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LOS ANGELES, USA – Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis – and Austin Butler’s larger-than-life portrayal of the King of Rock ’n Roll – dazzled us just more than a year ago.
To the huge credit of writer-director Sofia Coppola, Cailee Spaeny, and Jacob Elordi, their Priscilla is a refreshingly intimate, nuanced look at the King but from Priscilla Presley’s perspective, starting when she was only 14 years old and caught the attention of the singer-actor star, who was 24.
Because it is based on Elvis and Me, Priscilla’s 1985 memoir which she wrote with Sandra Harmon, and produced by the King’s widow herself, Priscilla feels like an authentic (read: not fawning) depiction of the star and the girl he met in Germany.
Already famous at the time, Elvis was drafted and was stationed in Germany where Priscilla’s father, a US Army colonel, was also deployed. Closely consulting Priscilla, Sofia meticulously weaves a film from the point of view of the young Priscilla, from a high school student to her marriage to the superstar to the end of their turbulent relationship.
The film benefits from Sofia’s intuitive decision to cast Cailee and Jacob in the crucial lead roles. In this year’s Venice Film Festival which yielded a bumper crop of stunning female performances, including Emma Stone (Poor Things), Carey Mulligan (Maestro), and Jessica Chastain (Memory), Cailee triumphed and won the Volpi Cup best actress honors for Priscilla.
The biopic marks the biggest role of the Missouri-born actress, whose coming films include Alex Garland’s Civil War and Fede Alvarez’s Alien: Romulus.
Jacob, faced with the challenge of Austin’s unforgettable portrayal of Elvis, accent and all, succeeds in coming up with a performance that captures the man behind the superstar.
Following his well-received performance in Priscilla, the Euphoria series star – yet one more Australian actor making it big in Hollywood – stars in Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, Daniel Minahan’s On Swift Horses, and Tom Green’s Parallel.
Jacob, in a press conference in Venice with Sofia and Cailee, among others, was asked if Elvis influenced him.
“No, I was just really lucky to be working with Sofia who put my fears at ease immediately,” replied Jacob who is a towering 6’5” tall in person (Elvis’ height, by comparison, was 6’). “And yeah, there’s no real space to be daunted or afraid.”
“It’s one of those things you hear from actors all the time that you want a challenge. And this certainly was it.”
Both Jacob and Cailee were asked how daunting it was to play two iconic people.
Jacob, who calls Sofia by her nickname, Sof, answered first: “The whole prospect of facing it was just this kind of huge mountain and it really was just, put the blinders on and just go all out because there was really no space to go to not do that.”
“I think having Sof and Cailee was honestly a treat. It wasn’t too stressful.”
Cailee, for her part, admitted, “It was very daunting but I got very lucky to have some time with Priscilla. She was very generous with her time, and she was very kind to me and supportive. If I didn’t have that, I would’ve had a much harder time.”
“But that was my main source and obviously the book but I got really lucky that the person I was playing was also very supportive.”
On how he related to Elvis’ wistful words about love toward the end of the film, “Maybe in another time, maybe in another world (I am paraphrasing),” Jacob replied, “It’s a big one. My main source material was Priscilla’s book, and that was a direct quote from the book.”
“Personally, I think the most impressive thing about the story is the scale and the power of this love. And the fact that to this day, even though he’s not here, when you see Priscilla, when you talk to her, you can still feel the love.”
“It’s true, and it’s undying. And that, to me, is just beautiful.”
“So when he says, ‘Another time, maybe another place,’ yeah, I absolutely believe in that. I don’t think it has to be physically in front of you. I think it’s this tether that ties two people together, and that’s for eternity.”
Priscilla joins Sofia’s series of films about girlhood, including The Bling Ring and The Virgin Suicides. Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola’s youngest child and only daughter, who made her acting debut as an infant in The Godfather, has two daughters with her second husband, Thomas Mars. He and his band, Phoenix, scored Priscilla.
