Chatting With Elvis & Nixon Director Liza Johnson

In December 1970, Elvis Presley decided he wanted to become a federal anti-drug agent, and that the right man to give him the badge was no less than President Richard Nixon. As a much-reproduced photograph proves, the meeting really did happen. Elvis & Nixon, director Liza Johnson's third feature, reconstructs the event, with Michael Shannon as the King and Kevin Spacey as the Prez. The cast also includes Colin Hanks and Evan Peters as Nixon aides Egil Krough and Dwight Chapin, and Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville as Elvis pals Jerry Schilling and Sonny West.

The movie, which opened April 22, was shot in New Orleans, far from such actual locations as the Hotel Washington. That hostelry, barely two blocks from the White House, is where Presley stayed during his 1970 trip. It's now part of the W chain, but a small "Hotel Washington" sign remains above one of the entrances. The hotel is where Johnson recently talked to The Credits for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. The filmmaker had never visited the place before,  yet found it oddly familiar.

Let's talk about this hotel location…

I'm sure the production designer, Mara LePere-Schloop, knows exactly what this hotel looks like in the period Elvis was here. I'm sure of that partly because I think I saw her research photographs, but also because the second I walked in here I realized that she had taken me to every location in New Orleans that looks anything like this hotel.I actually thought that it would be correct to find a hotel that looked as governmental in style as possible. Let that contrast against the shiny, blingy surfaces of Elvis. But we lost that location at the last minute.

In New Orleans, it's this super-decadent, gilded, French-colonial look. The bathroom where we shot that bathroom scene, in its normal condition, has a portrait of Napoleon it, in a gold frame. I was like, "I don't think that hotel room would even exist in Washington, D.C." And Mara's opinion was that if there's one hotel room in Washington that looks like that, you know Elvis Presley will stay in it. [laughs]

You were born about a week before Elvis and Nixon's meeting. So Nixon left office and Elvis died while you were still very young. Do you feel any emotional connection with them?

I do. I've always been interested in that period. And they say that people are interested in that time around their birth. It's for my generation to look back at that late'-60s, early-'70s period. They say that, don't that?

I guess my interest in that period was kind of generally more an interest in the counterculture. The ones that Nixon and Elvis are afraid of. When I was becoming an adult, I always looked to that moment when people felt like they could change the world.

I would say I had a normal American knowledge of Elvis. Of course I know the songs, and I had seen some movies. But nothing at the level of deep detail. And certainly not the kind of intimate cartography of his emotional life that we worked on for this character.

Nixon I actually did take an interest in, in my youth. I wrote a paper about Watergate for my high school government class. This Nixon is before Watergate, and until later in my life I really thought Watergate was all Nixon was. Obviously, I learned things for this project, but there are these darker elements of his presidency that aren't so relevant to this little slice of his story.

What was charming to me about this script is that Nixon doesn't even understand why he should meet Elvis. Sitting here in the present and looking back, that seemed right to me. He was never considered a super-media-savvy politician.

He went on Laugh-In.

[laughs] That's true.

But the distance that we've come, for better or worse, in how the politics and entertainments cultures relate to each other is so different now than in that moment. I actually found it kind of charming that this man would be more committed to the project of governing than to meeting rock stars.

Don't you think he was also a little concerned that he would look frivolous? Or that his supporters wouldn't approve?

It totally could be. I think part of why people are interested in that photograph is that we know that Elvis is supposed to represent the counterculture and that Nixon is supposed to represent the establishment. That's what the energy of that photograph is. To see them together seems wrong. It could that Nixon really didn't want to be seen with what Elvis represented.

How did Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes's script come to you?

The producer, Holly Wiersma, offered it to me. I'm not entirely sure why. It's very different in tone from my other two films. She did come to the set of my second film. I think that one thing the three films have in common is that they're all very performance-driven. I like to imagine that she thought that was something I could handle.

What appealed to you about it?

It has elements of a kind of bro-mance, but it really is genre-defying. It has all these scenes with intimate depth of character for Elvis, but also this absurdist comedy of situation. I found that really special.

It's funny, but it's not jokey. Did you shape that?

That is more or less how it was when I got it. It did have some jokes in it. Honestly, it was the actors more than me. I declared that it was comedy of situation, and that they had to play it completely straight. That's the only way it would be funny. Every time we would get to a joke, the actors would be like, "This isn't a joke comedy." They would refuse to do the few jokes that were in there.

In particular, you share that observation with Johnny Knoxville. He was like, the joke police. [laughs]

Were the two principal actors in sync on what kind of comedy it was?

