Baz Luhrmann Interview: Elvis in Cannes

The ‘Elvis’ director tells IndieWire he believes it’s ‘my mission’ to get everyone back in the movies.

If you are 25, Elvis Presley died 20 years before you were born. “Oh yeah, they don’t care [about Elvis]said Elvis director Baz Luhrmann, who settled with me in a sunny suite at the JA Marriott just before his film premiered in Cannes. “In a way, I like that. Because they’re very honest. Ever since I was a kid I was a fan, I was more Bowie and Elvis became wallpaper. And I think you know him from Lilo and Stitch or he’s in a video game. Like he’s the guy in the white overalls.”

Never say Aussie director is not up for a challenge. On his first trip to Cannes three decades ago, he walked down the Croisette in a warm wool suit looking for funding for his first feature film, Strictly Ballroom. Since then he has directed Romeo + Juliet, the Cannes 2000 premiere film Moulin Rouge, Australia and his latest film The Great Gatsby, which debuted in Cannes in 2013. The music aims to hypnotize, overwhelm and entertain.

Telling the story of Elvis across three decades of his life, from dainty heartthrob to pompous lounge singer, ticks all the boxes. After a decade in development, ‘Elvis’ was also the first film to be banned due to a pandemic after star Tom Hanks, who portrays Elvis Svengali, Colonel Tom Parker, signed Covid. Luhrmann feared his film was dead – but also wondered if that wasn’t so bad; Elvis seemed to be more than even he could handle.

“It’s really hard to remember how naive the world was,” Luhrmann said. “We had no idea. This Covid thing was like a bomb with hazmat suits and we got locked up. And at first I loved it because there was so much pressure on me. I was like, ‘Did I really mess that up?’ I was with my kids and everything. I used to dress up every night and have crazy dinners and be like, ‘Wow, maybe I don’t have to do the movie.’ You know, I’m off the hook again. Tom wasn’t sure, ‘Well, maybe we can wait until February when it’s all over.’ The film absolutely slipped away. And I had time to look at the structure again. I pretty much restructured the entire first act.”




He had already spent 10 years bringing “Elvis” from one back burner to another. “I had been talking about using Elvis to explore America,” he said. “And eventually Warners buys the property and thinks I’ll do it. Actually, the world had switched to this idea of ​​the commercial carnival crier character, who names everything and knows how to exploit people and emotions and the artist. It suddenly became relevant to me: ‘Wait a minute, this is really important.’ So I came back to the idea of ​​doing it.”

After working with a number of writers (“I Apply Them”), Luhrmann took linear storytelling and added layers and compression, split screens, graphics and audio in the editing room, and packed a crazy crowd into the first hour. (He’s not a fan of the episodic approach, having found his Netflix series The Get Down a grueling experience.) “I just can’t ever get a scene to work where he was spotted at Sun Records like he was ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ sang.’ And so at one point I said, ‘Well, you want to meet him. You want to spot him when he sings.’”

Luhrmann used music to overlay the crowd’s initial reactions to the way Elvis moved during his Hayride performance. “All of a sudden the girls were screaming and he actually said, ‘What are they reacting to?’ “That’s how you move.” And the truth is the pleated pants and all that.”

The director also figured out how to cinematically combine Elvis’ two worlds, the juke bar and the gospel tent. That came out of obsessive research: Luhrmann not only took over a room in the vast Graceland archives in a barn behind the Presley mansion, but also pursued a childhood friend of Elvis’s, Sam Bell, who told the story of the Presleys, who lived in a black man living neighborhood, Elvis joins his gang and soaks up both types of music. (Bell passed last September.)

“The whole issue of Elvis and race,” Luhrmann said, “you can’t explore America in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and put Elvis in the spotlight if you don’t look at race.” The film also explores Presley’s friendship BB King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and Little Richard (Alton Mason).

The director promised himself that if he couldn’t find someone to play Presley, he wouldn’t do the film; he sent Harry Styles and Miles Teller through workshops. “It’s a privilege for me that they went out of their way and worked with me because I learned about the script working with them,” said Luhrmann. However, they weren’t quite right.

