Baz Luhrmann is a sharp dressed man.
We’re sitting down at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco on the Monday morning after the Golden Globe nominations were announced where he, his film Elvis and its star Austin Butler all received nods, and he’s wearing a fitted grey suit with a clever double breast that pulls extra far to the right. “It’s the vibe I think, gray suits,” he says.
Elvis’s 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.
“While this story is called ‘Elvis,’ but 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,” says Luhrmann, whose 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.”
Luhrmann, writer, director and producer of Elvis, had an Academy screening of the film the night before in San Rafael, California at the Smith Rafael Film Center to a rousing, standing ovation at the end. It’s far from his first venture up north; he mixed 1996’s Romeo & Juliet at George Lucas’s Skywalker Sound and his pre-Broadway run of La Bohème was here in 2002. He asks if I live in San Francisco and I tell him I’m north, in wine country. “I remember we used to let all the students from the sommelier schools come into the previews,” he says, “and that just meant we knew every cool restaurant to go to.”
Erik Anderson: You were at the Rafael last night with the film, right?
Baz Luhrmann: Yeah. Because I love that cinema. They discovered Strictly Ballroom. I mean, when Strictly Ballroom came out and I remember coming out and it was the Mill Valley Film Festival that kind of it took off at.
EA: I was just telling them [the reps] a few minutes ago that I worked at one of the local video stores in Marin County and Strictly Ballroom was my introduction to you. So I was just in this place and saw Paul Mercurio, and I was just like, “Who is this, what is this?” And I just loved it. It’s such a fantastic little precursor to Moulin Rouge.
BL: Yeah, it was… But San Francisco, and George [Lucas] was very supportive of me, and he’s always really understood my movies really profoundly. As I understand, he’s a world builder. It’s what we talk about. He always talks to me about immaculate reality. You have to have a set of rules that the audience doesn’t necessarily have to understand, but how you have to keep yourself.
EA: Absolutely. Congratulations on the Golden Globe nominations this morning.
BL: Yeah. I mean, my whole position … I’m such a serial collaborator and I think deeply about my collaborators, whether it’s Mandy Walker who was there when we did the workshops for Austin, that’s how long she’s been on her or Johno. And Matt Villa reminded me that we cut the sequence where Elvis sings “Unchained Melody”, and you see young Elvis. We cut that five years ago. So, I think about my collaborators, and I just think winning’s another thing, but nominations just put a whole lot of light on a group of films for whatever reasons, whether they are small art films or large films. But it puts a lot of light on movies. And most importantly, those collaborators get recognition.
EA: Like as the captain and the director of that, when everyone else in the family is recognized, that’s, you do as well.
BL: It’s everything. I mean, look, just to segue for a minute, Mandy Walker, who I’ve worked with for 20 years, for her to break the glass ceiling and get best cinematographer at the Australian Awards, which is … Home territory is important. And Russell runs those awards and did a good job, and Nicole’s on the board and George Miller, Cate. That’s so meaningful. I didn’t even realize that ceiling is not broken in anywhere else in the world, which is … I do have a thing about who’s around the camera. I do think that’s the last bastion of kind of blokes-iness is what I would call it.
I don’t know why only blokes can sort of hang around the camera. But I mean, nothing negative about it. But I mean, I’ve seen Mandy stand there in a thousand-degree heat while everyone else is on their back because they’ve all got a cold or something and Mandy still marches on. She’s just an awesome collaborator.
EA: I love that. Catherine too, as a collaborator. Your history is very much of not just keeping those people close, actors as well.
BL: Yes, actors as well.
EA: That’s just good relationship-building.
BL: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I come from an acting teaching background and what you first learn is you’ve got to create an environment of security. And people have got a genuinely got to feel a connection. And they’re all holding the same baby in the air. That’s the story. We’re all trying to get this baby born together. It’s super important. So, the awards this morning, great. Equally, the People’s Choice or the Grammy noms, they all contribute to a recognition that this film has had. It’s grown up now. It’s growing up now. It’s going to have its own life.
EA: And it was a summer release. So, it’s got stamina.
BL: And crazy … When I went to the studio, said, “I’m not making the film unless it is guaranteed to go to the theater.” Because at that stage, they were putting things straight online, nothing against streaming. And I said, “I want a double window.” That was a big ask. They’re weren’t like, “Sure.” Everyone was panicked, but I forced the issue and then we collectively, everybody involved, then it was up to us, because we had to get older audiences in. And then there’s a whole lot of people say, “Well, younger audiences won’t come anyway. Older audiences won’t come. And younger audiences don’t care about Elvis,” which is true.
But I didn’t set out to make a pick or a film for the fans. I respect them. I set out to make a film that brought all kinds of audiences, old and young, into a theatrical experience in a theater. That was our collective mission, and a non-serial one. And all respect to some of the great pictures this year. We’ve had a great range of films, Tom doing Top Gun. And the thing is though, we were an original idea.
