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Podcast – Elvis: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin + Mandy Walker ASC ACS

The creative team behind Elvis on creating a big budget studio movie in Australia.

Director/writer/producer Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis

Director/writer/producer Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama Elvis, a Warner Bros. Pictures release (Photo credit: Hugh Stewart)

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Pocket Casts

Director, writer and producer Baz Luhrmann says there’s a reason why he always returns to Australia to create worlds like Paris 1900 for Moulin Rouge, the roaring 20s in New York for The Great Gatsby, or now America throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s for Elvis.

“We have amazing relationships with long-term creative crew,” he says. “Some people who’ve worked with me for over 30 years and that’s a wonderful thing.”

Production designer, costume designer and producer Catherine Martin, who’s worked with Luhrmann since his debut featue Strictly Ballroom and founded Bazmark with him in 1997, says Australian artisans have the ability to create anything out of virtually nothing.

“We’re not lacking in any department in terms of our skill base whether it be acting, or creating sets, costumes, being a gaffer, a grip, Mandy Walker doing beautiful, beautiful cinematography, visual effects – everything comes together I think, to make… an extraordinary movie with extraordinary technical back-up,” she says of their work on Elvis.

Catherine Martin on the red carpetCatherine Martin at the Elvis UK Special Screening

Elvis – which releases in Australian cinemas on 23 June – charts the iconic singer’s rise to fame in the 1950s and stars Austin Butler in the title role, alongside Tom Hanks as his manager Colonel Tom Parker, Australia’s Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley and a wealth of other local actors such as Kodi Smit-McPhee and Richard Roxburgh.

Principal photography on Elvis took place in Queensland with the support of the Queensland Government, Screen Queensland and the Federal Government’s Producer Offset. 

Throughout the podcast Luhrmann, Martin and Walker discuss filming in Australia, how important pre-production was in creating a cohesive visual look – especially for a film like Elvis that spans decades – and creative choices they made such as bespoke Panavision lenses.

Director of photography Mandy Walker ACS ASC says Elvis marks her fourth collaboration with Bazmark, following Australia and two Chanel No. 5 commercials.

“Baz is a true visionary,” she says. “For instance by the time I got onto Elvis he had already been working on it for 10 years and he and Catherine Martin had put together a look-book for me… so by the time I get to talk with him, he already has quite a clear vision, so then it just becomes my job to collaborate with them and work out how to technically photograph the film and bring it to the screen.”

Mandy Walker headshot with cameraMandy Walker ASC ACS

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Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. I'd like to firstly acknowledge the various countries you're all listening in from - the unceded lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This podcast has been created on the lands of the Gadigal people of the larger Eora Nation, and I have the great privilege to be a visitor and be able to work on these lands. Always was, always will be. For this episode of the Screen Australia podcast, we will be discussing the making of the new Warner Brothers feature film Elvis, which releases in Australian cinemas on the 23rd of June. Joining us to talk about it are writer, director, producer Baz Luhrmann, production designer, costume designer and producer Catherine Martin and cinematographer Mandy Walker ACS ASC. The movie charts the iconic singer's rise to fame in the 1950s and stars Austin Butler in the title role alongside Tom Hanks as his manager, Colonel Tom Parker and Australia's Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley, as well as a wealth of local actors such as Kodi Smit-McPhee and Richard Roxborough. They are not the only Australians involved, with the cast as well as the crew packed with Australian talent, because despite being set in the US throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, Elvis was filmed entirely in Australia. Throughout the podcast, Baz, Catherine (or CM, as she's often referred to) and Mandy talk to filming in Australia and the impact of that, how important pre-production was in creating a cohesive visual look - especially for a film like Elvis that spans decades - and creative choices that they made, such as bespoke Panavision lenses. Before we get to the chat, remember to subscribe to the podcast through places like Spotify and iTunes. If you have any feedback, send it to [email protected] and subscribe to Screen Australia's Industry News for the latest from the local industry. Now here's writer director and producer Baz Luhrmann talking about why so many of his films from Strictly Ballroom to Moulin Rouge, Australia, The Great Gatsby and now Elvis have all been made in Australia.

