Welcome to the Directors UK Podcast!
This episode comes from our in conversation event with Baz Luhrmann, director of the Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Elvis.
Baz spoke to fellow director Reinaldo Marcus Green about directing an incredible performance from his leading man Austin Butler, his writing process, and so much more.
You can also read a full transcript of the podcast below.
Reinaldo Marcus Green: Baz, thank you for making such a beautiful film. From one filmmaker to another, it’s an incredible task you to took, it’s amazing.
Baz Luhrmann: Thank you.
Reinaldo: What inspired you to take on the project? What excited you about portraying Elvis, the legend, on screen?
Baz: Well, I’ll tell you as long as you answer that about Bob Marley in a minute, okay? (Laughs) Actually, I mean, I had a little bit of fanhood when I was young. More than a little. I realised that I probably had more love for Elvis than I imagined. But that was not the reason. I’ve always ascribed to the way someone like Shakespeare would take a historical figure - let’s say Richard II or something - and explore a larger idea. And that, to me, is not so much biopic... I often refer to Amadeus as a good cinematic example in contemporary language, where it’s really well researched about Mozart. And then you have Salieri, but what is that about? Is it about Mozart? I mean, there’s the preposterous conceit, you know, when Salieri says, ‘Oh, I’m going to get Mozart to write the requiem. It’ll kill him.’ No. Well, why is he saying it? Because he’s jealous. The film is about human jealousy. ‘Why, God? Did you put that genius inside that little pig, when I did everything right‘? So, drama ensues. And yet, we learn about Mozart.
Now, look, as a kid, I mean, I did kind of like Mozart, although I preferred, probably, Beethoven. You do when you’re younger, you know? Anyway, let’s not get into classical music. But when I saw that film, I mean, people who hated classical music, who just thought Mozart was a funny old guy, they say he was a vital, young artist living, breathing and creating. So, I think that’s really been my inspiration.
I always thought Elvis was such a great canvas. Well, at first it was, ‘I want to explore 50s, 60s, 70s.’ But then, ‘I really want to explore these two big gestures.’ And the American gestures of, on the one hand, the “sell”, and the other is the “new”. And, for me, that’s this country with layers of culture and it’s a pot-pourri and it’s a big tangle, where new things are born out of it. And then, the other thing is this thing called the “sell”. The big sell. And that’s Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis is the new, and Parker is the sell. Never a colonel, never a Tom, never a Parker, as I like to say. You probably know now, why, right?
Reinaldo: So, I’d like to just talk about the genesis, from the moment you decided to take this on as director, your creative crew, and the people you brought on to tell this story - and what were some of the challenges that you might have faced while you did that?
Baz: Well, it’s funny you mentioned directing because a director’s chair — although I never sit in a chair on a set — but it’s a funny place to be, isn’t it, Ray? I mean, funny meaning that no matter what, at times, it’s a lonely place to be. But that loneliness, I really try and keep that at bay because I come from an acting, teaching background. And so, I think, in those days, I really learnt that the ensemble and the collaborative, and the collective holding of a story with a group of hands, is really where you get great security from it.
I mean, I start living the films. I mean, I just live them. I was coming and going from Memphis over 2 years. I had an office in Graceland for 18 months. I mean, to me, I could do that forever and never make the movie, you know? For example, you know that scene in the gospel tent and the little kids, it took me like a year to track that little boy down. I’d heard that he existed, and he was about seventy. Very sadly, he passed last year. But just the whole adventure of, ‘Oh, he’s in Tupelo,’ and we couldn’t find him. And then I went with some of my junior guys and we drove down there. It was raining, and wet, and I’d been there for weeks, and my guys said, ‘What? So we come all the way to Tupelo and you’re not going to get out of the car and knock on the door?’ And we get to Sam Bell, and he tells me that story, verbatim. I have the video. He takes me to Green Street, he steps me through that verbatim. And I always think, today, if I never made the movie, I still think the privilege of having that man tell me his story, and that I was able to hear it and participate in it — that, to me, is the great privilege of it. The next bit is making it.
Now, to that point, I really involve everyone very early, always. In fact, I kind of write three scripts. The written one, the visual script, the musical script. And I have my collaborators there. I suppose, for me, it starts as a little bit of a private adventure. Then I bring someone on and I share what I’ve learnt to them. But very quickly, we’re collectively sharing it to another group, and another collaborator, and we’re always making stuff. So, it never feels like we’re not making a movie, you know?
