Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” film continues to wow audiences. Austin Butler’s portrayal of the King is so compelling that many can’t tell when Luhrmann cuts to the real King, Elvis Presley.
The film is peppered with blink-and-you-miss-it, real Elvis performances and split screens. But the mightiest of the King splices was presented in the grand finale, Presley’s final performance in 1977 at the Rushmore Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota. The scene begins with Butler sitting at the grand piano and seamlessly transitions to Presley.
Editors Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond were careful not to overload the film with too many Presley cuts, at least visually as this would detract from the viewing experience, but “Elvis” was praised for the splashes of reality that highlighted the hyper-stylized film.
In conversation with diversity The editors reveal their intense pre-production process, unraveling all of the hidden Elvis Easter eggs and explaining how Butler’s full performance of “Unchained Melody” almost made it into the movie.
A big topic of discussion is the finale when Elvis sings “Unchained Melody”. Talk about cutting this scene from Austin to Elvis.
Villa: From a prosthetic standpoint, getting Austin into this makeup was a tall order, and that was the most important thing about his makeup. There wasn’t much Austin material, but there were a couple of takes where he sang through the song. He sang [“Unchained Melody”] complete because at the end there was a question mark as to whether we would get the real footage of Elvis and whether we would be allowed to use it.
Redmond: Austin’s attention to detail was exceptional. In that sequence, with the breaths and pauses, he was spot on.
Villa: Luckily this famous footage got through and we were able to use it and this is the real Elvis. It’s so interesting that a lot of people don’t realize we cut to the real Elvis because it breaks my heart every time I see that scene and you see Elvis’ face. When we watch the film with an audience, I look around to see if people have the same feelings, and so often they don’t. It took me a long time to realize that a lot of people don’t know this is Elvis and that’s a lot of proof for Austin, but we’re cutting down on the real Elvis.
Talk about the opening sequence, the fever dream that just makes us fall. Why did you want this to be the introduction?
Redmond: The idea of flashing forward at the very beginning came from one of the reels we did in pre-production. It’s the scene where “American Trilogy” is played, and there’s a split screen that was in our original pitch.
We wanted this because it was a powerful introduction to the voice of Elvis – that image of the man in blue overalls that the world was familiar with. The big stage with many screaming fans.
Villa: There was a lot of development in that scene. It was one of the big things that we played with all the time. The cut to the Colonel [Tom Hanks] the reflection of his time from a point in the present was always there. In the beginning there was a big sequence where he came to this place. It was a very imaginative sequence that we decided to tone down a bit.
But introducing Elvis to the stage has always been a staple because it’s such an iconic series of images.
A great tool is the juxtaposition of Elvis, whether he’s in church, on Beale Street, or even on the stage. What conversations did you have in those moments?
Villa: While many sequences were planned in pre-production, other sequences were born on the cutting room floor to drive the drama forward.
We started with a longer assembly, but we needed to shorten the time. For example, Elvis walks down Beale Street, cuts to him, and comes back to his house. That was invented in the editing room floor.
At first there were two scenes. One with Elvis walking down Beale Street during the day and his arrival home was another long scene.
We watched it one day and while they were great scenes, they were just long and didn’t deserve the time everyone got. Baz devised a means of editing to suggest that Elvis didn’t belong in either of those worlds, and chopping them together helped push that emotional point.
Another scene that’s so great at establishing this phenomenon that is Elvis is the “Hayride” scene, which for the first time captures the screaming fans, how did you approach that?
Redmond: We had an amazing movement coach named Polly Bennett who had a team nicknamed The Scream Queens who were extras and had a remarkable gift for screaming. We shot it conventionally, but it was amplified in the edit to make it more dramatic.
Villa: The music department was right next door. We could produce a cut and give it to them and they put music in. They also made their own musical mashups and gave them to us to edit. It was always complementary and organic that we could work so closely with the music.
This “Hayride” scene was shot very easily and it helped us in the editing. Baz said, “Let’s step up the music and let viewers know what audiences would have experienced in the ’50s.”
Is there a cut Easter egg, something that makes the audience think it’s Austin but it’s Elvis or vice versa?
Redmond: At the very beginning where Elvis comes out in the blue suit doing karate moves there is a split screen. On one side is the real Elvis and on the other Austin. This is Austin from a costume test. It’s just before he turns around and begins “American Trilogy.” Both shots were not part of the main photography. It’s stolen moments.
“Burning Love” has some shots of the real Elvis in it. It was all sublime. We didn’t want to distract the audience too much, but there are some shots of him in the film.