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The film director has never aimed small – and few figures are bigger than Elvis Presley. By Andy Hazel.

Director Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann in Cannes in May.
Baz Luhrmann in Cannes in May.
Credit: Greg Williams

“Now, I’m doing this myself,” says Baz Luhrmann, as our Zoom connection settles. “Can you hear me? Can I hear you?”

“I can hear you, but I can’t see you,” I say, as the edges of the screen brighten from black to a dark pink.

“Okay. Well, I’m going to do a very fancy visual effect. Are you ready? With music... dah daaahmm!” Luhrmann takes his finger off the lens of his camera to reveal himself sitting in a Los Angeles film studio, a winning smile across his face.

Behind him on another screen is Austin Butler, the star of his new film Elvis. Luhrmann sits to the left, wearing a navy suit jacket over a black T-shirt bedecked with necklaces. One features a lightning bolt logo that is a nod to Presley’s favourite comic book hero, Captain Marvel Jr, a sign Presley adopted and shared with his associates who could do what he called “TCB”, taking care of business.

“I look at creativity as an adventure,” Luhrmann tells me. “When I set out to make a film, I ask, ‘What do I need to explore personally?’ Then the next question I answer is, ‘What can I put out there that’s going to be useful in this world right now?’ You can not like it, you can think it’s garbage, and I’m all right with that, you know? I don’t even use my personal taste.”

He claims that personal taste is, in fact, an enemy of art. “My singular job is to work out how to take the message of this story or idea, the universal idea, and plug it into as many audience members as possible,” he says. “To unify an audience, to unify strangers sitting in a theatre and for a few brief moments make them feel that they’re not alone, and that we’re all human. Now, that may sound lofty, but at a time in which so few people are going to the actual cinema, I feel that passion in an even greater way.”

When Luhrmann announced he would be directing a film about the life of one of the 20th century’s biggest cultural icons, the scale of the project seemed fitting: he’s never been a filmmaker to aim small. Since his debut feature Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann has continually widened the aperture of his vision. With Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and his Academy Award-winning Moulin Rouge! five years later, Strictly Ballroom comprised a trio of blockbuster hits he called his Red Curtain Trilogy. Luhrmann said they shared “a theatricalised cinematic form. An artificial language. A big lie that gets to a big truth.” Elvis is only the director’s sixth film in 30 years, following Australia and The Great Gatsby.

As our interview progresses, Luhrmann begins working his way through a bowl of nuts – “I’m sorry, I’ve just got to eat something.” He has spoken extensively about the importance of Presley’s role in race relations in America – his bravery in crossing the race line, the influence of figures such as B. B. King, Little Richard and Mahalia Jackson, and his refusal to treat Black Americans as second-class citizens, a stance that made him a public enemy in the south. When I ask about Presley’s role in the sexual and queer revolution, Luhrmann takes an especially big handful of nuts to allow himself time to compose a response.

“Sexuality,” he muses. “I mean, everyone wants to know about sex and sexuality, right? I do. I’ve spoken to [Elvis’s former wife] Priscilla a lot, and there is a lot I still don’t really know. When Elvis was a kid, he was already wearing pink knits tied up bolero style, he just kind of made it up. He said it himself, he’d take a hairstyle from Captain Marvel Jr.

“Now Elvis was, interestingly, kind of fluid. Not in gender but in the way he dressed. He was both very feminine and very masculine at the same time. Which is what I think is part of his incredible sexual appeal. As far as sexual revolution goes, I mean stuff that Elvis wore would be, on some people, balls-out camp. But on Elvis it was just balls-out cool.” He laughs. “I don’t have to say balls-out, but you know. What I’m saying is, he’s a reflective character, he was never didactic.”

Despite being only days away from the film’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival, Luhrmann is still at work finalising the film’s sound mix. “It’s that funny moment where you’re sort of finishing the creative but you’re also starting to talk about the movie,” he says. “Sometimes you’ve been doing that for a while. I haven’t done it at all, so the good news is everything I say will be absolutely fresh.”

He says he resisted the idea of making a film about Presley. “Even though rights had been bought and all that, I hardly ever make a movie and I never really wanted to do a biopic. I always really admired the way that Shakespeare would take a historical figure and explore a larger universal theme or idea. With Richard III, he’s not saying, ‘Here is the documentary about the life of Richard III.’ A good contemporary example of that would be Amadeus. Amadeus is a film I admire greatly, but it’s not really about Mozart. Of course, you learn a lot about Mozart, but you learn through the prism of Salieri, you learn about his jealousy. ‘When I did such a good thing,’ he says in mock torture, ‘why did God put all that talent in that man, and not me?’ ”

Luhrmann’s Elvis has attracted mixed early reviews, but there is near uniform agreement that Luhrmann’s direction of Austin Butler has resulted in one of the most compelling performances of the year. Butler, who Luhrmann says spent two years in character, puts much of his success in humanising – “not impersonating” – Presley down to Luhrmann.