Reinaldo: Could you just talk about working with your wife and what that’s like?
Baz: A lot of arguments in bathrooms.
Reinaldo: Can you tell everybody who your wife is?
Baz: Yes. Catherine Martin. She’s got four Oscars, right? A lot of Baftas. She’s got a lot of awards. And the only reason she’s not here is she’s getting another reward in Sydney. How’s that? She’s getting a lifetime achievement award, and just so you know that I’m not the uncaring husband, I’m getting up at 4 am in the morning in the hotel here, putting on a tuxedo, and I’m going to be participating in a three-hour award show. So, I’ll be there, honey! She’s an awesome human being and a great artist, in her own right. Her great love is actually doing homewares and interior design. But we’ve worked together, I had a theatre company, and her and another young creative, I found them, and they started coming to work with me, and we have our way. Like, I do start with really bad collages. I’m the world’s worst drawer. She very kindly says, ‘Oh, darling. Your sketches are so emotional.’ And what she’s really saying is, ‘Even I can’t read that scribble,’ right?
And I can’t read my own writing, so you can imagine, right? I think people just prop me up a lot. But she has an unerring genius for execution. Now, what I mean about that, it’s not that she’s not without ideas. You take Elvis’ costume: I wear the clothes a lot. I get into character. Someone said to me, ‘Are you a method director?’ You know? I said, ‘Only when it’s Fitzgerald and exploring gin and tonics,’ which I went way too far with, I can tell you. But I’m serious about it. I do wear the clothes, I do go and live in Graceland. I do want to feel what it was like to be in Green Street, running through Shake Rag. But at some point we start to do boards, and then I’ll do my collages, then she turns them into beautiful things.
But clothing, for example, that pink suit — do you know in that beginning scene? Alright. So, we started building the pink suit. I would get on it, and I would jump around a bit. Not that I dance, but I can sort of jump around a bit. So, I jump around because it’s not working. Because, famously, what actually happens with Presley is that really did happen. The way you saw it. It happened in a different location, but he’s so shy, and he goes on. He’s wearing what you call peg pants. And he’s so nervous and he’s shaking, and the girls start reacting exactly like that. And, in fact, Marion Keisker, the woman who works for Sam, the record label owner, said, ‘And I had to shush all the girls because they were keening.’ Keening is not screaming. If you’ve ever seen BTS, you will hear keening, right? I have seen BTS at Citi Field. My ears were bleeding, you know? It’s a very special kind of screaming, and I like loud. And anyway, so, it wasn’t working. How do we make the trousers and stuff work? Now, we’ll leave the trousers out of it because we weren’t doing that bit, right?
It took a bit of technology later on, but what we found was that the 50 structure, the Lansky suit didn’t really work. And so, this is the brilliance of her, she went, ‘It’s a cardigan. That’s the problem. It should be a cardigan.’ I said, ‘What are you doing man?’ She just stripped all the insides of it out and she saved the two shoulder pads. So, then when Austin moved, or Elvis moved, you could see his movement within. You know what I mean? She comes from such a profound history. Her father’s a great academic, she understands clothing, she was one of the great sew-ers. She could sew anything. So, have I said enough about her? She’s brilliant. I love her.
Reinaldo: We need to talk about performance. I mean, Austin Butler’s remarkable in the movie, but an actor is as great as his director, and you have Tom Hanks and you have Austin Butler, the two extremes in terms of experience and time that they’ve had to prepare. How do you work with those varying ages and levels on a film set?
Baz: Well, it is definitely an ensemble. I wouldn’t leave that out. I’ll come to Austin and Tom because you’re right. The narrative of this film, the backstage story of this film is to the total ends of the spectrum. A complete birth and discovery, really. And someone, who’s arguably one of the greatest actors of all time, right? You get on an airline, and you flick through the movies, and you flick through at least 6 or 7 of them and you go, like, ‘Oh, wait. Tom was in those. I forgot that. I just didn’t recognise him.’ But then, also, Richard Roxburgh is an actor that I’ve worked with for years. I mean, the actor David Wenham, who’s playing Hank Snow, I mean, he’s Audrey in Moulin Rouge, you know? He just says that one line, ‘Goodbye.’ So, I love that. I always build a core of actors. But, you’re right, this film sits on the shoulders of two extraordinarily important roles and the first one was finding Elvis.