A kid when she lived in Manila during her father’s famously extended filming of his great epic, Apocalypse Now, Sofia once told me she still remembers how to sing “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippines’ national anthem.
Sofia talked about the challenge of finding the right actors to pull off her vision for Priscilla.
“Yeah, it was really daunting,” she admitted. “The first thing was, I really wanted one actress to play Priscilla. She had to play from 14 to 29.
“And my great casting advisors, Fred Roos, Courtney Bright, and Nicole Daniels, were such fans of Cailee’s and said, ‘You have to meet Cailee Spaeny.’ And then Kirsten Dunt had just worked with Cailee and told me how talented she thought she was.”
“So, we had coffee and Cailee has this baby face. You can believe that she can pass for 15. And she’s just so thoughtful.”
“I knew that she would approach this with sensitivity. And so I was so happy to jump into this with her. She really took a lot of care in preparing and working with Priscilla.”
“And then the idea of Elvis is so daunting. Nobody looks like Elvis. He’s such a big character. And it was really important to me to not have a caricature and who could have the essence.”
“And when I met Jacob, I felt like he has just a charisma and I could feel that he could pull this off and be a teen heartthrob.”
“And that he had the sensitivity to show this other side of him. We weren’t doing the performer, the outward. I knew he was vulnerable and sensitive from the way Priscilla described him.”
“So, it was important that I knew that Jacob could have that essence and show that side of him more in his vulnerable personal life. And then we just jumped in.”
“It was challenging, especially to watch Cailee have to change ages. We were shooting out of order to span so much time and it was really impressive to see them. And they were really there for me.”
Priscilla choked with emotion when she answered a reporter’s question about what moved her the most when she watched the movie.
“The ending,” she shared. “It’s very difficult to sit and watch a film about you, your life, and your love.”
“Sofia did an amazing job. She did her homework. We spoke a couple of times and I really put everything out for her that I could.”
“The ending…excuse me (crying). It was very difficult for my parents to understand that Elvis would be so interested in me and why.”
“I really do think because I was more of a listener. Elvis would pour his heart out to me in every way in Germany – his fears, hopes, the loss of his mother, which he never got over.”
“And I was the person who really sat there to listen and comfort him. That was really our connection. Even though I was 14, I was actually a little bit older in life, not in numbers.”
“That was the attraction. And people think, oh, it was sex, it was this. Not at all. I never had sex with him [at that time]. He was very kind, very soft, very loving.”
Priscilla has been quoted as saying that she and Elvis did not have sex until much later (she was 21 when she married him).
“But he also respected the fact that I was only 14 years old. We were more in mind and thought, and that was our relationship.”
“Yes, he called me when he came back to the States (from Germany). That was also part of our relationship, telling me all his woes on what was happening and how upset he was on the screen with a director.”
“I don’t know why he put so much trust in me but he did. And I never told anyone that I was seeing him. Another issue that he loved is the fact that I never gave him up in any way. I never told anyone at school that I was seeing him.”
“So, we built a relationship, and that relationship went on until, yes, I left. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love him. He was the love of my life. It was the lifestyle that was so difficult for me.”
“I think any woman can relate to that. But it didn’t mar our relationship. We still remained very close. And of course, we had our daughter (Lisa Marie Presley) and I made sure that he saw her all the time.”
“It was like we never left each other. I want to make that clear.”
Sofia shared what fascinated her about Priscilla’s book, which she had read the first time it came out and then read again. She recounted, “When I read Priscilla’s story, I was so struck with how the setting is so unusual but she goes through all of the things that all girls go through, growing up into womanhood.”
“And she talks with detail and openness about her experience, her first kiss, becoming a mother, and all these moments in one’s life that I could relate to and I thought were universal but in this very unusual setting that we’re so curious to know.”
“Elvis and Priscilla are this legendary couple but we don’t know that much about her and her point of view.”
While many have praised Priscilla for its feminist approach of showing its protagonist coming to terms with herself and deciding to leave Graceland and its master, who can be a dominating figure (Elvis’ estate does not support the film), Sofia said that she saw Priscilla simply as a “human story.”
