Director Baz Luhrmann explains Tom Hanks’ accent in ‘Elvis’

Director Baz Luhrmann explains Tom Hanks’ accent in ‘Elvis’

Baz Luhrmann knows the internet thinks Tom Hanks’ accent on “Elvis” is weird.

When the first trailer for Luhrmann’s latest film was released last spring, viewers were horrified. What was that voice of Tom Hanks? Who should he be? Was this an uncommonly terrifying performance from one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors?

During a recent interview at the Ritz-Carlton’s Parallel 37 in San Francisco, Luhrmann explains that everything went according to plan.

“We deliberately got the audience to lean in and say, ‘What the hell is this all about?'” he says.

It was a move worthy of Hanks’ character in the film, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker, the film’s narrator and villain, is a “snowman,” an expert at drawing audiences in, putting on a show, and leaving them with empty wallets and a smile on their faces.

And the accent certainly seemed to help draw in the audience. Elvis ranked #11 in domestic box office grossing for 2022 and is the highest-grossing original film, not an adaptation or sequel, on the list. On Monday, “Elvis” received three Golden Globe nominations: Best Motion Picture, Drama and Best Director for Luhrmann and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama for Austin Butler as Elvis Presley.

But Hanks’ idiosyncratic speaking style isn’t just a marketing tactic. It’s also a product of Luhrmann’s intense research into Presley’s life, which Luhrmann says began in earnest about a decade ago (a memorable sequence cutting footage of Butler’s Presley and the real Presley was created five years ago, Luhrmann says). . His research included several trips to Graceland, and among the materials Luhrmann unearthed was a set of recordings of Parker that contained some “very odd vocalizations”.

“One moment he was talking kind of like Bela Lugosi, and the next moment he was talking a little bit to that lithp like Elmer Fudd, but with that weird cadence,” says Luhrmann, mimicking Parker’s lisp on the tapes. “…And so the thing was laying crumbs, enough for people to say, ‘What’s this all about?'”

Parker’s accent isn’t just a mystery to audiences. It’s also a mystery to everyone in the film except for the snowman himself.

“I was just a boy from Huntington, West Virginia,” protests Colonel Tom Parker in a scene with a decidedly unWest Virginia affectation.

Tom Hanks, left, as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmanns "elvis"

Tom Hanks (left) as Colonel Tom Parker and Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

Warner Bros.

The revelation of Parker’s origins, about three-quarters of the way through “Elvis,” comes as a shock. Despite the bizarre accent, facial prosthetics, and fat suit, Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks after all. His charisma shines through, lulling both viewers and Butler’s vulnerable Presley into a state of trusting bewilderment. Hanks’ tremendous skills and reputation made him the ideal person to bring the complex Colonel to life, Luhrmann says.

“I always say [Parker] was a bit like a clown with a chainsaw playing games. And the gigantic scale of the character needed a really, really, really brave and gigantic actor,” says Luhrmann. “In a way, there isn’t a greater actor than Tom Hanks because you know he’s such a great actor that he’s going to step on the stage.”

It’s a role Hanks, who hails from the East Bay, was reportedly keen to take on.

“It was a 15-minute conversation because he really wanted to do something that would unsettle,” says Luhrmann, adding that Parker’s disturbing character was central to his vision for Elvis.

Tom Hanks and Baz Luhrmann attend a UK special screening of "elvis" at BFI Southbank in London on 31.

Tom Hanks and Baz Luhrmann attend a UK special screening of ‘Elvis’ at the BFI Southbank in London May 31.

Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

The film is not a music biopic, says Luhrmann. When he speaks of other films in the same vein as Elvis, he is not referring to Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman but to 1984’s Amadeus. While this film explores the theme of jealousy through the character of Antonio Salieri and Exploring his perceived rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Luhrmann wanted “Elvis” to explore the relationship between greed and art.

“I just wanted to do it Shakespearean style, using someone’s life to explore a bigger idea,” he says. “I knew Elvis was great because he was at the crosshairs of culture in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but I couldn’t find the ‘in’ for the bigger idea until I really started doubling Parker.”

Luhrmann, who grew up watching matinees with Presley at his father’s cinema in Australia, had been considering an Elvis film for years, but knew he had finally found his direction when he focused on Parker’s role in the rise of rock ‘n’ roll -Stars focused and sinking.

“Parker represents the big exploiter, the big sale, or the big snowman,” adds Luhrmann. “And that can be good relative to art if it’s balanced. But eventually it becomes unbalanced, disturbing, you know something is wrong.”

Unfortunately for Luhrmann and the entire cast and crew working on “Elvis” in Queensland, Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic hit mid-production. Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, contracted the virus and became the most high-profile people to test positive at the time. Production was halted for six months. (Butler famously did not leave Australia during this time, instead opting to remain in his role as Presley and focus on preparing for the role.)

Austin Butler plays Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann's film "elvis"

Austin Butler plays Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

Warner Bros.

The pandemic not only jeopardized “Elvis” production; it also threatened to release him entirely, says Luhrmann.

“That was around the time they switched things straight to streaming,” says Luhrmann. “I said, ‘I’m not doing that.'”

In addition to insisting on a theatrical release, he also urged Warner Bros. to double the theatrical window between the film’s showing on the big screen and its eventual release on the streaming platform HBO Max.

“And then the pressure was on all of us, everyone involved in ‘Elvis.’ We had to bring audiences, older audiences to the theater and that was a near impossible task, and younger audiences,” he says.

Austin Butler plays Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann's film "elvis"

Austin Butler plays Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.

Warner Bros.

Luhrmann’s passion for theatrical spaces fuels his uncompromising commitment to making films for the theatre.

During our interview, he speaks warmly about several legendary Bay Area theaters and theaters, including the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley, where his first film, Strictly Ballroom, premiered at the 1992 Mill Valley Film Festival, and Curran in San Francisco , where he directed a 2002 production of La Boheme.

His films, as technical, complex and dazzling as they are, spring from his admiration for performance spaces and the creative endeavors that take place within them. He creates his films collaboratively, just like a stage production, he says.

“More than ever, my films are theater films that were made for the theatre, the cinema,” says Luhrmann, “because cinema is about bringing different and unequal people together, and even if you’re lonely, you’re not lonely because They unite with strangers or laugh and cry and feel something, and that’s what it’s supposed to do.”

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