And, honestly, you know how I told you I love to research and live it, I just sort of thought, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I’ll never have to make it because I’ll never find anyone who’s going to be able to play Elvis.’ It’s going to be my dastardly plot. And my workshop, I think auditions are not good. They’re just not good. Does anyone here think auditions are good? If you do, okay. That’s alright. I accept it. But I just think nobody wins in an audition. So, what I do is I run workshops, and the reason I do that is I have an attitude that when anyone comes into a workshop with me, it’s going to be a day and I’m going to focus on not only getting them the role, but more importantly, learning something about the scene. So, when they leave, we both go, ‘Ooh, we actually improved something here. We found something.’ I want to say, ‘Look at this text. What can we find out about it?’ And I actually found out that a lot of the material was really flawed, by working with different actors.
However, there comes a day when I get this extraordinary tape, and it’s got a young guy on it, and he’s wrapped in a bath robe and he’s playing Unchained Melody. And my memory is, he’s just crying. It’s not acting crying. It’s just so hard to look at, and yet so compelling. The tape gets in my hand, I go, ‘I don’t know who this is. I’ve got to see him.’ Turns out that his agent had given it to a producer friend of mine, and the long story and the short of that is that Austin had done a tape, he thought it was terrible, he had discovered, in his process, that Elvis had lost his mother at the same age that Austin had lost his. And he had this re-occurring nightmare, and he thought, ‘Well, how can I use this?’ And he went downstairs and video-d himself singing to his mum Unchained Melody.
He did not know it was going to be in the movie, you know? So, yes, it was a whoa moment. And then when he came in, he was pretty much down. He’s already started, he already has a sound and a look, and a shape of Elvis. I think it was like two months later, I said to the guys, ‘What part of the South is he from?’ And they said, ‘He’s actually from Anaheim.’ Which is a suburb in Los Angeles. But it was only in the workshop that just grew, and I just don’t ever remember saying, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I mean, I must have, at some point. But it just went on forever, until we made the movie. And well, the movie then never got shot down. Tom was different. Do you want to hear a quick one about Tom? Am I giving you too much?
Reinaldo: No, I love it.
Baz: You can cut it down and focus that, alright? Do it quicker, faster, and cleaner. As you know, when you have an actor of that scale, asking them to play something they don’t normally play, or that is risky, it usually takes a journey. It’s not like you send them a text. So, it usually takes weeks and talking about it, and usually, they want to see a script. So, I go to see Tom and I tell him about Colonel Tom Parker, and I can see, in his eyes, the moment I’m talking about this sort of toxic carnival barker, who has this almost insane control over Elvis, I can see him, sort of, just button in. And I’ve got a video of Colonel Tom Parker. A little doco that’s going to last 3 minutes. And I’ve got my props. And I’m pretty good at this sort of stuff, but I was really nervous because he stops me 15 minutes in and he goes, ‘Well, if you want me, I’m your guy.’ And I got my video ready like this. And I said, ‘Do you want to see the video?’ And he’s like, ‘Not really.’
Stuff went on, and I was working on the script, and I said, ‘Look, I feel like there’s a draft almost ready for your set.’ He says, ‘Well, I actually feel like it’s ready.’ I don’t think he saw it until he arrived in Australia, you know? I think he just absolutely went on instinct that he so wanted to play a character that his audience probably wouldn’t like. And, Ray, you know what it is when you do what you do, when we direct, for everyone here who does direction — if you work with great actors, once they’ve done something well, people want to see it again, and again, and again. And if an actor is an instrument, people want to hear the same tune with little variations. The same tune, the same note. There’s nothing more enjoyable, I think, for a director, than to help an actor find a new note on their instrument to play, or help them play a new tune, that they know they can do, but they were never given the opportunity.
It’s kind of thrilling to do that. So, I think Tom, he just already probably Wikipedia’d Colonel Tom Parker and went, like, ‘He’s revolting. Perfect.’ He probably just started before I walked in the room, you know?
