While being able to tap into his larger-than-life public persona is a prerequisite for anyone playing Elvis Presley, 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 “be still and go to Elvis’s deepest and most private place,” said Luhrmann.
Luhrmann was joined by Butler via Zoom for IndieWire’s Awards Spotlight series, during which the pair discussed how they fostered winning creative collaborations while making the smash hit Best Picture nominee, and how the whole “Elvis” experience has changed the Best Actor nominee’s life.
“I felt encouraged to go right to the very edge of my limits, and know that I would be safe the entire way,” said Butler, explaining what makes Luhrmann a director who has brought out life-changing performances from Oscar-winning stars like Leonardo DiCaprio (“Romeo+Juliet”) and Nicole Kidman (“Moulin Rouge”). “The trust that you had in me that made me believe in myself even more,” said the star. “You trusted me even though sometimes I was terrified.”
However, Luhrmann emphasized that filmmaking “is not a ‘me‘ thing here, it’s a ‘we‘ thing.”
“Elvis” has earned eight Oscar nominations this year, six of which are in the craft categories: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and Best Sound. The director repeated what his wife Catherine Martin recently said about fellow Oscar nominee Mandy Walker while accepting a Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Period Film: “If we have one wish in this award season, the fact that the first woman photographer in 95 years won, that would be something truly we could hold our heads high about.” It is indeed a we thing.
Because Luhrmann has such a particular vision, he often will bring cast and crew together well before production has commenced. “We were making the movie from the moment you walked into my house,” said the director to Butler, describing the early days making the Warner Bros. release. “What I had never seen before was the way that you are, with bringing people in from the very, very early days,” responded the actor.
“To start creating the rapport with the cinematographer [Walker] before I started shooting, and suddenly by the time that we’re on set, she knows how I move, and I know how she moves, and we’ve created this language … it’s more akin to dance partners,” said Butler. “We’ve already been dancing for so long that … suddenly it’s subconscious, the feeling of knowing where Mandy is going to set the camera.”
Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection
Other “Elvis” craft highlights include Best Editing nominees Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond turning test footage they had, which included interchanging shots of Butler and the real Elvis performing, into a scene that Luhrmann hears praise about every day. “When that moment happens, it’s not just the emotion, they have some sort of spiritual experience,” said the director.
Costume designer Martin also made 9,000 costumes, including five to seven different versions of the specific leather suit Presley used to have to be cut out of after performing in Las Vegas every night. “It was an entire world that we were stepping into,” said Butler. “Wherever I was there was just such fierce dedication to authenticity.”
Taking a moment to address his star, and not leave important praise left unsaid before their “Elvis” journey comes to an end on Oscars night, Luhrmann said, “What’s really crucial about this is that you already had the inner life. But when you see the movie, the work that you did as an actor, you go from a 26-year-old with his already alive inner life that’s somewhat already akin to the spirit of Elvis, but if I dare say it, you play Elvis at 17, then you play another Elvis at 35, who’s at the height of his powers. And then you play another Elvis as he declines into overweightness, drug addiction, corruption, and yet inside is still this beautiful boy who wants to fix everything and be a superhero. And it really is, in my opinion, the performance of a lifetime, that you gave your life to.”
He continued, “If there’s ever going to be a takeaway for this, it’s that it’s my privilege to have observed that, and been around you.”
Butler doesn’t take any of the glowing response to his BAFTA-winning, Academy Award nominated “Elvis” performance for granted. “The terror was so immense, I did not sleep for three years while making this movie. Now, I look at this time, how we’re able to talk to these people who have seen the movie 30 times,” said the actor. “It’s struck a chord in them, and I just feel so honored and privileged to have been a part of Elvis’ legacy in this way.”
“Elvis” is now streaming on HBO Max
Baz Luhrmann Tells ‘Elvis’ Star Austin Butler That He Gave the ‘Performance of a Lifetime’