It took 36 hours for producer Gail Berman to get to the Elvis set in September of 2020. It was a mini-odyssey that involved flying from Los Angeles to New York and then through Dubai and on to Brisbane, Australia, where she had to quarantine for two weeks due to then-strict COVID-19 protocols. But the wait didn’t bother Berman, since by then she had been trying to get the movie made for more than a decade and had already endured a production shutdown due to a global pandemic that saw one of the film’s leads become the early face of the then-nascent coronavirus. (More on that later.)
“My kids used to like to call it my hobby,” says Berman, who developed the project in between her already prolific day jobs developing and producing television shows through Fox-based The Jackal Group, which she co-founded. It was with that hard-earned patience that Berman finally left her Brisbane quarantine and headed to a set at Village Roadshow Studios, where she walked straight into a meticulously re-created ballroom at the International Hotel in Las Vegas circa 1970.
Two years later, audiences around the world would find themselves visiting the same iconic stage in rock ‘n’ roll history. With a deep affection for the enduring pop icon and a nearly obsessive commitment to authenticity, the Elvis cast and crew working in Queensland under the direction of Baz Luhrmann re-created the world of Elvis Presley — from Memphis to Graceland to Vegas. At the center of the film, with its reported $85 million budget, a former Disney Channel actor, Austin Butler, blossomed into a genuine best actor Oscar prospect. And at the end of the day, they also proved to naysayers that a superstar gone now for nearly a half-century could still inspire a four-quadrant hit.
When Berman first went to Warner Bros. more than a decade earlier to pitch the idea of an Elvis biopic, she came with the backing of CORE Media Group, the then-owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises that controlled the intellectual property associated with Presley. (CORE would later sell its stake to Authentic Brands Group.) Her entire pitch boiled down to: Elvis by way of Baz Luhrmann, the director behind hyper-hued, music-forward titles like 2001’s Moulin Rouge! and 2013’s The Great Gatsby. “Baz understands music in his storytelling and understands how to take something that is period-placed and make it feel like it’s now and contemporary,” she explains of her belief that Luhrmann was the right person to bring Elvis’ story to the screen. The studio liked the pitch. The producer just had to get Luhrmann on board.
Meeting at the director’s New York City home for the first time, Berman was surprised when Luhrmann already had prepared a full outline for what would become Elvis, telling the musician’s story against the backdrop of contemporaneous American culture and politics and focusing on the singer’s relationship with longtime manager Colonel Tom Parker. For Luhrmann, Elvis Presley had been a childhood fascination spurred by matinee screenings of his Hollywood films, but, the director admits, that had faded with time as he “moved on to David Bowie and much more edgy artists.” As an adult, he came to see Presley following the model of a Shakespearean tragedy. Instead of telling Elvis’ story as a cut-and-dry biopic, he envisioned leaning more toward Richard II than Bohemian Rhapsody.
Luhrmann also considered the 1984 best picture Oscar winner Amadeus, about the life and career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his relationship with rival composer Antonio Salieri, as a primary source of inspiration. “[Amadeus] takes Salieri and tells Salieri’s story about Mozart. It really is an exploration of jealousy,” says Luhrmann, who saw Parker as the linchpin to this style of story. The carnival barker turned music manager had the appeal of “the big noisy guy who pulls the wool over your eyes, but you kind of like it,” Luhrmann adds, noting it’s an archetype that’s uniquely American. “Other cultures, it’s not celebrated. It’s not celebrated to winkle an extra dime out of a kid.” During the late 2010s, when the director was developing the story for Elvis, he noticed that idiosyncratic personality type becoming even more of a presence in everyday American life. “I committed deeply to this when I could feel that big shift where the salesmanship was taking over the leadership,” he says.