Reinaldo: Don’t sell yourself short. I think he probably saw that Baz Luhrmann was directing the movie.
Baz: Well, I tell you what, though, I’ll tell you what’s so great about him, and you’ll know something about this, he isn’t just committed… he comes on that set and that set and he leads. He leads every actor. He keeps the spirits up. He’d do a poster of one of Elvis’ 60s movies, and it’d be called, like, ‘Baz,’ and ‘Austinrama’, and all these gags. He never left the set. I’d be shooting in a casino, and he’d turn around and be playing craps with us, support actors and stuff. So, he’s just an incredible spirit.
Reinaldo: I’d love to talk about how you navigated the family, if you had to at all, and what that relationship might have been like. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Baz: Sure. Right, one thing that you would already know is if you’re telling a story, if you’re doing Richard II, you’re not going to be looking at someone in the eyes for whom Richard II second is a father, or a husband, or a grandfather. That emotional truth, I mean, their past, but the emotional truth within them, the relationship is very much alive, and that completely changes everything. Now, having said that, Priscilla and Lisa Marie, they weren’t dictating anything. I had complete control over what I wanted to do because Authentic Brands own the likeness of Elvis, and actually, I’m with RCA, my record label, and they own all of the masters. Because Colonel Tom Parker, when he was in desperate need to get gambling money, sold all of Elvis’ music to RCA for almost nothing. And I had the great privilege of being able to go in and hear Elvis tapes, just vocals, of him doing Bob Dylan and things no one’s ever heard. So, I had all I needed.
Having said that, coming back to what you will go through, there’s no way I’m going to make this film and not engage with Priscilla, which I did, or Lisa Marie, which I did. And Lisa Marie was great, actually. She was very like, ‘I’ve never stood by anyone doing this, but I want you to know that I think if anyone can do it, I’m glad you’re stepping in.’ I didn’t know what that meant, except it meant a lot to me. And then, when I met with Priscilla, she was really helpful, but a little bit more guarded. And then the pandemic came and we were estranged. I got stuck in Australia. I couldn’t communicate with them, really, in any substantive way, and Priscilla became a bit more vocal about, ‘I don’t know.’ And she met Austin, but she was basically saying, ‘I don’t know how this skinny kid can play Elvis. No one can.’ So, I’m finishing the film, we’re on our way to Cannes, I know we’re going to Cannes and I need her to see it. I just think, ‘I’ve got to show her. I can’t get out of this anymore.’
And I don’t think I’ve ever felt more nervous about a screening in my life. The plane was late and there was a female security guard. Gale said to me, ‘The security guard’s there. She’s crying.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because Priscilla left.’ I said, ‘No, no.’ Because Priscilla’s still in there. She’s been in there 35 minutes after the movie, and she’s still crying. So, now I get this incredible email, which I’ll never forget, which I then read to Austin, and he burst into tears, and it said, ‘Look, I’m sorry I was hard on you. Can you imagine, all my life, having impersonators come up and curl their lip in my face to a man that defined my life.’ She told me. I couldn’t understand it. She said, ‘You know what? If my husband was here, he would say hot damn, you are me.’ She said, ‘I don’t know who that boy is, but he has achieved the unimaginable.’
And the same with Lisa Marie. They invited us all down to Graceland and we had a barbecue and cocktails in the jungle room, and the kids ran around playing billiards and we were like a part of the family from that moment on, and it was an unbelievable moment. But up until then, while I was trying to serve the larger idea, one has to say, ‘Well, what is the real story?’ You have this feeling that you just absolutely don’t want to let them down because it’s, as you said, someone who was a person to them.
Reinaldo: You did an incredible job honouring that. Talk about your director’s cut. What’s on the cutting room floor? How challenging was it to tell someone’s life in 2 hours and 40 minutes? What was that process like for you?
Baz: I mean, this is the thing, despite all of the baroqueness of my films, I’m very process-driven. As I say, actor, actor, actor, takes, takes, takes, because I can throw anything at it, but if you do not have a true acting call that is really connected, and telling the same story, you’re throwing stuff at an abyss. So, I really focused on that, and then the visual language, all of that. But then, my three scripts I get into one. So, I’m going in with a pretty strong plan. Having said that, I never stopped writing. Things occurred to me on the set, I’ll go in to Tom and he’d go like, ‘Okay, boss. What do you got for me this morning?’ Knowing full well I’ve already re-written the scene. But tweaking and all that, because the actors have workshopped so much, they’re so secure in it, that if I said, ‘Look,’ they’d just watch. And Tom was great. His expression was, you know, ‘Watch this. Watch this.’ He couldn’t wait to show you.
