Reteaming with Baz Luhrmann to make his audacious musical biopic Elvis, cinematographer Mandy Walker began with meticulous planning and testing to bring the iconic singer’s most memorable performances to the big screen.
The Warner Bros. picture is currently one of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of the year, with $286 million worldwide. And more recently, Walker’s work on the movie was selected for the main competition of the Camerimage international cinematography festival — a prestigious bellwether for the cinematography Oscar race — whose 30th edition begins Nov. 12 in Torun, Poland.
Luhrmann and Walker (who previously lensed the director’s 2008 epic Australia and the Chanel No. 5 campaigns that featured Nicole Kidman and Gisele Bündchen) did meticulous research and testing before production began. This involved collecting and studying historical references, from footage of Elvis’ live Las Vegas performances to his 1968 “comeback special” that aired on NBC. Luhrmann found archival material from Elvis’ performances on the Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, and 1956 show at Russwood Park in Memphis, Tennessee. “Russwood was documented by [noted Elvis photographer] Alfred Wertheimer, [and] he also took some 16 millimeter footage,” explains Walker.
With this reference material as well as famous video clips as guides, Walker says that “Baz wanted to reproduce those as closely as we possibly could. So, we spent a lot of time studying them and also working out the exact camera angles and lensing, when they’d zoom in and when they’d crane out, even the lighting cues and the lighting design of the Las Vegas Showroom.” Walker reveals that there’s some actual footage of the Showroom in that sequence. The movie itself was shot on location and on stages in Australia.
As part of the set for the TV studio used in the scene with the ’68 special, they went to extremes for authenticity. “We actually put one of our cameras in the housing of an old TV camera so that we would have exactly the right angle at the right time. And we set up a little monitor that we built into it to look like one of the old black-and-white monitors,” she says. “So we could have it in-shot, but it was also shooting one of the angles that we were replicating.”
Aside from musical performances, Walker was also creating a drama, starting from Elvis’ early years in Mississippi and Memphis in the late ’50s to his death in 1977. The cinematography “also had to do with the American culture that he grew up in and passed through and that influenced him. Also because he’s such an iconic character and part of American history himself, it’s how he affected American culture, too,” says Walker. To that end, she additionally examined visual references, from photographs to Elvis’ home movies, as well as images of Memphis’ Beale Street and the work of photographers Gordon Parks and Saul Leiter for color and tone.
The movie was lensed with ARRI’s large-format Alexa 65 camera. Says Walker, “This is a film for the big screen and we wanted it to be epic. What better format to shoot than 65 mil? It’s epic and his life was epic.”
Prep also involved a trip to Panavision, where she and Luhrmann visited lens guru Dan Sasaki. “We ended up making two pretty bespoke lens sets for the two time periods,” says Walker. Spherical lenses were used for Elvis’ early life and anamorphic lenses were used from the point when he arrives in Las Vegas.
Walker describes how Luhrmann works, involving all departments — including art, costume, hair and makeup, cinematography — to get everyone on the same page. He was also diligent about lens testing ahead of principal photography and rehearsing, particularly with Butler to transform the actor into Elvis in the performances.
For Walker, that started as early as Butler’s audition for the title role. She remembers, “When he did one of his first auditions, I was there and took the opportunity to look at the angles on his face to see where he looked most like Elvis and how the lenses looked.”
You can listen to the complete conversation in an episode of THR‘s Behind the Screen.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.