[00:02:18] Baz Luhrmann Well, it's a great place to make movies. I mean, it's my home. I mean, only Romeo + Juliet I made it completely in Mexico and The Get Down obviously in New York City, that was a television piece. But we have amazing relationships with long term creative crew and tech - sound. I just saw Wayne the Big Bang [Sound Design] last night. Or Matty Villa and John Redmond, the editors. You know, like long, long, long - Kerry [Thompson] from wardrobe. Now I'm starting to list crew members. But some people worked with me over 30 years, you know, and that's a wonderful thing.

[00:02:58] Caris Bizzaca One of Baz's longest collaborations is with Elvis's production designer, costume designer and producer Catherine Martin. The Oscar winner has worked on all of Baz's feature films since his debut Strictly Ballroom, and in 1997, they founded the production company Bazmark. Here's Catherine also adding to the reasons why they continue to return home to work.

[00:03:19] Catherine Martin We know that there's this extraordinary talent here and this ability to basically create anything out of virtually nothing. And so it's a combination of great skill - technical skill - the ability to have very varied locations and also the studios in Queensland. So it's that and then on the other side you have an extraordinary wealth of Australian acting talent. So you can see in the movie, whether it's Helen Thomson or David Wenham or Richard Roxborough, that we're not lacking in any department in terms of our skill base, whether it be acting or creating sets, costumes, being a gaffer, a grip. Mandy Walker doing beautiful, beautiful cinematography, visual effects. Everything kind of comes together, I think, to make an extraordinary well, I'm biased, but I think an extraordinary movie with kind of extraordinary technical back up.

[00:04:35] Caris Bizzaca One of the people Catherine mentioned just there is cinematographer Mandy Walker, whose extensive credits include Australian features like Lantana and Tracks, as well as studio titles such as Hidden Figures and Mulan. Elvis marks Mandy's fourth collaboration with Baz and Catherine. She was the cinematographer on Australia as well as two Chanel No. 5 commercials that were also short films. Mandy, who spoke to us from the UK where she is currently shooting Disney's Snow White, explained what she enjoys about working with Baz and Catherine Martin.

[00:05:07] Mandy Walker ACS ASC Well, I think first up, Baz is a true visionary and I mean, for instance, by the time I got onto Elvis, he'd already been working on it for ten years. And he and Catherine Martin had put together like a lookbook to show me. And I've done a lot of historical research and research into existing footage that Elvis was in that you could access, and also accessing some things like his home movies that were weren't public. So by the time I get to talk to him, he already has quite a clear vision. So then it just becomes my job to collaborate with them and work out how to technically photograph the film and bring it to the screen.

[00:05:56] Caris Bizzaca From Moulin Rouge to The Great Gatsby to Elvis, Baz Luhrmann's films always create incredibly vivid worlds. Here's Baz speaking to how he works with Catherine Martin, as well as his favourite set in Elvis.

[00:06:08] Baz Luhrmann Well, we work really closely together on the language. Like, I start with tear sheets and scribbles and stuff, and then we're pretty at the hip. She has an enormous team. And I have my team and we work. And then there's a point at which I go like, okay, we got this. What she's incredible [at] is that she'll take the vision part of it and just make it like the actual creation of it, the quality of it. But her craft ability and then she has these micro geniuses, I guess, you know, where she put pattern on pattern and things like that. It's not really my strength, but I mean, of all the sets, I loved Elvis'. It was really funny because I actually worked on it for a while with Karen [Murphy], which is the other production designer that was on it, and then just trying to get this feel. And I ended up with this kind of Napoleonic blue bedroom set at the top of the International Hotel. And I loved that set. And, you know, because Elvis is like trapped in this golden cage overlooking all of Vegas. And he's really caught in a in a cage of lights. You know, it's this neon lit sort of goldfish like aquarium that he's trapped in that he's going mad in really. I love that set. And just the textures and the fabrics and the finish on that was beautiful.

