On a recent Saturday afternoon, Baz Luhrmann is at a famous tourist attraction in Memphis, Tennessee, a place that has become quite familiar to him.
The Australian filmmaker, whose credits include Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, first came to Graceland five years ago to begin research that would lead to his latest work, Elvis. The film debuts in theaters this week.
And yet while sitting at the one-time home of its subject, late rock pioneer Elvis Presley, Luhrmann begins a video interview by saying he never really wanted to do a biopic. Furthermore, he says that although he used to go see Presley's movies at the local cinema when he was a kid, 'It's not like I'm this devoted Elvis fan who always wanted to do an Elvis movie."
However, he compares Elvis to how William Shakespeare "would take a historical figure and use it as a canvas to explore larger ideas", He also cites the 1984 film Amadeus.
"I always thought, 'That's great - whether you care about Mozart or not, it doesn't matter; it's just a great drama about jealousy'," Luhrmann says. "There's something there in Elvis that is all about America, particularly in the '50s, '60s and '70s."
He didn't find the window into telling that story until about seven years ago, he says, when he became interested in the mysterious figure who managed and took advantage of him.
"I really started to understand Colonel Tom Parker - (who was) never a colonel, never a Tom, never a Parker," Luhrmann says, referring to the man's wholly fabricated identity. "I went, 'Oh, this is the way in. This could be a great drama."
To him, Parker was "this hard-to-put-your-finger-on, smoke-and-mirrors snake oil salesman but also a genius," he says. "That's when I realised, 'I should do this', because it speaks a bit to where we are in the world."
Casting his leads would be crucial.
He received an audition tape from American actor Austin Butler, in which the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cast member cries and performs Unchained Melody before he, according to Luhrmann, "slams down the piano".
"I'm like, 'What's that?'," he says of the odd recording.
"Then I got a call from Denzel Washington who says, 'You're about to meet someone whose work ethic is off the charts'."
(Butler and Washington performed together in The Iceman Cometh on Broadway in 2018.)
Luhrmann says that Butler lost his mother around the same age that Presley did, which he thinks helped the actor find the vulnerability of the character and disappear into him.
"The whole mission here was, how do you make him a man, not an icon or a joke? How do you humanise him?" Luhrmann says. "They sort of blend - it's a blend between Austin and Elvis, which is why I think it's so real."
That's literally true when it comes to some of the music in the movie.
Luhrmann and his team faced a challenge when they determined recordings of early Presley songs were not in good enough condition to suit their needs.
"I was going to get a voice impersonator, but then I asked Austin, 'Do you think you could sing?' He said, 'I sing a bit'."
Early tests, before Butler received any vocal training, suggested he was up for the challenge.
"Even then, before the coaching, he's channeling (Presley's) voice." Luhrmann says. "So that was going to be my way: Austin sings the young Elvis; mix some Austin with Elvis; and then use Elvis where it really counts because it's a big screen or (because) nobody could sing THAT, you know?"
If Butler is a relative unknown, the man acting alongside him is anything but - and Luhrmann definitely went after Tom Hanks for the role of Parker.
The writer-director had been listening to recordings the Graceland folks had lent him of Parker talking in "lots of crazy voices" - "sometimes he sounds like Bela Lugosi," Luhrmann quips - and thought he couldn't go small.
"The character is so huge, I thought, 'Well, I'm going to need a really great actor to do this - a big actor," he says.
"Tom's not just one of the great actors of our time - I think he's one of the great actors of all time. There's just nothing he can't actually do."
Often, Luhrmann says, it may take a month to convince an actor of his stature to take on a role like this.
"I reckon I was 10 minutes into describing this toxic relationship between Never a Colonel-Never a Tom-Never a Parker and Elvis ... he looked at me and said, 'Well, if you want me, I'm your guy,'" he says. "Ten minutes. Maybe it was 20."
It's certainly unusual to see Hanks - a hero in so many beloved movies - inhabit a villain.
"I think that was the other attraction," Luhrmann says. "He wanted to play a note on his instrument that audiences had not seen him play.
"I think the reason people are so uncomfortable with the character of Tom Parker, as played by Tom Hanks, is because it's like seeing America's favorite uncle turn out to be corrupt."
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