‘Elvis & Nixon’ tale lured di­rec­tor

But she still hasn’t made it to Grace­land

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - MOVIE LISTINGS -

The first time film­maker Liza John­son came to Mem­phis, sev­eral years ago, her trip to Grace­land was scut­tled by a thun­der­storm that knocked out power to Elvis’ for­mer home.

She still hasn’t been to Grace­land. But un­like al­most every­body else who has stayed at the Heart­break Ho­tel, she’s made a fea­ture film about Elvis. “Elvis & Nixon,” with Michael Shan­non as Pres­ley and Kevin Spacey as the pres­i­dent, opens na­tion­wide this week­end. (In Mem­phis, you can find it at the Malco Paradiso.)

Born in Portsmouth, Ohio, John­son, 45, ac­knowl­edges that she had only “a nor­mal Amer­i­can knowl­edge of Elvis” be­fore pro­duc­ers — im­pressed by her work on the in­die films “Re­turn,” with Linda Cardellini, and “Hate­ship, Love­ship,” an Alice Munro adap­ta­tion with Kris­ten Wiig and Guy Pearce — ap­proached her in 2013 about pos­si­bly di­rect­ing “Elvis & Nixon.”

“I had seen the pic­ture,” she said, re­fer­ring to the fa­mous 1970 por­trait of Elvis shak­ing hands with Nixon in the Oval Of­fice, “but I don’t think I had thought deeply about it.” Nev­er­the­less, she was in­trigued by the script, and by the idea of bring­ing life and back­ground to the iconic pho­to­graph.

“Elvis is ubiq­ui­tous, every­where in the world,” she said, re­mem­ber­ing a man named Elvis she met in “the most re­mote place I’ve ever been in my life,” a place in North­ern Aus­tralia near In­done­sia. “I don’t think there is any­where on the planet that is be­yond the reach of the knowl­edge of Elvis.”

Shan­non, who had worked with John­son in “Re­turn,” al­ready was at­tached to the project to play Elvis, and the script — de­vel­oped in part by for­mer Mem­phian and Elvis friend Jerry Schilling, an eye­wit­ness to the Nixon-elvis meet­ing — al­ready was writ­ten when the project came to John­son. “I think when you read the script, you can see laid out in front of you that it should be a ‘big per­for­mance’ film,” she said. “The way it’s writ­ten, that big set piece in the Oval Of­fice is re­ally im­por­tant, and it needed ac­tors who not only could be the em­bod­i­ment of th­ese su­per-pow­er­ful, su­per-fa­mous white guys, but ac­tors who could re­ally give it back and forth to each other.”

To that end, in sum­mer 2014, “we tried in earnest to get our Nixon, and in late 2014 we got Kevin.”

Shoot­ing be­gan in Jan­uary 2015. In a nod to the re­al­ity of the eco­nom­ics of film­mak­ing and the gen­er­ous in­cen­tive pack­ages pro­vided by Louisiana, “Elvis & Nixon” was shot in New Or­leans: Its Oval Of­fice, its Grace­land TV room, its Bev­erly Hills Elvis man­sion, its White House hall­ways and so on are set at lo­ca­tions in the Crescent City.

John­son — who teaches art at Wil­liams Col­lege in Mas­sachusetts when she’s not mak­ing movies — said she and Shan­non agreed “we had to let off the ap­proach that is taken com­monly by Elvis im­i­ta­tors. We just felt like in this case it was im­por­tant to let go of the like­ness, be­cause we weren’t go­ing to achieve that, yet we wanted to do every­thing that we could, in earnest, to think about the spirit of Elvis.”

She said Shan­non spent his time be­tween takes lis­ten­ing to a record­ing of Elvis talk­ing that had been given to him by Schilling. “He had head­phones on ev­ery minute he wasn’t do­ing a take, and he would walk around lis­ten­ing to that in­ter­view, and it’s a very in­ti­mate, pri­vate voice. It’s quite dif­fer­ent from the most pop­u­lar or ex­ter­nal ver­sion of an ‘Elvis’ voice. That’s where that soft­spo­ken style and that lit­tle laugh came from.”

Mean­while, ac­cord­ing to John­son, Spacey “turned around on set one day and said, ‘I feel like Dr. Strangelove.’” She said the re­mark was es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing be­cause the ac­tor did not know that “Strangelove” was one of Elvis’ fa­vorite films, nor did he know clips from “Strangelove” would ap­pear on one of Elvis’ TV sets in the Grace­land scene.

Although Mem­phis wasn’t a lo­ca­tion, Mem­phis — Elvis aside — was an in­spi­ra­tion. Shan­non and Schilling vis­ited Mem­phis, as did pro­duc­tion de­signer Mara LepereSchloop. Also, John­son said, Mem­phis pho­tog­ra­pher Wil­liam Eg­gle­ston’s Grace­land pic­tures helped pro­vide in­spi­ra­tion for the TV room set, while Mem­phis-born wri­ter­di­rec­tor Ira Sachs — who is thanked dur­ing the movie’s end cred­its — is a “men­tor” who screened an early cut of the film and gave her ad­vice.

Like “Dr. Strangelove” and some of the films of Mike Ni­chols, John­son said, “Elvis & Nixon” is a “satire,” not a “par­ody.”

“There’s no deny­ing that there’s an ab­sur­dism to the clash of style be­tween th­ese two men, and we all re­ally liked the way that the project ac­knowl­edges the ab­sur­dism of that sit­u­a­tion,” she said. “We all wanted to em­brace the com­edy of the oc­ca­sion with­out al­low­ing the com­edy to mock the char­ac­ters. I don’t think any­body wants to see a big take­down of Elvis Pres­ley, and every­body’s al­ready seen a big take­down of Richard Nixon, be­cause that’s what hap­pened in real life.

“My am­bi­tion is that the com­edy should al­low you to learn some­thing about th­ese two pow­er­ful white guys in this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. It should de­liver some­thing mean­ing­ful about their per­son­al­i­ties.”

Con­tact John Bei­fuss at bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com, 901-529-2394

STEVE DI­ETL/AMA­ZON STU­DIOS/BLEECKER STREET/TNS

Di­rec­tor Liza John­son talks to Kevin Spacey dur­ing the film­ing of “Elvis & Nixon,” which was shot in New Or­leans.

JOHN BEI­FUSS

SCREEN VI­SIONS

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