[00:07:45] Caris Bizzaca That set that Baz is describing is just one of the many featured in Elvis, a number of which are based on real iconic locations like Graceland or like the stage at the International Hotel. Here's Catherine Martin speaking to what's more exciting for her as a production and costume designer, whether it's creating those iconic costumes and sets or creating the broader world - the everyday clothing and the kinds of time-specific things that you can spot in the background of shots.

[00:08:13] Catherine Martin I'm interested, I suppose, in translating Baz's story vision. So it's always about supporting the story and what the right choices are, in order for the audience to connect with a story point or know where they are or know who that person is. But I think that the background or the background actors are absolutely quintessential to setting the scene, because really they're inner life and what they do and what they look like creates the world in which the main cast live. So to me, I think that is extremely important and really interesting. And I love social history and I love detail and quirky things that bring unexpected colour and movement to a scene. So we're always looking for the unexpected or something you don't know about the fifties or sixties or seventies.

[00:09:26] Caris Bizzaca On that point. Elvis, unlike other Baz Luhrmann films, does span a number of decades. Let's jump in to the interview with cinematographer Mandy Walker again. We talked through a couple of points here, including lens choices, but here's Mandy first speaking to how Baz as a director always puts an emphasis on pre-production, but why it was so important in particular for Elvis.

[00:09:47] Mandy Walker ACS ASC I think, Baz is always very meticulous about having a very harmonious vision, I'd say. So getting all the departments on the same page. And so we do very early testing between the art department, costume, my cameras and lighting and also hair and makeup. So I do come on very early. And so by the time we start shooting, we've got everything in a singular vision, in harmony. So we know exactly what we're doing. So we never sort of discovering things on the day or me having to say, 'Oh, you know, there's a pink suit here. What colour light are we going to put on? Is it going to work?' It's always pre-planned and tested. So I think I had like 16 weeks prep or something on Elvis. And, it gives me time also to research the visuals. And for instance, when we did shoot the concert sequences, we were doing what was called 'trainspotting', which was we looked at each of them in detail. So each of the existing concerts and the 68 special, for instance, especially, and we worked out the lensing, the lighting, the colour of the lighting, the lighting changes. For instance, in the Vegas showroom we had a dimmer board operator study the songs and the footage to work out exactly the right time the follow spot comes on and the lights go down in the background and all the camera operators came in and we walked around and rehearsed with Austin and we'd work out where the cameras were, what lenses they were on, how the camera moved. And then there was also the drama part of the coverage, which was the connection of the characters or the experience of the characters, the time. Say for instance, in the NBC studio when Priscilla's watching Elvis or Elvis is being watched by the Colonel up in the control room. So there was different coverage for the drama, to express the drama, but there was also this trainspotting footage for the concert sequences.

[00:11:53] Caris Bizzaca And also, you know, Baz is quite well-known for kind of the pace and the editing, the transitions and things like that, are you storyboarding all of that so that it is, as you're saying, everything so collaborative between you and post-production and things like that?

[00:12:13] Mandy Walker ACS ASC We didn't always storyboard all the sequences. Some of them we did, but we also were very aware for each sequence how Baz had planned to cut it together. For instance, the split screen sequences. So when we were shooting Elvis singing Burning Love, for instance, we knew that he would do a frame that would match-cut to his different costumes, the same image of him in a certain position. So things like that we would plan. Wouldn't necessarily storyboard them, but we had shot lists and some sequences like in Tupelo at the beginning of the movie where there's young Elvis, we definitely storyboarded that because some of it was CGI. So some of the deep backgrounds we would add extra houses and things like that. So for those we knew what we were framing for. So for instance, you know, a drone would go up and we knew that there would be little extra things in the background, so we'd frame for them, but it's more sort of you know Baz would shot list, but also, every time there was a new set, we would go to the set and walk around and rehearse and rehearse with the actors and plan our shooting. So we knew then and then Baz would say, okay, this is the transition into the next scene. And we'd rehearse a shot and we did that in pre-production. So it was sort of done in a very practical way.

[00:13:39] Caris Bizzaca And so, I mean, on that note, what can you talk through some of the camera and lens choices that you had for Elvis and why?

