When visionary filmmaker Baz Luhrmann related his vision for the film Elvis to his longtime collaborator Catherine Martin she realized that Elvis’s rise to fame was “like Icarus flying towards the sun, an extremely poignant and operatic cautionary tale showing the exploitation of fame at all costs.”
“Baz has always been interested in Elvis so this had been kind of percolating in the background before really coming into focus for us a few years ago,” says Oscar-winning producer Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge!), who teamed up for the director’s inaugural feature Strictly Ballroom. “Baz has always been interested in Elvis so this had been kind of percolating in the background before really coming into focus for us a few years ago. I understood his cultural importance.”
“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, who directed from a screenplay he crafted with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner, from a story by Luhrmann and Jeremy Doner.
A thoroughly cinematic drama, Elvis’s (Austin Butler) story is seen through the lens of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). 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 (Olivia DeJonge).
Lurhmann 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.
Luhrmann 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 neighbourhood 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 seen.’”
Lurhmann 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.”
Luhrmann recruited Oscar winner Tom Hanks to play the role of Parker
“I’d never worked with Tom previously, but I just told him the story and before I even got to the video I’d brought along to show him what I had in mind, he said, ‘Well, if you want me I’m your guy.’ What a gift!” says Luhrmann.
Hanks has said of the real-life Parker, “He was both a genius and a scoundrel. He was a very disciplined man, a wicked smart businessman and a dime-squeezing skinflint, but also a pioneer in a big type of show business that did not exist until Elvis Presley came along. He knew instantaneously that Elvis was a unique artist, he saw his grand potential and knew that if he didn’t make a ton of money off him, somebody else would.”
As Luhrmann reveals in Elvis, money was a key motivator and, as such, Parker was also possibly the first person to see the financial potential beyond the music: merchandising. “He sees how this boy, Elvis, has an effect on an audience, an effect like he’s never seen before and certainly beyond anything he’s seen on the carnival circuit,” the filmmaker notes. “To Tom Parker, it’s the greatest carnival act he’s ever witnessed, and he must have it.”
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.”
Butler offers, “What always fascinates me about any icon is the fact that they’re first and foremost human. Elvis was the first of his kind, in a way—a kid who comes from absolutely nothing and then becomes the most famous man on the planet. It’s the American dream. He also embodied so many eras that it feels like he lived 100 years; it’s amazing that he was only here for 42.”
“This story is about Elvis and Colonel Parker’s relationship…a true story told brilliantly and creatively that only Baz [Luhrmann], 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, 4.29.22
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.”
DeJonge tells, “My initial discussions with Baz were about the collaborative nature of the project, the overall vision for the story, and how the character of Priscilla fit into that. In the movie, and I think very much in real life, she was kind of what felt like home for Elvis, sort of that collective breath that you take to balance a life that can be so crazy.”
Elvis is much more than a Biopic
“This film is much more than a biopic; we owe that to Baz’s deep understanding and appreciation of Elvis not just as a human, but also as a captivating, epic figure through which to tell the story of America,” says producer Gail Berman. “Baz himself is uniquely capable of telling a story that is gripping on its surface while exploring deeper, resonant truths. Elvis’ story is packed with so much more than many people know, and Baz, with his unmistakable style and mastery of both film and music, is really the only artist I know who could bring this life to the screen.”
Producer Patrick McCormick found Luhrmann distinctly suited to the subject, observing, “To tell this story involved a certain amount of showmanship—not just Parker’s showmanship or Elvis’s; Baz as a director has those exceptional gifts as well, especially regarding the music element. Baz is deeply involved in the recording industry and aware of performing artists, and always has fresh ideas about how to recreate and rediscover the music of any period and to infuse his films with it in a way people have never heard before. He finds a way to interlace all of these things into a cinematic flow that is uniquely Baz.”
