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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Directors Interview

Contest: Win an Elvis & Nixon Tote Bag or Jacket!

Posted on April 22, 2016 at 11:35 pm

The most-requested photo in the history of the National Archives has inspired a movie, Elvis & Nixon, about the improbable but true meeting of two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. Copyright Amazon Studios 2016

And I have some prizes to give away!

Copyright 2016 Amazon Studios

To win a tote bag, send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with Elvis in the subject line and tell me your favorite Elvis song or movie. Don’t forget your address! (U.S. addresses only). I’ll pick a winner at random on April 30, 2016. Good luck! One lucky winner will get an extra bonus — a jacket!

See here for more Giveaways

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Elvis & Nixon

Posted on April 21, 2016 at 5:30 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, references to drugs
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 23, 2016
Date Released to DVD: July 18, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01EZ6PZSQ

Copyright 2016 Amazon Studios
Copyright 2016 Amazon Studios
Today it does not seem at all odd to see Beyoncé hanging out with the Obamas or a reality television star as a popular Presidential candidate. But in the before-social media days of 1970, celebrity culture was not as all-encompassing as it is now. Frank Sinatra memorably supported John F. Kennedy in 1960 and just as memorably was not-so-gently pushed aside when his possible ties to organized crime and general inability to follow orders became a problem. Politicians, even today, want the support of celebrity fans but do not want the controversy that sometimes comes with them. And certainly the very serious-minded Richard Nixon would not want to appear frivolous by hanging out with a singer, even the most famous singer in the world. When told that “the king” wanted to see him, he said, “The king of what?” He was used to visits from actual royalty, and prided himself on learning a few pleasantries in their native language to put them at ease. But what could be the native language of a man from Tupelo, Mississippi who was known as “Elvis the Pelvis” for his sexy, hip-swaying performances, and who sang songs of teddy bears and hound dogs that made girls swoon?

Elvis Presley and Richard M. Nixon did meet in the Oval Office. No one knows exactly what they talked about, but this charming film makes a believable case that they had more in common than we might think. As the President points out (he did insist on being briefed on Presley), they both came from humble beginnings and worked hard to rise to the top of their respective fields. They both feel badly treated by the press. They both find the Woodstock-era flower children and Vietnam war protesters disturbing, even seditious. Both are keenly aware of their level of support and power, which will never be enough. They may not be aware, but we are, that their very success has isolated them in a way that leaves them endearingly unaware of some elements of everyday interaction that the rest of us take for granted. Both have daughters they love very much. And both, constantly surrounded by young men somewhere between acolytes, enablers, managers, and favor-seekers, are, somehow, lonely.

The movie is so delightful that its shrewdness sneaks up on you. There is a very funny line about astronaut Buzz Aldrin that makes an insightful point about celebrity, as does a technique Elvis and his “Memphis Mafia” use repeatedly when they are thwarted, to greater comic effect every time. The parallel scenes as two respective entourages brief Elvis and Nixon about the appropriate protocol for the other is well done and the songs — not by Elvis but of his era — are especially well chosen, particularly when Elvis sings along to “Suzy Q.” Director Liza Johnson makes the most of a witty script (“Princess Bride’s” Carey Elwes was a co-author) and maintains a tone that is slightly heightened but just plausible, given the heightened reality of the two men at its center.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, guns, and smoking.

Family discussion: What did Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon have in common? How did each rely on the young men around them? Why is there no Elvis music in the film?

If you like this, try: “Frost/Nixon” and “Elvis Presley: Thats the Way It Is”

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