Baz Luhrmann wants you to know it’s not just screaming that you hear in the crowd when Elvis takes the stage. It’s a different sound—it’s keening, and it’s a sound Luhrmann has heard more than a few times. There was the late ’90s, when he and Leonardo DiCaprio were in London for the British premiere of Romeo + Juliet, the movie that elevated the actor from on-the-rise star to global phenomenon. There was the time he went to a BTS concert at Citi Field, which was not entirely for Elvis research but definitely proved instructive. And, of course, there’s a series of scenes in Elvis, Luhrmann’s immersive biopic in which Austin Butler plays the star who changed over decades but never lost that ability to transform a crowd.
“Elvis was able to elicit from an audience this out-of-body experience,” Luhrmann says on this week’s Little Gold Men podcast. “Elvis would go into the Pentecostal tents and get into a religious state, and I think there’s a connection. He certainly thought there was. He whipped up the audience and literally gave himself to the audience.”
The response to Elvis the movie has maybe been a little less passionate, but with the film being a long-running summer blockbuster that proved audiences really were ready to come back to theaters, its impact on Hollywood was seismic. Now Luhrmann gets to take a victory lap, returning to the United States from his home in Australia for a string of awards-season events where Elvis is nominated many times over. “I call it the Big Fiesta, because it’s like we all get to catch up with each other,” Luhrmann says. “We’ll celebrate everyone who did so much to make the movies, particularly given the extraordinary circumstances I know that we all went through.”
Listen above to this week’s Little Gold Men podcast, which also includes a conversation with Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski, another filmmaker who endured pandemic delays to release his bona fide blockbuster last year. You can find a partial transcript of the Luhrmann interview below.
Vanity Fair: You’re at the beginning of a whirlwind couple of days. You’ve been on the awards-season rodeo before, so how are you feeling with this round?
Baz Luhrmann: You’re right, this is the exact moment that’ll actually be in a room with all the other, uh, filmmakers. And I mean, when I say filmmakers, I don’t mean directors. I mean anyone who’s done anything on a film. As Peter Weir—who got his beautiful award the other day at the Oscars, much deserved. And who actually taught me how to use a camera. He was the one who came to me Strictly Ballroom, and I had never made a film. And he said, you know, look in that end of the camera and all that. I mean, I knew how to use a camera, but—
Did you know him, or did he just see you up and coming?
He was such a hero of mine growing up. When I saw something like Gallipoli, I would’ve gone, like, Oh, Australians can make films anywhere in the world. What he said that I thought was wonderful—and I really believe in this, because I come from an an acting-teaching background. I mean, Cate Blanchett and I, and Judy Davis and Mel Gibson, we all come from the same school. But he said, I wish it just could be called crew. Meaning, not cast and crew. In the end, filmmaking is, truly, everyone plays this kind of ensemble, collective part in this telling of a story.
I’m saying that because the rooms will be full of cast and crew of all the other films that are out there. So it’s kind of, look, there’s the award. And, you know, winning is lovely, but I think what’s really important is getting it down to this group of nominations or a group that we all say, look, let’s put light on these extremely different films. And that’s just really good for movies. And then we also, I call it the Big Fiesta because it’s like we all get to catch up with each other.
We’ve all gotta stand there and say, well, we’ll talk about the shows and celebrate everybody, and celebrate everyone who did so much to make the movie, particularly given the extraordinary circumstances I know that we all went through. And on our movie, Elvis, which almost didn’t happen. Very famously, the lead actor—
A very famous COVID case.
One day I’m doing a scene and I’m in Australia. It’s a scene where Parker leads Austin Butler through the crowd, and we’re about to rehearse it. We’re about through that scene and the first assistant comes up to me and he says, I think Tom’s got that flu thing. And honestly, 10 seconds later we were shut down. The film was gone, it was over.
At first it was kind of not, I wouldn’t say fun, but I sort of felt a bit of relief. Like, I don’t have to deliver the movie. You know, a few cocktails and hanging out for the first week going, this is not too bad. But then it’s sort of abyss opened up in front of me. Wow, this is actually gonna go away. This is beyond my control. And telling Austin that, and he had given, you know, two years of his life up to that point, and he just sort of refused to accept it. He said, I’m not going home. I’m gonna double down. On the physical rehearsal, on the study of Elvis, I’m not going anywhere. And that sort of inspired me actually to go back to work on text and script and try and work out how could we pull it back together.
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