The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of ELVIS.
Baz, I read that you were not setting out to make a biopic. Tell us a bit about that approach and how that informed the film we saw today?
Baz Luhrmann: I love a good biopic as much as anyone, but they tend to be formulaic… someone is born, then this happens, then that happens. I’ve also been much more drawn to the notion of say, Shakespeare, who will take a historical figure and he’ll explore a larger idea. Probably a more contemporary example that I can think of is Amadeus. But it’s not about Mozart, it’s told from the point of view of Antonio Salieri. The most famous composer of his time, but the film is about jealousy. America in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, seemed to be a great canvas to explore. The question was how to get into that in a way in which we’re telling Elvis’s story, revealing the humanity behind what the younger generation today sees as a Halloween costume, or what the older generation may see as God. We were using Elvis’s story to explore a larger idea.
You don’t have Elvis without Black music
Austin, what’s it like to play such a God-like character, larger than life? How do you make him a human being?
Austin Butler: In the beginning, it felt impossible. There was nowhere to look but up. To me, I watched him perform and I thought he looked like a god. It’s hard to not feel really small compared to that. But there were keys that sort of opened up these doors into his humanity. Learning the information that we both lost our moms around the same age was helpful. You get past all these larger views of Elvis and just get down to the idea that he was a little kid who grew up dirt poor and was inspired by the music he was hearing around him. You don’t have Elvis without Black music. He’s one of three White houses in this Black neighborhood and he’s ending up in Gospel tents and Juke joints down Beale Street in Memphis. This all put his story in context. It opened up so much so I could start feeling what life was like for him back then and that he lived an incredibly rich life and wasn’t just an icon that exploded out of nowhere. You do all this meticulous work to try and find his soul, and that’s what I was setting out to do.
Was there any point where you felt like you were getting really close to the real guy?
AB: I had so much time to prepare. I tried so many different things. It was a year and a half that I had before we actually starting shooting. During that time, I tried everything. It was kind of like looking at a blurry picture that slowly starts to come into focus. Elvis started to feel closer and closer. Then you have the moment of truth—after doing all this prep and research, you actually have to go out there and do it in front of the camera. Suddenly you’re aware of all the brilliant hard work that everyone has put into to the film, from the designing the sets to creating the costumes. And the first performance I shot was ’68, one of the most iconic performances in rock & roll history. I was so nervous; it was the moment of truth. I felt like my career was on the line. And the truth is, Elvis’s career was on the line. I know how much he cared about it. I could take all that fear I was experiencing and know that he was feeling that too. When we went out there, I was standing on the stage and looking out at the audience, looking down at the leather on my arms and the rings on my fingers and it was a complete out-of-body experience. I felt like I was looking out of his eyes at the most authentic thing I could imagine. It was a day unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. That was a key moment for me. I went back to the dressing room afterwards and felt a feeling of awe, like that’s what this is going to be. It was amazing.
BL: To add to that, the first day of shooting this, we had meticulously matched everything, even the camera lens. By then, as the outsider, as the representative of the audience, I was already convinced that Austin was completely capable of reproducing this moment. But we went out there and could feel the tension in the air. The tension of the shutdown of the film [due to Covid], of having it almost go away, struggling to pull it back together again, Tom bravely coming back and saying if you can shoot this by Christmas we’ll do it, everything felt like it was resting on this moment. And Austin went out and I remember I wasn’t worried about him so much as I was about whether we’d get the camera shots the right way. Austin, you went out and had an out-of-body experience. I have a crew that have worked for me for thirty years—there’s one guy Brett, who handles the dolly, maybe he’s said fifteen words to me in thirty years, you know? The shot begins and we didn’t call cut, we ran it like the show. The only note I had to give afterwards was to the extras, they were overreacting. Not overacting, but they were losing their minds becaue it felt so real. Brett comes over and he goes, “well boss, I’ve done the Star Wars, I’ve done the Supermans, I’ve done them all, but I’ve never seen anything like that. What just happened?” That’s how real it was. Everyone was just stunned. Austin is being very humble about his work ethic. I had to go to him at one point about and say, you need to back off, you’re going to break yourself. Instead, he stayed in Australia and went harder at it. I don’t think I’ll ever have an experience like this again.
Olivia, can you talk about how Priscilla connected with Elvis? I thought it was really interesting that they met in Germany instead of the US. Like it was a haven for them.
Olivia DeJonge: Absolutely. I think one of the special things about the connection between the two of them was that while millions looked at Elvis, I think she was one of the few people that really saw him. In order to do that, you really have to strip away the fanfare of life and the world to really see somebody’s soul or to feel somebody on an organic level. The ability to remove the craziness of his public life was what enabled them to create something beautiful and real.
The challenge of playing Priscilla in this film is very different because she’s still living, and while she’s world-famous, she’s not the icon Elvis was. Did you two speak at all?
OD: I didn’t speak with Priscilla before we shot the film; Covid complicated all of that. It was a little daunting. I knew when I came onto this project that she’d eventually see the film. While we were shooting, there were definitely feelings like she was sitting my shoulder and watching the decisions I was making. We did get to meet afterwards and she’s since been with us on the tour and in Memphis and Cannes. It’s been really special to have her energy and support around the film.
Yola, as a musician yourself, what was your experience with the music in this film? Did you come to this film steeped in Elvis lore, or did you bring your own personal musical insights into this role?
Yola: I came to this movie principally by the soundtrack. We were in RCA Studio A with Dave Cobb, who is a superhero producer. There was this really great energy. I’ve been in that room before with a group called The Highwomen. So there we are, recording. I had grown up on Sister Rosetta [Tharpe], maybe less so with Elvis, but my kind of relationship with rock & roll and songs like Hound Dog came through Big Mama Thornton. I was always trying to find the Black women of rock & roll because I felt that was a part of my aesthetic. I think that shows in my album even though I identify as “genre fluid,” which is a term I coined because people would try to put me in a tiny box. That happened with Sister Rosetta. They tried to put her in this church-y box, although she was inventing rock & roll. She didn’t get the credit even though everyone came through her stable in that way. My kind of experience of Elvis was something that was tangential to the narrative of rock & roll and its origins. The process of tracking and showing that lineage between how Elvis interprets music and these originals, that was something that felt like a really necessary process for people to see that line. It’s sometimes a missing part of his narrative, this kind of musical steeping, his running home from school—I learned this from Baz—to listen to Sister Rosetta. He was raised on her. That really helped me get into the character to deliver those vocals. I had to be delivering those vocals as if I was birthing a generation.