It is harder these days. It’s hard to make a great form of anything. But remember the days when there’d be at least a half dozen brand new ideas that you never thought of in the theater. And you’d all go, and we’d all be going, “Wow, I’m into that.”
EA: Not just that, I mean, just adult drama…
BL: Adult drama.
EA: … that could make $100 million without even blinking an eye.
BL: That’s right. I mean, without even blinking an eye. And I think that I make theatrical movies for the theater. And I think, look, streaming has such a good place. I mean, what was so good, and it wasn’t planned, was that we opened really strong. We kept running through the summer. We now have a constituency of young audiences, 15 and 16-year-olds, that are just so devoted. I mean, they’re sometimes 30 viewings, but like the VOD, the video on demand, was so much more than they expected. And when it finally went to HBO Max, still number one film. So, you know what I mean? It has a life.
And I think streaming is a great environment to make things that can’t be shackled with the giant p&a [prints and advertising] spend that you need for a big movie. You know what I mean? That should be artful and should be risky and should be things that otherwise wouldn’t have got made. That’s great. And I also think when big movies have done their moment, it’s okay to turn up in the club, which is the streaming club.
EA: Yeah. I mean, that’s what VHS was back in day.
EA: And that can be where people discover something that they didn’t know before.
BL: But you never wanted to go straight to video.
EA: No, you did not want that. It had its own section-
BL: That’s right.
EA: … and stigma.
BL: Right. Exactly. $2 tonight, whatever it is. But that’s right. And in the ’50s, television comes in, everyone goes like, “Oh, movies are dead.” No, they just got bigger.
BL: They literally got bigger. They literally made them a bigger, more theatrical experience. And absolutely an intimate, interesting, or confronting, or let’s call it niche, artistic film, of which I enjoy them greatly, should have a run, maybe in a smaller house, but ultimately be funded by streaming.
BL: But this movie was not funded by streaming. This movie was funded to go to the theater and make the majority of its money back in the theater. I mean, that was our mission. It was a collective mission.
EA: And it’s your biggest hit in the United States and the UK.
BL: It really is. And here’s the thing about it, I know already next summer it’s being booked for festivals, things like that, those outdoor screenings and stuff. So, it’s unusual, more unusual than ever we’ve made, in that it didn’t really dip. It sort of had a life, it went on to … And now it’ streaming. But it’s still in the conversation. It’s still having a life. I mean, I’m about to release the deluxe album next year with as much music on it as I can put together.
EA: Okay, I love that. Because that’s already such a gorgeous, packed soundtrack.
BL: There’s a lot of good music to come too.
EA: I think your talent for casting is pretty spectacular. You really find the right person to connect with the right role. And I think this is especially unique because you haven’t really ventured into biopic territory. So, it’s a very different animal. Lots of great literary and stage adaptations. But this is a little different. I’d love to hear the journey of this casting and getting to Austin because I can’t think of anybody possibly else.
BL: You know what? I’ve had a lot of extraordinary experiences in that road. And I mean, I always think auditions are not very helpful and I don’t really do them. I do workshops. Now, what I mean by that is any actor comes into my world, I don’t focus on, “Are you right for the role?” I go, “What can I learn from you about the material?” And we spend the whole day and maybe sometimes two days. We might do it several times just to explore. But Austin wasn’t … That didn’t happen. It did happen. But even the first contact with Austin was this extraordinary …
I kind of work on the movies and live them and research them so much, that I secretly would be happy if I didn’t have to make them. I just love living them.
I sort of thought that might happen because I thought, “I’ll never find an Elvis really. Will I?” I mean, I hoped. But someone who could really embody young Elvis, who could really do the movement, sing it perhaps, embody the physicality, but also humanize him. That was the main thing, to bring a humanity to him that we didn’t see.
And it kicks off with this really extraordinary tape that I get that has this kid in a bathrobe, kid, young guy, and he’s singing Unchained Melody. Now at that time, nobody knew that the film ended with Unchained Melody. So, it was just a coincidence. And it was in this flood of tears. And I was just like, “Well, is this audition? I don’t care. I have to see this person.” And then starts the road of Denzel Washington ringing me and saying, “You’re not going to believe how hard this young guy works.” And he comes in and he was already a bit down the Elvis road.
I’d literally done training, but all I remember was just preparing him, building an environment, an ensemble environment of actors. Tom Hanks was a leader in this. I mean, Tom … Honestly, every time I’d turn around, they’d be chatting on the set. Tom was such a guide and a support to Austin. He never left the set. He kept the set point buoyant. And remembering he famously gets COVID, and we think the movie’s going to be shut down, we’re going to lose the movie. So, it was a pretty extraordinary experience. And when Tom bravely comes back …
I mean, we were so privileged to be making a movie in COVID. It was the smoothest … It came in on time and under budget. And it’s never happened to me. Eke. So, I think it’s because we all just thought, “We are so lucky to be making a movie. And people just gave above and beyond to the act of making it.
