‘Elvis & Nixon’ tale lured director
But she still hasn’t made it to Graceland
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 901-529-2394
Director Liza Johnson talks to Kevin Spacey during the filming of “Elvis & Nixon,” which was shot in New Orleans.