Interview: Director Liza Johnson of “Elvis & Nixon”

Posted on April 25, 2016 at 3:25 pm

Copyright 2016 Amazon Studios
Copyright 2016 Amazon Studios
Elvis & Nixon is inspired by the iconic, if improbable, meeting of two of the most towering, iconic — and widely impersonated — figures of the 20th century. Director Liza Johnson makes the film wise, witty, and enormously entertaining. In an interview, she talked about our enduring fascination with Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon and making sure that the movie’s performances went beyond the caricatures and imitations we are used to seeing. One cheeky touch, a character playing an Elvis impersonator speaks to the real Elvis (played by Michael Shannon), thinking he is an impersonator, too. And the movie impersonator is played by one of the film’s screenwriters, Joey Sagal.

The image of Presley and Nixon standing awkwardly together in the Oval Office is the most requested photograph in the history of the US National Archives. “That dissonance is probably why people are interested in the photograph,” Johnson said. “They’re both very well known to us and they mean something to us. I think Elvis means something more countercultural and Nixon mean something establishment. That’s why it’s weird to see them in the picture together. In a way I think that’s the spin of the movie too.” She said that despite her great respect for Shannon, he would not have come to her mind to play Presley. “I don’t know who I would have thought of but it would not have been him because he doesn’t immediately have any likeness to Elvis or have personality traits that make me think of Elvis or have a repertoire of characters in the past the remind me of Elvis. When I read it, I got it. It has so much intimate depth for the Elvis character and that’s what Mike can do. He has a sort of very sophisticated relationship to drama, comedy. You know Ionesco is his favourite playwright and I knew that honestly once I read it I couldn’t think of anyone who could do a better job of navigating among those properties which were written in the story. We were both were interested in the ways that the script is a bit counter to the most kind of dominant understandings of the characters. People think of Elvis as a glittering brilliant beautiful surface but no one ever thinks about what Elvis might wonder about or what was going on in Elvis’ inner life. With Nixon the opposite is almost true. The most common thing ever said about him is that he is complicated. When people talk about him they talk about his psychological issues and it’s never about his beautiful surfaces or anything. This story suggested two things that we don’t think of. One is that Elvis had an inner life and two is that Nixon, this complicated man who is constantly doing morally compromising things like blowing up Cambodia or actually infiltrating the countercultural movements that Elvis is talking about going undercover in. He had not yet done Wategate at this point but he was doing all these other things so if I were him, I’d be sweating. Yet in this story we can also have a sliver where the main thing he’s doing is not understanding whether he should meet with a rock star. I actually found that charming. Partly because it’s so different from where that entertainment and political culture is at now.”

Instead of Elvis Presley songs, the soundtrack features other music from the era, including Elvis playing and singing along to “Suzy Q.” “You know, Elvis did do stuff like that. In this period he was covering popular music including the Beatles, at least three songs. I didn’t know that; it’s something I found by looking. He did sing some CCR songs and Neil Diamond in this period and I guess he was really kind of a promiscuous lover of all kinds of music including opera. In most of the source music that I put in the movie I really wanted to focus on the regional, southern, like 1970’s soul into funk period. I think that it reflects something about the place and time.”

Copyright 1970 National Archives
Copyright 1970 National Archives
The two men have more in common than they — or we in the audience — expect. As we see, both are surrounded by young men who support and at times manage them. In the White House, we see Dwight Chapin, Bud Krogh, and H.R. Haldeman, whose names would all later be prominent in the Watergate hearings. Elvis has his “Memphis Mafia,” including Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer). The real-life Schilling assisted in the making of the film. In one amusing sequence, the handlers for Presley and Nixon brief each other’s the two men before the meeting on what to expect and how to behave. “I think the script is carefully structured to heighten any parallels that could be there between those groups. In order to function as the President or as a superstar, you have an entourage. The work that those two entourages were called upon to do is very different in nature. But at the same time I can at least empathically imagine that it appears to me that when you are that famous someone always wants something from you. There is almost no way to know for sure that you’re having an honest encounter. There is almost no way to know for sure they’re having an honest encounter because people always want something from you. Even if it just to be close to you because you’re somehow like a channel to some electric celebrity something. Not only do those people do real work in terms of managing the lives and work of the celebrity but having some people that you can trust is a really important thing when everyone wants something from you.”

She found Shilling’s insights especially helpful. “The thing that I learnt the most from on this project was actually Jerry Schilling’s book, Me and Guy Named Elvis, which is a really beautiful and intimate account of their friendship. It’s a very self-reflective. He is either a genius or he’s been to a lot of therapy. He has a real capacity to reflect on himself which is very unusual. That book is like a real anatomy of what it’s like to be the friend of a superstar and I really recommend it. It was like a very guiding document for me and also I got to work with him. I got to be friends with him, and I think his story is not the typical one of someone who hangs out with a superstar. Jerry stayed friends with Elvis for his entire life precisely because he took some measure of distance at some crucial moments. The other guys didn’t necessarily do that and that didn’t end well. I feel like there is a profound lesson about friendship in there about what is beneficial about closeness and what is beneficial about distance.”

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