Interview with Baz Luhrmann

By: Maureen Dowd
Source: The New York Times
May 25, 2022

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Baz Luhrmann dreams big.

In a streaming world where, as Norma Desmond predicted, the movies get smaller, the Australian director keeps going bigger.

After his 2013 film, 'Gatsby', Mr. Luhrmann is taking on another American icon in 'Elvis', another kaleidoscopic epic with a sizzling soundtrack.

Tom Hanks had only met Mr. Luhrmann in passing when the director called to ask him to play Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's infamous manager.

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Mr. Hanks was game: 'I could only think of, 'Oh my God, Elvis in your hands, well, that would be a nuclear explosion. That would just be bigger than big could be'.

Mr. Luhrmann did not want to make a mere biopic. He wanted to make a wildly ambitious movie about race and sex and class and music in America through three decades, the 1950s, '60s and '70s. There are three Elvises, the rock 'n' roll punk, the movie star in the Hollywood bubble, and the drug-addled, divorced Elvis in Vegas who feels 'caught in a trap', as the line from 'Suspicious Minds' goes, and shows the fatigue of being stuck as the campy character busting out of the tight white jumpsuit. 'I'm just so tired of playing Elvis Presley', he said, the year before he died.

Mr. Luhrmann wanted to restore humanity to Elvis, who became, he said, 'like a Halloween costume or wallpaper. He's so there, he's not there anymore'.

The director's name evokes the phantasmagoric, or an italicized adventure — not the sort of movie where a sad widow goes on a solo road trip in an old van into the desert and we watch her go to the bathroom in a bucket. Nothing Baz-y about that. His world is full of glamorous characters who reach for the stars and look, often unhappily, for love.

'Yes, well, I am a romance addict', Mr. Luhrmann said, sitting in his romantic Gilded Age house in Manhattan's Stuyvesant Square, decorated in jewel-toned Victorian-Moroccan splendor by Catherine Martin, his wife and Oscar-winning creative partner. (She also designed the luxe green wallpaper.)

'I'm old enough to know', the director continued, 'I need to be in a heightened romantic state to make a film'.

Baz, as everyone calls him, may be from the down-under Oz but his inspiration is the Judy Garland Oz. We conducted our interview with a photo of a crying Garland looking down at us.

Over a delectable lunch on elegant china, he told me that he related to 'Elvis's need to metaphorically go down the yellow brick road, constantly searching, absorbing, taking on influences, cross-fertilizing them and making a prism through which he expresses himself in his own way'.

The director is a genre unto himself. You can tell from one frame of his movies that they're his. He only chooses subjects he's madly in love with, then fearlessly dives in, just as he did with Shakespeare, setting the story of Romeo and Juliet in Verona Beach, a fictionalized Miami of sorts, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, pink hair, tabloid TV and a hot-dog stand. The dazzle-drenched romance of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in La Belle Époque Paris? Mais oui! What's more thrilling than Ewan McGregor lusting after a languishing Nicole Kidman as she swings through the air and they sing Madonna and Beatles songs? With 'Australia', Mr. Luhrmann aimed for nothing less than making his country's version of 'Gone With the Wind'.

'He's like a walking opera', Mr. McGregor said. 'He lives in a larger way'.

Does Mr. Luhrmann ever feel insecure when he's creating these surreal extravaganzas?

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'My more consistent challenge is not insecurity but fear', he said. 'Fear is for me and everyone surrounding me, the enemy of play, and play is what we do professionally for a living. After all, it's called a screenplay, and actors are players. So, I spend a lot of my time creating environments that keep fear away. It's kind of my job to suck up the fear at 5 in the morning before I get to the set and take on everybody else's fear'.

There are stressful moments, as with 'Moulin Rouge!', when Mr. Luhrmann and Ms. Martin found a fax someone accidentally left in the machine with an urgent plea to the studio to come and take over because 'Baz is out of control'. But if it isn't impossibly difficult to birth, it isn't Baz-y.

