The Oscar-Nominated Women Behind ‘Elvis’: Gail Berman, Catherine Martin & Mandy Walker Speak On The Man, The Myth, The Movie
When one thinks of women and Elvis Presley, it’s either his widow Priscilla, his late daughter Lisa Marie, or the legion of ladies left weak in the knee when the badass kid from Tupelo, Mississippi began shaking that moneymaker. In the case of the eight-time Oscar-nominated film Elvis, the front men are writer/director Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. Behind the camera, the film was entirely made possible by a chorus of women, many of whom are nominated. They include Luhrmann’s partner Catherine Martin, who’s up for the Production Design Oscar with cohorts Beverley Dunne and Karen Murphy; Mandy Walker, for Cinematography; Gail Berman for Best Picture with Martin, Luhrmann, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss; and Martin again for Costume Design.
Here, Berman, Martin and Walker discuss their passion for Elvis.
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DEADLINE: Since the main characters are Austin Butler’s Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker and the director is Baz Luhrmann, it’s easy to see Elvis as a male-centric production. But that isn’t the case. Gail you got the rights to Elvis’ story. How did this come together?
GAIL BERMAN: I got the rights from a company called Core Media, which was owned by the Apollo Group, and I knew them through American Idol from my old days. We went to Core with a singular idea of what to do with Elvis in terms of storytelling. It was: Baz Luhrmann, Elvis, what do you think? They said, good idea, and they let me run with it. I called Baz’s agent Robert Newman. He liked the idea and when he ran it by Baz, he was intrigued. He’d considered the story for a long, long time. And here it was, within reach. Went to New York to meet with him. An extraordinary meeting, him talking about his ideas about America in the ’50s, ‘sixties ’60s and ’70s through the lens of Elvis and the Colonel. It went through some permutations, but the movie is what he pitched that day.
DEADLINE: I recall decades ago at Variety, breaking a story Warner Bros was developing a movie based on Ocean’s Eleven producer Jerry Weintraub’s coming of age under Colonel Tom Parker. Seems fortunate that version didn’t happen, because of all the stuff that manager pulled that might have been ignored. Why do you think Elvis stayed with Parker so long?
BERMAN: It’s a good question. I think it was a symbiotic relationship. In the beginning, Elvis felt he needed the colonel, and the colonel felt he needed the ultimate carney act, which is how he saw Elvis. I think it was very mutually symbiotic.
CATHERINE MARTIN: I think many hugely successful people have slight imposter syndrome or a great deal of imposter syndrome. When you think of Elvis’ background, he came really from very simple, impoverished origins. He was the first person to graduate from high school in his family. So you have this guy who has a vision for himself, who meets this extraordinary merchandiser, entrepreneur, manager. And in the space of a couple of years, Elvis becomes one of the most famous people on the planet. I think that there was some kind of marriage made in that alchemy, where Elvis would’ve thought to himself, would I be Elvis without the Colonel? And the Colonel certainly believed that he was 50% of that Elvis-Colonel alchemy, because that’s how much of Elvis’ money that he took.
We think, what a money-grabbing terrible person, but he actually believed he deserved the 50%. That’s in his mind. That’s what he thought. And then as Elvis became more sophisticated and was in the business for longer and met more people, he had doubts and I’m sure started to believe more in himself. Because, if you have 20 years of people telling you that there’s no one like you, and you are a superstar, you kind of start to believe it. He’d start to think, would the Colonel be anything without me? But in the end, and it’s something that Baz shows in the movie, there too is a connection of personality and love and souls, that’s kind of unbreakable.
Was it an unhealthy relationship? I leave it to everybody else to judge. When you talk to Priscilla or Elvis’ best friend Jerry Shilling, they remember how devilishly charming the Colonel was and how funny and how, when you were with him, you just liked being with him. So he wasn’t entirely without charm or human connection. I think it was Jerry, or Priscilla, who spoke at his funeral and noted that when you hugged [the Colonel], you were a bit scared he’d take your wallet. He was a very complicated human being and like many people who have dubious moral compasses, they make up for that by being really charming.
DEADLINE: I moderated a panel with Baz and asked what he thought Elvis’ life would have been like without Colonel Tom. He felt the singer would have been much better off, a bigger star around the world if he’d toured overseas instead of doing what was best as the meal ticket of the Colonel, this man of dubious origins who couldn’t travel.