So, then I get to the end of it. Now, I did shoot out some sequences like, for example, Mandy Walker, who, by the way, the DoP who won last night at the technical awards, first time a woman has ever won, as a DoP, is that not right? Including the Baftas and the Oscars, I have to say, alright? But I just love Mandy so much, and she was at the workshop when I discovered Austin. She bought lenses that match the exact materials we had to match that were on YouTube, you know? She built the lenses from the 50s, from Lawrence of Arabia, we matched those. And then we had lenses that were anamorphic, that matched the very famous That’s the Way It Is Elvis documentary that we use a lot in the movie. So, we built those things.
For example, in the comeback special, we have our digital cameras inside the real floor cameras, so they’re in exactly the right position. So, we’re doing all that. So, take the concert in Vegas, we rehearsed it so much that, well, the cameramen had to learn the music, they had to learn everything, so that we ran it from Elvis walking back on stage, covered the shots he went on, and he did the entire concert, right? And Austin knows it so well, he was Elvis. It was kind of an out of body experience, actually. It was. So out of the body that I have a grid that has worked for me for 30 years called Brett. And he might have said 8 words to me, in 30 years. Something like, ‘Morning, boss.’ Like, ‘Watch out. You’ll get squashed.’ And then, at the end of this performance, he comes up and he goes, ‘Boss, can I say something? Look mate, I’ve done Star Wars, I’ve done The Thin Red Line with Terrence Malick, you know, there’s Superman. And man, I’ve done it all, but I’ve never seen anything like that. I think I was shaking. I might have shook the camera.’
And I said, ‘It’s alright, Brett. We’re all shaking.’ And he goes, ‘Good, good. Yes. That was out there.’ And it was. And it was. It was such an extraordinary thing to witness. So, we shot those concerts right out. I have them. But as far as drama and that goes, there’s a lot more there. There’s some sequences I did take out, and there was a more expanded notion of the Colonel and the morphine, but I just needed less and less. So, I think what you might be referring to is that now it will never leave me alone. My gosh. If you Google it your fricking phone explodes. ‘Luhrmann’s 4-hour cut will be done. His version does exist.’ No. It doesn’t. It never did. It’s an assembly of stuff that kindly was around three-fifty and I think my big focus was exactly that. We had one mission and we always kept it in our minds. I withdrew the film when they started putting all the movies on streaming. I said, ‘I’m not doing it.’ I said, ‘Unless you absolutely guarantee that we go into the theatres, and I want a double extension of the time it’s in the theatres.’ And they were like, ‘Okay.’
Reinaldo: How do I get that extension?
Baz: You’ll get it.
Reinaldo: How do we just ask for that extension?
Baz: Well, I can tell you, you don’t have to ask them, you know why? A weird anomaly of us going in, and me doing that, was that I forgot to ask them to stop the VoD, which is video on demand. So, their video on demand, while it was in the theatres, tripled. So, they went like, ‘This is brilliant. We’re going to do this from now on.’ I mean, it worked for Warners, I guess. See, I made a theatrical movie. A movie for the theatre. And our focus was we had to get — to make it work — older audiences in, who were not coming to the theatre, and younger audiences. And, honestly, if there’s anything gratifying about this whole journey, it’s for every single person that worked on it, is that I think it’s the highest growth in a non-sequel movie in the theatres this year. And that’s gratifying because it’s about the theatre, you know? And then it’s great that it goes to streaming.
So, I’m going with Marley should be in the theatre, yes? That’s just a side point. Think of the music, you know?
Reinaldo: Can you talk about your ending? Can you talk about when you knew that that was going to be the ending, and how you came up with it?
