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After a storied career spanning decades and industries, producer Gail Berman is in no need of further accolades for her résumé. She has produced theater (including the original Tony-nominated staging of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1982), television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Netflix’s recent hit Wednesday) and animated films (The Addams Family). She’s served as president of Paramount Pictures and the Producers Guild of America. But, surprisingly, Elvis is her first foray into live-action feature film, and it also happens to be responsible for her first-ever Oscar nomination.
The road to bringing Presley’s story to life was not an easy one — COVID shut down production, with star Tom Hanks being among the first celebrities to contract the novel coronavirus in 2020. Finding an actor to take on the iconic role of Elvis Presley also proved tricky. But in the end, Austin Butler carried the film to a whopping eight Academy Award nominations. The movie was filmed exclusively in Australia, under the eye of director-producer Baz Luhrmann and his marital and creative partner, Catherine Martin, who also is Oscar-nominated this year for costume and production design.
Berman recently spoke with THR about how she managed to bring Elvis from a passing idea in her office to the massive cinematic success it is today.
Can you walk me through the story of your involvement with Elvis?
A friend of mine named Marc Graboff went to a company called Core Media, which owned a bunch of different properties, [including] the Elvis estate. My staff and I were sitting around saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do something with Elvis? But what could it be that would really move the ball forward and tell the story in a way it hadn’t been told before?” Baz Luhrmann’s name popped up in the conversation. I was like, “That’s it. Baz, his use of music, his examination of America …” I picked up the phone, and I called Marc Graboff, and I said, “Here’s my pitch: Baz. Elvis.” He said, “That’s a good idea.” I said, “It is a good idea, isn’t it? Let me run with it.” Then I called Baz’s agent. A few days later, he called me [back] and said Baz thought it was interesting. I went to see Baz [and] spent several hours with him. By then I had formed some additional thoughts, and I really sat and listened to him talk about it. He knew quite a bit about Elvis and quite a bit about how he would be interested in telling the story.
And then when you’re looking to cast Elvis — what was that casting process like?
It’s a process that took six months. It’s not a typical audition, per se. Baz’s casting process is significantly different from others that I’ve been involved in. At a certain point in time, I got a call from him, saying, “I’m ready to show you the screen tests.” I did not know who his choice was. When I came in, I blindly watched them without knowing, and for me, it was very apparent that Austin was the one. We flew to L.A. two days later and showed it to the studio.
A big challenge, obviously, was the COVID delays. How were you able to get this across the finish line?
We were all in Australia, January of 2020, doing the table read. Everybody was there: Tom Hanks, Austin and the rest of the cast. We were supposed to start shooting sometime after that. Very shortly thereafter, I got a call from Warner Bros. — it was so startling, the news that Tom Hanks and Rita [Wilson] had both contracted what was known then as the coronavirus. It was a very, very scary call, mostly because none of us knew what the ramifications were, for the health of both Tom and Rita. And then, of course, the movie. Warner Bros. informed us that the movie would be shutting down. It was devastating on a lot of different levels. I had come back to L.A. because I was doing a pilot. That pilot got shut down. Then we all got shut down. And what I got to see during that time was the great producing ability of Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin. They were amazing partners, they were on the ground in Australia, they did the producing work there. Our five-member partnership [also including Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss] all had a different territory during this whole thing. I was in L.A., Patrick was in New York. Austin stayed in Australia. He was committed to making this work and wanted to be ready, should it happen. Then Tom [Hanks], amazingly and graciously, decided that he was going to come back and do it. We put it together for August, and we started in August of 2020.
What did the Oscar campaigning trail look like from your end, and what was Lisa Marie Presley’s involvement in the campaign?
Lisa, who was not involved in the making of the film, came to see the film and watched it alone in the Steve Ross Theater on the Warner Bros. lot. It took her about five days after she watched it to really process her thoughts for Baz. May she rest in peace, she loved this movie. She thought, finally, the accurate portrayal [of] the beauty of the man and the beauty of the music and the beauty of the rebel had been told. She was very, very happy with it. She decided, completely independent of us, that she wanted to be supportive of it, Austin and Baz, and she opened up her home at Graceland to us. Not only did we do a Memphis premiere at Graceland, but she threw a private event for us, a barbecue at Graceland where she opened up the Jungle Room to us to have a cocktail party — and apparently that hadn’t been done in many, many years. She and her daughters were there. Everybody was incredibly supportive of this movie. We are all in a tremendous amount of sorrow to know that we lost her. I have known her only during this period of time. She was a lovely person, soft-spoken and extremely excited about this movie. Her love really permeated all of us. It was very heartbreaking — to hear the news was just devastating to all of us.
How does this compare to the other varied projects you’ve been a part of through your career?
It’s been an 11-year journey. I think when you go on a creative journey that lasts this long, it’s touching you in some way that you feel you’re going to hang on to in order to see it through to fruition. Not every project has that emotional tug. I’ve also learned that if something is gnawing at you, and you keep coming back to it, that’s usually where the success story is going to be, just in your gut. You just sort of feel it. And this was that, pretty much from the get-go.
Aside from the best picture nomination, which obviously is the biggest one, there are seven other noms for this film. Which are you most excited about?
OK, let’s talk about the three women: Mandy Walker, our cinematographer, [only the] third woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for cinematography. No woman has ever won. I am extremely excited about that. Working with Catherine Martin — costume, production design. We have three women involved in this movie that have had an amazingly long journey together. I’m the third girl. That has been an amazing experience for me, to get to know and get to work with these women. Now, of course, we’re thrilled to be in the mix on all of [it], editorially, musically, etc. But I have to say that for me, the journey of these three women is a separate journey that I have really enjoyed being on.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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