Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” was just the right musical spectacle to lure moviegoers back to theaters: a delirious, non-stop roller coaster ride capturing the King of Rock’s rebellious career along with his enduring cultural impact. The result was a record $151 million domestic gross for the director, paving the way for potential Oscar glory. The charismatic Austin Butler — who became one with Elvis — leads the way as the Best Actor favorite, with a likely Best Picture nomination as well.
That could translate into several craft nominations, too. Multiple Oscar winner Catherine Martin (for costume and production-designing “The Great Gatsby” and “Moulin Rouge!”) returns in both categories, splitting duties with co-production designer Karen Murphy. Also in a great position to land a nomination is the sound team of supervising sound editor Wayne Pashley, Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Andy Nelson (“Les Misérables” and “Saving Private Ryan”), and re-recording mixer Michael Keller.
In addition, cinematographer Mandy Walker vies for her first nomination. This week she broke the glass ceiling at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, and nabbed the Audience Award at last month’s prestigious Camerimage cinematography festival in Poland.
The other two craft hopefuls are the makeup and hairstyling of Shane Thomas (hair and makeup designer), two-time Oscar winner Mark Coulier (prosthetics designer), and Jason Baird (prosthetics supervisor) and the multilayered editing of Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa.
For her first biopic with husband and creative partner Luhrmann, Martin made the outfits that signal Elvis’ emergence, resurgence, and “superhero” ascent: a pink-and-black suit, a tight, black, leather-on-leather outfit, and a white jumpsuit, respectively.
The loud get up Butler wears during Elvis’ shocking breakout performance at The Louisiana Hayride was not based on any single item from the musician’s wardrobe. Instead, Martin crafted a composite of the fashions Presley was drawn to at the time, influenced by the Black performers of the day who frequented Memphis’ Lansky Bros. To give the costume the right amount of movement to convey the power of Presley’s dance moves onscreen, Martin opted for an unstructured, cardigan-like top — “just shoulder pads and fabric falling,” as Luhrmann told IndieWire.
The Bill Belew design that helped Elvis reclaim some of his biker edge in front of millions of TV viewers for his 1968 “Comeback Special” served as a watershed moment for Martin. She and her team found a synergy between Austin’s physicality and his interpretation of Elvis.
The array of jumpsuits designed for Elvis’ Las Vegas years were also designed to suit Butler’s physicality, but the first white jumpsuit he dons was the most important to Martin. It demonstrated Presley’s prowess as a stage animal, and so Martin made it fit Butler without it being slavish to the real deal.
In recreating the world of Elvis, Martin and Murphy blended historical reference with Luhrmann’s hyperreal visual storytelling, keeping in mind that the movie is told from the clouded memories of narrator Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). With the exception of a few area locations, everything was recreated on the massive sound stages and backlot at Village Roadshow Studio in Australia. The highlights included Elvis’ Graceland mansion, the historic Memphis blues hub of Beale Street, the carnival where Parker approaches Elvis to be his manager, and the Las Vegas hotel where Elvis played his historic ‘70s residency.
While the architectural blueprint of the movie’s Graceland is accurate, it’s very much the symbol and expression of Elvis’ superstardom. The interior required the fabrication of mid-century-style furniture with the help of vintage thrift shops. The site of Elvis’ Vegas shows, the International Hotel, required a lavish set encompassing both audience seating and a performance stage, one of the most significant elements of which was a fully operational gold curtain.
Luhrmann pitched “Elvis” to Pashley as a great American tragic opera. Sweeping through the three phases of Presley’s career, there’s a complex weave of music and sound effects as the main driving force of the sound design. With a combination of playback recording and live recording, fully restored vintage microphones from each era were used to capture the performance pieces, and to seamlessly integrate new Butler vocal recordings (for the early ’50s scenes, because Presley’s recordings were unsalvagable) with original Presley vocals.
In the film’s production notes, Pashley describes the sound design process as “poetic glue,” prioritizing the music first and the crowds second. Fans gathered in unprecedented numbers with unmatched enthusiasm, but they didn’t want the sound to seem retro or have it be overwhelming or fatiguing. That’s where Dolby Atmos came in. Hesitant to pair Presley’s recordings with a technology that didn’t exist while The King was alive, Pashley built a bridge between fidelity to the time period and modern audience sensibilities through research and restoration.
A musical props team was brought in to buy, build, and fix all the musical instruments and amplifiers; they also restored all the vintage microphones for use during Butler’s live or prerecorded and mimed performances. They joined the dialogue on stage to the singing to match Butler to Elvis. And they took the mics into post-production for ADR voice replacement as well.
For Walker’s first musical, she chose to represent Elvis’ personal trajectory and historical cultural impact on the large format Alexa 65mm camera. She selected different style lenses for each of the distinct eras: Panavision Sphero lenses during the first half of his life for a flatter, softer look; T series anamorphics for the ’70s style of saturated colors and anamorphic aberrations during his arrival in Las Vegas until the end of his life; and as a custom made Petzval lens for a vortex like image during flashbacks and dreamlike sequences.
In addition, Walker created specific LUTs to accompany the look of each era. She studied and replicated the camera angles, lenses, and lighting from archival footage. Then, for the concert sequences, which had meticulous testing and rehearsals with the other departments, they were purposeful about how the transitions between scenes played, and the way the camera moved from one location to the next. But when the Colonel asks Elvis on the carnival Ferris wheel if he’s ready to fly, that became her cue to express how the camera was going to fly with him on his wild journey.
The transformation of Butler into Elvis was a progression from the ’50s through the ’70s. The key was getting the iconic pompadour right: Although they colored the actor’s hair for the early ’50s, wigs were used for subsequent eras, going higher and higher, Luhrmann’s request. Facial prosthetics were applied and became more chiseled as Presley got older and his jawline hardened. Dreamy eyelashes and eye makeup completed the look. But he still looked like a little boy, though trapped in an overweight, sick body.
Additionally, Hanks’ portrayal of the nefarious manager required complex prosthetics. The actor’s entire face was reshaped, especially the jowls. A fat suit was provided, and then Hanks was strapped to a jumpsuit. During the character’s senior years, prosthetic hand and arm appliances were added.
As far as editors Redmond and Villa were concerned, “Elvis” was “Amadeus,” with Colonel Parker as Salieri and Elvis as Mozart. That made the most sense for Parker serving as the jealous, unreliable, and controlling narrator. This allowed the editors to find creative ways to balance and weave together the personal story of Elvis, his relationships, his origin, his music, and the historical backdrop of the time. They were also keenly aware that the film needed to appeal to both an existing fanbase and a young audience unfamiliar with Presley’s life or music. But the director’s experiential style was key to decoding music from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s for the uninitiated.
The musical set pieces were treated like action scenes. Each required a unique style to best reflect the era in which it was set and how that impacted Elvis’ life at the time. The psychological tug of war between Elvis and Colonel Parker required nuanced sculpting of the performances, and the final act required a delicate calibration from excitement to tragedy as we observe Elvis’ decline.