Few icons are as globally memorialized as Elvis Presley, but for “Elvis” filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, the biopic felt like “a blank sheet to explore” American history, commercialization and the true origin of rock ‘n’ roll: Black music. In this episode of “The Envelope,” Luhrmann shares his unique take on Presley’s tragic story, how Austin Butler was able to “meld his soul with Elvis’ soul” and how a pair of socks connected a young Baz to the King. Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.
Yvonne Villarreal: Hello, and welcome to a new season of “The Envelope.” We’re back to bring you intimate, up-close conversations with talent from the most talked-about, must-see projects of the year. And since we’re already in the thick of Oscars season, these upcoming episodes will lean a little heavy on the film side, but that shouldn’t bother anyone. OK, Mark. Let’s get into it. Who did you talk to to kick things off?
Mark Olsen: Well, we’re getting started in high style with a conversation with Baz Luhrmann, director and co-writer of “Elvis,” one of the top-grossing films of the year so far. A bio-pic of the genuinely iconic Elvis Presley, the story is told through the eyes of his longtime manager, the self-styled Colonel Tom Parker. The film has drawn raves for Austin Butler’s performance in the title role, playing Elvis across the eras of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and some head-scratching for the unexpected turn by Tom Hanks as Parker, most frequently depicted as the villain in the saga of Elvis.
Now, Yvonne, I was doubly excited for this interview. First, I’m a longtime deep Elvis fan. I adore his music and I’m fascinated by his complicated, complex life. But I am also very much a fan of the work of Baz Luhrmann, a singular filmmaker where you know you are watching one of his glittering, overwhelming creations pretty much from frame one. Now, Yvonne, I don’t want to make any assumptions here, but I have a feeling that either Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” or “Moulin Rouge” were formative movies for you.
Villarreal: Oh, Mark, you know me too well. My “Romeo + Juliet” VHS was definitely in heavy rotation, and so was the soundtrack. But you know, I had one poster of Leonardo DiCaprio from that film on one side of my bed and one poster of him from “Titanic” on the other side of my bed. And it was just heaven for me all through sixth grade. But you know, more seriously, I was maybe 10 or 11 and I just remember being struck by the dizzying feel of that film, the way the camera swirled and the fast cuts. It’s hard not to get swept up in the worlds that Baz creates. I feel like you could spend a whole episode just getting insight from Baz about his signature filmmaking style.
Olsen: Well, as much as I couldn’t help myself from getting deep into it on “Elvis,” including why Luhrmann wanted the film to so specifically address Presley’s relationship to Black music and whether what he did should be considered cultural appropriation, but we did also step back to try to untangle just why Baz makes movies the way that he does. And part of it is his longtime collaboration with his production designer, costumer designer and wife, Catherine Martin. And Baz was actually the one who pointed out that she has won four Oscars, he has none, and what that can do to mornings at the breakfast table. But I’ll let him explain all that. So let’s go to the conversation now.
Olsen: Baz, thank you so much for joining us today.
Baz Luhrmann: I’m really happy to be here. I’m coming to you from the Gold Coast in Queensland, the Goldie. Goldywood.
Olsen: To begin talking about the movie, I want to just ask you: Why Elvis? You’ve said that this kind of didn’t really come from a place of fandom for you, so I’m wondering: What did attract you personally to Elvis Presley and his story?
Luhrmann: I’ve had to sort of think backwards, and I look back at my life and I recognize that there were moments, more fandom moments than I realized. I realized that if I peel away stories of childhood, that, flashes of things, that I go, “Oh, actually that was Elvis, wasn’t it?” I forgot that, probably, I got my grandmother in this tiny country town that I grew up in to copy an Elvis jumpsuit for my Latin ballroom dancing, with the sequins and everything. So he was definitely present.
I’d forgotten one great moment that came to me. We had this one schoolroom divided into three sections — this is primary school, junior school, yeah. There was the toughest guy — the older boys, you know how that is. And my father who’d come back from the Vietnam War, made us have very short hair, very clean-cut, and so we were picked on heavily because of this. So, one stage, I don’t know why, I dressed up to go to church. It was Catholic. And all the tough guys were around me ’cause I decided for some crazy reason to wear pink socks. So there I am, this little kid with kind of gray shorts, white shirt, gray tie — and pink socks.