C.M., as Ms. Martin is known, brings her husband's enchanted worlds to life with opulent sets and costumes. She admitted that the scale of Mr. Luhrmann's dreams, wanting to find 'the best of the best of the best', can leave her feeling like Harrison Ford running to escape the boulder in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'.

During the first week in May, Mr. Luhrmann was racing to finish mixing and editing on 'Elvis' for its premiere at Cannes this weekend, a month before its wide release on June 24. He was flying from Australia, where the movie was made, to New York to Los Angeles and back to New York before going to France. And he was also helping to direct the Met Gala and walking the red carpet wearing a Prada 'Elvis decorative aesthetic' outfit, as he put it, accompanied by Priscilla Presley, uncannily on the arm of the film's Elvis, the 30-year-old Austin Butler.

Mr. Luhrmann, who calls himself a 'research nut', wrote the screenplay with three other writers. He goes into total immersion on his films, surrounding himself with excavations from the world he is creating, from drapes to wardrobe to photos.

During 'Gatsby', he said, laughing, 'I think we went a bit far with the speakeasy part of it'. He and Ms. Martin also flew to England so they could steam into New York on an ocean liner, like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

'He Makes Coffee Nervous'

On the afternoon of our interview, Mr. Luhrmann, whippet-thin at 59, was wearing flared black Celine jeans and Acne Western boots, a Prada sweater in a blue that Elvis favored, a double diamond ring, a copy of Elvis's 'E.P'. ring, a string of pearls and a gold 'TCB' necklace with a diamond lightning bolt, a riff on the jewelry worn by Elvis and the Memphis Mafia that signified 'Taking Care of Business' fast. And he showed off a replica of the bejeweled belt with gold chains that Elvis wore onstage in the '70s.

'Elvis was fluid before fluid was invented', the director said. 'He was always incredibly masculine, but he was experimenting with makeup and hair color in high school, and he liked to mix lace crop tops tied at the waist and pink bolero jackets with pleated box trousers and pink socks'.

It isn't only movies that bring out the Bazmataz. When the director made a three-minute ad for Chanel No. 5 with Nicole Kidman in 2004, it cost $33 million, making it the most expensive ad in history, a record it still holds.

Even when the cameras are not rolling, he has Tom Ford syndrome: He can't stop arranging the world to be as swank as he wants it to be.

When he rented a house opposite Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, in Greenwich Village, and they shared a garden, he redesigned her Halloween party.

'We used to throw a few skeletons out there and hope for the best', Ms. Wintour said. 'Baz and C.M. moved in and just turned it into this incredible Halloween fantasy'.

'We're English, we do silly games like murder games and disco night, and the level of detail and amazing costumes they brought to it', Ms. Wintour continued. 'He'll take an idea and just lift it into a whole other stratosphere'.

In 2018, when Mr. Luhrmann was a guest at the wedding of Bee Shaffer, Ms. Wintour's daughter, at the family home in Long Island, he took it on himself to play wedding planner.

'He rehearsed my daughter over and over again for her wedding. She said she was probably the bride that slept the best before her wedding because she was so exhausted', Ms. Wintour said. 'He's talking about the entrances and exits, sightlines, and all from the kindness of his heart'.

Mr. Luhrmann offered his philosophy: 'I believe, as Leonardo da Vinci did, that parties are an art form. Weddings R Us'.

Even when he was in Australia, he helped Ms. Wintour with the Met Gala, calling 'to talk about a particular shade of red for the red carpets or whether a blue stripe was right'.

He is 'meticulous to the extreme', as Mr. Hanks agreed, 'with a degree of enthusiasm and energy that is otherworldly. He makes coffee nervous'.

Mr. Luhrmann is so detail-oriented that he even conjures back stories for his extras. All the hundreds of extras at the lavish Roaring Twenties parties at Gatsby's mansion, and the throngs screaming at Elvis's appearances, had back stories provided by him and C.M.

