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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Elvis & Nixon

by director Liza Johnson
I’m thrilled to invite you to come and see Elvis & Nixon, a new film I directed that stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in the title roles.

When I received this kooky, delightful script, Michael Shannon was already attached, and I thought he was a perfect choice. The script had a lot of dynamic range—there are really intimate dramatic scenes as we take this journey with Elvis and his friend Jerry Schilling, and yet the script also acknowledges the comedy of situation that happens when these super cool Rock ‘n’ Roll dudes show up at a White House that is not well-known for being cool. Michael Shannon is one of the most exciting actors I know of, and one of the few people I can think of who can play that level of character depth and yet also address the truly ridiculous juxtaposition, who can understand and embrace that absurdism.
I knew we had to find someone at Mike’s level of craft and talent, because when we get to that scene in which they meet it has to feel like two massively talented giants are facing off, and I was thrilled that Kevin Spacey decided to join us. He has thought so deeply about so many characters that have to embody state power. House of Cards. Richard III. I was blown away by his character research too. He really studied what Nixon had done up until this moment and even what he had in the works that he would have been keeping secret on this day. And this is such a particular moment in the Nixon story. It’s not Cambodia. It’s not COINTELPRO. It’s not Watergate. But I was struck, and in a way charmed, by the way that Nixon doesn’t even realize why he should meet with Elvis. It was a very different moment in the relationship between entertainment and politics.
It was a big life experience to get to guide these gentlemen in their work. I mean, the characters they’re playing have huge scale in the world, but also they themselves have mad craft, and putting them in the room together is like a real clash-of-the-titans, heavyweights-in-the-ring kind of experience. I think you can see on screen how much fun they had playing against each other, constantly raising each other’s game.

The other big advantage that I had was the generous and active participation of Jerry Schilling, who was a close friend of Elvis and who I am now honored to count among my friends. He and his book, Me and a Guy Named Elvis, became my guiding star for figuring out how to treat the project, and helped me focus the overwhelming amount of existing material and multiple accounts of everything about this visit and about Elvis in general. What was factually true? What was emotionally true? Normally you have to look at the historical data points that are available to you, look at the gaps in the data, and do the best you can at drawing a line to connect the dots. I really liked the playful way that the writers had connected a lot of those dots. But Jerry was also there to say, yes, Elvis did think in this way, or no, Elvis would never do that. It was a great gift for me and for Michael Shannon as he created the character. Jerry also had the smart idea to get Alex Pettyfer to play him, and he allowed Alex so much access to him as Alex developed his character.
It’s daunting to work on such iconic figures, in part because so many accounts, histories and interpretations already exist. Elvis meant so many different things to so many different people worldwide that there’s no way to get a total picture. I read in the New York Review of Books that there are four new books about Nixon coming out this spring. Other artists’ interpretations are already incredible—I love Alice Walker’s story “1955,” William Eggleston’s Graceland photographs, Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues.” Andy Warhol worked on Elvis and Nixon (although not on the same canvas).

It’s a lot to reckon with, but in a way it’s also a privilege that comes from working on figures who aren’t underrepresented. I don’t have the burden of making the only version of these characters that are available to the public. There are other accounts you can compare, and there are so many that are wonderful. But I’m proud of this one, and I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a more intimate treatment of Mr. Presley than the one Mike has created here. And for what is arguably one of the more surreal encounters between famous men in American history, I think you’ll have a hard time finding a version that is more fun.

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