The 52-year-old Oscar and Golden Globe best screenplay winner for Lost in Translation stressed, “To me, it’s a human story and Priscilla really sheds light on the ups and downs of a relationship, shows other sides to it and really her evolution as a girl into this world and then leaving to find her own point of view.”
“So, I really looked to Priscilla to tell her story as she expressed it, and I really wanted to show both sides in the reality of the romance and the illusion, and then as she grew up, her coming out into her own.”
Cailee agreed with the universality of Priscilla’s story of a woman’s journey: “Yeah. I thought it was really important to see the story from beginning to her ending up leaving the relationship.”
“Like Sofia was saying, it was important to see all those milestones that I think all of us women can relate to from her being a young girl, to finding her voice and her autonomy. I think Sofia did that really well.”
Sofia, only the second female filmmaker to win the best director prize (for The Beguiled) in Cannes Film Festival’s history, emphasized that her focus was to tell the story from Priscilla’s eyes.
“I really tried to stay in Priscilla’s point of view. One of the things that was great about her book is it really puts you in her shoes and you’re seeing the world from her point of view.”
“And I can go back to being that age and remembering a crush on an older guy and a rock star. So, I just imagined myself really in her story. I really tried to make the film from her point of view so you could go along in the journey with her and experience her story along with her.”
“And that’s what I love about films is being able to experience someone else’s story that’s so different from your own.”
What also kept me rapt about the movie was the awareness that Priscilla was directly involved in the production, so the details, from Elvis’ bedroom in Graceland to his suite in Las Vegas, were authentic.
Sofia said, “Just being able to speak to Priscilla added so much to this experience in making the film and just details that she would tell me. I love the details that make you feel like you’re there.”
“She described the scene when they’re in the movie theater in Germany and Elvis was saying the lines along. And that wasn’t in the book.”
“It was something that she told me, and I thought, I loved that moment where you see that they were really sharing something, and he was revealing something.”
“Also knowing that he wanted to be a serious actor and that was a great dream. And to understand his frustrations with his career. So, talking to Priscilla added so much and helped me so much.”
She added, “That’s the fun of making the visual interpretation of that and working with Philippe (Le Sourd, cinematographer), always thinking about the point of view of the camera of how we’re shooting it and the palette.”
“Germany had a much different palette than when she comes to Graceland. The colors are more vivid and she goes to Las Vegas and the sound when Elvis is around is fuller. So, using all of these to create her experience as best we could.”
Like Cailee and Jacob, Sofia relished having Priscilla as a go-to person for questions. “Yeah, I felt so lucky to be able to speak with Priscilla and ask questions. And so, throughout the process, I would just keep questions for her.”
“She was so gracious and open to helping answer as much as she could and just to have all the details as close to being as accurate as we could.”
As for Priscilla’s reaction when she first saw the film, Sofia revealed, “I was so nervous to show her the film for the first time. We watched it and she said, ‘That was my life. You did your homework.’”
“I was relieved because it was very important to me that she be happy with it while at the same time, I’m trying to imagine the story in my head. So that was a challenge for me and really important to me that she felt her story was respected.”
Toward the end of the press conference, Sofia answered about the seeming pattern of young women as the protagonists in her oeuvre.
“Yeah, I don’t know why I keep coming back to it but hopefully, I’ll grow up soon,” she acknowledged. “But I’ve always been interested in identity and how one finds that.”
“I’m always curious about how people find themselves in situations, how they emerge, and who they become. And so, Priscilla’s story was so rich about that of her really opening up about how she found herself, being with someone with such a strong identity, and then emerging to find her own identity.”
“That really struck me. And also, the generation of my mother and the expectations on women of that generation to be completely fulfilled with having a successful husband, a beautiful home, and a child. And if they wanted some expression outside of that, it was a struggle and it wasn’t expected.” – Rappler.com