[00:13:48] Mandy Walker ACS ASC Well, because we were not just representing his life, but also different periods of American culture that he played a very important part of, I went off and researched photography and cinema at the time that we were representing. And also, you know, we did have footage of the the NBC 68 special and some of his performances at Vegas. So Baz and I both went into Panavision to talk about lenses and glass that came from that period. And we put together two sets of lenses, one's for the first half of Elvis' life, and then the second was anamorphic when he went to Vegas. And because anamorphic to me represents the seventies, you know, with those horizontal flares and the aberrations on the edges of the lenses. And so we went back to recreating lenses that were more of the time because lenses these days are very pristine and crisp and even and the lenses at that time were not. And so we put a lot of those aberrations back into them.

[00:14:59] Caris Bizzaca And did I read that with the lense there were ones you created and had like little Elvis, you'd written on the sides of the lenses. Is that true?

[00:15:10] Mandy Walker ACS ASC Yeah, Panavision actually did that. They put these little Elvis icons on all the lenses. So there was a little dancing Elvis in some kind of glittery paint that they put on our lenses because they were bespoke. They were specially designed for us. And we went through about three iterations of them until Baz and I were happy that they were representing the vision. And so sometimes they had the edges a little bit less defined or draw your eye to the centre of the frame. We also had what's called a Petzval lens, which was made for a bit more of the sort of dreamy memory sequences that was made from a projector lens from the 1800s and made specifically for us. And so you'll see it in the film and what it does is it has a vignette around the outside - it's a very old fashioned type of aberration that was in lenses really early on, like [1920 movie The Cabinet of] Dr. Caligari days or something like that. But we had that made to specifically use for those sequences. But I think the other thing about Baz is, you know, as much as we can do in camera, we do for real. Like it's an organic thing rather than just leave everything to be done in post, in terms of effects. And then the other thing is that we have 360 degrees of set most of the time. And if it just means an extension or blue screen outside for something in the distance. But the way that he works is that everything is physically there. It's not like we're in a greenscreen world or something like that, so that the performers can react. And we have 360 degrees of a physical place to work in.

[00:17:01] Caris Bizzaca Those 360 degree sets are obviously thanks to the work of Catherine Martin and her teams. And as she says, it's an army of people that bring both the sets and costumes to life. Here she is highlighting some of those crew members and their roles.

[00:17:15] Catherine Martin I have an extraordinary team and so two very important people are my supervising art director Ian Gracie, who's worked with us since Moulin Rouge on every movie. And his incredible ability to marry art and finance together just makes him, I think, an unbelievable ally. And Kerry Thompson, who is my wardrobe supervisor and was my assistant costume designer on this. They just bring solid artistic support, but also with all of the incredible practical support that you need, whether it's budgetary or sourcing staff, and also bringing in the other teams that work under them, you know, because it's an army. Nothing gets done in filmmaking without hundreds of people, particularly in my department. And things like Kerry brought in Jan Hurley, who was the extras stylist who worked very closely with me, and she did an extraordinary job to bring all that detail to life. And she was great because she constantly was looking for those quirky things that make the crowd scenes, I think, interesting. Like she found all this stuff, fan made Elvis denim skirts and quilted skirts with homemade applique and stuff, images of that, and we reproduce that. And so it's all those people, whether it's (set decorator) Bev Dunn who's worked with me since Moulin Rouge and her incredible eye for detail and her tireless work because sets are one thing, but set decorating is a whole other layer because sets are just a box with a floor and walls.

[00:19:13] Caris Bizzaca Graceland itself, you know. It's a house but what's inside.

[00:19:14] Catherine Martin So much stuff, but what's inside is incredible and all the drapery. She always laughs, because when she wants to get my attention, she gets fabric samples and she lays them out on a table outside my office and I'll always stop. If you've got a bit of fabric or something shiny, that's how you catch me.

