As I caught up with director Dexter Fletcher, I thought it would be interesting to learn about his first Elton John memory. We all have one. For Fletcher, it was listening to the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album as a young boy when he’d visit his cousin.
Fletcher of course, is behind Rocketman, the film that charts the life of Elton John, from a young boy, through his rise to fame, to his relationships, his addiction, his triumphs.
During our chat, Fletcher discusses how he conceptualized Rocketman and how he reimagined Crocodile Rock. Fletcher also talks about how The Wizard of Oz inspired the Rocketman number.
What was your first Elton John memory?
I think going to my cousin Caroline’s house when I was about six or seven to listen to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. She was a huge Elton John fan, and my brother and I would go to Caroline and Gideon’s (my other cousin) house. She had the album, and I remember loving the album cover, the cartoon and that graphic. I was probably six. That’s my first recollection of Mr. John.
Before the Press Gang days.
That’s safe to say it was before then. Press Gang was in my twenties, and I was pretending to be a teenager.
Everyone has their own personal connection to Elton John. So, you get the script. How do you conceptualize it?
I took the initial script and tried to get what the story was. I tried to find parallels in my own experience or things that I can relate to or connect to within the story. I suppose in a selfish way; I’m drawn to things that I can personally connect to because then you’ve got some sort of story that you can talk about that’s born in personal experience.
Then, I look at how to structure it to make some kind of psychological and emotional sense. I’d deconstructed it, throw it around and then I realized I had all of Elton John’s back catalog that I could purloin and dig through. I used that.
I looked at the stage gear that he wore, all the clothes and I looked at how I could elaborate on that. I didn’t just want to do a replica of his experience. I wanted to do a reimagined retelling of it. It’s about how much fun I could have with it.
Talk about shooting Crocodile Rock and the Troubadour scene.
When I first read that scene, it was a different song. I changed the song to Crocodile Rock because even though it wasn’t factually correct, I needed something that I knew had exuberance and life in it.
I thought about the experience of being on stage and having a moment where performance transcends the moment and space and time. I wrote down this quick note saying, “It feels like you are on a rollercoaster at the top. It’s that moment where everyone lifts off the ground just before you drop down again.” That’s the idea I started to elaborate on. I wrote, “Everyone floats. Everyone lifts off the ground for a moment.”
I went to the production team about that, and I wrote it in the script. Everyone came back saying what a fantastic idea it was. I knew I was on to that. Then I had to figure out how to do it. We talked about cameras and having people jump in the air and the camera goes at a thousand frames per second. I didn’t like the way that looked. I wanted to have this thing where people lift off the ground but still be moving in real-time. We built harnesses and frames and lifted up thirty or forty people at a time in the audience. Taron was on a wire as well, and so we rehearsed that.
I got the song and knew that in Crocodile Rock where he sings, “La la la la la la.” Elton said to me he wasn’t mad about it and felt it dated the song. I thought about slowing it down and making that thematically the moment where everyone comes off the ground.
I also knew I wanted a balcony, so I could look at it from above because you get an overview of everything that’s happening with everyone that’s there. You also get an overview of what’s happening with Elton.
I shot it at every angle that I could find to create that sense of magic and something happening. Briefly, for a moment they are all part of that.
Did you shoot in the real Troubador?
Oh, we built that. Marcus Rowland was the production designer who built it. He got as many pictures as he could. The layout inside is slightly different. The exterior was something we built in the studio and we prayed for a sunny day. We recreated it, filled it up with American cars and lots of extras dressed in 70s clothing. We shot that in Windsor. We stuck a palm street up and off we went.
The magic of filmmaking.
Don’t tell anyone.
Rocketman underwater. Taron is phenomenal.
It’s where he’s reaching the lower depths of his addiction and isolation. So, the swimming pool metaphor is very strong for that. The fact that he’s there as a child, isolated and alone is such a visually arresting image, it was so much fun to imagine.
Taron, we put him in the bottom of a 20-meter tank. He floated down, turned over on to his back and started singing. It took incredible self-restraint and control, but he was brilliant at doing that.
Bringing him out, we had to invent this silhouetted ballet of him getting put back together and sent out on stage to go the completely opposite direction. It’s really about going from the depths of isolation to the heights of huge success in terms of his musical achievement- but we also get to understand how alone he is.
Since I had freed myself from the linear storytelling approach, I got inside his head, rather than being the third person watching it from the outside. It meant I could take the audience on an emotional journey with him and go from the depths to the heights in a short amount of time.
The window sequence where it’s all in silhouette and is on the stretcher – that came about because I went to that location and saw that window. I knew I had to do this transition of him from being on the hospital bed to being in his costume, but I wanted to hide it. When I saw that window, I knew I could create a silhouette in ballet here. We don’t really know what’s going on until it happens.
We went to this location, and we were actually looking at something else. I was wandering around and saw that window. I knew what we needed to do. Those things happen, in a stars-aligning way.
I thought the use of Yellow Brick Road was great in the restaurant.
When you hear, “When are you going to come down…” it was something I very quickly started talking about it. I knew it had to be Bernie’s song. I knew it had to be our metaphor for the turning point in Elton’s life. At that point, he realizes he needs to turn things around. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is that road of excess and self-loathing. I spoke to the costume designer about how Elton in that scene needed to be dressed in all aspects of Wizard of Oz. He’s got the Tinman shirt on. He’s got the Cowardly Lion’s fur coat. He’s got the Scarecrow’s straw hat. He’s wearing Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. They all represent different aspects to me. The lion is a coward. If you take enough drugs, you escape from the harsh reality of life. The Tinman can’t love because he has no heart. If you numb yourself enough you don’t empathize with anyone else’s life experience or care about them. If you take enough drugs, you become stupid and you become the Scarecrow. You lose your sense of identity and home which is what Dorothy wants. I liked playing around the idea that we were on the yellow brick road, and he was becoming so lost. Bernie is the only voice of reason. The poetry of the lyrics lent itself so fantastically to that point in the story.