“He really threw me in the deep end,” says Butler, running his hand through his hair and cocking his head to the side to allow the ring light to highlight his profile. “Baz and I took a road trip together. We went to Graceland, where I first met Priscilla. Then we went to Nashville and Baz set this thing up at RCA Studios where Elvis recorded over 270 songs.

“Now, I’m not a musical performer. This was my first time ever in a recording studio, and we had the actual machinery that Elvis recorded Heartbreak Hotel on, and I got to record Heartbreak Hotel on that equipment. Baz said, ‘You know what? Let’s play the song live. I want to get the whole band in here and everybody who is in the offices at RCA.’ We’re still in the really early phases of working on this and I’m terrified. But he brings all these executives into the room and has them sit in a line of chairs facing me so I can feel what it feels like to perform for strangers. So, from day one I’m performing in this way. It was a wonderful process working with him.”

Elvis is not particularly interested in examining the “why” of its subject: it’s more a melodrama of response. Luhrmann shows fleeting scenes of pivotal importance before moving on to a dynamic stage show or noir-ish encounter with Tom Hanks’ cartoonishly capitalistic Colonel Tom Parker. What makes its 159-minute runtime fly past is Luhrmann’s enthusiasm for the era, evoked by the skills of his wife, production and costume designer Catherine Martin.

“With Elvis, I really wanted to come to terms with America in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” he says. “Elvis is this kind of canvas on which you can explore that, because he is absolutely at a crossroads of those eras. So, I was resisting doing it, but then I felt a change in the world. One of the great things about those periods is there’s a great American energy. It’s not a Western energy, it’s an American energy. It has two components. One is different things coming together – diversity coming together – and making something new. It’s a mix of invention and creation. But the other thing is the sell, the ability to sell an idea, to promote an idea, to put your brand on it. It’s a go-get-it thing. And when they’re in balance, it’s good. But I felt in recent times, when I really committed to this about five years ago, the sell was getting way out of balance with the actual creativity.”

Luhrmann’s research for Elvis included making a temporary office in Presley’s former home of Graceland, which he used as a base to gather information about his subject’s early life. He tracked down Presley’s childhood friend Sam Bell, who died, aged 85, last year. Bell gave a vivid account of Presley’s early years in Tupelo, Mississippi, and shared stories of how they would visit juke joints, watch fevered gospel congregations and linger by the marquees of travelling preachers – golden-hued scenes of Deep Southern culture that Luhrmann faithfully renders in Australian sunshine.

Mark Anthony Luhrmann was born in Sydney and raised in the northern New South Wales timber town of Herons Creek. “The town had seven houses in total, and not all of them were full,” he recalls. Luhrmann’s parents were photographers who variously ran a service station, a restaurant, a dress shop and the nearby Plaza Theatre where the younger Luhrmann helped his father work as a projectionist, an experience that inspired him to make his own short films.

“It was a Saturday thing that we had an Elvis film,” says Luhrmann. “At seven, I thought Easy Come, Easy Go was the grooviest thing in the world. I thought, ‘Man, he is so cool, what a great movie.’ Might explain my films, actually,” he says, laughing. “Later I learned that they were enjoyable in a different way. But then, in the ’70s, Elvis was still cool to me because he was wearing jumpsuits and I was into ballroom dancing and Latin dancing. Pretty quickly, as I became a more serious young man, I got into David Bowie and Elton [John], but particularly Bowie. I thought he was frightening and cool.”

After leaving Herons Creek to go to school in Port Macquarie and Sydney’s northern beaches, where he was given the nickname “Baz”, Luhrmann’s dreams of being an actor proved too small. Using the money he made from his first acting roles on the television series A Country Practice and opposite Judy Davis and Bryan Brown in John Duigan’s 1981 film Winter of My Dreams, Luhrmann founded Bond, a theatre company that staged its productions in the Bondi Pavilion. After a role in the Alan Bleasdale play Are You Lonesome Tonight? about the life and death of Elvis Presley – an experience Luhrmann confesses to having forgotten – he was accepted to NIDA in 1983, where he developed a 40-minute play based on his experience of competitive ballroom dancing.

Luhrmann’s personal history, he suggests, mirrors Presley’s. “I think I’m a bit like Elvis, I mean I grew up in a tiny country town. I was an outsider...” he trails off, smiling. “Yeah, but more to the point, I felt like a geek. Kind of like an uncool nobody.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Oh no, never a nobody! We were given such a grand sense of ourselves, we probably got a bloated sense of ourselves. But I was like Elvis, always observing, absorbing.

“There is a moment in the film where Elvis says to his wife, ‘I’m almost 40 and I’m never going to do anything anyone will remember.’ He said that at 39 and he’d be dead three years later. I still think I have done nothing particularly remarkable yet and I’m still going down the road looking and searching for the thing that’s going to somehow tell me that I’m there. I think Elvis had that same problem.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2022 as "The King and I".

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Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer. He is The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

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