Mr. Luhrmann was able to reproduce Elvis's bedroom, which is intact at Graceland; it has always been off-limits to Graceland visitors, and is now home to a cobweb and spider. The movie shows a fish tank, an electric organ, a white Fender guitar stuck in the shag carpet, and two televisions embedded in the ceiling.

The director's way of piling embellishment on embellishment can be discombobulating for those who expect more structure (and of course, to the suits checking the bottom line).

'Sometimes it's infectious, other times, it's exhausting, but what it always is, is freewheeling', Mr. Hanks said. 'You think, well, are we just not throwing everything in but the kitchen sink, trying everything that enters our heads, and the answer is yes. But he's a bit of a Pied Piper: 'Follow me', and you do'.

From a young age, Mr. Luhrmann seemed destined to become Puck, with a bucket full of fairy dust.

He was a bedazzled ballroom dancer when he was little; his mother was a ballroom dance teacher and dress shop owner; at 10, he won a contest dancing the jive to a new single he had bought, Elvis's 'Burning Love'. And he baked in 'Cinema Paradiso' fantasy when his father ran the local movie theater, in addition to a pig farm and gas station.

Elvis's father went to jail for altering a check when he was young, and he and his mother barely scraped by. Mr. Luhrmann also had family heartaches: His parents divorced when he was 15 and his mother moved to Sydney, taking his sister and leaving Baz and his two brothers with his father. 'Dad rallied around', he said. 'We became his world'.

Living in the seven-house town of Herons Creek in New South Wales, what else could a boy do but watch 'Lawrence of Arabia' on a black-and-white TV and run off as a teenager to become an artist in the big city of Sydney? (A time to reunite with his mother.)

As filming for 'Elvis' got underway on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, Mr. Hanks said that he and Mr. Butler nervously huddled. Mr. Butler did not consider himself a singer, except for strumming his guitar and singing for his late mother and girlfriends.

'I said to him, 'Hey, are you as petrified as I am?' Mr. Hanks, 65, recalled. 'We had two actors going, actually, 'I don't know how we're going to pull this off'.

As Mr. Butler recounted, his screen idol then warned him, 'Not many people know what Colonel Parker sounds like, but everybody knows what Elvis sounds like and you're going to have people attacking you from every which way'.

Mr. Butler chuckled at the memory. 'So I go, 'Oh, thanks, Tom'. And then I gave him a big hug'.

Mr. Butler was an actor on teen shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. His first big movie role was playing Tex Watson, a Manson family member, in Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'.

He confessed that his initial attempts to sing like Elvis made him feel like a kid wearing his father's suit. But, he said, 'When I felt nerves, I didn't go, 'I shouldn't be feeling this'. I thought, 'This is what Elvis felt'.

The tall, lanky Butler (who divided his time at the Met Gala between Priscilla Presley and his girlfriend, the model Kaia Gerber) borrowed his director's immersion technique; he stayed in Australia during a six-month Covid-19 shutdown from filming and walked on the beach and listened to tapes of Elvis.

'Before Austin got the role, when I met him for a workshop in this building three and a half years ago, he had this Southern accent', the director said. 'It wasn't until four weeks later, someone said, 'He's actually from Anaheim'.

When he was deciding whom to cast — runners-up included Harry Styles, Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller — Mr. Luhrmann got a call from Denzel Washington, who had acted with Mr. Butler in 2018 in 'The Iceman Cometh' on Broadway.

''You need to know I have never seen a work ethic like that young actor has', Mr. Luhrmann recalled Mr. Washington telling him. ''He does not stop'.

Mr. Luhrmann has a record label, House of Iona, at RCA, where Elvis had his contract, so he had access to hundreds of recordings of the young Elvis but they weren't usable because of their format.

