‘Elvis’ Editors on Why the King’s Performance of ‘Unchained Melody’ Almost Didn’t Make the Film

Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” movie continues to sway audiences over. Austin Butler’s performance of the King is so captivating that many are unable to tell when Luhrmann cuts to the real King, Elvis Presley.

The film is peppered with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, real-life Elvis appearances and split screens. But the most powerful of the King splices was presented in the grand finale, Presley’s last performance in 1977 at the Market Square arena in Indianapolis, Ind. The scene begins with Butler sitting down at the grand piano, and seamlessly cuts to Presley.

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Editors Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond were careful not to overload the film with too many Presley intercuts, at least visually as it would take from the viewing experience, but “Elvis” has been praised for the sprinkles of reality that elevated the hyper-stylized film.

Talking to Variety the editors reveal their intense pre-production process and break down all the hidden Elvis easter eggs and how Butler’s full performance of “Unchained Melody” almost made it into the film.

A big topic of discussion is the finale when Elvis sings “Unchained Melody.” Talk about cutting that scene from Austin to Elvis.

Villa: From a prosthetics standpoint, it was a huge job putting Austin into that makeup, and that was the most significant of his makeup. There wasn’t that much material of Austin, but there were a few takes of him singing the song all way through. He did sing [“Unchained Melody”] in its entirety because there was a question mark towards the end as to whether we were going to get the real footage of Elvis and if we would be allowed to use it.

Redmond: The attention to detail that Austin went into was extraordinary. In that sequence, with the breaths and pauses, he was spot on.

Villa: Thankfully that famous footage came through and we were able to use it, and that’s the real Elvis. It’s so interesting that a lot of people don’t realize we cut to the real Elvis because it punches me in the heart every time I see that scene and you see Elvis’ face. When we’re watching the film with an audience, I’ll look around to see if people have that same emotion, and so often there isn’t. It took me a long time to realize that a lot of people don’t realize that is Elvis, and that’s a huge testament to Austin, but we do cut to the real Elvis.

Talk about the opening sequence, the fever dream that just drops us in. Why did you want that to be the introduction?

Redmond: The idea of flashing forward at the very beginning was something born out of one of the reels we did in pre-production. It’s the scene were “American Trilogy” plays and there’s a split-screen, that was in our original pitch.

We wanted that because it was a powerful introduction to Elvis’ voice – this image of the man in the blue jumpsuit that the world was familiar with. The big stage with lots of screaming fans.

Villa: There was a lot of evolution to that scene. It was one of the big things we toyed with throughout. The cut to the Colonel [Tom Hanks] reflecting on his time from a point in the present was always there. There was a big sequence at the beginning that involved him getting to that place. It was a very fanciful sequence that we decided to tone down a bit.

But the introduction of Elvis on stage was always a staple because it’s such an iconic series of images.

A great device is the juxtaposition of Elvis, whether he’s in church, or on Beale Street or even on stage. What conversations did you have around those moments?

Villa: While a lot of sequences were planned in pre-production, other sequences were born on the cutting room floor as a way of progressing the drama.

We started with a longer assembly  but we needed to cut down on time. For example, Elvis walks down Beale Street cutting to him and arriving back at his home. That was invented in the cutting room floor.

That was initially two scenes. One with Elvis walking down Beale Street during the day, and his arrival back home was another long scene.

We were watching it one day, and while they were great scenes, they were just long and didn’t deserve the time each got. Baz came up with a device to cut to suggest that Elvis didn’t belong in either of those worlds and mincing them together helped drive that emotional point.

Another scene that’s so great at establishing this phenomenon that is Elvis is the ‘Hayride’ scene which captures the screaming fans for the first time, how did you approach that?

Redmond: We had an amazing movement coach called Polly Bennett who had a team nicknamed “The Scream Queens” who were extras and had a remarkable gift for screaming. We shot it conventionally, but it got amplified in the edit to make it dramatic.

Villa: The music editorial department was right next door to us. We were able to produce a cut and give it to them, and they would apply music. They would also do their own musical mashups, and give it to us so we could cut to them. It was always complimentary and organic that we could work so closely with music.

That “Hayride” scene was shot very simply, and it came to us in the edit. Baz said, “Let’s amplify the music and let viewers know what the audience back in the ‘50s would have been experiencing.”

Is there an editing easter egg, something where audiences think it’s Austin, but it’s Elvis, or vice versa?

Redmond: At the very beginning where Elvis comes out in the blue suit, where he’s doing karate moves, there’s a two-panel split-screen. There’s real Elvis on one side and Austin is on the other. It’s Austin from a costume test. It’s right before he turns around and starts “American Trilogy.” Both of those shots were not part of the principal photography. They’re stolen moments.

During “Burning Love,” there are a few shots of the real Elvis in there. It was all sublime. We didn’t want to distract audiences too much, but there are quite a few shots of him in the movie.

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