EXCLUSIVE: Director Baz Luhrmann was days from starting production on his untitled Elvis Presley film when his Col. Tom Parker, Tom Hanks, came down with the coronavirus symptoms that shut down production instantly. The filmmaker has been safely tucked away with wife and collaborator Catherine Martin and their kids. Although they live in New York, the family stayed in their native Australia, and he spoke with Deadline after they’d completed fishing and crabbing –while maintaining proper social distancing — and in between Luhrmann’s efforts to create a new “Sunscreen,” a pandemic-relevant update to his 1999 smash hit song that mixed spoken word with music.
In a moment of profound depression over the spiraling pandemic, I asked Luhrmann right after the Hanks diagnosis if he would do a new version of the song. He demurred at first, but had a change of heart upon hearing the inspirational speech given by Queen Elizabeth II, who knows a thing or two about global crises after coming through the threat of Nazi annihilation in WWII. Here, he discusses, well, everything.
DEADLINE: You are at your fishing hole, at a moment where you expected to be in production on your Elvis Presley. Can you describe how you’re feeling these days?
LUHRMANN: The word abstract seems right. Where I am right now, on my property overlooking a river, with my kids, we’re catching fish and crabbing and I’m seeing movies in a way I haven’t in a long time. So it’s crazy. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are going through silver lining experiences, but what I’m really getting at is we know how very fortunate we are, given what people are facing out there. So I say abstract because I don’t want to say, I’m great, because how can you be? We’re living in an abstract moment, so it’s abstract.
DEADLINE: Surreal might also work here. After all, it was on your movie set that Tom Hanks came down with coronavirus and shocked the world to its core. What was that like?
LUHRMANN: The interesting thing is, we’d had a very quiet incident a month earlier, where everyone was staying. There was a family that had it. That connected us very closely with Dr. Wattiaux, a Gold Coast public health physician in Queensland, and the premier [Annastacia Palasczuk]. I’ve worked very closely with her, and she’s great and she’s the equivalent of the governor of Queensland. So I’m getting ready to begin shooting on a Monday, and I’m rehearsing the scene where we’ve built the Vegas showroom, and Tom guides in Austin [Butler] as Elvis, and it’s a scene where basically hundreds of girls are kissing Elvis, in a ‘70s show. Tom guides him through the crowd. All of a sudden I see my producer, Patrick McCormick on the set, and he had the same look in his eyes like he had a week earlier. And I thought, well this can’t be good. You and the world knows what happened next. Tom and Rita handled it all so well, and we were so fortunate we had this direct connection with the head of infectious diseases, because it was an immediate shutdown. Without getting into the Australia-U.S. comparison, when it comes to the health system, they are so robust here. They were right on it.
If there was anything good about it, the very best thing that came out of it was when someone like Tom Hanks got it, I noticed that globally and particularly in America – and we live in New York – suddenly everyone went, this is real. He became an advertisement for it.
DEADLINE: So your producer knew Tom had it? What happened next?
LUHRMANN: We immediately shut down that day. Then Dr. Wattiaux got so thorough. I’d shot it all on video because we were practicing camera coverage. We projected all the footage to see who exactly had touched Tom, or who had been near him for X amount of time. Rita [Wilson] had performed in Sydney that weekend, so she had been in the opera house. He went there on a Friday, so what they call shedding, when you become infection, only happened on that weekend. So he was only one day here, that day. Everybody who was in the footage — and that included Austin and myself — we were one hundred percent quarantined for 14 days, no contact with anybody. I was in my house and we were locked down entirely. A team turned up in hazmat suits and we were tested. We wouldn’t have been immediately infectious – you have to see if you have symptoms – but poor Tom and Rita, they were in the hospital and we were locked down in quarantine. They did really good tracing work by looking at the footage. Some of the players were extras, but they tracked everybody down and they quarantined everyone who had real contact with Tom.
And it turned out we never had one more infection in the entire crew. And then of course, the state went into lockdown. In Australia, we have been doing extraordinarily well with the curve going down. I think we are in our third day with no cases. You don’t want to jinx it, but our curve is really flat and we and New Zealand have been able to get it right down. I think so far, it is being handled extremely well in Australia. There has been great coordination between state governors and the prime minister, they are very fluid and meet every week. Small country.
DEADLINE: We started a series of stories on what it’s going to take to reopen the production business. There are so many things that need to be sorted, before these pictures can get up and running. You mentioned that scene, where all the girls were going to kiss Elvis, with Austin. How do you do that scene, now?
LUHRMANN: Because of what happened, I’ve been working closely with Dr. Wattiaux, and we’ve been working on very lateral and interesting plans. An example: there’s a popular show TV show in Melbourne, Neighbours, that is the biggest one in Australia and is huge in England, and they’ve started production again by instituting certain systems. Small crews, and some of the crew even play background actors. We are making lateral plans. We will not get back into it until the end of the year, if all is going well. We’ve just been re-dated. Anything can happen, and no one really knows but we are looking at and working with the state and feeling that if we get to a zero environment, what would be processes where you are isolating groups of extras who are preparing to be in lockdown? How do you separate people? You don’t have to have everybody in the entire company always on set. It will slow some things down, but this is not limited to just film. It’s all industries that are thinking laterally.
