With Elvis now playing in theaters around the world, I recently got to speak with writer-director Baz Luhrmann about making the biopic. As you’ve seen in the trailers, Elvis is about the complicated relationship between Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) and Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). The film tells Elvis’ story from Parker’s point of view, and it spans over two decades and includes Presley’s rise to fame against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America.
During the interview, Luhrmann talked about how he works in the editing room, his four-hour version, if he’ll ever release an Elvis extended cut, why he made the movie for people to see in a movie theater, and more. In addition, he talks about what it was like to go to Graceland after premiering the movie in Memphis and eat barbeque with the Presley family.
As I have said many times, Austin Butler is superb in the role and actually sings Presley’s early songs in the film. His performance alone is reason to see the film. Elvis also stars Helen Thomson as Elvis’s mother, Gladys, Richard Roxburgh as Elvis’s father, Vernon, Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, Luke Bracey as Jerry Schilling, Natasha Bassett as Dixie Locke, David Wenham as Hank Snow, Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King, Xavier Samuel as Scotty Moore, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jimmie Rodgers Snow. To play additional iconic musical artists in the film, Luhrmann cast singer/songwriter Yola as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, model Alton Mason as Little Richard, Gary Clark Jr. as Arthur Crudup, and artist Shonka Dukureh as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.
Watch what Baz Luhrmann had to say in the player above, or you can read our conversation below.
COLLIDER: I want to start with I am a fan of your work. I thought you did a fantastic job with this movie. Thank you for spending years of your time making it.
BAZ LUHRMANN: Thank you, man.
So I’m obsessed with the editing process because that’s where every movie comes together.
LUHRMANN: You’re right about that.
Your editing is very unique compared to a lot of other filmmakers, your style. I’m curious, what is it actually like for you? How long does it for, say Elvis, how long is it for you in the editing room putting this thing together?
LUHRMANN: It’s a really good question. I’ve got this actually great team. I have two editors that I work with, Mattie and Johno, Matt Villa and Johno Redmond. Then they have a vast team around them. But you’re so right, Steven. See, I look upon editing as writing. I write it, then I shoot it. But then I keep writing it in a sense through editorial. Because also I’ve got a four hour version. I shouldn’t say that, but I have.
I’m going to get to that question in a second.
LUHRMANN: Yeah. But I have to make a two and a half hour version and I have to serve the main art. So here’s something beautiful. Last night, and we didn’t expect this, but the Presley family have been so suddenly embracing of the movie. They brought us back to Graceland and we had a barbecue and we go inside the building, we’re drinking in the jungle room, hanging, like it’s a home. We’re in Graceland and we’re being treated to a warm, loving home.
I’m sitting there with Olivia DeJonge and she says, “Baz, this is crazy. Because remember you rebuilt the jungle room.” She said, “I’ve never been here to Graceland. This is exactly like the jungle room set that we shot In the Ghetto, Elvis recording.” Now, I didn’t use that in the movie. As much as you love that scene, you go, “No. Structurally if we go there, we’re not going to go onto the drama of the next beat.” So it’s relentless cut and recut, try and restyle. I’m even doing revoice overing and pickups as I go through the editorial process. It’s like molding clay. I never finish.
I would love to see a longer version of this movie as a fan of Elvis and as a fan of yours. You mentioned you have like a four-hour cut. Is that a cut that you were happy to show it or is it like that’s an assembly cut?
LUHRMANN: It’s an assembly. It’s a different kind of movie. I wanted to make a movie for the theater, right? I make theatrical movies. My mission is to make a movie that’s not a franchise movie. All respect to franchise movies by the way. I love my Batman. But I want to make a movie that cross generations, will come in that’s not a franchise and sit in a dark room with strangers and commune in a vast American story, a vast American opera. That’s what I hope this will be and that’s what I’m fighting for is to try and bring audiences of all types back to the theater.
No doubt in my mind people are going to come to the movies to see your vision. My question is, if you had the ability, would you release an extended cut? And if so, how long could it be?
LUHRMANN: So, I’ve just been going through this experience on, I did Australia, but Hulu… It’s funny, the same executive, well, Hulu have asked me would I do an episodic version and I’ve just about finished it. It’s actually so funny because I feel like it’s a variation on. If you write a piece of music, it’s a variation on. I think it’s a really legitimate telling. It’s not just filler. I can’t even begin to conceive what a longer version of this would be right now. But the idea that there’s a different riff on this theatrical version, that’s years down the road. It’s years down the road, but it’s possible. But I can’t underline enough, it’s not tomorrow. It’s years down the road.
Totally. Just as a fan, I would like to see the other things that you shot that didn’t make it in.
LUHRMANN: Well, I will release a few things that are just special that maybe didn’t make it into the movie or that are just special. I mean, seeing Austin, I had to release some footage of Austin’s costume test the other day, because people don’t believe he’s singing the first part of the movie. That was him just hanging around riffing while we were looking at costumes. Still, people come back and say, “Yeah, but is he really singing that?”