Luhrmann told Warners that his doing the movie was contingent on him finding the right person to play Elvis. Lots of young actors sought the role either to cement A-list status or for a surefire career reinvention. Ansel Elgort and Harry Styles were reportedly among the hopefuls that auditioned, but it was Butler who caught the attention of Luhrmann and his team with a self-tape in which, dressed in a bathrobe, he sat at a piano playing a tearful rendition of “Unchained Melody.” “And then he slammed down the piano lid and walked off. And I was like, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I’ve got to see him.’ And he walked in and he was already down Elvis street,” says the director, who cast Butler opposite Tom Hanks’ Parker.
Landing Elvis marked a significant turning point for Butler, then in his late 20s. He had been acting for most of his life, first as a child actor bopping between Nickelodeon and Disney, then going on to his best known roles in The CW shows like The Carrie Diaries and Arrow. But at the time, he was in the middle of a pivot, coming off of working with directors Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don’t Die) and starring opposite Denzel Washington in the Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh. In an oft-cited anecdote, Washington himself put in an unsolicited call to Luhrmann to vouch for the young actor’s work ethic.
The director quickly saw Butler’s industriousness firsthand. “He was in character day and night for two and a half years,” says Luhrmann. His tenure as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll became an extended one because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Five days before production was set to begin in March 2020, Warners was forced to halt filming, as Elvis became one of the first major studio projects to shutter. Several days later, Berman got a call. “[Warners] had something to tell me and I couldn’t mention it to anybody. They told me that Tom [Hanks] and Rita [Wilson, Hanks’ wife] had the coronavirus. It wasn’t called COVID at the time,” remembers the producer. Several hours later, Hanks and Wilson revealed their diagnosis via an official statement that was also released on social media. They became the most high-profile talent to contract the virus, immediately making headlines and leading the day’s news broadcasts around the world. “Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?” Hanks said on Instagram.
Deciding to stay in Australia during the film’s shutdown, Butler used the pandemic-enforced hiatus as a type of extended acting exercise that would make Stanislavski blush. “I’d have days where I would just go, ‘OK, let’s say I’m Elvis getting up to eat breakfast this morning.’ [I would] kind of play and try to imagine what the first thing is he thinks of when he wakes up and what’s going through his mind when he goes to sleep at night,” says Butler. “It felt kind of like this free time where I could just experiment and try to really sit with him, you know, rather than feeling really external.” While the circumstances were unfortunate, Butler believes the pandemic-imposed downtime was integral to him achieving his performance onscreen. “When we were about to start shooting prior to the pandemic, I was on the verge of a panic attack. I still felt like I was holding everything really tightly,” he admits. “That six months allowed me to release a little bit more and surrender to him more.”
When it did come time to start filming, Butler did not stop studying Presley, to the point that Luhrmann expressed caution about the actor’s zealotry. “There were times when I went to him and I said, ‘Austin, you’ve got to slow down; you will break. You cannot rehearse the dance moves, the karate, the vocals and then spend all night watching every video, rereading every book.’ ”
Nonetheless, Butler’s preparation, which included vocal coaching and breathing exercises headed by Irene Bartlett, proved worthwhile. “As for the big question of whether Butler could pull off impersonating one of the most indelible icons in American pop-culture history, the answer is an unqualified yes,” THR’s review of Elvis eventually decided. But Butler is effusive that his performance was most affected by his surroundings, all of which were painstakingly re-created based on hundreds of reference images. “I was on the stage in Vegas and looking down into images of a well- documented life and career — the audience and the authenticity of every supporting actor and how specific it was to all the images I’ve seen,” he explains. “I had many moments where I would be looking out of my eyes and seeing what truly felt like the closest thing to what Elvis probably saw.”
Since Luhrmann first considered the project, the crew of Elvis, made up of longtime Luhrmann collaborators, began their own intensive research. “If I do Moulin Rouge!, I live in Paris,” asserts the director, who decamped to Memphis for Elvis. Production designer Karen Murphy headed to Graceland and dove into Presley’s archives with Catherine Martin, the film’s resident multihyphenate production and costume designer and producer.
