Baz Luhrmann and Mandy Walker AM ACS ASC Bring Elvis to the Big Screen.
An American tale calls for epic imagery.
By David Heuring
Baz Luhrmann’s talent for blending music, stage and cinema is obvious throughout his oeuvre – most obviously in 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, which earned Australian Film Institute, Oscar and BAFTA nominations for best picture. This time around, Luhrmann recreated the career arc of Elvis Presley, from a dirt-poor family to the biggest star in the world. This uniquely American tale stars Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks and his Svengali manager Col. Tom Parker.
“We shot this film 100 percent in Australia, which is amazing,” says director of photography Mandy Walker AM, ASC, ACS. “Baz really wanted to support the local industry. If we had shot in Memphis or Vegas, it’s completely changed. We did use some stock footage. But it was a great thing to be in Australia, with Australian crews – the art department, costume, makeup, postproduction, and everybody on my team. Kudos to them for stepping up – anything was achievable.”
Walker was at the camera for Luhrmann’s 2008 feature Australia, as well as Niki Caro’s Mulan, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, and Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us. A Melbourne, Australia native who studied early on with John Flaus, she was recently made a Member of the Order of Australia. Her approach to Elvis – her first major feature-film musical – began with extensive research into the rich library of reference footage, and eventually led to the recreation of lighting and shooting styles for iconic performances, even down to particular shots, camera moves, angles and edits. The prep period lasted nearly four months, and led to efficiencies once shooting began, and often helped obviate the need for time-consuming and expensive visual effects.
“It’s in the combination of the photography, the art direction, the performance of course, the costume design, the hair, the makeup,” she says. “Every tiny element — the way the camera moves, the number of cameras, which cranes we have. The visual language is very particularly nuanced and specifically done. Baz has the film in his head. It’s a matter of us getting together and reproducing it on the screen.”
“We all just keep meeting and communicating, and eventually the ideas meld,” she says. “Baz creates a harmony among the departments so we’re all on the same page. And by the time we shoot, it goes pretty quickly – 91 days for such a big film. We could do that because we were exceptionally well prepared.”
Another key collaborator was producer Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife and a four-time Oscar winner whose contributions also include costumes (more than 9000 in this case), set and overall production design.
“Baz obviously has a very strong sense of how he wants things to look,” agrees Martin. “He’s a very good storyteller and collaborator, and he is good at describing what he wants. We all work very openly together as a team. It’s both a technical and an artistic process, with lots of ideas brought to the table. It’s a constant dialogue of how to make things work, and to make them look the way Baz wants them. The relationships are at the heart of it. Baz is incredibly serious and really gets jazzed, and Mandy is sensitive and smart and has a sense of humor. Also, it’s really nice to have another woman in a really important creative position. Our movies have always been strong that way.”
“Epic” was a watchword on the project. “Baz told me very early on that it’s an epic story,” says Walker. “It’s important historically because of the strong influence Elvis had on American culture and in the world. And we also wanted to express that Elvis himself was strongly affected by American culture. We wanted to express those two ideas, and they were always in the back of my mind. We didn’t want a standard biopic – nothing ordinary. The camera was going to fly. The concerts would be an experience for the audience. It’s a film for the big screen, with vision, music, sound and texture – everything. It’s epic. And that’s why I went for 65 mil and the 2.4:1 aspect ratio.”
In some cases, rather than reminding people of how certain performances play on television, the filmmakers wanted to deliver a feeling of having actually been present at the event. For more well-known performances like the 1958 NBC “comeback” special in Las Vegas, the task was closer to reproduction, but with the added grandeur of the big screen.
Walker notes that even in performances experienced on small televisions in mid-‘60s homes, Elvis shone through. “He is impressing and connecting with a very small audience, and you see that he never does anything small. He is fearless and charming, with amazing personal charisma.