So the tougher guys that got me and they got me up against a wall and they’re gonna smack me. You can imagine what they’re saying, “The kind of people that wear pink socks. Yeah, mate. You and your pink…” One guy goes, “What are you doing?” You look around, it’s Peter Dunn, the toughest guy in the school. He goes, “Oh yeah, he’s wearing these pink socks,” you know? “Expletive, expletive. Let’s —” I’m, obviously, terrified. And he looks down at the pink socks and he goes, “Yeah, Elvis wore pink socks.” And everyone scattered. And I’ve only just remembered that story just recently.
So he was definitely in my DNA, definitely. And there was a period of incredible fandom when I was very young. Having said that, as I moved through life, it became Bowie and, you know, “Changes,” you know. When I came to this project, throughout my own journey, many times I had looked at or thought of musical biography. There’s a reason why I think it’s so popular: because it’s the soundtrack to our lives.
I think, looking at biography, I’d always wanted to treat biography like Shakespeare. He would take a historical figure and explore a larger idea. I always go to “Amadeus.” To me, that’s a really great example. Where: Is that about, is that really Mozart? Probably, heavily researched, Shaffer was a real researcher, but really the preposterous conceit in that movie is that jealous Salieri sets out to kill Amadeus by getting him to write a requiem for his father. Probably preposterous, in fact, absolutely, certainly preposterous, right? What do you learn from it? The human issue of jealousy. You know, “How come, God, when I did everything right,” says Salieri, “when I was chaste, when I did all the work and I made a deal with you, how come you put genius inside that little pig?” And that to me is the kind of biography I’ve always been interested in.
How do you take a life — or, in this case, two lives really, because it’s actually the Colonel’s telling of Elvis’ life — using it as a blank sheet to explore, I think, the larger ideas for me, which is: America in the ’50s and the ’60s and the ’70s. But also this idea of the relationship between the commercial and the artist. The genius of the carnival barker — and “the sell,” which is very American, I think, fundamentally, “the sell” — and “the soul,” which is also fundamentally American, which is the bringing together, the synthesis of different elements to make something new.
Olsen: And for you, how did you come to the decision that now was the moment — personally, professionally, culturally — that you wanted to make Elvis’ story now?
Luhrmann: That commitment happened five or six years ago. I’d been sitting on the Colonel information for a long time: that Colonel ultimately is a carney. Came to the conclusion he saw Elvis and went: That is the ultimate carnival act that shocks and repels but attracts. Came to the conclusion that he could monetize it. Came to the conclusion that he was a genius at monetizing, like he could be as excited about getting extra 3 cents off some kid selling a cotton candy as he would screwing over Hollywood. It wasn’t the money, although that was important, it was the act of screwing people over — the snow job. And he was the snowman! The more you peel away about Colonel Tom Parker, the more you just go, this is one of the most out-there, gargantuan and extraordinary characters. He’s an extraordinary American character and could only really exist in America at this scale and have achieved what he did with a completely fictitious character and have a deep, dark secret, which is why he could not let Elvis use his wings and fly around the world and expand his horizons.
Olsen: And for you, that sort of essential Americanness that Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis sort of embody, how does that fit into your perception of America? I’m interested in how you come to see the two of them as representing something larger.
Luhrmann: It’s a good question, really, Mark. I’m not just saying that to be like, “Good question. I’ve never heard that one before.” But I haven’t, actually. I think where it lands is having grown up in such an isolated place in a country on the edge of the world, I’m the ultimate, ultimate outsider who also happens to be [an insider], because I grew up on a diet of American television. I know as much about Maxwell Smart and “The Brady Bunch” as any American, right? And then all the films, we had a theater, we had a cinema at a certain time. So I think I’m always outside looking in, but I’m also inside looking out.