In a way, that's my job as a director. To make them be in sync. For both of them, I think their biggest question about the movie was, "What is the tone?" There are these hard right angles, where Elvis is really personal and intimate, and then in the next scene the contrast between their worlds will be clangingly funny.

At one point while we were shooting, Kevin said that it was starting to feel like we were in Dr. Strangelove. That made Mike and me really happy, because that was one of Elvis's favorite movies.

Elvis watches Dr. Strangelove at the beginning of the film. Was that already part of the story when Spacey said that?

No. When we were shooting, we had no idea what footage we would be able to get. So I was pretty thrilled when we cleared that.

There was a Showtime movie, Elvis Meets Nixon, in 1997. Did you watch it?

I didn't. It's not that I'm not interested in it, but I felt that it was important for me not to watch it, in order that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I'm not plagiarizing it.

What sort of research did you do?

I did try to look at other treatments of both Elvis and Nixon. There are so many that it's hard to narrow down. I really like the William Eggleston photographs of Graceland. There's a wonderful Alice Walker story called "1955," where she imagines the inner life of an Elvis-like character. There are also all these cinematic treatments of Nixon. So I watched those.

Then I tried to help the actors shape their character research. For that, we came to rely a lot on Jerry Schilling, the historical Jerry Schilling. There's so much literature on Elvis, and I just decided, "I'm going with Jerry." His book is a really intimate, beautiful treatment of their friendship that has a chapter on this event. Also, you see the whole arc of their friendship. I saw the emotional truth of their friendship, and the way that Jerry stayed friends with Elvis. Kind of by taking some measures of distance from him at crucial moments. Other people didn't, and that ended pyrotechnically badly. I found that very moving.

Also, he was on set with us a lot. He is so generous and good with performers — and also because he and I wanted the same thing out of the movie — that it was easy for us to collaborate. You know that scene in Annie Hall where they go get Marshall McLuhan? It was like, "We just happen to have Jerry Schilling right here." It ended up being very confidence-building for Alex Pettyfer, and for me.

Were any particular things you had people read or watch before the shoot?

The entire art department and costume department and Kevin himself and all the Nixon boys were very attracted to Penny Lane’s documentary, Our Nixon. Before all the taping started in the White House, the Nixon White House boys were obsessed with Super-8ing each other. Bob Haldeman and Dwight Chapin were actually the ones who were most into the filming.

Penny made this film out of their Super-8 footage. What that offers is not a casual Nixon at home, with his feet up in his boxer shorts, but it is a less presentational version of that president than we've ever seen. That actually gave us a lot of insights about different modes of comportment that Nixon had.

On the Elvis side, I made everyone read Jerry's book. I also really like Elvis on Tour. It's slightly later than this — I think it's 1972 — but roughly this period of Elvis's life. Jerry Schilling actually worked on that documentary, and do did Martin Scorsese. It's split-screen, and completely of its moment. You go backstage with him a lot, and in the limo. It has a little of that same quality. A less presentational Elvis.

I believe that Kevin Spacey has played a president before. But where did you come up with the idea of Michael Shannon as Elvis?

I didn't. He was attached to the script when I was offered it. When I first heard that, I was like, "hunh." Because they don't bear any likeness to each other, really. But I do think he electrifies the world of the film the way Elvis electrified the world. The script asks of an actor things that I think Mike is uniquely great at. Partly the inner depth that comes from the intimate scenes that are in there.

There are two different theories on why Elvis wanted to be a drug agent. One was to enforce drug laws, and the other was to elude them.

[laughs] My theory is that they're both true. There are definitely accounts that are slightly hostile to Elvis, that say he only wanted it so he could travel freely with narcotics and firearms. He did definitely love guns. And he did definitely use these prescription medicines that are controlled substances. And he did want to tour internationally, so I'm sure there's truth to that. But I think if you limit it to just that motivation, it's not as interesting.

I don't know if you've ever had the experience of knowing someone who's addicted to something. There's this logic of making very minor distinctions. I think that logic prevailed. It allowed him to think, "I am a person who takes medicines. And I disapprove of young people's recreational street-drug culture." That logic is very common.

Part of why I think Michael's treatment of the character is so interesting is that those aren't even the only motivations for wanting to get the badge. He was very popular across a very wide demographic at this point. Yet I do really think he wanted for the head of the establishment to give him a badge. To me, the story is a lot more interesting is you allow all those layers, instead of limiting it the most mechanistic one. But I wouldn't deny the mechanistic one, either.