EA: They definitely did.
EA: The relationship between Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis has such a Salieri-Mozart quality to it.
BL: Absolutely that.
EA: Was that kind of your idea as Parker being the entry point to the story?
BL: Yeah. I mean, I really wasn’t doing a biopic. It’s more like Shakespeare takes historical figure and explores larger ideas. It is exactly Amadeus. Elvis is such a great poster boy for America in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s with the good, the bad and the tragedy. But you don’t understand it. You can’t understand it unless you actually realize that half of that is Colonel Tom Parker and never Colonel, never Tom, never Parker.
If you think Tom’s characterization was unsettling and a bit strange, you should see the real Colonel Tom Parker. I mean, I had tapes that no one’s ever … of these strange voices and things that he did. I mean, his Snowmen’s league, which means snow job, pulling the wool over your eyes and everyone enjoying it. I mean, the President of the United States was in Colonel Tom Barker Snowmen’s League. Free to get in, $100,000 to get out.
Exactly! It makes you laugh because he used humor and wackadoo tricks to always keep people a little unsettled. And he was hiding something. Bottom line is he was hiding something, not just that he was an illegal immigrant. He could have got a pass on that easily. And there’s all sorts of speculation, but whatever it is, because of that and his gambling addiction, Elvis Presley never sang a note outside the United States. And that is, if you’re looking for incredibly great dramatic twist in the third act … I didn’t have to invent the preposterous notion that Salieri gets Mozart to write the Requiem. We actually have a living and breathing character who’s plotting always to make sure Elvis never leaves the country and sings without him overseas.
EA: It is. And I think that’s something that we haven’t even really thought about when thinking about the history of Elvis.
BL: If you start digging, it’s a vortex you’ll go down. It’s a bottomless pit because, I mean, there’s all sorts of books about murders and all sorts of shady things, and there’s some credibility and all those things. I mean, we spoke to some members of the family. At one stage, we were getting letters. But the truth is there’s something that doesn’t add up at all. I mean, he overpaid in tax, in cash, because he didn’t want people looking around in his past. So something’s going on.
EA: Which is its own red flag.
BL: I mean, who do you know who actually rushes to give overpay in cash in tax. “Here’s as much money as you like. Please leave me alone.”
EA: How do you decide what do you want, at least with Elvis, to be fact based, and where you wanted to play with myth, especially with your visual style?
BL: I had someone ask this yesterday and I said, “Look”, I said, “Well, what scene?” I said, “Pick a scene.” There’s a reference for every single thing in a single scene. They picked Russwood [the performance in the ball park from July 4, 1956] and they said, “Well, when he is singing Evil, Evil.” I said, “That’s a great example.” I said, “Look, I’ve done compressions of time. But every single thing in that sequence actually happened, just a different time and place.” I said, “For example, he was warned not to wiggle his finger, and the Vice Squad did it for him, but not there. That happened in Los Angeles. There was a riot, but not there. That happened a few weeks later in Canada. He did not sing Trouble, but I wanted to make sure that there was one representation of his best for minding King Creole.” Right. But also, all of the choices of the music have to have dramatic narrative.
EA: I think that that’s such a great explanation of how biopics don’t have to be staid. Here’s what happened, then here’s what happened. Even a mythological life like Elvis doesn’t always have the exact beats that makes sense for the drama.
BL: For the drama, for the drama. You’ve got to make choices. What are we doing here? We’re trying to one, humanize Elvis; two, explore a larger idea about essentially the seller and the artist. Really, that’s really where we’re going. On them, we have a great twist, a great plot. Turns out the plot twist is absolutely, totally factual. But I mean, the question you got to ask yourself is what would Shakespeare do with Elvis’s life? And Elvis is the Colonel actually, because Shakespeare wouldn’t just have Elvis, he’s always got a counterpoint character.
EA: Stories are not always told through that first person. The person that the story’s about, often there is the storyteller, even if it’s the unreliable narrator.
BL: Unreliable narrator, exactly. Think about this, it’s called The Great Gatsby, but it’s actually Nick Carraway’s story. And Gatsby does not change. Nick Carraway turns into a writer, gives up working at Wall Street and ultimately ends up being a writer. ‘Cause he opens the first paper saying, “Gatsby, who is the subject of this book?” And we know that when he says, “Now, I used to be in Wall Street,” so we know it’s really Fitzgerald.
EA: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
BL: Yeah. And I’ve always come from that place I’m interested in. I’m not even interested in it. I just can’t escape myself. I come from, I mean, it was deep academic study and I come from acting, teaching and a love of myth, Greek myth, but the big lie that tells the big truth. That’s the business we’re in.
EA: That’s perfect. Thank you so much, Baz.
BL: Thank you, Erik. You really love me talking (laughs).
Elvis is currently available to stream on HBO Max.