Human beings, in times of great difficulty – which is why it caught my attention when Queen Elizabeth II’s speech – everyone I know, no matter their background or work, or age, is going, who can I turn to for an answer? Who knows how to ride through something like this? There is no one who is a reference point. So when you see someone like Queen Elizabeth, and I’m not particularly a royalist, she is just giving the kind of clear-eyed guidance, saying stay the course, stay indoors, stay with the program. It’s working, and we will get through this. But also, silver linings will come from this. And that goes for the filmmaking process, as we might be thinking more laterally how we can do this.
What’s not going to happen is two months go by and you flip a switch and go back to shooting like we did before. One thing I did say to Dr. Wattiaux is, we as filmmakers create the illusion of crowd activity. We are used to going on location in the middle of nowhere and having everyone isolated for months at a time, to make a movie. We’re like a caravan, a circus, and the idea of isolating ourselves and minimizing contact with those from outside is something very real for us. So we’re looking at all kinds of lateral ideas and I’m going to actually vet through the process of filmmaking through him, so he can analyze it. This is not for tomorrow, we are looking at the end of the year, if all goes well, and predicated on a governmental decision. But looking at where we’re going now, we have a plan that right at the end of the year, we could absolutely get together and start working again. We are developing processes and I have to underline that anything can happen and of course we can only do it in lockstep with the government. What’s great here: everybody is surprised how vigilant the people of Australia have been to staying indoors, staying at safe distance and sticking with the rules. If they can just hang in there for another few weeks, we are doing so well with the reduction of infections that we could zero out. Australia and New Zealand are really believing in zeroing out. Once that happens, it’s not that it’s completely gone, but if it flares up somewhere, you can get it quickly under control. It is not fantastical, but it’s the right thing to believe it can happen and to plan for that and this is what we’re doing.
DEADLINE: It might be impossible with a TV series, but what you’ve hit on here for a movie is intriguing. You plan your return date out, and make sure everyone coming to work has pre-isolated themselves for 14 days before you re-start.
LUHRMANN: Look, short of a vaccine, the most important thing is testing, and then there’s also, what is the capacity in the state you’re in to handle an outbreak if there is one? Once a group of people are together for 14 days in isolation and there are no cases, if you isolate that group of people then that is a safe group of people. An interesting case is taking place in the construction business. I believe in Queensland, they’ve changed the process so instead of a bricklayer going to every floor, they have a team per floor. So if there is an outbreak, it’s only that floor. And you isolate that floor. No one has had contact between the different floors. It is all a lot of big thinking to be done, and it’s not for tomorrow. But when we do start…human beings are innovative during a global event like a war. Immense, collaborative, imaginative lateral ideas burst to life. I really believe in humanity’s ability to do that, if you can work together.
DEADLINE: As you are in touch with experts, do you get the sense there will soon be an opportunity to do quick result testing that is not going to take two weeks? To test people and get the results in an hour, and it means an earlier call time, well we have all heard of actors in prosthetic makeup sitting in a chair for three hours. It’s not unreasonable.
LUHRMANN: There are all sorts of things going on in testing. One thing about Queensland is the hospital here was built as a pandemic hospital. There’s a great focus in Australia and always has been because we’re an island nation, about diseases getting in. The answer to your question is, yes, there is a future, absolutely, whereby you can get that kind of testing and it’s a real focus. You can be tested morning of, or you have a unit on standby to test if someone shows signs. I think that ultimately is going to be the thing, for everyone, in all industries, the availability for speed testing. And that’s where the focus has to be. We look at what’s happening in the U.S., which is where we live, and the number one thing is thorough, absolutely credible and comprehensive testing. That’s what you know is going to be the gamechanger, short of the vaccine. Everybody in the biz can tell you. Look at the common flu, vaccine is the key. In the second World War, everybody’s lives are at stake and someone will invent radar or incredible processes and weapons. With so many great minds focused on it, there might be a vaccine, bang. But even if there is, manufacturing and distributing is a challenge and unity, government and state. After 9/11, everybody realized security had to be a coordinated national issue and same with this.
DEADLINE: How far did you get in shooting when you shut down?
LUHRMANN: My day one was the following Monday. I was four days out from shooting. I had built the Vegas showroom, the International which became the Hilton, and you know that famous scene where Elvis is playing that showroom? We were rehearsing camera positioning, everything, and I’d done all the tests, Austin, Tom, and the whole cast was on fire. We were that close.
