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‘Elvis’ Director Baz Luhrmann on His Leading Man’s Transformation: ‘The Austin Butler That Was in Disney Shows Doesn’t Exist Anymore’

Also, was he ever tempted to show Elvis eating a fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwich?

Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” isn’t your typical biopic. But then again, why should it be?

A character as influential and flamboyant as Elvis Presley (played, peerlessly, by Austin Butler from “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) is deserving of a different approach and that is what Luhrmann delivers, offering up a fractured fairy tale and cautionary fable about fame and influence in midcentury America. At the center of his film isn’t Elvis but Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks under considerable prosthetics), the carnival barker-turned-Svengali that had a little too much sway over the King of Rock ‘n Roll. Sure, he helped elevate Presley in the public consciousness but also trapped him in a gilded cage.

True to form Luhrmann gives the story an extreme stylistic overlay; songs bleed and warm into each other, remixed frenetically with modern artists and current sensibilities. (Elvis and Priscilla fall in love to a cover by Kacey Musgraves, for example.) It’s overwhelming in all of the best ways and fits thematically with what Luhrmann is trying to accomplish – just as Elvis the performer warped all of pop culture around him, so too does “Elvis” the movie.

TheWrap talked with Luhrmann while he was promoting the movie at Graceland, and spoke openly about his decision to center the film on Colonel Tom Parker, whether or not Austin Butler will talk like himself again (and offers a solution for how that could be accomplished) and Guillermo del Toro’s unlikely connection to “Elvis.”

Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS | Official Trailer
Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS | Official Trailer

You were first announced on this project back in 2014. What was the biggest change that the movie went through from when you were initially attached to where we are now?

Well, if I remember correctly, I took it on not to do a biopic, but I always thought Elvis would be this great canvas to explore America because he’s sort of at the center of everything in the fifties, sixties and seventies. And then I stepped away from it because I was doing a Chinese film, actually, a film set in China. I was working on it and I couldn’t find a way in. And then I can’t remember when, but things started to change. And I learned more about Colonel Tom Parker, never a Colonel, never a Tom, never a Parker – plot twist! – and I thought, Oh, this is like “Amadeus.” “Amadeus” isn’t really about Mozart. I mean, even if you don’t care about Mozart, “Amadeus” is a great film because it’s actually Salieri’s story. Who’s Salieri? Well, exactly. That’s what it’s about.

And I just thought, ah, that’s a way of subconsciously exploring America, the big sell, the big character, the big throw dust in your eyes, the big clown with a chainsaw over here. And then this thing that America is great for, which is all of these cultures and all of this chaos creating the new invention.

Did centering the movie around Tom Parker create any new complications?

Well, I mean, when you find out that he was never a Colonel, never a Tom, never a Parker, then you start to look at his journey and the fact that he completely created this fictitious character and that he was a carnival barker and you see, I think it’s in the movie. Like he never, on a personal level, even when he was, you know spoiler alert, but in his growing up in Holland doing animal tricks, because he trained animals from a very young age. I think he had self-loathing; he didn’t think he was attractive. And so people who feel like that they need … the carnival act is like an avatar to them, you know, “Look at my beautiful dancing pony, but I have the power and the pony needs me.”

I think there was a bit of that attitude towards Elvis. And what he didn’t expect was that the pony would turn out to be, actually, a true artist and a really, really sensitive and creative being.

Did you ever feel confined by this conceit? Were there things you wanted to include but couldn’t quite make the connection to Tom Parker?

Like yeah, there’s so much. I’ll tell you something – Guillermo Del Toro is a great friend of mine and he just made “Nightmare Alley” and Parker’s favorite film, he obsessively watched “Nightmare Alley,” the old version. Obsessively. And I even filmed Tom watching “Nightmare Alley.” And in the end, there’s some Easter eggs in there. If you look at the film, you’ll see a little bit of the geek tent and things like that, they are Easter eggs, but you know, going down the road of the fact that the Colonel’s idea of a great person is this kind of faux mentalist and also that film is about a carny who flies so high, like Icarus, and then crashes to Earth. And there’s a line in the end of the old movie that goes, when that character becomes the geek himself, which if you think about it, Parker ends up strolling through casinos. He lost all of his money, just punching it away on gambling, like the line in that movie is, “how could someone go so low?” And the other line is, “Because they flew so high.”

Warner Bros.

Austin Butler gives such an amazing performance. But now I’m seeing him on red carpets and he’s talking like Elvis, did you ruin Austin Butler? Is he now going to be Elvis out in the world now?

Yeah. I mean, well look I’ll tell you something, there’s the video I saw. There’s the Denzel Washington story, that’s true. Denzel saying you’re not going to believe how hard this guy works. Austin and Elvis lose their mother at the same age, so that’s given sort of a spiritual connection. I think Austin blended himself with Elvis.

Which is why he’s humanized him so much. Why people, very significant people I know who see the film who don’t track with Elvis at all, who don’t care, went, “I felt like I met someone I never knew.” And Austin achieves that by melding himself with Elvis.

Now look, you also can’t work on lowering your voice, a tone, for two, nearly three, years. It sticks with you. My voice, when I started directing, there was a video of me, a career video went up and I went “Hi, my name’s Baz Luhrmann, I’m the director of ‘Strictly Ballroom.’” Like that’s how I spoke back then. I mean three years is nearly how long you spent in high school. So yeah, his voice is like that. I think he’s going to have to do some other role that is as completely absorbing for him to recalibrate. But I mean the Austin Butler, I think, that was in the Disney shows doesn’t exist anymore. He’s gone through so much in life.

Was it hard to stay away from some of the kitschier aspects of Elvis?

You mean like a close-up on a deep-fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwich, or something?

Yes.

You see, I wanted to serve a big arc and that story was about the sell and the creative spirit. That’s something I can relate to – creativity versus making money. And also the responsibility. I mean, look, David Bowie without, I can’t seem to help but forget the name dropping. But he was an icon to me and then he became very different. And he does this wonderful mime when he was young. He puts a mask on and says, when you’re young, like you do something funny, you put a mask on and the parents go, “Oh, isn’t he funny? Isn’t that cute?”

Then when you get older, you put it on and they go, “You do that so well,” clap, clap, clap, “We’ll give you money.” Then when you do it really, really, really well everyone’s like, “Put the mask on and you have anything you want, isn’t it great? And keep the mask on. Isn’t it great? Keep the mask on.” And in the mime, Bowie goes and then he’s trying to take the mask off and he can’t take the mask off. And then in the mime he dies. And I think that is one of the underlying themes of celebrity and fame and success and the power to move and touch people. Which is what I always had. You are just a human being, but if you can do that, if you have the power to do that, then we the fans, and we the audience, just want you to do it one more time.

Couldn’t Marley just do one more great performance? Couldn’t David just do one more great album and go on tour? In fact, David did, it was released after his death. But you know what I mean? The end of the story, spoiler alert, the argument Parker makes is, “I didn’t do it. He loved the love that you gave him, he was addicted to it, and you loved loving him. My job was to exploit him.”

This is not in the movie, but when Elvis dies, Parker gets the phone call. He’s not here at Graceland. I can point to where Elvis died from here. When Elvis dies, Parker gets a phone call and he picks the phone immediately up and he says to RCA, “Print more records.” Now we would all go, “What a heartless human being.” But he would go, “Yeah, but you wanted the records. I just did what you wanted me to do.”

“Elvis” is in theaters everywhere Friday.

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