'I thought, 'Do I get an impersonator and then mime it?' he recalled. He asked Mr. Butler to try some songs.

'Day 1, he can almost sing like Elvis', Mr. Luhrmann said. He ended up using Austin's voice, also a throaty baritone, for the young Elvis songs, blending for a few, and Elvis's voice for the later iconic moments.

Before she saw the movie, Priscilla Presley, 76, said she was nervous because she'd only met with the director a couple of times and 'Baz can be, you know, he kind of goes off beat a bit'. But after she saw a screening recently with Jerry Schilling, a member of the Memphis Mafia, she wrote Mr. Luhrmann an email that every breath and every eye movement was perfect, and included a message for Mr. Butler: 'If my husband was here today, he would look you in the eye and say, 'Hot damn, you are me'.

The Carny Who Made the Star

Mr. Luhrmann became obsessed with the partnership of Colonel Parker and Elvis, easily the most fascinating Svengali-star relationship in entertainment history. (If you don't count Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, who ran around declaring, 'I am Marlene'. )

'I believe the word 'sociopath' will come into the dialogue when the issue of the colonel comes up', Mr. Luhrmann said. 'Sociopaths can be incredibly entertaining and amazingly enigmatic'.

Was Colonel Parker — a native of Holland, using a fake name and honorary military title and pretending to be a good old boy from West Virginia — a captivating snake-oil salesman? Or was he something much darker: a leech, a thief, maybe even a murderer on the lam?

Was Elvis strapped for money — mortgaging Graceland to make his payroll — and increasingly bored and dependent on drugs because the colonel, in this country illegally with no passport, squelched lucrative foreign tours?

Did the old carny barker play out a shattering real-life version of 'Nightmare Alley', his favorite movie, where he turned the most successful solo recording artist of all time into the geek? Did the carny and animal trainer, whose favorite routine was a chicken hopping to music on a hidden hot plate, turn Elvis into his own dancing chicken?

Colonel Parker called himself 'the Snowman' because he loved snowing, or fooling, people. In the carnival, he had painted sparrows yellow and sold them as canaries. As a joke, he formed the Snowmen's League, a fanciful private club that cost nothing to join but $100,000 to leave, according to Mr. Luhrmann; even L.B.J. was a member.

'When the 'sell' becomes more powerful than the creative, then tragedy ensues', said Mr. Luhrmann, who recreates a house of mirrors in the movie. It's telling that Colonel Parker manufactured both 'I love Elvis' buttons and 'I hate Elvis' buttons, wanting a stake in both sides of the market. 'After all, what's hate worth if it's free?' Mr. Luhrmann said sardonically.

Some people thought the colonel used his carny mentalist skills to hypnotize Elvis, to control him and make the at-times-insecure star feel like a sex god.

After Mr. Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, became what the actor called 'the celebrity canaries in the coal mine' by getting Covid in March 2020, filming was delayed for six months. During the hiatus, Priscilla Presley ran into Ms. Wilson in Los Angeles and suggested a dinner. Ms. Presley and Mr. Schilling went to the home of Mr. Hanks and Ms. Wilson, and they had a confab about the colonel.

Despite the famous legal battle between Elvis's heirs and Colonel Parker — he was sued for massive fraud and mismanaging Elvis's business interests; the parties settled out of court — Priscilla spoke highly of the manager, saying she wished he were still alive. That led to Mr. Luhrmann and Mr. Hanks reworking the colonel into 'less of a one-dimensional bad guy', as the director put it.

'I was anticipating hearing horror stories about this venal, cheap crook', Mr. Hanks said. 'Just the opposite. Both Priscilla and Jerry said he was a lovely man'. As to the outrageous deal that gave Colonel Parker half of Elvis's income, Priscilla told Mr. Hanks that Elvis didn't care about the 50 percent and was glad that the colonel was handling the business side.