They also spent days walking Beale Street, eventually re-creating the infamous road in an outdoor area behind Village Roadshow. The build included storefronts, which were outfitted with neon signs, window paint and paper flyers thanks to the team of 16 graphic designers, while period-accurate cars were trucked in and repainted to fit within Elvis‘ colorscape.
The Elvis crew describes the color palette as both temporal and psychological, synced to the colors seen around America at that time and to Presley’s mental state. Early career Elvis of the ’50s was bathed in sepia tones highlighted by greens and yellows, which gave way to a mid-career epoch in Hollywood of bright Kodachrome-inspired primary colors. The movie ends bathed in the deep reds, blacks and metallics of his Vegas years in the ’70s, when the King found himself in a gilded cage.
“When you work on a film with Baz, you never [have] the actor in front of a piece of gray paper,” says cinematographer Mandy Walker, as if to understate the director’s penchant for retina-searing visuals. Elvis’ early years are not well documented, so, with little available in the way of reference images, Walker pulled heavily from contemporary still photographers like Gordon Parks, who documented the civil rights movement. Simpler lenses were used to capture Presley’s young adulthood, allowing for a flatter look with more saturated colors, mimicking the feel of that still photography. She switched to anamorphic lenses after Elvis hit his Hollywood years, but she had specialty lenses built that mirrored “all the old aberrations and kinks that would’ve been in those first styles of anamorphic that have been taken out now in modern lenses.” And in re-creating the 1968 NBC special in which Elvis reinvented himself after burning out in Hollywood, Walker housed her cameras in period-accurate television studio encasings.
Meanwhile, the costume team put together an inventory of Presley’s clothing — “a year-by-year resource, and when we could, a month-by-month and day-by-day” timeline of what the singer actually wore in his life — explains Martin. For Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s (Olivia DeJonge) wardrobe, what wasn’t made on location in the production’s Gold Coast workshop was outsourced to luxury brands Prada and Miu Miu. “I’ve never done so many costume fittings,” says Butler with a laugh.
As for populating the background — including massive concert sequences full of screaming girls — Martin says, “If we talk about background, there were over 9,000 distinct, separate outfits.” In order to achieve the right textures, the massive wardrobe required was composed of one-third (roughly 3,000 looks) made by Martin’s costume team, one-third sourced vintage pieces and one-third purchased reproductions of period clothing. Martin explains: “Sometimes when you make everything, it can feel too mannered. And if you lean too much into vintage, it can look like you have gone to a secondhand shop; it doesn’t have a crispness.”
Luhrmann and Martin figured that modern audiences knew Elvis best from his Vegas years, when he karate chopped his way across the stage, belting out ballad after ballad while sweating through his signature jumpsuits. “For the jumpsuits, we could be absolutely forensic,” says Martin. “We actually made a chart where we took every jumpsuit Elvis ever wore and put it into chronological order based on the first time he wore the jumpsuit, and then underneath we put any references we could find to that jumpsuit being reworn.” The movie’s jumpsuits were made by B&K Enterprises, which had a relationship with Bill Belew, the original designer of Elvis’ own jumpsuits. The authenticity ran literally through every stitch: The man who did the chainstitching on Presley’s famed jumpsuits — Gene Doucette — handled the embroidery for those in the movie.
All of that work is most clearly evident in one of the film’s main centerpieces, the 1970 opening-night concert at the International Hotel. The Vegas-set stage show was the first night of Presley’s well-known residency and begins his final musical era, the one likely best remembered by modern audiences. Luckily for the production, the 1970 feature documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is covers that summer when Presley and his team were preparing for the show and included extensive footage of the opening night that served to guide their way.
The largest soundstage at Village Roadshow Studios was transformed into an accurate re-creation of the ’60s-era ballroom, allowing Butler to perform the show in its entirety in front of an audience of background actors, moving freely throughout the space as three cameras captured his performance. The full-scale stage had a seamless backstage area, proscenium and curtain that measured roughly half the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. “Getting that curtain, at that width and with all of that fabric and the engineering required to have it go up and down, it needed to be very specifically articulated in order to achieve what Baz needed it to achieve,” says Murphy. Because Australia is not equipped with the prop warehouses that dot Los Angeles and London, Murphy and her team had to reconstruct the interior at the production’s workshop. That included dozens of banquettes, long banquet tables and countless chairs. For the hotel carpeting, they could not find any existing comps, so they had the pattern printed.
