, what message or few words would you like to say to the real man, Elvis Presley, surely looking down from the heavens on this whole experience with your filmmaking team, Priscilla, Lisa Marie, and his grandchildren?
“I would like to say that if in any way I have done any justice in telling a fair story, that for what he has left behind in his legacy, I would like to say in a few words that he deserves a telling that is as passionate and spiritual, and that people have put as hard of work into, as he did in his music. If there is one thing about Elvis, Priscilla told me it the other night, he would look out into the audience and if he saw one audience member yawning or wasn’t actually engaged, he would double-down on his game. Until the day he died, and you see it in the last scene in the movie where he can barely stand up, he sang as if his very life depended on it.