“Because there is existing footage that people are familiar with, we wanted to reproduce that, and we did spend a lot of time in preproduction rehearsing and studying the lighting, the lensing and the camera positions,” she says. “But then on top of that is the drama of the film, the behind-the-scenes story of what’s happening off the stage. As soon as a performance is finished, it’s about the colonel and Elvis behind the curtain. So we had to set that up in a completely different environment, but make the audience feel like they are there. The movement slows down, but we maintain a heightened experience so that you really feel that you are on this journey.”
Lenses were custom-adapted to Walker’s specifications and used to lend the right feeling to different periods and situations. Early years were shot with spherical lenses –Panavision Spheros – and LUTs that desaturated somewhat to echo still photographers of the period like Gordon Parks and Saul Leiter. For scenes later in time, the 1.8x T Series anamorphics were used, detuned to give the image subtle aberrations and tweaked to deliver enhanced contrast and saturation. Typical Panavision blue flare was deemed too modern-feeling, so other colors were introduced by the technicians at Panavision.
Although the big ALEXA 65 sensor was mainly chosen for its epic imagery, Walker also used the depth of field capabilities of the format to create intimacy when the scene required. One example was a close two -shot with Elvis and his beloved mother.
“Large format is the best for intimacy because it focuses the audience on the characters, and diminishes what’s happening in the background,” says Walker. “Baz was concerned with the emotional resonance of each shot, which is a great quality in a director.”
In addition to Spheros and T-Series anamorphics, Panavision provided Petzval lenses, also manipulated in-house to Walker’s specs. These lenses create a vortex effect and were used to add texture to flashback scenes or situations where a character is feeling the effects of drugs or other disorientation. Again, during prep, Panavision varied the amount of vignetting and focus fall-off to Walker’s requirements, arrived at with careful testing.
Lighting called for similarly specific solutions. In some cases, actual period-accurate PAR cans and spots were used, and at other times, modern LED sources inside period-accurate housings provided more control and cooler fixtures. Walker paid extra close attention to Butler’s eyes.
“My gaffer, Shaun Conway, made an eyelight stick specifically for this film, and our best boy, Jason Poole, was a master of getting it in the right spot,” says Walker. “It was essentially a foot-long cone with LiteRibbon inside, covered with diffusion. If we were moving the camera, he’d come underneath the lens, for example. It was soft enough that it didn’t change the lighting, but strong enough to reflect in the eyes.”
The entire film was shot on stages, with four exceptions including exteriors at Graceland and Beale Street in Memphis. At sets depicting the interiors at Graceland, the home Elvis built for his parents, there was an example of filmmakers being open to improvisation despite – or perhaps enabled by – meticulous planning.
“We had two sets on one stage, including the downstairs interior of Graceland,” says Walker. “At the other end, we had the bedroom, which is actually upstairs. Baz was considering a scene with Elvis and Priscilla, and it occurred to him that it should be continuous. So we shot the bedroom scene, and worked it out – we literally ran with the actors and the cameras to the next set, still rolling, and they started at the top of the stairs. It was a crazy idea, and something I’d never done before. But it worked. It was like a revelation for everybody, and it kept us in the moment. It was a very dramatic scene, and they didn’t have to break it. It feels like they are in a house. It was fantastic, actually, but it came together after we had planned and built the sets.”
Martin says the refinement of decisions and ideas is continuous until the film is finished. “It’s that old saying,” Martin says. “It’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. It’s absolutely true. It’s very rare that you overwork something, though it does happen. The more you can work with a task, the more you can actually be free in the moment. All the discussions and possibilities that you’ve considered, and what you’ve collectively decided to do, if for some reason it’s just not working, everyone works together to unlock the issue. And doing the work, and feeling free to throw an idea away and try something different, is the reason you find the solution.”
Elvis premiered at Cannes in May 2022 and was released worldwide shortly thereafter. As of this writing, it has grossed more than $261 million, against a production budget reported to be approximately $85 million. Walker is currently in postproduction on her next feature, Disney’s Snow White, which is the latest in Disney’s translation of its animated classic to live-action productions.