Baz: That’s an interesting one, and it goes back to this thing. So, my editors are on really early, too. I mean, they come and they go a little bit, but when I was workshopping, casting, Maddie and Donna — who also won the awards last night, the tech awards, who trained under Jill, who I started with, with Strictly Ballroom — they were cutting very early on. I have really good execs at WB, you know? I’ve worked with them for years. I wanted to get them to understand what we were doing because it was budget time. How much is this going to cost, you know. I did a sort of reading of the treatment, with like a band, and projections, and materials. It was kind of that, right? But we just read treatment, right? Weird, I know.
But I wanted to see this footage of Elvis singing the last time he sings, which is just on VHS. And we did, but I thought, ‘If we just show it, it’ll be too depressing. Let’s cut in some imagery of how he was before the body was corrupt.’ So, what you see on that screen was actually cut, that last bit, was cut two years before I made the movie. and that’s sort of how instinctively I think that works. Now, having said that, although Authentic Brands control the footage, and the one piece of footage they did not want to put out there is that footage. They said, ‘Look, you can do whatever you like, but that’s not the Elvis we want to finish the movie with.’ I said, ‘But don’t you understand how emotional that is? Because the body is corrupt. He can barely stand up, but he sings maybe the best he ever sings in his life.’
And the moment that’s incredible in that footage is when he’s playing and he smiles at the audience like this, like a little boy. He sort of goes, ‘Am I doing well? Do you like it?’ And we’re all going like, ‘Yes.’ And I think that addiction, it’s still a little boy from Tupelo who thinks he’s Captain Marvel Junior and can solve the world with his magic, and he still wants affirmation and love. And I thought, ‘After that, there’s nothing.’ That’s kind of like where it is. And they were like, ‘No.’ So I said, ‘Well, if you don’t want to use the footage, I know Austin can do it.’ And I was thinking, like, ‘Oh, my God. Could Austin possibly pull this off?’ Because I’m thinking, he was 25 then. I mean, the film took so long he’s turned 30, but you know. And he looks 18, so I said, ‘I’m going to do it anyway.’ So we did some testing and stuff, and he started to look like it. And it was still a debate, right up until the end.
And, actually, Austin did it so well, I mean, he does the first half, and he does the smiling bit. That’s Austin, right? But then, I went like, in a sort of epiphany moment, I said with the guys, and I was sitting around thinking, because traditionally, in credits, you see a bit of the real character. I thought, ‘What if it went there?’ And we got what we cut 2 years earlier, popped it in, and that’s the way the movie ends. That’s the way it is. Yes.
Reinaldo: What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this film?
Baz: I’ve had incredible adventures. I hardly ever make them because I get so wrapped up in the adventure of it. I’m from a very small country town, with a few houses, which is weird. I mean, yes, that is interesting, isn’t it? But this film was like no other because we did find Aust and we got down to the day before we shoot, and the scene where Tom guides Elvis through the crowd, and all the girls are kissing, jumping on him — and Tom was over there, we’re going to shoot that scene the next day. And my AD comes over and he says, ‘I think Tom has that flu thing.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘What’s it called?’ He said, ‘It’s called COVID, right?’ And I think you know what happened next, because he was the most famous person in the world to get it.
Suddenly, hazmat suits and we were shut down, and the film was over. I could not hold the cars together. And I think after about four weeks, when we were in the clear, I went to Austin and I said, ‘Look, you better go back to LA. Tom went back. He was suffering. We’ll do the film, maybe, but not now.’ And he said, ‘I’m not leaving. I’m staying here, and I’m going to double-down on the kung fu and the vocals.’ And he just would not go. And so I rang Tom and said, ‘Look, Austin’s not going to go.’ And Tom said, ‘What about if we wait until February when it’s all over?’ That was 2 years ago, by the way. I think 3 years. Anyway, I rang him back and I said, ‘Look, I’ve talked to the scientists. It may not be over by February.’ He went, ‘Alright. Can you finish me by Christmas?’ He comes back down, and from the moment he walked on the set, it was the smoothest shoot I’ve ever done, and it came in on time and under-budget, which by the way, has never happened in my life before, right?
So, I learnt one thing, and that was, I think, having turned 60, that I should get on and make films more because, actually, it really is a privilege. It’s not a job. It’s just a privilege. I always think, well I deal in ideas and stories. But I don’t really think of myself as that. Just ideas and stories. But I think I should. Yes. What I learned about myself is that, probably, it’s just who I am — I probably enjoy it more than I want to admit because it’s so hard.