Producer Schuyler Weiss, who has worked closely with the director for many years and on numerous projects, offers additional insight: “Baz always says that Elvis is like wallpaper, he’s become so ubiquitous that everybody knows something about him or his music. But I don’t think I really did understand Elvis’s journey and the different phases of Elvis’s career, and how much he has served as kind of a prism for music and culture in that he drew in so many influences and then radiated out and influenced so many people in turn. Those were the things I started to discover once we delved into this project and those discoveries made me excited and want to learn more.”
Filming took place entirely in Luhrmann’s native Australia
To take audiences back in time through Elvis’s life, production designers Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy focused on blending historic reference with Luhrmann’s larger-than-life visual storytelling. With the exception of a few area locations, everything would be accomplished on the massive sound stages and backlot at Village Roadshow Studios in Australia’s Gold Coast.
Martin has been interpreting Luhrmann’s vision since his first foray into film.
“The way we work is something that we’ve done for such a long time,” Luhrmann says of partner Martin, whom he calls CM. “There’s no mechanics to it, it’s almost like our own language. I start out with my scribbles and collages and bibs and bobs and tear sheets and a lot of words. And I know my scribbles and my sketches and my boards are practically illegible, I know it,” he laughs, “but I am able to convey to her how I see things. And she has many gifts, but one of her extraordinary gifts is that she can take all that jumble and execute it at such a level that is pretty rare. I am involved in the process all the way; while I might obsess over the hem of a costume or the colours on a set wall, we are a true partnership—there’s a spiritual, creative connection that’s really special. Since the moment we met, we have always had an ongoing dialogue, and that conversation hasn’t ever stopped.”
To lens the massive production, Luhrmann turned to frequent collaborator Mandy Walker, with whom he has developed a shorthand over time—an invaluable relationship between director and director of photography on any production, but most especially one of this scope, scale, and precision.
Walker also says that Luhrmann would frequently “talk to me about the story, about the emotional journey, and I would go through the script and write down notes about what he had said to me in terms of what was going on for each character at the time, or how he wanted the audience to feel, or the emotion that’s portrayed in each scene. Once I had that then I would start thinking technically about how we could achieve that and express it photographically. Most of the time we were shooting with at least two cameras and sometimes three, even up to five cameras for the concert scenes. Baz would sit with all the monitors on and talk to everybody on the cameras the whole time. He’s like a conductor,” she smiles. “Part of my job was to make sure he had all the options available to him, really quickly, so we could easily make adjustments in the moment.”
Anyone who’s seen a Baz Luhrmann film, no matter the subject or style of storytelling, knows he takes the score and soundtrack as seriously as any scene, any performance, any frame of film. “I consider music, the script and the visual language all as one,” he states. “I have the same sort of depth of collaboration with my music team as I do with the camera—Anton Monsted is the music supervisor on ‘Elvis,’ Elliott Wheeler is the composer and executive music producer, and I’ve worked with them both before. The music script, the written word, and the visual script—at a certain point with those collaborators, I bring it all into one synthesis, so that when actors come into my world, there’s a visualization already. There’s ‘musicalization’ already, which I know is not a word,” he laughs, “I use it but I made it up. Because to me, all the elements, all live at once. I don’t come in and say now that there’s a script, let’s think about the music. Music is not a background.”
Especially with “Elvis,” the filmmaker asserts. “To access the inner life of Elvis… He was not a particularly verbal person, but when he opens his mouth and he sings, you feel you know him. You feel you understand him. You feel him. That’s just a very particular gift.”
Therefore, the performances in the film, while many, had to be executed just so. “My entire team and I are research junkies,” the director reveals. “We follow a process that’s both academic and in the field, anecdotal. But of course, we’re making a feature-length drama of a life of 42 years, so ‘artistic license’ has to be engaged to compress time and take multiple historical events and combine them into a single moment. The 1956 concert at Russwood Park is a good example. The rioting crowd incident actually occurred at a concert in Canada not long after, but we folded it into the one dramatic event.”
