Despite setbacks, budget and pressure, Baz Luhrmann’s most nerve-wracking moment came after he finished the film.
For Baz Luhrmann, there was “nothing more annoying” than projecting his biopic on Elvis Presley for Priscilla Presley.
All the heart, energy and emotional investment that Luhrmann had poured into his ambitious, extravagant and dizzying film rested on that moment.
“[Priscilla] wrote to me a few days later and she said, ‘Oh my god, my whole life, every breath, every move. If my husband was here he would tell Austin [Butler]’Hot fuck, you’re me!’ ”Luhrmann told news.com.au.
He was not physically present with Priscilla but he was with Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of a father she lost at such a young age.
“She was very emotional,” he said. “I just took her to the car and before she got in the car she looked up and said something like, ‘I can’t put it in-‘. I thought she was going to say ‘words’ but she said, ‘I can’t put a value on that.’
“Then she said, ‘Grandchildren and everything from now on.’ I think she meant that at least it’s a fair hearing. It’s a more humanized version of her father-turned-wallpaper.
“It’s meaningful to me.”
Luhrmann’s film is many things – transcendent and exasperating at the same time, a manic whirlwind of energy and great emotions.
It’s a dazzling spectacle that captures the frenzy and intensity of Presley’s charisma and the effect he had on everyone around him, from his beloved mother and the most hysterical fan to the authorities at the stern faces who did not understand how this whirling musician was changing America. and global culture.
But beneath the caption was the man – that’s what Luhrmann wanted to capture in Elvisand why Priscilla and Lisa Marie’s endorsement meant so much.
“He is the father, husband and grandfather of these three women who are, in their own way, extraordinary women. They had to accept that he was a Halloween costume, a guy from the wedding chapel or the butt of a thousand jokes.
“But he was a real rebel and above all a very spiritual person. This man was a human being who happened to be incredibly gifted in music. He was also deeply moving and caring.
The enormous pressure of portraying Presley fell on Austin Butler, a 30-year-old California-born actor who was, until now, best known for his roles in youth-oriented projects such as Carrie’s notebooks.
He seemed an unlikely choice, but Butler has the same smoldering, soulful appeal as the king of rock and roll. Butler had to train his deep, velvety voice to take on Presley’s songs, and he took two years of dance lessons so he could move like him, too.
“I’ve done nothing but this for two years,” he told news.com.au. “I had amazing people around me. Polly Bennett was my movement coach and from the time I got the part and even before I got the part, I worked with Dana Wilson, who helped me because I wasn’t a dancer or a motorist before.
“It was just so my body could move in certain ways. I did everything from swing dancing to tap to ballet – lots of different things so I could have dexterity.
Butler grew up with Presley’s music in the house, introduced to the legend by his mother and grandmother. But he didn’t know much about Presley’s life.
More than dancing and singing, Butler’s challenge was to uncover the emotional core of the legend.
“It’s putting his life in context, putting this icon in context,” Butler said. “Because we often look at people like that and think they just popped up.
“Humans are so complex, and he had all this duality in him. In order to really grasp his three-dimensional nature, it was this constant thing of realizing that there were many of him who had this equal and opposite in the sacred and the profane.
“He was like this animal on stage and then he would come down and say, ‘Yes sir, no ma’am’ and was so polite. There are many aspects to this, there is the way he was in his relationships with women. There are many aspects that I think were part of this duality.
Butler’s evocation of Presley’s humanity impressed Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s life and creative partner, and of Elvis producer, costume designer and co-production designer.
“What stands out about the movie for me is the humanity Austin brings to the role,” Martin said. “It was an eye opener for me, how much he makes you connect with the person.
“It paints him as a man with flaws and everything, so that’s a much more complete picture. And I think it becomes a more universal version of the story because we can all relate to that person.
Luhrmann described Presley as, to quote Presley, “trapped”, and his film traces the challenges someone as famous and privileged as Presley had to endure. The man behind the icon, behind the public figure, and behind the downfall was just one person, and that’s what the film does best to convey.
Perhaps almost as famous for his death as for his life and accomplishments, Presley is often seen as a tragic figure. Butler doesn’t see it that way.
“I think there were a lot of tragedies in his life,” Butler said. “I think it’s tragic that he never traveled around the world. I think it’s tragic that he died at 42. And I think it was a tragedy that he had had a certain point in his life when he stopped being creatively challenged, when he had so much artistic genius, and he was held in a golden cage. It’s tragic.
“I don’t know if he was a tragic figure in general because he had so many amazing times in his life and he was such an amazing human being. So it’s that duality, where he had great ups and downs. It was a very intense life.”
Elvis is in theaters now
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