Last year, we relished Baz Luhrmann’s splashy, showy Elvis and fell in love with Austin Butler’s crooning cushion-lipped King while hating on Tom Hanks’ manipulative Colonel Parker. This year, Sofia Coppola asks us to take a moment to spend some quiet time with his former wife, Priscilla Presley and to perhaps cringe at how this teenage girl was groomed right under the noses of her parents.
Coppola hadn’t even intended to make this film, but was so compelled to do so after reading Priscilla’s 1985 best-selling memoir, Elvis and Me. “I was reading this book for personal purposes, and I never expected to get so involved in it. I was really surprised because I realised how little I knew about her and I was really moved by her story and connected to the way she described everything she went through – to go from being a girl to an independent woman after such an unusual circumstance,” says Coppola, best known for her films Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette.
“I had no idea she was in high school while she was at Graceland. And I thought her stories had so much about women of my mother’s generation and what all girls go through – but in this really unique way. I just wanted to dive into that world of ‘60s Graceland American folklore,” she tells us.
With Priscilla now 78 years old, and serving as Executive Producer on the film, one can’t help but wonder whether Coppola had an entirely free rein over her subject – as portrayed by a mesmerising Cailee Spaeny opposite Jacob Elordi as Elvis.
“I’ve never worked on someone’s story that was alive and would see the story. It was definitely something I kept in mind and how do I express what I’m connecting to and then also make sure that it’s a story that Priscilla feels represents her experience,” she says without really answering the question.
“I was always keeping that in mind and I think a big challenge was to take such a big part of someone’s life and boil it down to the essence to fit into a length of a movie. How do I do that to give the impression of everything she went through? And I wanted to feel like these memories come together so, by the end, you have a sense of what her experience was like, I hope.
“I was really happy to have access to Priscilla and for her to be open to reliving that era and she talks about it in such vivid detail and gave so much insight and, for me, picking it up at this stage in my life. I felt like I’ve had experiences of making films, so I had this feeling like I know how to make this, but you’re always figuring it out as you go. It’s always a challenge. You never really know what you’re doing,” she confesses.
In telling Priscilla’s story, Coppola found that it echoed similar themes she’s previously explored. “I felt like it’s something that relates to the work I’m interested in and the idea of finding one’s identity, which always appeals to me. Also, I’m at the point in my life where I’m a mother of teenage girls, and so I can really see the story from both perspectives. Certainly, as I’m looking at the story of: how could her parents have let her go live in Graceland? And what that tension brought.”
For Cailee Spaeny – who does a beautiful job of capturing the young Priscilla, whose teenage crush very slowly turns into a nightmare – learning about Priscilla’s real life was troubling. “I think the thing that I found so sort of shocking was… I grew up in an Elvis-loving family. We grew up going to Graceland and he was very much part of my childhood and obviously, I knew that Priscilla went with Elvis, and I’ve seen the iconic photos, but I didn’t know her side of things,” says the actress, who has previously featured in On the Basis of Sex and Bad Times at the El Royale.
“But it was an exciting story to dive into and to tell, because I think it’s long overdue to tell her side of the story. And then the way that Sofia wrote the script was so visual, you just felt like you could really feel the environment that you were in and also, growing up with Sofia’s films and the way that she taps into young female stories that I find so rare in a lot of films these days. She always finds a true depiction of young teenage girls, and so I was just excited to tell the story because I hadn’t been told it before. But with this filmmaker, I couldn’t imagine anyone else telling the story,” says Spaeny, who is 25.
By the age of 21, Priscilla was one of the most famous women in the world, the symbolic queen of American rock and roll. And yet, the long-time love and only wife of Elvis, was barely known at all. Her narrative has long been eclipsed by the overwhelming presence of her husband, Coppola’s Priscilla offering an alternate and private history – a girl’s story of yearning, growing up inside a lushly fabricated fairy tale, and ultimately awakening to very real personal desires and the layers and complexities of power.
Her story spans from age 14 – when she first meets Elvis as a bored, lonely Air Force brat living in Germany – to 24, when she departs the candy-coloured dreamland of Graceland as a young mother hungry to explore her own unwritten future.
In a singular coming-of-age story, we see Priscilla transform slowly from an eager-to-please teenager to a woman, eager to define herself in a world where she’s constantly defined by others.
For Spaeny, portraying Priscilla over a span of more than a decade was no mean feat. “I think that was one of the biggest challenges to take on; to make those ages feel true. You do everything you can to map out the choices you’re going to make and to differentiate, but we shot this in 30 days. And we shot it out of order. So, you were really trying to find things along the way to help anchor yourself,” she says.
Fortunately, the production boasted an incredible costume, hair and make-up department. “They did so much research and brought so much love to telling the story, and that was really key for me grounding myself in those ages and also where she was emotionally through this journey,” says Spaeny.
Perhaps the most poignant moment for her, in playing Priscilla, came as she affixes false eyelashes in preparation for giving birth to her daughter with Elvis – Lisa Marie Presley, who tragically died in January this year, aged 54.
“I loved her putting on the false eyelashes before giving birth. It says so much,” says Spaeny. Coppola agrees: “I think that’s also my favourite moment – putting the eyelashes on before she goes into labor because that says so much about her and women at that time when there is kind of an over the top glamorous idea of women then.”
For Coppola, the film is packed with so many delicious moments, which she hopes tell the story in a visual way. “I remember one part of the book where she’s going to Catholic school by day and then she’s partying all night with Elvis, and then has to go to school the next morning. And she’s thinking: how am I going to explain to the nuns that I’m picking out which handgun goes with which glittery dress, and so we have a shot of her just laying out the guns. It just has these moments of the crazy contrast in her life.”
Priscilla is in cinemas 18 January 2024