Baz Luhrmann has a reputation for decorative, high-energy filmmaking. But the former actor tells Screen that performance is always at the heart of his storytelling — and never more so than with Elvis.


Source: Hugh Stewart / Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Baz Luhrmann on the set of ‘Elvis’

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis owes its origins to the filmmaker’s relationship with Warner Bros, where he made his 2013 feature The Great Gatsby. In 2014, the writer/director/producer revealed he was interested in pursuing what he now calls “my Chinese-­American film”, based on the 1970s martial-arts western TV series Kung Fu. But Warner Bros’ then president of production Courtenay Valenti had other ideas, having negotiated with the Elvis Presley estate to secure film rights to his story.

“And hats off to Courtenay, because she just relentlessly kept saying, ‘You should do it,’” says Luhrmann, who became engaged by the idea of telling the Presley story through the relationship between the singer and his self-invented manager Colonel Tom Parker. “And then, with the change of the guard and the whole popularism, and the idea of these very big characters who do a lot of smoke and mirrors and are a bit of carnival barkers,” he says, not deigning to mention former presidents Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro by name, “I went, actually it’s a really good idea. And it’s right for now.”

While the relationship between Presley and his Dutch immigrant string-puller forms the backbone of the reportedly $85m-budget Elvis, Luhrmann and his fellow screenwriters find a strong theme in the singer’s relationship with Black music, which he imbibed growing up in poor neighbourhoods of Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Dramatic conflict arises from a white establishment keen to place the performer definitively within the mainstream, cutting him off from the music and signature moves that allowed him to straddle the racial divide.

“One, no Black music, no Elvis,” begins Luhrmann, enumerating the reasons why he was hooked by this theme. “Two, it’s never been told thoroughly. And three, I wanted to know myself. I engaged on a deep level, working with [author and filmmaker] Nelson George and also a tremendous Black music academic, Racquel Gates,” he says, with reference to the Columbia University School of the Arts associate professor.

Thematically, Luhrmann also took inspiration from Amadeus, in his mind casting Parker as a Salieri-like narrator figure who is envious of Presley’s talent, even as he seeks to steer him to maximum financial success. “It’s about jealousy,” says the filmmaker. “Why did God put talent in that guy, and not me?”

Finally, “Elvis is an amazing canvas because he’s there at the crossroads of culture in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, for the good, the bad and the ugly. So it was a whole canvas, and such a vast life in such a short time.”

Band members

Sam Bromell, who served as writer on three episodes of Luhrmann’s 2016 TV series The Get Down, joined the filmmaker in Tennessee to write and research the film, reworking an early draft by Jeremy Doner. The screenplay crossed the finish line with Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, who has credits on every one of the filmmaker’s features except Australia, working together in parallel. The producer roster includes Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin, who also serves as costume and production designer, and whose work on their previous collaborations have netted her four Oscars and five Baftas.

Graceland’s archives proved a boon, especially the museum’s cache of Colonel Parker audio recordings. Anyone surprised by the vocal intonation of Tom Hanks as Parker should listen to the recordings, says Luhrmann, who adds that the accent slalomed from cartoon-­character lisp to “Count Dracula” intonation. “His voice changed a lot, because he was hiding that his name was Andreas van Kuijk. And you cannot overstate how gargantuan that character was and how out-there he was. He was sort of a clown with a chainsaw.”

Luhrmann says Hanks took just 30 minutes to commit to the role, served as “a great team leader” on set, and — unsurprisingly — proved highly collaborative. “If I have an idea or give him a direction, he always has a point of view. He loves to show you just how much range he’s got. Some actors never get to use every string on their instrument. Well, he is every instrument. I just needed an actor who could step up to the level of the size of the character.”

Hanks gave Warner Bros a marketable name, leaving Luhrmann flexibility in the Presley role. And while bigger names were considered for the part (“the right person is simply the right person, and they can be well-known or not”), it is arguably to the film’s advantage to have a young actor unknown to most audiences, and thus bringing minimum baggage to the iconic role.

Much has been written about Austin Butler’s dedication in preparing for the part, even ahead of auditioning, and then staying put after the Australian production was shut down by the pandemic in spring 2020. “When it looked like the movie was over, he wouldn’t leave Australia,” says Luhrmann. “I knew early on that I had something special in him, and that I was sitting on this. Nobody else knew what we knew we had.”

Key beats

With Elvis, Luhrmann combines kaleidoscopic montages with passages of character-driven drama, shifting gears as the years rush by, and then finding the key story beats, such as the singer deciding which version of Elvis he wishes to be (authentically dangerous or family-­friendly) at the July 1956 concert in Russwood Park, Memphis and for his 1968 comeback NBC Christmas TV special.

Luhrmann has often been pinned as the orchestrator of big-screen spectacle, and he himself jokes that he is the “Stanley Kubrick of flitter bombs”. What is easily overlooked is that Luhrmann trained as an actor (at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts), and began his career in front of the camera.

“I’m glad you bring it up,” he says. “Because the easy go-to is the carnival part of it — and yes, that is a part of it. But the most important thing to me is my relationship with actors. I’ve got the noise going on all around me, but I’ve absorbed that and practised that so much that my only focus on set is actors. You can have as much confetti or flitter bombs as you like, but the weight of the coin is that there’s a truly emotional and psychological and sensitive performance at the centre of it.”

Elvis premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May, then released worldwide via Warner Bros, drawing in audiences of all ages to generate a powerful $286m global box office.

Next from Luhrmann will be Far­away Downs, the six-part TV version of Australia — essentially an extended director’s cut with additional unused footage from the original 2008 feature. Luhrmann says the series — for Hulu and Star — runs not much over three hours, with the longest episode at 40 minutes. It is finished, he says, adding, “I’ve done some innovative things. I’ve worked with a lot of young Indigenous artists doing new music.”

Despite reports, Luhrmann is not preparing a four-hour version of Elvis. A rough assembly exists at that length, but the scoring and post-production needed to turn that into a version for release would present hurdles. “To do another 30 minutes, that’s six months and a lot of money,” he says. “There might be an extended thing I do in two years’ time, but it won’t be four hours.”

Faraway Downs sounds altogether a gentler small-screen experience for the filmmaker than The Get Down, produced by Sony Pictures Tele­vision for Netflix, and set in the disco and rap music scene of the Bronx in the late 1970s. “I was supposed to be, like, Uncle Baz on that,” says Luhrmann regarding his early conception of his role making the series, which earned a mixed response and has not been recommissioned. He ended up committing a year to it, he says, “and eventually, simply through the experience of doing it, I learned about how you [run a show]. I mean, films are tough, but they have a rhythm. Long-play television will kill you.”