Tribeca Interview: Director Liza Johnson on Elvis & Nixon

Writer-director Liza Johnson’s new movie, Elvis & Nixon, is a new kind of film for the writer-director. Previously the author of her own scripts, which tonally fall closer to drama, Elvis & Nixon is the first script written by someone else, and it clearly falls under the category of genre. The story of the meeting of President Nixon and music icon Elvis has become almost mythical; the well-known photograph is the most requested in the history of the National Archive.

Told from the perspective of Elvis’s right-hand man Jerry Schilling, the film stars Michael Shannon as Elvis, Kevin Spacey as Nixon, Alex Pettyfer as Jerry, and Colin Hanks as Egil “Bud” Krogh (Nixon White House official imprisoned for the Watergate scandal). Johnson spoke with me the night of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on how she came on board to direct, working with her impressive cast, and her close collaboration with Jerry Schilling.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): At what point in the film’s development did you get involved and sign on to direct?

Liza Johnson: I’m not totally sure of what happened before I got involved because it was in development and pre-production for a while. But there came a point when both the producers were on the set of my second film, at a point when I didn’t even know about Elvis & Nixon. But Holly Wiersma (producer) had been talking about it with some of the actors in my movie (Hateship, Loveship) and some of them might have suggested me for the job. And I’m not sure about this, but I think Michael (Shannon) might have suggested me for the job…although I might have just been in their mind because I’d previously worked with Michael on my first film, Return. And for me, any day I get to work with Michael Shannon is a good day. So it’s probable that had something to do with it. But I’m not completely sure how they came to offer it to me, but I’m certainly glad they did,

TMS: Were Michael and Kevin already attached when you came on board?

Johnson: Michael had already signed on, which is why I think they took his opinion into consideration when hiring me. But Kevin at the time was still just considering the role and came on board after I signed on.

TMS: When you were in talks to direct, what were some things that stood out to you about the script and made you connect to the material?

Johnson: One of the things that stood out to me the most was how funny it was that Nixon really didn’t understand why he should meet with Elvis. And just the kind of gap in history, about how entertainment and politics function, which is so prevalent now, compared to the way it operated back then struck me as something very interesting and potentially comedic.

TMS: How familiar were you with the story and backstory of this event in history?

Johnson: I’ve always been fascinated by the time period of the film, but not these specific characters. There were things I know about the late 60s and early 70s, and how big the cultural changes were at that time which had been interesting to me for a long time. But Nixon has always been a character I didn’t really consider. But when you think about it, Nixon was so involved in this period of change, from the Eisenhower era right up to Watergate. But I’ve never thought about things from his point of view and certainly never thought of those changes from the point of view of Elvis. And I’m not proud to admit this, but I only had a normal, American level of Elvis knowledge. And most of the time, when you think of Elvis, you think of him around 1955, rather than the Elvis that was around in the 1970s.

(Left to Right) Egil “Bud” Krogh, Evan Peters, Kevin Spacey, Johnny Knoxville, Michael Shannon, Jerry Schilling, and Alex Pettyfer on the set of ELVIS & NIXON, an Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street release.

TMS: What were your meetings with Jerry and Bud like?

Johnson: I met with Jerry ongoing, before even going into pre-production. And I had a really lovely meeting with him, December 26th of 2014, and that was the moment we decided to collaborate on this movie. So that was a great day in my life because he was such a steadfast collaborator. He was a great resource for me and Michael, and of course Alex. Jerry suggested Alex for the role, so he more or less cast Alex in the role. But that day, it became clear that he is something I could easily work with as a true collaborator. He’s been around talent his entire life and knows how to work with actors, without taking control. With other people, having someone like Jerry around would have been confusing because they would think “should I be listening to Jerry or Liza?” But I knew, because of his experience and personality that he would truly work with me and would be willing to give his thoughts through and by way of me, rather than through some back channel. As for Bud, he remained friends with Jerry for years and they’ve done events together at things like the National Archive and public speaking events. And one day, while we were shooting, Jerry just invited Bud to the set. So our relationship is far less developed but I found him to be delightful while he was on set, and he helped us a lot on set that day. He had a great sense of humor about the tone and comedy of the film. But throughout the film, we didn’t want it to just be ridiculous or ahistorical, and he helped me make a couple of changes during production that made the scenes dramatically better and more realistic. So that was very helpful. But he hasn’t seen the finished film yet, I’m going to show it to him in Washington this week.