As for Walker’s team, they positioned their cameras throughout the ballroom in the exact locations that were seen in That’s the Way It Is. “You can put Austin’s performance side by side with Elvis’ because I matched exactly the angle and got the cameras to be in exactly the right position,” the cinematographer says. The camera team took part in the dance rehearsals with Butler before the film’s shoot, so they knew the choreography. The result was handheld camerawork that kept Butler in frame while still managing to stay out of his path of performance: “If Austin was going to do a slide across the floor, they all knew, ‘OK, now he’s going to slide, so I’m going to slide with him.’ “
Still, there were several places where the production veered from absolute fidelity. For instance, in his inaugural Vegas show, Presley wore black pants and a tunic. In the film, Butler wears a white leather jumpsuit that is dotted with silver decals. Notes Martin, “Baz made a contextual rule that in order to tell the story more succinctly or underline something drastically, we could change the nature of something.”
While filming the Vegas show, Butler would perform songs in their entirety, essentially putting on a concert for cast and crew, several of whom described the experience as “spiritual.” Says Luhrmann, “What made Elvis so extraordinary onstage — and I’ve talked to people like Clive Davis who saw Elvis on the opening night in Vegas — was that once he got himself hyped up, he was kind of in a spiritual state.” He remembers, “I had this grip who’s worked with me 30 years called Brett — and he said about six words to me in about 30 years — and he said to me, ‘Mate, you know, I worked on The Thin Red Line with Terry Malick. But [with this], I didn’t know what was happening. I think I lost myself in it. I might have shook the camera.’ ”
At the end of production, editors Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond were tasked with whittling down their “kitchen sink” cut of four and a half hours to a manageable time, taking one year to get it to its current two-hour and 40-minute length.
And, of course, what is an Elvis biopic without Elvis’ music? Executive music producer and composer Elliot Wheeler and the Elvis sound team went to Nashville to record at RCA Studio with producer David Cobb, who is known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile and the late John Prine. “All of the equipment that we’re using was all the exact same gear that Elvis was playing,” says Wheeler. Someone on Cobb’s team even located the original tape delay that Elvis used in his recordings and put it back together to use in the film.
The recordings were done before production so they could be played during filming. For most of the songs, Wheeler and her team would mix in Butler’s vocals with Presley’s, but they heavily relied on Butler’s voice for Elvis’ early years. Occasionally, the Elvis team ventured beyond the recording studio. “At one point, we were in this tiny little 200-year-old church recording the Pentecostal service,” recalls Wheeler of a scene that sees a young Elvis entering church service, complete with pastor, congregation and gospel choir. “Everyone’s just sweating spinal fluid. It was incredible. But the closeness of it and the heat and the wooden floor, it all added to that sound.”
Admits Luhrmann, “There was a lot of understandable cynicism about who’s going to come out for Elvis.” Many questioned whether younger audiences would be interested in a movie about Presley, while older audiences, who were the most likely to be Elvis fans, had not yet fully come back to movie theaters in the wake of the omicron-spurred COVID surge. But the movie’s Cannes premiere in May generated largely positive reviews and a 12-minute standing ovation. And over the June 24 weekend, the movie launched to a $31 million domestic opening before going on to steadily amass $286 million worldwide. (Elvis was the highest-grossing non-IP or franchise film of 2022.)
Before all the box office and awards attention, Luhrmann saw Elvis as an opportunity to introduce moviegoing audiences to the complex and conflicted man behind the oversized talent who in the decades since his death has been stripped down to a caricature. “Elvis Presley is the most impersonated person on the planet,” says the director. With Elvis, the aspiration was always for far more, getting past the impersonation to rediscover the man and artist himself.
This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.