'There was an acumen and brilliance to Colonel Tom Parker that is belied by the fact that he was a cheap carny', said Mr. Hanks, who had to log five hours a day in makeup getting mountainous, mottled and saggy.

'Look, Elvis was Picasso', the actor said. 'He was a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime artist. The colonel understood that. Colonel Tom Parker would have been nothing without Elvis, and Elvis would not have been Elvis without Colonel Tom Parker'.

As Elvis spiraled into drug addiction, the colonel spiraled into a gambling addiction. He needed Elvis to slave away in Vegas and on grueling road tours so the colonel could pay his gambling debts — or gamble free.

In one chilling scene in the movie, based on fact, Elvis is in a drug haze with people dunking his face in ice water backstage at Vegas when the colonel comes up and tells a Dr. Feelgood to get the singer onstage, no matter what they have to do.

'He did not want the word to get out that the greatest entertainer in the world could not get up onstage', Mr. Hanks said. 'He didn't want to give back the money or deal with the legal ramifications. It ends up being, is that looking out for the legacy of his client or is that slowly poisoning the guy?'

Elvis died in 1977, at 42, after a heart attack. His health had been worn down by the grind of his career — and almost certainly by the 19,000 pills that Dr. George Nichopoulos, his Memphis Dr. Feelgood, prescribed to him, according to 'The Colonel', by Alanna Nash. (Not counting what he got from other star-struck doctors.)

Colonel Parker did not miss a beat. He refused to be a pallbearer, wore a Hawaiian shirt to the funeral and said to Elvis's father, Vernon, that they needed to start printing a lot more records. 'Elvis didn't die, the body did', the colonel famously said, adding that it would be just like when Elvis was away in the Army in Germany.

Mr. Hanks defended the colonel. 'He was absolutely right', the actor said. 'Why miss out on that opportunity? Everybody went back and bought Elvis Presley records all over again'.

Although he sees the colonel's 'self-serving Machiavellian aspect', Mr. Hanks does not think the colonel is to blame for Elvis destroying himself with drugs.

'Elvis came back from the Army absolutely adoring amphetamines because you could buy them over the counter in Germany', Mr. Hanks said. 'That's how he got through tank maneuvers'.

He sees Colonel Parker not as a con man but more as Falstaff, who taught Prince Hal invaluable populist skills, like how to 'drink with any tinker in his own language', but then got pushed aside when the prince became a king.

'Elvis was not kept in a Ball jar by Colonel Tom Parker', Mr. Hanks said. 'Colonel Parker would come in, he would take care of the money, he would say, 'Here's what the shows and bookings are going to be'. If Elvis didn't say, 'Yes, help get me off these drugs' then that wasn't going to happen'. And, Mr. Hanks said, 'If Elvis didn't want to do all those bad movies, he could have said, 'No, I'm not going to do it'.

Mr. Hanks and I talked about how much we would have loved to see the version of 'A Star Is Born' that Barbra Streisand originally envisioned, with Elvis as her fading, alcoholic husband, before the colonel nixed it.

'That would have been the greatest stunt casting on the planet Earth', Mr. Hanks said.

Searching for the Truth About Elvis and Race

When Mr. Luhrmann reached out to Lisa Marie Presley and her actress daughter Riley Keough early on, he said, Ms. Keough told him that she was concerned that her grandfather had been maligned on race.

After Chuck D of Public Enemy made the hit song 'Fight the Power' in 1989, calling Elvis 'a straight-out racist', a generation of kids believed it. Then in 2020, the rapper did an interview where he said he had no specific evidence of racism; he simply made Elvis 'the fall guy' because Elvis was crowned the King for a style that Black singers had originated.

Mr. Luhrmann set up an office in the back of Graceland and, visiting over three years, did prodigious research with his team, following Elvis from his birth in a shotgun shack in Tupelo, Miss., to a period when his father went to jail and he and his mother ended up in one of the few white-designated houses in the Black community there. The director interviewed Sam Bell, a childhood friend of E.P., as they called him, about their trips to juke joints and Pentecostal tents, where the famous possessed twitching of Elvis the Pelvis began.