[00:19:34] Caris Bizzaca If she needs to ask you an important question-

[00:19:38] Catherine Martin -lay the fabrics out and anything that's a little bit shiny. And the team is everything because it's that intersection of Gracie and Bev and the set builders all coming together to do that incredible gold curtain. So that's a combination of all kinds of departments working together, outsourcing various things, coordinating it all so that it actually ends up on set, ordering the same fabric from  Germany that was on the stage in the International Hotel. They actually had samples of what they sold to them way back then, and we just had the mill it again because of course they don't have that amount of that gold fabric in stock. So it was all milled. Hundreds of metres were milled for the movie.

[00:20:38] Caris Bizzaca As Catherine just noted, there's a huge amount of highly skilled people that bring a big budget studio movie like Elvis to life. And there's a number of these that are or have been filmed in Australia like Thor: Love & Thunder or George Miller's Mad Max prequel Furiosa. But anecdotally, there are a few people I've spoken to over the years who acknowledge movies like Australia as a means of them either getting a foot in the door or a step up in the industry. So even just recent podcast guests in the last couple of years at the podcast episode with Cian O'Cleary, the director of documentary series Love on the Spectrum, he talked about how he was a driver and did EPK for Australia. Or you have someone like Greg Frasier ACS, the cinematographer who won an Academy Award earlier this year for Dune, who shot second unit on Australia. Now he's Mandy talking to whether these big kinds of studio movies can help upskill the industry.

[00:21:29] Mandy Walker ACS ASC I think that's definitely the case. And for instance, one of my camera team who used to be like right at the bottom of the camera department as a loader, got to be a focus puller on Australia. And then on Elvis, we had him doing B-cam and during the film he ended up shooting the second unit. So I also think that Baz is, because not all directors will do this, is fantastic at giving people opportunities and knowing when they're ready to jump up. And for instance, myself, you know, I had never shot a film as big as Australia, but after Chanel, I think the biggest thing I'd done was Lantana and he said, 'there's this film, it's over $100 million and I know you can do it Mandy.' And he was very confident in me and I knew I could do it as well. But he gives people opportunities and so he makes that part of the experience of shooting, to be able to do that. It's very much on his mind.

[00:22:27] Caris Bizzaca Here's Baz and then Catherine Martin with more.

[00:22:30] Baz Luhrmann We are all about giving people a go. In fact, CM and I sometimes we were confronted with situations because of the COVID. And we're not scared of going like, well, X doesn't have the credits, but we believe in them, let's support them and give them a go. And a lot of that happened on this where we had to remind ourselves, well, this is the first time they've done that, or they've really stepped up. And people supported us in stepping up. So, I mean, not everyone should just be bluntly like, okay, you can go run the ship. But opportunity and supporting people's growth is fundamental in having a robust and healthy film culture.

[00:23:12] Catherine Martin Big movies, movies with scale are really important for the skills base here in Australia and we've been really lucky. Our movies have been really lucky because so many of the cast and the crew have worked on movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or Star Wars and all that skill and all the demands of those enormous films actually stay in the country and serve other movies going forward. And to us, it's been really important because every time we've come back here, there's been something huge going on, whether it's a Marvel movie or whatever it is, and that has pushed the skill set forward, whether it's in visual effects, whether it's in set making, whether it's in model making. And a whole lot of new technologies have been explored, whether it's 3D printing or making... like my dream was always to have dress making dummies that were in the actual shape of the actor. Well, this is the first movie I was ever able to have that. So with Tom and Austin, I was able to get foam models of them that were actually what they were going to be in reality. And it just made everything so much easier. And that comes from the experience that people gain by working on movies that have scale and have the money and resources to develop all of these technologies and the skills in our local artisans.

[00:24:56] Caris Bizzaca That was Catherine Martin, the production designer, costume designer and producer on Elvis. Thanks to Catherine, as well as to director, writer, producer Baz Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker ACS, ASC for joining us on the podcast. A reminder that Elvis releases in Australian cinemas on the 23rd of June, and as a Warner Brothers film, it's distributed locally by Universal Pictures Australia. Remember to subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter to keep up to date with new initiatives, opportunities, videos, articles and more. Thanks for listening.