“One of the Most Important Parts of the Camera Language Was to Be Able to Dance With Elvis”: ‘THR Presents’ Q&A With Austin Butler, Mandy Walker and Polly Bennett
It should come as no surprise that taking on the project of Elvis was an enormous responsibility, but Austin Butler has a particular way of phrasing it. “It feels like you’re spinning a lot of plates at the same time,” he said during a recent THR Presents panel, powered by Vision Media. “Between the internal life, the external life, how [Presley] changed over many years, and how he physically moved over that time.”
To help with the intricate movement work that informed the film, Butler turned early on to cinematographer Mandy Walker and choreographer Polly Bennett. “Polly, she was not only the person that I looked to for movement advice — she was my therapist, she was my rock, she was my best friend out there,” he said. “The amount of late nights that I would call her just going, ‘I really need to talk right now.’”
For Walker’s part, it was essential she understood Butler’s physicality from the get-go, and the choreography Bennett would be instructing him in, so as not to miss a thing with her camera. “About nine months before preproduction, I was at Austin’s workshop [audition], and I was there with my Leica camera running around taking stills and looking at angles of him,” Walker explains. “Just starting to look at the lenses and what was working and then showing [director] Baz [Luhrmann]. One of the most important parts of the camera language was to dance with Elvis, and to be able to fly with him. And when he flew, then to be able to be very elegant and observational, when there was heavy drama going on.”
She continues: “We also had to reproduce the concerts, like for the ’68 NBC comeback special. And the first Vegas show. Baz wanted to represent it exactly. That was one of the directives for all of us. I then would start going and being a fly on the wall when Polly and Austin were starting to rehearse, to look at the performances. And then getting on stage with Austin, and getting our stills cameras, and I got my crew in there. I had my crew learn the songs and learn the choreography so that we were dancing with him all in sync, and Polly was amazing at that because she would be guiding us through what was going to happen, and calling us in when they were rehearsing something. we needed to come and see. So that was the camera part of it.”
Bennett came to the project after working with Rami Malek on changing his physicality to become Freddie Mercury in his Oscar-winning turn in Bohemian Rhapsody. “I got a message going, ‘Couldn’t Baz have a phone call with you?’ It was one of those wild conversations where he was on a ferry in New York and I was on a street in Edinburgh, having a conversation that wasn’t about Elvis at all — it was just a lovely chat. Then suddenly [I’m] in New York and meeting Austin for the first time, after spending some time with Baz.”
For her way into teaching Butler to break out of his body language and become Presley, Bennett explains: “I think part of it was just to eradicate all of the stuff around what we think Elvis Presley does. The first thing people say is, ‘Oh, he moves his hips, and he does that with his lip.’” The research and deep-diving behind unpacking the real Elvis’ actual movement was exorbitant. Bennett continues: “Actually, when you spend a lot of time with the footage, what you see is not those things, and after a huge amount of research and spending so much time with books and stories and anecdotes, and also looking at the history of what was going on at the time of Elvis’ rise, you start actually seeing that there’s things underneath what you think it is. I would always be saying, ‘What is it actually like? What is he actually doing here? And what trickery is our brain doing on us because of what we think it is?’ And then as a private detective, being hired to actually work out everything: from where he’s looking, how his breath is in his body, what we imagined his heartbeat to be doing at any one moment, as well [as] discovering what the costumes are doing. What lyrics he’s singing. We’d speak the songs as poetry, and we’d tap dance and swing dance and do lots of different things that kind of accumulated towards the fabric of Elvis’s movement language. That’s the very beginning.”
Butler did not only construct his Elvis out of outward physical approaches, though. “It was trying to see everything as if for the first time, without any preconceived idea of who Elvis was,” he explains, adding: “Try[ing] to get down to the core, to his humanity. There were many different ways in which to approach that — with a year and a half of time, there [were] many things that I tried that brought me straight to the external things. And then other things where I’m just focusing so much on his internal life that I lost the specificity of something that he may do physically. It was a constant back and forth. I’d look at, say, the ‘Hound Dog’ performance. And I would want to get very specific — exactly the angle of his hand, or the angle of his head, or how he got up on his toes. And sometimes Polly would say, ‘Let’s pull back. What does the music actually feel like? What if you were to perform this song, just the way that the music is moving you?’ And so constantly trying to get to why he does what he does, what it actually felt like inside of him.”
That meant examining footage that wasn’t even necessarily of Presley, but of his inspirations: “We would watch hours of Little Richard, the way Howlin’ Wolf sang a song, and imagining being young Elvis down on Beale Street, watching this incredible performer. onstage and seeing the passion. Or Mahalia Jackson or Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” Butler explains.
Bennett incorporates a person’s entire life’s physicality into her approach to embodying them as a character: “We are all summations of all of our physical experiences up until a moment,” she says. “So I did ballet as a child. I still stand in first position, whether or not I’ve done a ballet class in the last six months or not. So there are things that we accumulate that we hold, that [are] both experiential and also emotional. In spending time looking at the footage of those [other] performers, imagining Elvis seeing them for the first time, we were able to take little pieces from each of them and put them in Austin’s secret tapestry as Elvis.”
Walker adds that “What was great, working with Polly and Austin, is that I also wanted them to feel comfortable with us being there. It’s that rehearsal, and that constant communication between all of us. Austin was so amazing. He would be doing the same thing every time, and for every take when his hand was going to go up, there’ll be a nice flare behind it, or we knew when he was going to slide in, [and] the cameras would move with him. That time in pre-production [was crucial], so that when we were shooting, we were all in sync. I’ve never worked like that before. And it just really paid off.”
This edition of THR Presents is sponsored by Warner Bros.
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