TMS: Did he have any input on who would play him?

Johnson: No, he didn’t even know about the film until Jerry called him to come to set, and by then, we were already filming. But he was so impressed by Colin. He actually just sent me a statement and wrote that his only concern was that Colin Hanks is far more attractive than himself.

TMS: Did having Jerry so involved change the point of view of the film?

Johnson: The script was written from Jerry’s perspective originally. The writers read Jerry’s book, which is a very intimate memoir about his relationship with Elvis. And the book is actually beautiful, with a writerly voice that offers that intimate perspective on who Elvis was, but also impressive overview and analysis of Elvis’s place in history. And that book was very important to the writers, and like them, I took great delight in his book and his physical company, which only enhanced that intimate point of view that is in the movie. But if it feels like a movie about a bit of bro-mance, his original book certainly influenced that decision. But the thing about him being so involved was, there’s nothing better to keep you honest than when the actual person is there. It makes me think of that scene in Annie Hall when they go and get Marshall McLuhan to correct the guy in line and says, “You know nothing about my work.” When we had a question about the authenticity of something or I would ask “could this happen?” or “did Elvis feel this way?” I could ask Jerry directly. Jerry would be the first person to tell us, memory is faulty, but we couldn’t get a more authoritative person to advice on these events.

Jerry Schilling (left) and Alex Pettyfer (right) on the set of ELVIS & NIXON, an Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street release.

TMS: Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey have very different approaches and methods as actors. Did their own differences add to some of the humor and tension the characters had?

Johnson: One of the most interesting things about the scenes when they ultimately come together at the end, is the fact that characters had very different personalities and ways they would address the world. And while Michael and Kevin both have mad craft, their personal craft is very different. Kevin said on set, “Everyone has their own way in.” And you can see key differences in how they get into the scene, but you can also sense how much fun they are having working off of each other. That is part of what you see and why the movie is ultimately funny and enhances the scene. Because the humor comes from two guys coming from completely different worlds. It’s like they are in the same world, but not from the same world.

TMS: What was it like being the only woman often working with an ensemble of primarily male actors?

Johnson: I can imagine a scenario where that situation would have been very strange and uncomfortable. Had they acted like a bunch of brohams or whatever, it would have been strange to be on that set. But I had so much professional confidence in my cast. I’ve known Michael since my first film and we love working together. Kevin is a constant professional on set. If a girl could reasonably fear a bunch of guys broing out, I never had that concern with these guys. And I don’t want to speak for them, but it is fundamental to fiction and drama, as both actors and directors, that we be able to have empathy for people we are not. We might be more or less like someone, but we can always find empathy. I think Anna Karenina is a great novel about a woman, and Tolstoy isn’t a woman. And by extension, I’m willing to extend my empathy to a man like Tolstoy. Conversely, I expect the same respect and empathy from the men I work with. That they will trust that I have enough empathy within me to imagine the things I have in common with their characters, even if my gender isn’t one of them.

TMS: You didn’t include Elvis music on the soundtrack, so how did you decide on the appropriate period music in the film to capture the time and tone of the film, and still evoke something about Elvis?

Johnson: I loved the music we ended up with. I really tried to focus on southern music, the kind of soul and funk music that was popular at the time. We picked music from performers such as Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. There is a Sister Rosetta Tharpe piece that comes from much earlier, but it fit the scene. I wanted music which felt regionally specific and of the moment, but also reflects the music Elvis loved, besides his own. Because to be fair to Elvis, he loved a lot of music. He covered the Beatles. He may have liked them, he may not have liked them, but he certainly liked their music enough to perform it. So it isn’t as if he only liked soul music, but I felt that was reasonable when selecting a soundtrack that could take us through this period in his life.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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