I mean, we live in New York. I have a great romance and a passion about Hollywood. I love, when I’m in Los Angeles, I love as much “the now” as I do the old Hollywood and have a tremendous respect and love for the craft and the culture that grew up there and being an insider-outsider, I guess, both. I think that’s true of the Colonel-Elvis story, I think really, absolutely, you look at it and you see the best of America and the worst of America.
Think of the heights that Colonel and Elvis fly to. I mean, there was no precedent for that level of fame, global and monetization at the same time. No precedent. They flew so close to the sun and yet both of them, for different reasons — and one could argue that the Colonel was no help here — fell tragically to earth. There became a toxicity between that relationship — of success! It’s so compelling as a grand American subject. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and absolute success sort of corrupts absolutely too.
Olsen: For you, what was gained by exploring Elvis’ story through Colonel Tom Parker, to have their dynamic be the central focus of the movie?
Luhrmann: Mark, there’s two parts to this. There’s a very practical one, which is Elvis Presley lives a life that no one should have been able to live in a slender 42 years. He manages to be the poster boy of rebellion and he’s in the crossroads of a musical influence from Black to country, right? He’s that. Then he becomes a Hollywood pop movie star in a river of money. There’s a kind of ’70s finding himself again, resurrection and tremendously tragic ending. It’s a massive, epic life. So how do I get that into a sitting of two hours and 40 or whatever the number is?
So there’s a practical consideration if you have someone arguing a point of view. You know, “You all want to know why did his life end so tragically? You all think I’m the villain? Let me argue that to you.” And of course, actually what’s got lost in the wash and why, part of the reason I wanted to do the movie is Elvis was an incredible uniter. You can say what you like about him. He was one very spiritual human being.
You see that story that I was told to me by the young kid who’s now grown up, has sadly passed, Sam Bell, in the gospel tent, where he [Elvis] goes from the blues joint to the gospel tent. That was told to me verbatim. I didn’t make that up, right? So he’s deeply spiritual. His safe place was gospel, I think he’s always, since a child, trying to make up for “Dad goes to jail.” “We’re the poor of the poor.” He’s trying to mend things, trying to bring people together, and he’s been given this Orphean-like gift of music and he’s just doing it. It’s all about not pulling people apart. There are artists who do that. His was to unite.
Olsen: But in structuring the story around Elvis and the Colonel, so many tellings of Elvis’ story, the Colonel is essentially the villain of Elvis’ life. Was it important to you that he not simply occupy that role in “Elvis”? Was it hard to figure out how to depict the relationship between the two of them and the actual role that Tom Parker played in Elvis’ life?
Luhrmann: Having the Colonel advocate for himself from a sort of morphine dream, whether we agree with the device or not, I had to find some way of saying, “Well, first of all, the dealio here is, it’s his telling.” You know? It’s only ever gonna be someone’s telling. There isn’t the definitive telling. There is just someone [who] tells you their story or his story.
Two, it gives you license to tell it in a way in which I was able to use different techniques to layer and compress and jump around. The golden years of Hollywood in it lasts for about 30 seconds, maybe a minute. I’m not sure. Two minutes, right? Why? Because, actually, if I was telling you the story, all I’d say is, “Well, he [Elvis] was a revolution, and la, la, la, he goes to the army, comes back, the Colonel fulfills it, they have a river of money and he’s got everything he wants. But suddenly the world changes.” See how much time I took telling that bit? Bang! The Beatles. Vietnam. Boom, you know, assassinations. The world shattering. Elvis is no longer relevant. Now we have drama. What’s he gonna do? Let’s stop here. Let’s tell this moment of drama. Is Elvis over? Will he be like so many, when the Beatles came along, forgotten? Maybe. Colonel’s idea is he should become like Bing Crosby and do a Christmas special.
[Clip from “Elvis”: ELVIS: I need you fellas to help me get back to who I really am. FRIEND: And who are you, Elvis? ELVIS: I sure as hell ain’t somebody who sings Christmas songs by a fireplace for an hour. FRIEND: And what does the Colonel think? ELVIS: I don’t give a damn what the Colonel thinks.]
Luhrmann: And so drama ensues, you know, the struggle for the comeback.
