Baz Luhrmann on Collaborating With DP Mandy Walker and How Austin Butler Refused to Back Down After ‘Elvis’ Shut Down Production

Baz Luhrmann recalls watching the 2001 film “Lantana,” which featured work by cinematographer Mandy Walker. It was around the time he was going to shoot a commercial for Chanel No. 5 and he thought, “it was a great opportunity for me to explore a photographic collaborator who is different from anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Luhrmann says, “We were joined at the hip from that moment.”

Since then, the two have gone on to work together on numerous projects including 2008’s “Australia” and this year’s “Elvis.” Luhrmann says the perfect collaborator for him is about the chemical equation. “Is there a conversation going on with a creative person, and does time run out? If it does, and you say, ‘Oh, let’s catch up again’ then you are with the right creative partner.’”

You shot the 1968 comeback concert, which is nearly a shot-for-shot recreation. How early did you decide that this was going to be shot first?

Mandy Walker: It was more for practical reasons.

Baz Luhrmann: We had been rehearsing and working for years, and I’d been living in Memphis for over 18 months. We find this miracle, Austin Butler, who comes into our life, and we were one day away from shooting that sequence when Tom Hanks gets this “flu-thing.” You find out that your actor is the most famous person in the world to get this thing called COVID. There were no vaccines, and Tom went back to the U.S. and we shut down. I told Austin, “I don’t think we can hold the film together because we lost the cast. I don’t think we can come back.” He said, “I’m not leaving.” He doubled down on his Elvis work and refused to let it go.

Mandy is so exigent that she had got the exact lenses that match the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. She even had cameras inside the television cameras, so that we had the exact positions.

I had worked with Steve Binder, who was the director of that. We mapped it out and practiced it exactly, so when Austin did it, it matched. Every person on that set had a background story. Every person was digitally mapped.

Walker: There was the ‘68 special, the Hilton ballroom and the concert that we had very definitive reference for and we were going to replicate them shot for shot. But I also worked out all the period lighting.
For the concert, we did that in one go. We had five cameras and we shot that sequence which was over 20 minutes long because we did the first four songs, and the lighting changed at exactly the right moment. We had the follow spot that changed and moved around.

What was the moment when you knew you had the shot and you had your Elvis?

Luhrmann: That one. I remember being so focused on could young Austin pull off Elvis at 35 in the leather pants and Elvis at 40 in the white jumpsuit. And when he came on, he was phenomenal. When the intercut the real Elvis with our footage and control room, I had to keep checking in. Austin was so great in that first take and we were stunned.

I think the Austin and Elvis of it, in terms of the ‘60s and ‘70s was answered. It wasn’t an impersonation. He was humanizing Elvis. Everybody was moved on that set.

Walker: We knew we were recreating those moments, but then how were we going to tell the story of young Elvis to an audience that related to music and the drama? So there was a lot of discussion around that. We all got together and did a lot of testing on the movie, but it was an integration of art, costume and makeup.

Luhrmann: Everyone was holding this story together. It’s like a theater company where we collectively know what we’re doing, and that allows us to be incredibly spontaneous once we get on the set.

Can you talk about filming those more emotional moments in the film?

Walker: During those sequences, we were cognizant of blending drama in. When Austin’s onstage at the ballroom, down in the audience, the colonel (Hanks) is signing the contract for him for the next five years. That was something that needed to be integrated into the movie seamlessly.

Luhrmann: Well, with the breakup scene, they start up in the bedroom, and that’s a holy place because no one ever gets to see that. It starts with them both yelling at one another and Priscilla is leaving. When you shoot something like that, these sets are not on top of each other, they’re in different soundstages. So, you have to schedule these things too.

Austin was so nervous about the scene. It had to go from groggy elders to Priscilla being reasonable. There’s this sense that anything can happen.

Anyway, I thought, why don’t we overlap with cameras (overlaps are when you’re recording the sound so you’re not on top of one another’s lines and they’re clean). I thought about going to handheld. So, we rehearsed that a bit, and I told the actors to keep arguing and we would go from the top of the stairs, follow them to the next set.

Walker: …We had 30 crew members running with the actors from one set to the next, walking and the lighting was changing.

Luhrmann: We did it three or four times. Anyway, I think someone knocked over a light, and in that moment, Austin just crumbled to the floor and started bawling, and he hit the side wall and slides down it. We didn’t have that in rehearsal. He found that moment because we did it in one. We brought in a dolly and did a slow track.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what tricks we might do, or how I might dress up [a scene], the focus was always on getting the actor’s performance and what we can do to make it work for them.

How has your language of filmmaking and your collaboration developed since you first met?

Luhrmann: We’ve gotten better at realizing when we really need to push for something. It’s usually economics. I have these things called circles and it’s really about building a sense of trust. It starts with me and Mandy in the workshop, and then, we bring in other people and we build the circles — there are no phones in circle one and two, and that’s us. It’s about building culture.

Walker: This is our fourth project together and we’ve gotten to a point where we both agree on who we want around and how we want people to be around the camera. We’re super prepared, but I want to be prepared if he sees something on the day or he wants to develop something a different way.

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