Sofia Coppola discusses her latest film “Priscilla” and the hurdles and insights of adapting Elvis Presley’s wife’s memoir in an interview with Hindustan Times.
Sofia Coppola’s filmography is aromatic of coming-of-age stories and complexities of girlhood and growing up. Her latest film, Priscilla, is another chapter in that book. Like many of her previous works, it’s also a book adaptation – of the memoir by Priscilla Presley, the wife of Elvis Presley.
In an exclusive interview, Sofia talks about exploring Elvis’ private life, sticking to his wife’s side, how Priscilla adds to the collection of her cinematic stories on girlhood, and more.
Priscilla Presley’s memoir Elvis and Me: The True Story of the Love Between Priscilla Presley and the King of Rock N’ Roll released way back in 1985. Why did you think of adapting it into a biopic now, 38 years later?
I was just impressed by how little I knew about her. She was an American royalty, such a big part of our culture growing up. But I was just struck by how relatable her story was and it said a lot about the roles of women from that generation, my mom’s generation, and expectations from them. There are so many things a girl goes through while growing up, but she was experiencing all those in a very unusual setting. She didn’t know what her taste was till she left Elvis and met other people. Her story felt like an American dream, but the reality was very different.
When you’re adapting a memoir, do you stick to what Priscilla’s point of view or do you investigate it on your own, by probably talking to people close to Elvis?
No, I just talked to Priscilla besides what she’s written in the book. Because her perspective has shifted a little bit after all these years. I always wanted to make something that not only I connected with and expressed what I wanted to, but also represented her experience and the way she looks at it now. It was piecing together what she felt then and what she does now, and filling in all the details. I didn’t really talk to people outside of her. I think Jerry Schilling (talent manager) is the only one left from their group, but I never met him. I really wanted to it to be about her perspective, and was just taking it off from her.
Priscilla insists today that there was a lot of love between her and Elvis. Did you feel that love when you read her book or did you have to warm up to liking Elvis as a person again?
No, there was a lot of love in her book. Even in the dark side, she shows him in a very human way. I felt for his struggles too and had more insight into him as an artist. I thought it was really revealing of her. I wanted to ask her questions, but didn’t want to intrude a very personal aspect of her life – the end of their marriage. She still talks about this great love of her life fondly. I could see aspects that looked like a nightmare, but the way she tells it, you can understand how she got into that situation. But I was glad that she got out.
My favourite quote from your directorial debut feature The Virgin Suicides (1999) is “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” Priscilla was 14 and Elvis was 24 when they first met. Is your film also a commentary on the age gap?
I just tried to tell her story without judgement and shared what I knew about her experiences. I wanted to leave it to the audience to come up with their own conclusion and not condone something. I thought hers was a very unique story that we could learn from. I wanted to strike a balance between the light and the dark sides. It was definitely a rollercoaster ride she was on. Her point of view was romantic, but as a mother of teenage girls, I had a different perspective. But I really wanted to stay on her side. It wasn’t like she was a victim. She had agency, she wanted to go to Elvis. When it doesn’t meet her idea of what she thought it would be, she finds a way through it and leaves.
As a mother of teenage girls, what do you think has changed for them from Priscilla’s generation to your kids’? And what has remained the same?
I feel like a lot has changed, but some things have not. I see a big difference in my daughters’ and my mother’s generation, being in between and observing both sides, while still being affected by how I grew up and how my daughters will not tolerate some of the things that I feel are normal. The fact that I can have a career and work, and both Priscilla and my mother struggled with it, since you had to fill two different shoes of being a mother and a wife. I felt she had so much pressure to be the ideal woman for him, and what his idea of that is. You had to spend so much time on your hair and other stuff to fit into the idea of a ’60s woman. And you still see women who are affected by what a man thinks of her.
All your movies, including Priscilla, don’t really scream their conflicts. You build an atmosphere which reflects the inner turmoil of the protagonist. Priscilla never expresses her feelings about the troubled marriage, but we see her as a doll in a doghouse. What’s the idea behind that approach?
I haven’t really thought about it. But I do think that when I’m writing about it, it’s introspective. I want to tell the story in the emotion the character is going through, more than the talking. I also find that in life, people don’t express too much (chuckles). You get to know a person’s emotion through their actions more than their words. I’m always interested in what’s not said, the in-between pauses.
Your father, Francis Ford Coppola, is a legendary filmmaker. You’ve been making movies for 25 years now. Are you still fascinated by the process?
Yeah, I feel like you learn something every time. On Priscilla, it was the first time we built sets. I always felt like I had to be on a real location to make it feel real. But I learnt with a great cinematographer and production designer, we can make it work. We had to work so fast! I’m always amazed by the magic of movies and how everything comes together. The set of her high school bedroom was next to that of her Graceland bedroom. But when I watch it, it feels like two different places somehow. It’s always a surprise to me.
Priscilla is playing in Indian cinemas now and will premiere soon on MUBI.
Disclaimer: Except the headline and synopsis, this story has been taken from the HT News Service.