Important cultural icons are often associated with places – the towns they grew up in, the homes they live in, and the places they frequent. When you think of Elvis Presley, you don’t just think of the king of rock ‘n’ roll’s raw musical talent, but also of his Graceland estate, the former International Hotel in Las Vegas, and Memphis’s Club Handy (fans diehards may have even heard of his potentially haunted old apartment). So for Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic Elvis— in theaters now — it was crucial for Catherine Martin and her production team to bring to life the spaces that shaped the musician (and vice versa).
Shooting the film entirely in Queensland, Australia required meticulous recreations, especially during the construction of Graceland. The production team conducted extensive analysis by visiting the real Memphis estate multiple times, accessing original blueprints in the Graceland archives, and poring over photographs for hours. “Baz wanted Elvis’ meteoric rise to fame and ragged-to-riches story to reverberate in the evolution inside and out,” says Martin, co-production designer as well as costume and film producer.
The recreation was built on what was once a horse paddock near a flower farm, an area with the correct topography to match the actual location, which is located on a slope. When the estate first appears in the film, it is shown as a cattle ranch similar to the one Elvis originally moved to in the 1950s. The interior features blue walls and carpeting red. “We were lucky to be taken [Graceland] by the chief archivist, Angie, and she took us to the hall closet,” says Martin. “There’s actually a bit of this blue paint in the closet, so we were able to take paint chips and match the color.”
Another major element? Landscaping. Devoid of much at first, the grounds eventually include planted gardens, stone lions, and a sidewalk as Elvis grows wealthier. The interior also jumps to how we see Graceland today – with a more neutral palette, pops of color, metallic accents, and stained glass with peacock motifs. “It was really important to have a touchstone for the audience where they felt familiar with the interior,” says Martin.
Many pieces of furniture were custom made in Australia, such as an extremely long sofa. (Martin wonders how such a large sofa can fit the door of the house!) Other pieces were purchased or modified to replicate the look. There are a few slight differences though, including a vintage wallpaper in Elvis’ mom’s closet. He appears during a scene where Elvis (played by Austin Butler) mourns the death of his mother. It was a last-minute decision to not only do the scene in that closet, but to cover the true-to-life white walls with whatever wallpaper they had on hand. It was quickly put together in 20 minutes to make the scene feel more claustrophobic and enveloping, so you can powerfully feel Elvis’ connection to his mother (played by Helen Thomson).
Throughout the film, we see many other defining locations. Shake Rag – the historically black community in Tupelo, Mississippi where Elvis grew up – was slaughtered at a barren, desiccated shrimp farm that was shut down by the Australian government due to a virus infection. Elvis’s International Hotel suite set, one of Martin’s favorites, was designed to look like a golden cage and sarcophagus with a very specific view of Las Vegas. It is infused with deep, jewel-toned colors, velvet upholstery, metallic details and patterned draperies. “There was just something quintessentially Elvis about it, even though it was a fictional interior,” Martin says.
The longest-running set was Club Handy on Beale Street, which lasted a year as it needed to be shot early, then COVID-19 halted production. “We had a little birthday party when he turned one,” Martin shares.
Whether you’re a lifelong Elvis fan or can’t wait to see if Australia can pass for America, the incredible film is definitely worth watching. For my part, I already want to see it again!
Do you like looking at amazing scenery? U.S. too. Let’s obsess over them together.
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