DEADLINE: It sure seems after seeing Austin Butler in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you’ve caught hold of a terrific young actor…
LUHRMANN: Look, I always avoid getting in and heralding the work we’re doing, before we do it, but during the testing process, his commitment, his transformative abilities from the young Elvis to beyond, he had been playing so very well. He was terrific. There was such great energy and excitement in the cast and company, about the show we were about to shoot. But it’s like the song from Sunscreen, we will meet again and make this new movie.
DEADLINE: So you freshened up “Sunscreen.” At the beginning of April, I was looking for signs of optimism and thought of the original and sent word out to your team hoping you would rerecord it for Deadline. What was the impetus to update it?
LUHRMANN: When you originally reached out, I would have jumped on it. But that first week in and around the shutdown, it was like battle stations, holding it all together. Can you imagine? I’ve people from all around the world and I’ve got to scramble to get them home before borders closed. The “Sunscreen” song is stale, like 20 years old, and it’s a remarkable story in that it went into England number one on the charts. Even at one stage, in the U.S., Jay Leno rings us up. He thought it was my voice, everyone did, but I’m not the voice. It’s someone who is impersonating me, impersonating Kurt Vonnegut…there’s a long story there…but the song has this incredible vocal by Quinden Tarver, who as a young boy had a voice like Aretha Franklin, when he recorded the vocal for Romeo + Juliet. And at one stage, a lovely guy named Lee Perry, whose spoken voice is in both versions, and who performed it on Jay Leno. It was quite a phenomenon.
The BBC asked would I come on and do a throwback because like you, they’d listened and it still resonated. And the reaction was strong by front line workers, who are getting up in the morning and going off to hospitals in the UK, and you see them in real time coming in. It was early in the morning. At the same time, I heard the Queen’s speech and thought, when you hear that, she’s saying thank you, and that we will be defined by how we handle things right now. It’s very British-centric, but I think it was universal.
And I just got together spontaneously with Elliott Wheeler, and Anton Monstead, my longtime music producing partner, and we got the whole team on Zoom, and thought, why don’t we remix the song with the Queen’s speech and put it out there? And the virulent singalong, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when,” that was huge during the war and I thought if I get enough people videoing themselves in groups or solo, singing along, they can be in a Baz clip. I’ll cut it and remix it and what I’d really like is for people to take the track, young musicians and creatives and DJs. Just take it, remix it, recut it, do your thing with it, because it carries a good message. What I would do is make a new work out of it. This was just a spontaneous, quick throw-it-together as a starting point. It was meant for people who are sitting inside their homes should take, and hopefully it gives them a bit of joy, working on it. And then send it to me and we’ll make it into something else and put it out there.
DEADLINE: Are you starting to get those submissions?
LUHRMANN: Yes. Already. There was one from a woman who said, “I graduated however many years ago and the words written for the original by Mary Schmich, meant so much to me. And when I heard this, I played it for my daughter who is about to graduate but now can’t graduate this year.” And I’ve got a 16-year old about to graduate next year, so I relate to this. She said it meant so much to her, it moved her and made her feel better, to hear these big ideas about life. We’ll come through this, and these are the things that really matter. If anything good comes out of this, it will the recalibration in people about what actually matters. Don’t worry about the future. This blindsided us all on a random Tuesday. Forget jealousy. Maybe you’re ahead, maybe you’re behind, but in the end, the race is with yourself. Those ideas had a resonance then, but have a greater resonance, now. I thought the Queen is someone who has lived it. She’s 94, and has had a life and lived through the war and has always been a steady hand and is someone you can actually listen to and trust. Because there is a helluva lot of confusion and misinformation out there right now. And I loved where she said, ‘People of all religions, and none.’ When she said, slow down, meditate, contemplate, acts of kindness. You don’t really associate that, or all religions or none, with the Queen of England. And she says, we will see our friends again and we will meet again. She’s saying, we will be alright. Right now, the most difficult thing for people is the lack of connection to people. That’s what that singalong song is about, was love ones, brothers, sisters, fathers, sons, daughters, mothers, all separate and they could do nothing about it. A wall was between them, but you’ll get back together again. We did it so quickly that if it brings joy to one person, it was worth it.
DEADLINE: How would it feel to be back on the pop charts again?
LUHRMANN: Funny story. About 10 years ago, MTV had this show One Hit Wonders and I was in the gym, jogging along. The guy goes, “When we come back, what Aussie director is a one-hit wonder?” And I’m going along, thinking, I wonder who that could be? He gets back and says, “Australian director Baz Luhrmann did the ‘Sunscreen’ song in 1999…” And I’m like, oh well, at least I’ve had one hit. With this one, it’s for that person who is getting up at 5 AM and is a little down and frightened. These are not my words but maybe it will comfort them and they’ll think, it’s going to be alright, we’ll meet again.
Here’s the new “Sunscreen,” so far:
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by Vika Bull, Quindon Tarver, Lee Perry, and her majesty Queen Elizabeth II Put this together with friends in the hope that it might brighten somebody’s day. Sing, dance, create anything on video, upload and tag it, or send me a link at email@example.com. We’ll create something together and #WellMeetAgain2020
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