Olsen: Did the Colonel’s presence interfere with Elvis creatively?
Luhrmann: The Colonel was constantly cleaving away any relationship of intimacy, creative intimacy. If you look at the wonderful writers that Elvis would work with, if it started to happen, the Colonel would get in amongst that. And that’s why “Suspicious Minds” and the American Studio recordings are so important because actually Elvis finally stands up and says, I don’t care about the publishing. There’s many Easter eggs in the movie. Someone identified that when Elvis says, “I will always love you,” it is a nod to the fact that Dolly Parton had “I Will Always Love You,” and Elvis was gonna record it, and he wanted to do it, dearly and passionately. The Colonel rings Dolly and says, “Yeah, but we gotta own the publishing.” She says, “Colonel, that’s my family’s legacy.” And so he doesn’t record it.
Olsen: Well, speaking of legacy, Elvis’ legacy and his family live on. What responsibility to them did you feel?
Luhrmann: To be embraced by the fan base for Elvis? Very important. I respect them deeply. But also to find a new audience. I mean, the amount of times I’ve heard, “I wasn’t into Elvis and I got tricked into seeing it. I wasn’t, and I’ve seen it three times,” or whatever, you know, the repeat viewing. I can only be really appreciative of that and the journey I’ve been on.
I mean, the privilege I had of living and coming and going in Memphis, of having that creative space in the barn area out the back of Graceland for 18 months. Of not really knowing the family, having some contact early on, then losing contact with the family. Then, understandably, and I underline this, Priscilla, being very worried about what I was gonna do with Elvis’ life, her life, the legacy. And then them seeing the movie and of all the screenings I’ve done in my life, worrying so much about how Priscilla would react. And I remember ringing as soon as I landed, and oh, “There’s a female security guard and she’s crying.”
And I thought, “Oh, did Priscilla leave?” You know? He said, “No, no, she’s crying cause she’s still in there, crying.” And the note I got from Priscilla afterwards, which was (I won’t tell you all of it), but essentially: all her life, she’s had to have impersonations. What she saw Austin Butler achieve was actually, she said, every move? Yes. Every wink? Yes, every eyebrow. Yes. But if my husband was here, he would say, “Hot damn, you are me!” Because she went on later, her and Jerry [Schilling], to say Elvis had an anger. He would have rages.
[Clip from “Elvis”: ELVIS: I’m not taking him back! He takes everything from me. He takes 50% of everything that I make. And now he wants to take the home that we bought for Mama? Listen to me, Daddy. That old bastard can sue if he wants. But I am flying away with or without you.]
Luhrmann: How did he know to rage like Elvis? How did he know? Because that’s the one thing that’s not in — people have talked about it, they talk around it. No one wants to know that Elvis would have sort of blind anger about circumstance. And Austin found it. It’s in the movie. And I said, that really comes from Austin not doing an impersonation. He learned everything, learned everything, learned everything. But he was able to meld his soul and Elvis’ soul. And that’s the deepest form of acting, when you’re finding the connectivity within your own spirit. That comes from doing all of the work and then just being.
Olsen: I want you to walk me through your research process a little bit. You mentioned the time that you spent at Graceland, and I have to ask, I’ve heard you say that you got to go upstairs to the second floor at Graceland where the public is not allowed to go. What was it like to be up there? What did you take from just being in that very specific place?
Luhrmann: I think the takeaway one has to understand is: What you see visually in the film is very accurate. There are more parts upstairs that are not in the film and they’re things that — it was one of the more extraordinary, um, experiences of my life.
But one thing I think we have to understand: He was a husband, he was a father, a grandfather, a friend, a person, and that is the place that he passed. It’s certainly understandable why that wouldn’t become part of a commercial aspect. The memory and the person is still living in hearts and minds of those that loved him on a personal level. It wasn’t something I just did, you know? And I, to this day, am really thankful that I got my 20 minutes.