BERMAN: Definitely, I think the latter part of his life would have been better. They were together his whole career, and he was frightened of what it would be like without him. I agree with Baz. He’d probably still be alive. He would’ve gotten to experience other things and grow artistically. Who knows if he would’ve got to that point without the Colonel, at the beginning of his career. It’s a deal with the devil, a Faustian bargain. His mother knew that he was making a deal with the devil.
MARTIN: She did?
BERMAN: She knew. I think Tom does an incredible job bringing all that nuance, complexity, charm, humor and pathos and evil into such a controversial and unlike-ability into one character. Don’t we three ladies speak often about why Tom doesn’t get more credit?
DEADLINE: He was the first big star to get Covid, days before the movie was to begin production. Maybe it’s because we’re all still in denial about the pandemic?
BERMAN: What a day that was. I got the call from Warner Bros and they said that they needed to talk to me. I left a table read and was back in Los Angeles because I had a pilot going and had to be back. Tom was going back for the Academy Awards. I got a call from Warner Bros and they said we’re gonna tell you something. You can’t repeat it. And I was like, okay, what? And they said, Tom and Rita have the coronavirus, which was what it was being called at the time. I was speechless. I didn’t even know what to say. Are they okay? It was so early, we didn’t know what the ramifications were. Then Warner Bros said, we’re gonna shut the movie down. A very, very difficult phone call to receive. Not the least of which was just hope that Tom and Rita would be okay. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I was here and CM and Baz were in Australia.
MARTIN: I remember the afternoon. I was in my wardrobe office, a hectic afternoon with fittings. One of our producers, Patrick [McCormick], kept calling me. I text him going, Patrick, I’m in a fitting, I will call later. He wrote, I’m coming over now. He walked into my office, white as a ghost. He slammed the door and he said, Tom and Rita have the coronavirus. And I just said, I beg your pardon? And he said, we are shutting down because Baz and Austin were in close contact. And anyone around them were put into quarantine for 10 days, locked in their houses, everybody who’d been in contact. You had public health saying, you can’t come out your hotel room, we’ll put a snack bag outside the door. And the weirdness of it and not knowing what was gonna happen and everyone thinking they were all gonna die, from what they were reading. And the rest of us just feeling so terrible they were sick.
Tom reminded me recently that some two or three weeks before, just when we’d come back from the Christmas hiatus, we had had the same public health officials talking to us about Covid. And he was being a smarty, down at the end of the room, like the naughty kid on the school bus, asking stupid questions and being an idiot. Only to be strapped down three weeks later. It was just so crazy and scary. Shutting the movie was really stressful time for everyone because, you know, a pandemic hopefully is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so no one knew how to deal with it. And everyone thought that you got coronavirus and that was lights out.
DEADLINE: Tom recovered and sure showed up as Tom Parker…
MARTIN: Even if I got to work at 5 a.m., which I did frequently, I’d go and see him in the makeup chair. He’d be in his prosthetics, sitting there, and he was Colonel Tom Parker. So in my mind, Colonel Tom Parker is indivisible from the other Tom. When I see him now, I’m like, wow, you look great. It’s one of those moments where you just believed he was Colonel Tom, and now you’re having an out-of-body experience.
MANDY WALKER: I think the audience loves Tom Hanks and it took them a bit for the audience to settle into that performance as the Colonel. People say they can’t believe that was Tom Hanks. So much of the attention goes to Austin, who’s so brilliant at playing Elvis, but all three of us agree this is one of Tom’s greatest performances. I often say I think it’s his best, when I watch him and the subtlety and the nuance and everything that goes into that performance.
MARTIN: And then you think he’s in basically a rubber suit for 10 hours a day. Never grumpy, always good-natured, stayed on set the whole time. Incredible transformation and ability to inhabit a character. But getting him took Gail’s tenacity. Without her this movie would not have been made. She saw that Baz was the perfect match for this, and then after birthing the idea, getting the subject and the person together, and then having the bigness and the generosity and foresight to let that just percolate on its own. And give Baz full ownership of the idea. She’s able to be the maker of the idea, but also to be generous enough to allow it to be completely his. I think that’s why the movie is also really good, and that that is really good producing.
BERMAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Gail is incredibly good at putting people together, at maintaining relationships and at being supportive and insightful about all the artistic decisions. And practiced in the Hollywood game, being the only woman run both a television studio and a film studio. She’s a unicorn and so is Mandy Walker, who’s only the third woman ever to be [Oscar] nominated in 95 years. Not to take away from people who do brilliant work in smaller and indie pictures, but Mandy’s been working at the center of the industry for 30 years. What a body of work.
