Sofia Coppola has built a career out of crafting intricately imagined worlds for complicated female characters, and her newest movie Priscilla is no different. The filmmaker has adapted Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir Elvis and Me into a complex and impressionistic take on one of America’s most famous couples, tracing their relationship from its start (when Priscilla was 14 and Elvis was 24) to its difficult end.
Lead actress Cailee Spaeny has already won acclaim (and a trophy) for her performance as Priscilla, and further praise was heaped on her at this year’s New York Film Festival, where she, co-star Jacob Elordi, producer Youree Henley, costume designer Stacey Battat, and production designer Tamara Deverell participated in an October 6th post-screening press conference.
With Coppola absent due to personal reasons, Henley took the lead in describing the movie’s unorthodox production. “The ambitions of the movie were . . . greater than the money we could raise for it,” the producer said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh Sofia, she probably can get whatever she wants.’ It’s really just not the case.” Later, he added, “We were jumping out of a plane, and we were making a parachute as we were landing,” which Spaeny seconded. “We only shot this film in 30 days, so we were flying by the seat of our pants,” she said.
No viewer would be able to tell that from the film’s immaculate aesthetics or the perfectly tuned performances of Spaeny and Elordi. Together, the actors transverse entire decades in the span of just under two hours, and that time-bending effect was felt on set. “In the morning I’d be pregnant, and after lunch I’d be 14 years old,” Spaeny said. Elordi hyped up his co-star’s diligence when it came to the movie’s timeline, explaining that “there is no gap in Cailee’s performance. She had every single thing cataloged to the year.”
“We were good study buddies,” Spaeny responded. Elordi agreed, “We were pretty dorky about it.”
Even with the note taking, it was daunting to play what Spaeny described as “American royalty.” She told the audience, “I grew up in the southern Midwest, born in Tennessee, grew up going to Graceland as a kid. I really understood the weight that [Elvis] carried.” Elordi, who hails from Australia and recently admitted to sourcing his Elvis knowledge from Lilo & Stitch, appreciated that there was a “universe to draw from,” though “that abundance of information doesn’t make it easy.”
“If you want to see an Elvis impersonator, you can go to Vegas,” Elordi said. “It was about catching the essence of this person. The biggest thing for me was trying to identify and find where the human being was under all the glitz and the gold and the voice and the caricatures.” Often, the actor explained, they would “just imagine it was a Sofia Coppola marriage drama, completely separate from Elvis and Priscilla.”
That said, the film does shine a new light on some of the biggest figures in American cultural mythology. Spaeny admitted to having no idea about Priscilla’s difficult experience with Elvis in spite of her familiarity with the King, and with another, decidedly different movie about Presley having dominated last year’s pop culture, that blindspot is pretty widespread. As for Priscilla’s response to the film? Henley said that she “told Sofia that she’d really done her homework and that she really loved it. She thought she got it right.”
‘Priscilla’ is in limited theaters now, expanding nationally November 3rd.