Olsen: So, Baz, I want to be sure to ask you simply about the structure of the movie, the way that the simple structure of each decade — the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s — each of those sections is punctuated in climax with a big number. You have the “Trouble” number for the ’50s, the “If I Can Dream” comeback special number for the ’60s and then “Unchained Melody” for the ’70s. How did you come to land on those songs and this musical structure?
Luhrmann: It’s a really good question because one of the things, more than any film I’ve ever made, is that I had to also copy reality as well as have this kind of storytelling language. I think also, for all of its musicality, the film has these very, very realist dramatic scenes, like real absolute, just pure drama scenes. Whether it’s the breakup between Priscilla and Elvis or it’s the firing of the Colonel.
Having said that, the power and the height of Elvis’ life is so great that — like a tragic American opera, which is sometimes how I, in my mind, think of the story — I think at the end of each act, the only way to actually sum up when words fail you is in a musical execution. You have all the active drama, and then when you want to heighten what is the actual center or the conclusion of the scene, music does it in a way, music and drama. Remembering that, of course, when he is on there doing “Trouble,” we’re intercutting with the Colonel going, “Oh my God, we’ve got to stop him.”
Elvis doesn’t really do speeches, but when he sings, it exalts us all. Amplifies what would have been a speech. It amplifies it. Same thing with “Unchained Melody.” Is he singing to a lover or is he singing to the audience? Do you know?
Austin does a brilliant thing, I think, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it. I thought maybe we’ll just use Elvis at the end, the real footage.
There’s a moment when Elvis in the real footage in “Unchained Melody,” he’s discombobulated and he gets his gags wrong and you think, “Oh God, this is just gonna be embarrassing.” And then he sings like maybe he’s never sung before. And right in the middle of it, he looks and he smiles at the audience like a little boy. Now, Austin does that moment. And Austin captures it so truthfully, but also humanly. It isn’t an impersonation. He’s basically going like, “Hey, Mom, Dad, is it good?”
That is, I think, the key to it. And yet he’s singing. It’s [an] amplification of the human condition through acting. Austin acts those moments. He doesn’t just sing them.
Olsen: And then, in the film, you really go out of your way to explore the way in which Elvis was influenced by Black artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Arthur Crudup or Big Mama Thornton. We see Elvis absorbing them as influences. But especially with many people with a contemporary reading of Elvis, they see him as committing acts of cultural appropriation and feel that he never gave proper credit to the people he was influenced by. Why was it important to you to explore that aspect of Elvis’ artistic life and depict it in the way that you did?
Luhrmann: I mean, one thing’s really simple: No Black music, no Elvis. He is in one of the few white houses in a Black community at some stage. I found Sam Bell — sadly, he passed last year — Sam’s grandparents’ house joined Elvis’. Those stories about the kids? That really happened. Sam Bell said to me, Elvis was part of the gang. They were just a group of kids.
Elvis absorbed that. He also absorbed country music — he did do his own thing. I said to Sam, “What’d you think when Elvis, you heard him on the radio?” He said, “Well, I just couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe that he would sing our music. It was dangerous, you know? We couldn’t believe it.”
The thing that isn’t true is that Elvis relentlessly acknowledges that. He’s on camera, he’s in print, even as a kid, saying, hey, I didn’t invent this. When I saw Big Boy Crudup play his box, I thought if I could be like that, I’d be a music man like no one — when that was actually a dangerous thing to do. So I’m not trying to defend Elvis, but if you just look at the facts, this isn’t someone who went like, “Mm, Black music, make a lot of money out of that.”
He never called himself “king.” Elvis never called himself that. And in fact he says at Vegas: I’m not the king of rock and roll. Fats is there. Fats Domino. Come here, Fats. This is the real king of rock and roll.
Unfortunately, the truth of what Elvis thought and the commercial truth of what the Colonel thought he would sell — you can be sure that the Colonel was calling him the King.
Luhrmann: I was so privileged to have Gary Clark Jr., Yola, Kelvin Harrison Jr., I mean, Alton Mason, who plays Little Richard. Yola is really articulate about this: There’s a big difference between appropriation and acknowledgement. To quote Nelson George, a great friend of mine, a Black music historian, filmmaker, he said, “I looked at it, no pun intended, and it’s just not black and white.” You know?