DEADLINE: Mandy, when Baz Luhrmann does a period film, there’s always an infusion of visceral visual stuff that gives it a contemporary feel. What were the challenges in doing that in period scenes when Elvis came of age?
WALKER: The challenge was to represent the ’50s, the ’60s, and the ’70s on, to an audience and an audience that’s familiar with those periods of time, the culture of the period. But also showing it to a new audience, as you’re saying. Many are also not familiar with Elvis. I was tasked with reproducing the concert footage, the existing footage that you can go online and anyone can see. And we were going to replicate that exactly, what Baz called trainspotting. We built the exact set of the international showroom, the Russwood Park concert stage. There was reference for all of these and the ‘68 comeback special. So that was my first task. And then it was the integration of the drama of the movie into the visual style and the style of the camera. And very early on, Baz said to me, just keep it in your mind … the camera has to dance with Elvis, and we have to fly when he flies. And when the drama is heavy and emotional, I really want you to be elegant and observational. I had those things in my head the whole time, but also, I knew that there was gonna be a modern aspect to the music. Same with the visuals, because in the ’50s, the camera did not fly up on the crane and spin around like we did at the Russwood concert.
I wanted the audience to experience these moments and to feel like they were there. So it’s the point of view of the audience. It’s also the point of view of the Colonel or Priscilla at the time and the guys up in the control room at the ’68 special. So I always thought about that too in the camera language. But I think the thing I like working with Baz is, he is a true visionary. And as Gail said, he has an idea for any film he’s going to make.
I had lenses made for the movie to represent the different periods of time. I had spherical lenses made for the ’50s and ’60 that were what I thought represented images from that period, whether they were movies or still photography or some of Elvis’ home movies from their collection of photographs they had, but also from artists that were shooting at that time. Still photographers such as Gordon Parks, who was shooting during the civil rights movement in and around Memphis. That was a great reference for me in terms of the time, the period, and the location. I got the lenses and had to research all the lighting of the period, and then integrate that modern element. How we were going to do that?
I did that with lighting, with camera moves. But the biggest challenge for me was to have a harmony of all these elements so that nothing ever felt out of place in the movie. The great thing about working with Baz is that we all come together and make sure that that visual language is coherent in what we’re all doing. And we plan, we test a lot during pre-production. I was on the film way before we started pre-production. I was there during Austin’s first workshops with Baz, taking photos of him and looking at the angles on his face and discussing with Baz how the lenses were working with the way he moves. I made my camera and grip learn the music and Austin’s movement. So we were all kind of trying to be the in, as I said before, dancing with Elvis. And it was really important that the camera was moving that way.
DEADLINE: A great moment in the movie comes when young Elvis is greeted onstage by stony silence and a derisive comment by a man in the front row, whose girlfriend soon loses her mind as he gyrates and sings. It’s an atom-splitting moment, and you get why Elvis awakened something in these sexually repressed women. Was there an artist that made each of you feel that way?
MARTIN: That’s a hard question. I was a fan of his when I was growing up. I remember when he died, and I was young, really young, but we used to watch his movies and were enamored by him. He just had it, that “it” factor you can’t put your finger on, some kind of magnetism, some force of nature that women just responded to. I have to say, Austin has it, too. That’s why you get that same feeling and emotion when you watch him perform. The confidence in their innate sexuality, whatever that is. I don’t wanna compare Harry Styles or Elvis because they’re two great artists in their own right.
Harry Styles is an extraordinary performer who had an extraordinary trajectory from a boy band to a real cultural icon. That’s a pretty extraordinary journey and there is a kind of swagger, that walks a line of feminine vulnerability and machismo. And it kind of constantly dances between those two things with great confidence. They have no self-consciousness about appearing quote-unquote effeminate. I think there’s great power in that. I don’t know why women find that absolutely galvanizing. But the idea that there is a kind of a play between a feminine and a masculine side is a theme that has been really played on since Elvis. You look at Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and you see that. K-Pop and the mix of feminine characteristics with very machismo dancing and vocals form something teenage girls find extraordinarily attractive.
DEADLINE: Gail, can you recall a musical person that, well, had you thinking impure thoughts?
BERMAN: People ask me about how I got interested in film. I came home from school on Long Island every day and watched The 4 O’Clock Movie on television. And the Million Dollar Movie on weekends. What wound up happening was, I would learn this later when I became a television executive, that the movies that they put on were inexpensive movies that they could get to program their local stations. All the Elvis movies played that channel, but the one for me was From the Terrace. When I saw Paul Newman, my heart sped up and I was like, now who is that?