That lasting reaction, that undeniable impulse to continue the experience after the director called “Cut” for the day and even long after production wrapped, is exactly what Baz Luhrmann hopes will permeate into the theater when audiences gather to see “Elvis” on the big screen: “I hope they get all the buzz of the highs, the lows, the music, the love, the looks, the fashion, but most of all that they come out and they’re still talking about it when they leave. That’s the way I look at this movie and that’s why I make movies, to create—to celebrate—that singular experience we can have together in the theater and that we can take with us long after the credits roll. It’s definitely a feeling I feel Elvis would understand and celebrate.”
Says Butler, “Playing Elvis was such an incredible, humbling experience. There were many moments, right from the very beginning, where I just had to walk into the fire. For instance, before we started filming, we went to Nashville and Memphis, and recorded at RCA where Elvis actually recorded, in Studio A there. We had the actual machine that he recorded ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on. It was my first time in a recording studio and I was so nervous! Baz asked all the people from the offices of RCA to come out and be in the audience, and I had to sing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ to them. I’d just been cast and now there I was singing these iconic songs in front of all those people!”
And yet, he understood the logic behind it. “Slowly and surely, moments like that pushed me so far outside my comfort zone that the fear was still there, but it became a different experience,” the actor concedes. “And I knew it was the way that Elvis would have felt when he went out on stage for the first time.”
BAZ LUHRMANN (Writer/Director/Producer) 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.
In addition, “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” won Tony Awards for scenic design, costume, lighting, sound design and orchestrations, and a featured acting Tony for Broadway’s favourite Danny Burstein. Sonya Tayeh won for choreography on her Broadway debut, and Alex Timbers won the trophy for best direction of a musical.
Showing his versatility and talent across all creative fields, Luhrmann’s production company, Bazmark Inq, went on to garner two Tony Awards for the Broadway run of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” (2002), followed by the sweeping historical epic “Australia” (2008).
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. A collaboration with Netflix later produced “The Get Down” (2016), a critically successful series based on the birth of hip-hop in 1970s South Bronx.
Luhrmann’s recent directorial projects include “Faraway Downs,” a six-part Hulu series reimagining his 2008 feature film, “Australia,” where he is currently living with his wife and long-time collaborator, Catherine Martin (CM), and their two children.
SAM BROMELL (Screenplay by) is a screenwriter whose creative experience spans film, television, musicals, biopics, fashion shorts, art exhibits, literary adaptations and historical dramas. Occasionally, all-in-one. He’s penned fashion films for H&M, a series of shorts starring Judy Davis, exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was a co-producer and writer on the Netflix series “The Get Down.” “Elvis” is his debut feature.
CRAIG PEARCE (Screenplay by) is the creator, showrunner and writer of “Pistol,” a six-part limited series about the rise and revolution of the Sex Pistols, directed by Danny Boyle and on FX as of May 31st.
“Elvis” continues Pearce and Luhrmann’s longstanding collaboration, which includes “Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby.”
In 2010, Pearce also wrote the screen adaptation of “Charlie St. Cloud,” starring Zac Efron. In 2014, Pearce collaborated again with Luhrmann on “Strictly Ballroom: The Musical,” for London’s West End. In 2017, Pearce completed his first major television project, serving as writer, executive producer and showrunner for TNT’s “Will,” a ten-hour episodic drama about the lost years of William Shakespeare.
Pearce was honoured with the Australian Writer’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. He studied acting at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. A keen surfer, he divides his time between Sydney, London and Costa Rica.
JEREMY DONER (Screenplay by/Story by) works in film and television in the U.S. and France. He has written and produced the dramas “The Killing” and “Damages,” and penned “Napoleon” for director Ridley Scott. Additionally, he wrote “Odysseus” and a prequel to “Apocalypse Now.”
In France, he has made a name for himself as a writer of comedies, including “Sur la Piste du Marsupilami,” which was the highest-grossing French film of 2012, and “L’Arnacoeur” (Heartbreaker) which earned four César nominations, including Best Picture.