I think the thing about music is that it moves through time, geography, borders and politics. Even young people today, like the instigators of hip-hop might not like what’s happening to hip-hop right now. They might, they might not. You cannot stop it. It flies above everything and it ultimately brings people together.
Olsen: I’d like to take a step back to talk about the way you’ve developed this very specific sort of visual language that, when people watch your movies, they know from the first moment that it’s one of your movies. And I’m interested to hear you talk about how you would describe that style and also what it means to you. Why do you like working in this kind of layered, immersive way?
Luhrmann: Yeah. It isn’t just visual. I develop the written word with collaborators. I develop a visual language with collaborators, most notably Catherine Martin. I am married to her. She does have four Oscars. It’s hard at breakfast, you know, boom, boom, boom. “Hey sweetie,” right?
But jokes aside, I also develop a musical language in parallel with the movies. So there are like three scripts and I use all of them in equal density. Now, I’ve thought about this, because I can definitely do a realist drama. I come from that background and I can do it, and I would like to do it, but people do that much better than I do. But I think your whole journey as a storyteller is, you’ve ultimately got to accept the way you tell things, you know? And if you are with me around a dinner table, probably the way the movies are is the way I tell things. I sort of jump cut, I run around, I join all sorts of dots and I sort of bring it back, hopefully, at the end where there’s a larger point and you get it. And there’s a bit of irony on the way, but there’s a lot of truth, you know? I hope that’s kind of how I tell stories.
And I think the closer you get to telling a story the way you actually are, the more honest it’s gonna be. Now, is it gonna fit inside a box? Probably not. I’ve now kind of surrendered at my advanced years to this is just who I am and how I tell it.
I will say, though, it’s interesting having been at the birth of hip-hop, doing “The Get Down.” That revolution, which everyone went like, “Well, that’s very much taking all sorts of other pieces of culture and making a collage and something brand-new rises out of it?” Actually, the more I look at that, the more I understand that I’m kind of like that myself in that I’m obsessed with taking the past and living it. I would live it forever and not make the movie. But taking all these layers, collaging it, and then something new rises up above it that is informed by all these layers.
Hip-hop is now the dominant musical language. Pop is still there, but even BTS do hip-hop. They draw from hip-hop. It’s just dominant. So there was a time when that was like, “Oh, those crazy kids, taking records and making new songs, how is that music?” Right? It’s collage. And I think I sort of belong to that. Now, it speaks to music, by the way, just because in the music I’ve done, right, I mean, even the original works we do — you take something like Doja Cat’s “Hound Dog.” It’s not that she’s Big Mama Thornton. She’s translating the words of “Hound Dog” that were really kind of edgy and offensive and street and sexual, into a modern language so that a younger audience can understand what it was at that time. There’s what it was and then what it felt like. So that’s a mechanism. That’s just a device.
So I guess the point I’m making is that: It’s me. I’m stuck with it. I’m trying to do it in a way in which it is inclusive, but I don’t think I’m alone. I think that it turns out that filmmaking always, storytelling always — the stories don’t change, but the way you tell them and how you reach new audiences or how you open it to everyone, that changes too. And that’s my thing. I don’t wanna deny anyone into the story, and so that’s why I have a way of telling, I suppose.
Olsen: I don’t if you saw, but your fellow Australian and avowed Elvis fan, the musician Nick Cave, he was actually asked about “Elvis” the movie, and he had kind of a really interesting take on it. He felt that you shouldn’t have had to use the footage of the real Elvis at the end of the movie, that you should have somehow kind of gotten there without it. And he felt that you kind of missed something of the — “tragic splendor” is the term he used — of the end of Elvis’ life. And I’m wondering how you feel about that?
Luhrmann: Well, I’m a great fan of Nick Cave’s. He’s an icon in my neck of the woods. You know, look, honestly, there’s a hundred thousand things in the movie where people go, I wish he’d done that and not this. Absolutely. For him, it probably let the air out of the tire. I can only counter that with saying it’s incredible how many people come up and say that’s when they burst into tears. I think being like a deep, deep fan like Nick, like he lives in a very, I wouldn’t say rarified, but he lives in a very special place. He is a musician himself. He is an icon himself. So that’s one kind of audience, not a lot of audience like that.