DEADLINE: This awards campaign lent a note of sadness when Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, passed away. How well did you all get to know her, and how helpful was she and the family in facilitating the film?
BERMAN: We grieved the loss of Lisa Marie in a very, very deep way. She came into my life fairly recently. I met her for the first time the day she came to see the movie with Baz and CM. And while some folks had spoken to her before, she was not a part of making the movie. But we all were on tenterhooks when she went in by herself to watch the movie at the Steve Roth Theater at the Warner Bros lot. She watched alone in that very large theater. And when she came out, she first said she needed some time to process it. Several days later, she called Baz to tell him that what he had done for her and her family, her children, her grandchildren … was to bring her father back from something other than a Halloween costume.
And from that moment, Lisa, her children, the family were on board for the presentation of this film. Lisa loved Austin, she loved Baz and CM, and she opened her home up to us in Memphis. We got to celebrate with her. She was a very quiet person, I found, soft spoken and really lovely. And she loved this movie. It was devastating for everyone when she died. Baz, CM and Austin attended her funeral and so did Tom and Rita. She was so happy with what Baz had created, and her mother Priscilla and Jerry Shilling did too. None of them had any obligation to get behind us, do any rah rah that they didn’t wanna do. And they all they all loved this movie.
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MARTIN: I know Priscilla better than her daughter Lisa Marie. But we spent some time together and the Golden Globes was a lovely moment. We were talking about how we’d, we were both in love with our dogs and joking that maybe they were the greatest loves of our lives, enough to create some jealousy because of the deep dark secret about the unspoken love between a woman and her dog. I felt such an extraordinary responsibility to be respectful to the story of Elvis’ life, mindful that every human is fallible and you cannot present the life of somebody who’s absolutely perfect. That is hard for a family to see, but they saw the need to show Elvis as a full person. They were, yes, my father, my grandfather wasn’t perfect, but I feel that his legacy has been honored. That was so moving to both Baz and I; I know we both cried when we felt they liked the movie because we just felt so beholden because these people are still alive. And then for me, what is devastating is just being a mother. And I know that Lisa Marie adored her children. The idea that Riley and the twins, Finley and Harper, are left without their loving mother just breaks my heart.
I just want them to be okay. This is a family that’s been rocked by tragedy. Austin said something really meaningful, having lost his own mother at 23. He said, people think that grief is like a car crash, that the crash happens, you are all shaken up, and then it’s gone the next day. But he said grief lives indefinitely, and it comes in waves. You don’t know when it’s gonna arrive. Understanding at a time when grief is still so new when you live your grief in the public eye … kindness and understanding is what the family needs right now.
DEADLINE: Mandy, no woman cinematographer has won the Oscar. Few have even been nominated in what is a male-dominated business. Who were your role models, and is this getting better for women?
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WALKER: When I first started in the industry I was 15, and I knew I wanted to be a cinematographer. I didn’t even think that it would be something that not many women were involved in at the time. And so I didn’t have any female role models. They were all, you know, people that were mentoring me or helping me get up in the industry. I started at the bottom of the camera department, and they were all men. I was seeking out any women in Australia that were cinematographers. There were a few, and they were doing documentaries and small indie stuff.
I just decided that I had a passion about what I wanted to do, and I was just gonna keep working at it and pushing forward. And I did. I ignored the fact that there was hardly any women. Most of the time I was the only woman in the camera department. Baz gave me my first job on a big, Hollywood, huge-scale movie, which was Australia. And at that time, no woman had shot a film like that, at that scale. And so he gave me that opportunity. Now that I have made it, I personally work very hard to get more women into the camera department and make sure there’s always women on my crew. I mentor a lot of women students and through the ASC and through Women in Film as well and the Academy. I’ve been in this industry for more than 30 years, and it’s getting better. I’m the third to be nominated for an Oscar. And the studios have made a big push to for more diversity and inclusion on film crews. And every time I’m on a movie, we have that discussion very early on. There is a push, definite push. It is slow, and we are sort of one of the last departments to have inclusion, but it’s definitely changing. The more people like you bring it up, the more it brings awareness.
DEADLINE: So what does the Oscar nomination mean to you?
WALKER: Elvis was like my 21st feature film, so I’ve been working for a long time as a cinematographer. This is a very, very special moment for me. And, in terms of my career, the work I’m most proud of. And so I feel like it’s icing on the cake to be recognized.
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