Interview – ‘Elvis’ director Baz Luhrmann and star Austin Butler

In celebration and preparation of the global launch for the first trailer to filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s (Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby) highly anticipated biographical-drama of the arguably the greatest rock-star that ever lived, Elvis, the amazing team at Warner Bros. Australia allowed me to sit in on a virtual press-conference with the film’s director (Luhrmann) and the lead star, Mr. Presley himself, Austin Butler as they discussed how they brought this monumental and incredible true story to life on the silver screen.

With Butler (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) in the titular role, Elvis uses Luhrmann’s visually lavish style to follow the rise to fame for singer and musician, Elvis Presley. The film will also feature performances from Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Kodi Smit-McPhee, David Wenham, and Dacre Montgomery.

Check out the exclusive first trailer here:

Passionately describing himself as a ‘trailer-nut’, Luhrmann directed the stagehands as he would on a movie set, to show off the trailer at a theatre on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles (and virtually for us at home!) before chatting with Butler about the film!

To Baz, why did you decide to make a movie about icon, superstar and American tragedy Elvis Presley?

Baz Luhrmann: My background in terms of storytelling, and I’m not invoking that I’m like Shakespeare, but the great storytellers like Shakespeare wouldn’t make biographies. He never did the ‘biography’ of King Richard. But what they did was take a life and use it as a canvas to explore a larger idea. A great biopic is terrific, but some like Amadeus isn’t about Mozart, it’s about jealousy. And what became really apparent to me that there are musical icons who are so important to me. I’m a music guy, I’m an Elvis fan. But I don’t think that fanhood was the reason I wanted to make a film about Elvis. The truth is that in this modern era, the life of Elvis Presley could not be a better canvas to explore America in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s. It’s a mythical life that he lived, 42 years. He lived 3 great lives in those 42 years. And what’s great about it, is that life was at the centre culturally of the 50s, and socially in the 60s and 70s. That’s what drew me in.

And you have Tom Hanks, basically, playing the villain! Not really something people would expect!

Luhrmann: Well, Tom, he really ran towards that. It’s interesting because, ‘villain’ is easy to wrap it up, and the trailer opens with: “There are some who say I am the villain of this story.” He goes on to tell the story, but not the story of ‘and they’re right’! From that character’s point of view, he is defending his telling of that story. When it comes to a historical character, there’s only ever ‘somebody’s’ telling of that story.

Austin, here you are, Elvis Presley, what drew you to play this character?

Austin Butler: There were many reasons, but fundamentally, getting to explore to humanity of somebody who has become the wallpaper of society. He’s such an icon and he’s held up to such a superhuman status. To be able to explore that for a few years know and find out why he was the way that he was and find the human within that icon was such a joy that I could do it for the rest of my life. That paired with the fact that I got to work with one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived, that was the joy of a lifetime.

And how long was this process for you, living inside of Elvis’ body – 3 years, 4 years? How has that transformed you?

Butler: Well, I was 27 when we started and I’m 30 now! It’s been a while!

Luhrmann: It’s only been 3 years! I knock these pictures out real quick! What are you complaining about? (laughs)

One thing that struck me watching this film, is the fact that you are singing! It’s not just Elvis’ voice, it’s also your voice. What was the process of that for you, trying to sound like Elvis Presley?

Butler: Those are big shoes to fill. When I began the process of this, I set out to get my voice to sound identical to him. That was my goal, if you heard a recording of me and a recording of him, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But that also instills the fear that I may not achieve it, so that got the fire burning inside to work, and work, and work on it to get it right. For a year, I was doing 6 or 7 days of voice coaching with experts trying to register me in the right place, and the dialect with the way he inflects. Ultimately, the life was important. You can impersonate somebody, but it was always about the life, the passion, the heart of somebody – to live the life as truthfully as possible.

Luhrmann: What’s really interesting is that all of those earlier recordings from the 60s, you really can’t use in the film.

Why can’t you use those?

Luhrmann: Because they’re recorded mono. So, they’re nostalgic sounding. The idea that you believe someone is miming a really old record, and you can reproduce it with a sound-a-like but it’s just like a photocopy of a performance that’s on a record. But on the other hand, older Elvis, people impersonate that, tribute artists. And I want to give kudos to the tribute artists, because what they basically do is go: “How like that actual performance is that?” It’s basically a sport, people get scored on it! Great respect for that. But that’s not about, like Austin is saying, getting inside the soul of the human being. So, we came up with an unusual language, a musical language for the film. And that is that Austin would sing all the young Elvis, but with Elvis in the 60s, we would blend his voice in.

The film in its own way is a look at how rock ‘n’ roll unleashed the sexual revolution in America. Some of the scenes harkening back to Frank Sinatra or looking forward to the Beatles, with Elvis unleashing this sexuality that scared the hell out of authority.

Luhrmann: Doesn’t it! And there is much more to say about that because the film is a vast canvas. But it’s really interesting how that liberation for that younger generation was so terrifying because of its complex relationship with race in America, and that’s where the drama is. I’m looking at this as a storyteller, that’s where the storytelling stakes go through the roof!

Well let’s hit the nail on the head here with Elvis’ connection to Black culture and Black America – there’s images of Elvis in a Black church, how did you want to deal with that in the film?

Luhrmann: I grew up in a small town, and when I moved to the city, I was an outside. Or when I film in different countries, I’m an outside and I love it, that’s how I want to live. The thing that became apparent by living it in Memphis, and living this story, the number one thing about Elvis Presley’s journey is that Black music and culture isn’t a sidenote, it’s absolutely the canvas on which the story is writ. If you take that out of the Elvis Presley story, there is no story. He grew up in the community, from the get go he was on Beale Street, sometimes the only white face in Club Andy. The civil rights movement is emerging and he’s a problem for people as he jumps the race line. And something needed to be done about this ‘Elvis kid’, and it did get done. Eventually, the journey of Elvis is to get back to who he really is, is Gospel and Black music.

For you Austin, in the trailer, there’s extreme performance elements, you’re in multiple costumes, your different weights depending on which Elvis we’re looking at. How challenging was it to do the performance, to bring that energy to sum him up?

Butler: I think we had a long time to study as much as I could. Some of the first things we did, 6 months before we filmed, we just played. We got to explore the character. At first, I just watched as much as I could, over and over and over. I didn’t read or listen to anything that didn’t have to do with Elvis for the entire time and thank God there’s lots of incredible footage out. You know, he moved differently in the 50s, 60s and 70s with many variations of his movement between those decades. It was an absolute pleasure being able to delve into… rather than looking at the external of the physical side, but looking at why he does this, what is coming from inside. And once we understood that it feels like a part of you.

Thank you again to Warner Bros. for the chance to take part in this press conference! Make sure you check out the trailer above for Elvis, hitting cinemas in June.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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