In taking on the story of Elvis via the Warner Bros drama of the same name, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and DP Mandy Walker looked to “perfectly reproduce already existing imagery” of the King of Rock and Roll, for what Walker terms “trainspotting” sequences.
Their uncannily precise recreations of Elvis’ most iconic performances — from his ’68 Comeback Special, for example, and a string of sold-out shows in Sin City — helped the duo to more deeply steep the audience in the reality of Presley’s experience. But as seamlessly executed as they appear in retrospect, these moments were, to Luhrmann, their “biggest new leap” creatively on a project that has landed eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Cinematography.
“There could be a perception that, ‘Oh, well, you get a free hall pass because the imagery already existed, so all you had to do was copy it,'” acknowledges the filmmaker, in conversation with Walker, in today’s edition The Process, “as opposed to understanding that actually copying something that exists is so much more labor.”
Luhrmann goes on to explain that “if you’re just creating on your own, you’ve got a free headspace…Whereas when you’re matching, you’ve got no room to move. It’s very clear: You either succeeded or you failed.”
Released by Warner Bros. in June after world premiering at Cannes, Elvis examines the life and music of Presley (Austin Butler) through the prism of his complicated relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Walker came to the drama, traversing multiple decades in the life of the star, after collaborating with Luhrmann on his 2008 epic Australia, having first met him on a fashion film for Chanel.
If Elvis‘ trainspotting sequences were among the most novel to the Australian DP, who’d never before tackled such a music-heavy project, they were of course just one of many challenges she ended up facing. Also in the back of Walker’s mind “all the time” was the notion of getting the camera to “dance with Elvis” — perfectly anticipating Butler’s every move, by immersing herself and her team in the nuances of his choreography, as well as the music he’d be performing.
Walker says that a third principal challenge on the project was navigating an epic of such tonal range — finding the proper transitions between moments of punk “aggression” and more composed elegance, as she bridged scenes from differing eras of Elvis’ life.
Elvis recently brought Walker her first Academy Award nomination, making her just the third woman in history to be recognized in the Cinematography category. Luhrmann’s Best Picture nom as producer, meanwhile, is his second, following the Best Picture contention of his modern classic musical, Moulin Rouge!.
In conversation with the filmmaker on The Process, Walker discusses cinematographers like Robby Müller that have been particularly influential to her work; her process of collaboration with Luhrmann and what she most enjoys about it; how the pair look to couple extreme levels of preparation with on-set “riffing”; moments on Elvis where they were forced to change up their creative plan on the spot; lighting tricks and challenges on the film, which had her almost aways shooting on multiple cameras; the way Luhrmann fosters the sense of collective ownership of a story amongst his team; and more.
Luhrmann speaks to connecting with Walker after being drawn to her work on the Ray Lawrence film Lantana; why he and the DP are “just naturally…creatively joined at the hip”; his processes of honing both scripts and visuals for his projects; “geeking out” with Walker during Elvis prep; and the means by which he’s “constantly absorbing the world” of the film he’s making.
The iconic filmmaker also, on The Process, discusses studying the celebrated Italian DP Vittorio Storaro, and his use of color in storytelling; learning from the collaboration between Orson Welles and his famed DP Gregg Toland; his penchant for inventive, “Why not?” thinking; and a starstruck encounter with “the great god” Akira Kurosawa.
Luhrmann scripted Elvis with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner. He was joined as a producer on the pic by Catherine Martin, Gail Berman, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss.
View his full conversation with Walker above.
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