'Conservatives, this organization of governors, freaked out because they saw that movement as aligned to African American movement', Mr. Luhrmann said. 'That's why they were so terrified of its effect on young people. It was jumping the race line, basically'. In the film, Mr. Luhrmann uses real headlines about Elvis, like 'A White Boy With Black Hips'.

'Many in the Black community loved him', Mr. Luhrmann said. 'They thought he was brave for performing their music. He didn't sit down connivingly and go, 'I'm going to take Black music and make money out of it'.

'He was a spiritual guy. He loved gospel music. It was his safe place. He was about bringing people together, not pulling them apart. Did he do dumb things when he was trapped? Did he get high on drugs and go down to see Nixon and shake his hand and say, 'I want to become a federal drug agent'? Yes. But at his core he was empathetic and profoundly vulnerable'.

A story circulated at the start of Elvis's career that he had made a racist crack, either in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow's show, but those who looked into it said that Elvis had never appeared in Boston or on Mr. Murrow's program.

In 1957, Elvis told a reporter from Jet,'I never said anything like that and people who know me know that I wouldn't have said it'. He reiterated his debt to Black musicians for rock 'n' roll and gospel, saying: 'Let's face it, I can't sing like Fats Domino can'.

Mr. Luhrmann believes the story about a racist remark was made up by anti-Elvis conservatives who wanted to bring him down. He engaged Nelson George, a Black music historian who had been critical of Elvis, to seek the truth.

'He didn't say that', Mr. George said. 'He was timid at times when the moment required boldness. But he wasn't ill willed toward Black people'.

The director learned that Elvis was friends with many Black artists. He said that James Brown dedicated a song to his 'Brother, Elvis', and was present at Elvis's funeral, and that in the period when Elvis first got successful, he had a friendship with B.B. King and was often the only white face at Club Handy, a nightclub on Beale Street in Memphis where many Black artists performed.

But the movie makes it clear that this was one more area where Elvis was cowed by the colonel, who did not want his star involved in the civil rights movement, feeling it was bad for business. It was drummed into the singer that, when he was asked about politics or religion, he should deflect, saying, 'I'm just an entertainer'.

The director believes that the colonel ushered Elvis into the Army, thinking, 'We'll send him away until this rock 'n' roll thing cools down. He's too much in with this Black culture'. The colonel stifled Elvis's desire to go for prestigious movies like 'West Side Story' and pushed him to make white-bread girls-in-paradise pop musicals that got worse and worse.

As Peter Guralnick, an Elvis biographer, wrote in The New York Times, Elvis was seen 'as something of a hero in the Black community in those early years'. The African American newspapers in Memphis hailed him as a 'race man', Mr. Guralnick said, 'not just for his music but also for his indifference to the usual social distinctions', going to the Memphis Fairgrounds on a night designated for Black visitors.

Mr. Luhrmann is bracing for an intense reaction on everything from his take on Elvis and race to his portrayal of the star's romance with the 14-year-old Priscilla.

'But this is not someone hanging around schoolyards, like some famous people we know, serially picking up 14-year-olds', he said. 'They do fall in love and have a child, and they did consummate the marriage only when they were married. That is true'.

So, I wonder, is Elvis ever leaving the building?

'Elvis is still in our lives and he will continue to be', the director replied as he sped off to his next big adventure.


In a Q & A at the end of the article, Luhrmann reveals more details:

Q: You now realize that it was a tragic mistake not to include Ann-Margret, Ed Sullivan and fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches in your Elvis movie.

A: Everything you can imagine, we wrote it at some point. But that would have been a four-hour version. I always wanted Nicole [Kidman] to play Ann-Margret, actually, not in this movie, but she's so Ann-Margret in so many ways.

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