I’m very insensitive to these things, meaning I don’t go, “Oh my God, how could you possibly say that?” There’s never one way or one interpretation. I just tell the story as best I can and let audiences decide for themselves. So, you know, valid. Maybe I should have, I think at one stage, I mean, I certainly shot it with Austin right through to the end, but what came up when we were cutting it was just this idea of like, wow, Elvis’ life is so almost unreal. What happens if you suddenly saw Elvis and went, “Look at Austin. Look at Elvis. Oh my God. It’s all true.” And it’s not just him performing. We also cut to earlier moments in his life when he’s glorious, you know, the ascension. To be honest with you, I do exactly the same thing in “Romeo + Juliet.” They’re dying and as the final shot’s going up — instead of leaving you with this tragedy of these two young people who have taken their lives — as we rise up and we hear the Wagner, we see their romance, we see the beautiful part of their life. The life that they’ve lived. That’s what they leave behind.
Olsen: And then Sofia Coppola is also going to be making a biopic of Priscilla. She’s adapting “Elvis and Me,” Priscilla’s autobiography. How do you feel about that and the — it’s interesting that it’s as if your movie left space for this other story to still be told.
Luhrmann: Yeah. I know Sofia really well. And she is really like, I know her dad, the whole family. I mean, this is filmmaking royalty. I’ve got funny stories to tell you about waking up in the chateau one morning and Sofia and a whole crew are in my bedroom shooting an opening shot of a movie. But that’s another time.
I just think I am beyond thrilled about that, beyond excited. Because absolutely my job was to tell the kind of grand opera of the big story of Elvis, the Colonel, Priscilla. I couldn’t, there were so many characters, I simply couldn’t get them in. I couldn’t do that because I had to tell it in a certain sitting. What I can’t wait to see — ’cause Priscilla’s book and Priscilla’s perspective, I think Sofia said something like, it’s a bit like “Marie Antoinette.” Like if Graceland is kind of a Versailles. I can’t wait to see, in the hands of Sofia, what it is through Priscilla’s perspective and eyes. I’m dying to see that.
Olsen: And now, I can’t help but notice that just as we’re talking, you have this beautiful E.P. initial ring on. You have a TCB pendant. And you, as you’ve been promoting the film, I see you have a couple of different Elvis belts and this fantastic leather suit. Do you consider yourself a method director? Do you kind of take on the character of the project you’re doing?
Luhrmann: Right. Well, maybe. I tell you what, though. I absolutely, from the moment I start to say I’m going there, I’m wearing the clothes. If it’s “Gatsby,” I was wearing ’30s clothes. I couldn’t make stories about Herons Creek, a town of like, you know, 10 houses, all my life. So I had to go and lose myself in other worlds, whether I’m making films or not. That’s what I do. I lose myself in stories and worlds, and “lose myself” is the key phrase. So yes, I guess that is a way of thinking of it.
There’s the academic part and then there’s the living it part. But it’s in me and I pass it on to everyone else. I want it to be within everyone else. And you ask like Austin Butler, or you go back to a Nicole Kidman or Tom Hanks — or even Leonardo — they’ll tell you that when, when we invite people into our process, you’re coming into a world already. I think it keeps fear away. It allows you to make mistakes. It allows you to be human. And you’re also living the story while telling it.
But, yeah, this is made, I have to give a shoutout to the brilliant Paspaley people who we met during “Australia” and they have a pool farm in the north of Australia. I said, “Could you make me something really special with TCB on it? And the Paspaleys made — this is sort of my good luck charm, and honestly, I’ve worn it every day since I started to move into the opening process for the movie.
Olsen: Well, Baz Luhrmann, the movie’s called “Elvis,” and this has been such a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Luhrmann: Thanks, Mark. I enjoyed it too. You’ve helped me. Thank, thank you, doctor. You know I can get off the couch now!