In the latest THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, Tyler Coates moderated a conversation with Elvis’ re-recording mixer Andy Nelson, cinematographer Mandy Walker, producer Gail Berman and director, producer and co-writer Baz Luhrmann, with an introduction by Priscilla Presley.
“One thing I can say is that biopics, or ideas [for them], have come to me a bit. But I’ve never been about doing a biopic, per se,” Luhrmann explained about the incarnation of the idea for his film. “I’m a great aficionado of the way Shakespeare takes a historical figure, Richard the III or something, and explores a larger idea while revealing the humanity of the character. The modern version of that I often think of as Amadeus. I really wasn’t into Mozart back then, however 100 years ago that was. But that incredible story, Salieri and Mozart, is about jealousy.”
“I always thought that Elvis was so beyond even a musical icon,” Luhrmann said of his childhood fascination with Elvis Presley. “He was a symbol of American culture, for the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s — and for the good, the bad and the sad of it. I always thought, ‘Gee, such a canvas to explore America, and the idea of the new, which is [what] Elvis represented, in this incredible country, with all of these layers of culture smashing up against each other — out of it comes many new things.’ And those two things coming together, rising incredibly up, too close to the sun, and then falling tragically at the other end. That seemed to me to be a grand American opera. So that’s where the impulse came from: a tragic, beautiful but grand American opera.”
Producer Berman comes from a musical theater background, having produced the original Broadway production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. On making Elvis with Luhrmann, she said, “I was such a huge fan of Baz, and his musical work in his films. I’d never met him; I’d just seen all of his movies. The point was to do it with him. So, it wasn’t a situation where you put together a list of directors and talk to the studio about a list of directors who could do it. There was only one director that I was interested in seeing how he did this story. And that’s what I went to talk to him about 10 years ago, when we first met. He likes to simmer.”
Cinematographer Walker has been working with Luhrmann for around 20 years, on both film and commercial projects. “He is an amazing collaborator, and he brings me on much earlier than most films, so I was there for [star] Austin [Butler]’s first workshops and running around with my Leica camera taking photos,” Walker recalled. “Baz always makes sure there’s plenty of time for us to do research on the visual language of the film, so we went into Panavision and looked at lenses. I had two series of bespoke lenses made to represent the first half of Elvis’ life, and then we went anamorphic for the second half of his life, but they were all very finely tweaked. We shot a lot of tests. And when we do tests, with Baz, it’s not just an actor standing in front of a grey piece of paper — there’s costume, there’s hair, makeup, there’s elements of the art department that’s all being tested in concert with what I’m doing with the lighting. I had to study the existing footage of Elvis. I studied those and replicated the exact camera angles and the lensing of each shot of those [referenced] films.”
Re-recording mixer Nelson has worked on several movie musicals before this, including La La Land, Les Misérables, and, alongside Luhrmann, Moulin Rouge. “The challenge is Baz, because we worked together on Moulin Rouge, and it kind of established a signature, a style and a feel,” Nelson explained. “So when he called me about this one, I knew it was going to be Moulin Rouge times 10. And we would be turning up the volume and the amps and everything around this, and indeed, we did. I come on to it fairly late in the process, which is great, because I get to see it in more or less its final form. I’m the first audience, in a sense. I get to balance the tracks, but think of it from what the audience is going to experience. It’s an interesting dynamic, because when Baz and I would discuss something he’s looking to do as a style, I would say, ‘Well, you know, we have to be careful to protect this or protect that,’ because filmmakers are so familiar with the material by the time I get it that I have to just make sure that everything’s coming through, hopefully as clearly as possible.”
Luhrmann and Nelson both commended Butler’s vocals and how much of the film is his own singing coming through. “I had to put Austin Butler’s costume test out online, because so many people didn’t believe that he actually sang the entire first half of the movie,” Luhrmann said. Nelson added: “I’ve said this in front of Austin and embarrassed him, because I would have his vocal, and Elvis’ vocal, underneath my fingers. And I could switch between it at times. I swear, you would not know which was [which]. So it gave us the ability to transition to Elvis, his voice, which obviously we were going to do, but know that we could back it up with Austin where needed.”
Interpreting Elvis Presley’s real-life story into a work of ambitious creativity meant allowing the film to stray from pure fact at times. Yet, “we had rules,” Luhrmann explained. “There is an immaculate reality going on inside the film. There’ll be areas where it’d be an exact copy. But then we would, say, go completely off, and we’ll riff and we’ll dance with Elvis, because we want to know not just what it was, but what did it feel like, to be Elvis? What did it feel like to be there?”
This edition of THR Presents is sponsored by Warner Bros.