Baz Luhrmann to Austin Butler: Elvis is a lifetime achievement

While getting to know his larger-than-life public persona is a prerequisite for anyone to play Elvis Presley, it was the aspect of Austin Butler’s performance as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll that most impressed Elvis director Baz Luhrmann and later. Priscilla Presley was the young actor’s ability to “keep quiet and get to Elvis’ deepest and most private place,” Luhrmann said.

Luhrmann was joined by Butler via Zoom for the IndieWire Awards Spotlight series, where the pair discussed how they helped win creative collaborations while nominated for Best Picture and how the whole “Elvis” experience changed the Best Actor nominee’s life.

“I felt encouraged to push myself to the very edge and know that I would be safe the whole way,” Butler said, explaining what makes Luhrmann a director who has produced performances of a lifetime from Oscar-winning stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio (“Romeo+Juliet”) and Nicole Kidman (“Moulin Rouge”). “The confidence in me that made me believe in myself even more,” said the star. “You trusted me, even though I was sometimes afraid.”

However, Luhrmann emphasized that filmmaking is “not a ‘me“here is one”we‘ thing.”

“Elvis” received eight Oscar nominations this year, including six in the craft categories: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hair and Best Sound. The director echoed what his wife Catherine Martin recently said about fellow Oscar nominee Mandy Walker while accepting the Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Period Film: “If we have one wish this awards season, it’s that after 95 years the first female photographer to win, that would be something we could really hold our heads up to.” This is indeed the we thing.

Because Luhrmann has such a specific vision, he often brings the cast and crew together before production begins. “We made the movie from the moment you walked into my house,” the director told Butler, describing the early days of the Warner Bros. release. “What I’ve never seen before was the way you are, bringing people in early on,” the actor replied.

“To connect with the cinematographer (Walker) before I started shooting, and all of a sudden, by the time we’re on set, he knows how I move and I know how he moves, and we’ve created this language… it’s more like dance partners” – Butler said. “We’ve been dancing for so long now that … it suddenly becomes subconscious, the feeling of knowing where Mandy is going to set the camera.”

ELVIS, Austin Butler as Elvis Presley, 2022. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection


Courtesy of Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Other highlights of “Elvis” craftsmanship include Best Editing nominees Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond turning their test footage, which included footage of Butler performing with the real Elvis, into a scene Luhrmann praises every day. “When that moment happens, it’s not just the emotion, it’s a kind of spiritual experience,” the director said.

Costume designer Martin also created 9,000 costumes, including five to seven different versions of the leather outfit Presley had to cut out after performing each night in Las Vegas. “It was a whole world we stepped into,” Butler said. “Everywhere I’ve been, there’s been such a fierce commitment to authenticity.”

Luhrmann took a moment to address his star and leave no stone unturned in important praise before their “Elvis” journey ends on Oscar night, saying, “The big thing about this is that you already had an inner life. But when you see the film, the work you did as an actor, you become a 26-year-old who already has an inner life that is somewhat similar to Elvis’s spirit, but if I dare to say it, you are acting. Elvis at 17 and then you play another Elvis at 35 at the peak of his powers. And then you’re playing another Elvis who’s overweight, into drug addiction, into corruption, and yet there’s this beautiful boy inside who wants to fix everything and be a superhero. And I think it’s really a lifetime achievement that you gave your life for.”

He continued, “If there’s any takeaway from this, it’s my privilege to have observed it and been around you.”

Butler doesn’t take the glowing response to the BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated performance of ‘Elvis’ for granted. “The terror was so great that I didn’t sleep for three years while I was making this film. Now I’m looking at this time, how can we talk to these people who have seen the film 30 times,” said the actor. “It struck a chord with them and I feel very honored and privileged to be a part of Elvis’ legacy in this way.”

Watch the full video conversation between Luhrmann and Butler above.

Elvis is now streaming on HBO Max.

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