Elvis: Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler and Catherine Martin on the humanity of the icon

Despite the setbacks, budget and pressure, Baz Luhrmann’s most nerve-wracking moment came after he finished the film.

For Baz Luhrmann, there was “nothing more nerve-wracking” than screening his Elvis Presley biopic for Priscilla Presley.

All the heart, energy and emotional investment Luhrmann put into his ambitious, extravagant and dizzying film revolved around this moment.

†[Priscilla] wrote to me a few days later and she said, ‘Oh my god, my whole life, every breath, every movement. If my husband were here, he would say to Austin: [Butler]’Damn, you’re me!’” Luhrmann told news.com.au.

He wasn’t physically present with Priscilla, but he was with Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of a father she lost at such a young age.

“She was very emotional,” he says. “I just took her to the car and before she got in the car, she looked up and said something like, ‘I can’t take it-‘. I thought she would say “words,” but she said, “I can’t put any value on that.”

‘Then she said, ‘From now on, the grandchildren and everything.’ I think she meant at least it’s a fair trial. It is a more humanized version of her father turned wallpaper.

“That makes sense to me.”

Luhrmann’s film is many things – transcendent and raging at the same time, a manic whirl of energy and great emotions.

It’s a dazzling spectacle that captures the frenzy and intensity of Presley’s charisma and the effect he had on everyone around him, from his beloved mother and the most hysterical fan to the stern authorities who failed to understand how this spinning musician changed American and global culture.

But under the legend was the man – this is what Luhrmann wanted to grab Elvisand why Priscilla and Lisa Marie’s approval meant so much.

“He is a father, husband and grandfather to these three women who, in their different ways, are extraordinary women. They’ve had to deal with being a Halloween costume, a man in a wedding chapel, or the butt of a thousand jokes.

“But he was a real rebel and above all a very spiritual person. This man was a human who happened to be incredibly gifted with music. He was also deeply soulful and caring.”

The enormous pressure to impersonate Presley fell on Austin Butler, a 30-year-old California-born actor best known for his roles in youth-oriented projects such as The Carrie Diaries

He seemed an unlikely choice, but Butler has the same smoldering, rousing appeal as the King of Rock and Roll. Butler had to train his deep, velvety voice to record Presley’s songs, and he had dance lessons for two years so he could move like him too.

“It’s two years of doing nothing but that,” he told news.com.au. “I had incredible people around me. Polly Bennett was my exercise coach and from the moment I got the part and even before I got the part, I worked with Dana Wilson, who helped me because I wasn’t a dancer or mover before.

“It was just getting my body to move in certain ways. I was doing everything from swing dancing to tap dancing to ballet – lots of different things to get agile.”

Butler grew up with Presley’s music in the house and was introduced to the legend through his mother and grandmother. But he didn’t know much about Presley’s life.

More than dancing and singing, Butler’s challenge was to discover the emotional core of the legend.

“It puts his life in context, this icon in context,” Butler said. “Because we often look at such people and we think they just appeared.

“People are so complex, and he had all this duality in him. To really understand the three-dimensional nature of him was the constant realization that there were many of him who had this equal and opposite in the sacred and profane.

“He was like a beast on stage and then he would get out and say, ‘Yes sir, no ma’am’ and was so polite. There are many aspects of that, as he was in relationships with women. There are many aspects that I thought were part of that duality.”

Butler’s evocation of Presley’s humanity impressed Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s life and creative partner, and Elvis’s producer, costume designer and co-production designer.

“What’s come out of the movie for me is the humanity that Austin brings into the part,” Martin said. “That was a revelation to me, how much he makes you connect with the person.

“He portrays him as a man with flaws and all, so it’s a much more complete picture. And I think it’s going to be a more universal version of the story because we can all identify with that person.”

Luhrmann described Presley as, to quote Presley, “caught in a trap,” and his film follows the challenges faced by someone as famous and privileged as Presley. The man behind the icon, behind the public persona and behind the demise was just a person, and that’s what the film manages to convey best.

Perhaps almost as famous for how he died as for his life and achievements, Presley is often seen as an ultimately tragic figure. Butler doesn’t see it that way.

“I think there have been many tragedies in his life,” Butler said. “I think it’s tragic that he never made the world tour. I think it’s tragic that he passed away at the age of 42. And I think it was a tragedy that he had a certain time in his life where he stopped getting creative challenged, where he possessed so much artistic brilliance, and that he was kept in a gilded cage… That’s tragic.

“I don’t know if he was a tragic figure in general, because he had so many extraordinary moments in his life and was such an extraordinary person. So that’s that duality, where he had great highs and lows. It was a very intense life.”

Elvis is now in theaters

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