Then came a taped audition from this young Californian, Austin Butler, who had been an actor since he was 13, but his best-known role was a bit part as Manson hitman Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

“I have this tape of this young man playing ‘Unchained Melody’ and crying,” Luhrmann said. “It was just weird. I mean it was so moving. I thought, ‘This isn’t really acting.’ Now, years later, I learned that Austin was thinking of his mother, who died the same year as Elvis’ mother.”

Denzel Washington called Luhrmann out of the blue to vouch for Butler’s work ethic; The Oscar winner starred with him in the 2018 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Butler had no idea the veteran star would support him in this way. When Luhrmann met Butler, the actor fooled the director with his southern accent. “He had this kind of naivety about him,” Luhrmann said. “He was kind of Elvis. He basically lived as Elvis for almost three years.”

When Priscilla Presley came to see the film, “she was extremely skeptical that Austin could pull this off,” Luhrmann said. “It was the most nervous performance we’ve ever had. And when she came out, and what she wrote! People forget that Elvis is like a cultural wallpaper, but he’s also a father, a husband, a grandfather. So it meant so much to us to have the whole family behind the film so much.”



Butler chose to stay in Australia during the break and moved in with Luhrmann and his wife, the costume designer, Catherine Martin. “We became very close,” he said. “We had acting and movement coach Polly Bennett down there.”

Luhrmann corrected the script enough to convince Hanks to come back, partly because “we’re not just making the colonel the villain. The Colonel will argue that from his point of view he only encouraged your love for Elvis. It’s a paradox. We’re not judging him, it’s up to the audience to decide what they think of the Colonel. He’s not easy to love. The court of public opinion has ruled that he shaved Elvis.”

What the Colonel did was keep Presley in Las Vegas and prevent him from touring because the manager was exiled from Holland without a passport and the ability to travel. (Elvis never did a world tour.) “Plus, the Colonel has this massive gambling addiction,” Luhrmann said. “He probably lost more money in Vegas than any other man in history.”

Luhrmann follows his own biopic rules. “There’s dramatic licensing and compression because you have to compress the times,” he said. “My rule is as long as it doesn’t fundamentally change the truth. I mean, you tell a 42-year life in two and a half hours.”

Luhrmann’s showmanship knows no bounds. He orchestrated the infamous Cannes opening party for “Moulin Rouge” as mirror tent Nightclub featuring a Hall of Mirrors complete with can-can dancers from Montmartre’s Moulin Rouge hopping from table to table. Rupert Murdoch and Nicole Kidman djed and danced on tables. Even Luhrmann, who describes himself as the Leonardo da Vinci of partying — he and Anna Wintour work together at the Met Ball every year — thinks it was “probably the best party I’ve ever thrown. I mean, it just started.”



Warner Bros.

The “Elvis” after party in Cannes was impressive. Along with Hanks, Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla, Sharon Stone, Shakira, Kylie Minogue and Jeremy O. Harris and Butler, it included pre-programmed drone Elvis displays in the sky, DJ Diplo debuted Swae Lee and star Austin Butler’s original song from the soundtrack and a vibrant live performance by Italian rock band and Eurovision winners Måneskin. As a studio party, however, it failed to scale Luhrmannian heights.

Also in the game was Warner Bros. Discovery’s new CEO, David Zaslav, along with producer Gail Berman, studio head Toby Emmerich and marketing director Josh Goldstine, who must find audiences for the film beyond older adults who will see the king of rock ‘n’ worship roll. Again, that task will fall to Butler, not veteran Hanks buried under a bulky suit and prosthetics.

Team Warners beamed after a 12-minute ovation, but that applause rings hollow when reality bites. Mixed reviews came in, especially for Hanks. The same was true, of course, for the musical juggernaut “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which brought Rami Malek an Oscar. However, Luhrmann’s dense musical biopic is two hours and 39 minutes long and has cost at least $150 million to produce and market; Australia’s six-month pandemic shutdown only added to the costs.

So be it. “I make movies,” said Luhrmann. “It’s a theatrical experience. And the theater simply means a place where strangers come together in an environment. and for a few moments what happens in the theater unifies whether my theater is good or bad. That’s my only job. This is my mission. At the moment we haven’t really proven that non-franchise films can bring all quadrants back to the cinema. I think that weighs on my shoulders.”

Elvis premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. will release it in theaters on Friday June 24th.

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Lindsay Lowe

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