- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

December 21, 1970. President Richard M. Nixon entertains Elvis Presley in the Oval Office — a conservative, tragically unhip chief executive meeting the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, captured for all time in a famous photograph.

The new film “Elvis & Nixon,” opening Friday in the District, fashions a behind-the-scenes narrative that fills in some of the gaps leading up to that rather dramatic — and improbable — moment.

“I like to call it a historical fiction or a historical bromance,” said filmmaker Liza Johnson, who directed from a script written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes. “It does come from this very surreal chapter in American history that is true.”

Ms. Johnson met with The Washington Times to discuss the film at the District’s W Hotel, which was previously the Hotel Washington, where Presley stayed during his trip to meet Nixon. The hotel is but a short walk to The White House, where Presley showed up unannounced in December 1970 to ask if he might be deputized by the federal government.

With filming in and around the White House not possible, Ms. Johnson and her crew set up shop in Louisiana for the hotel scenes and constructed a facsimile of the Executive Mansion on a soundstage in Los Angeles.

“In the moments when the kind of real realness wasn’t available to us, we would kind of go from the character and figure out it might … be funnier [to have] his outsize personality and his glamorous effects in a more government style [hotel], that’s almost an oxymoron,” Ms. Johnson of the laughable notion of Presley staying in a bureaucratic residence near the White House.

The King is played in the film by Michael Shannon, a frequent assayer of the quirky and the offbeat in movies. Mr. Shannon was already attached to the project when Ms. Johnson came onboard. While Mr. Shannon bears little physical resemblance to Presley, the director said the two’s kinship of spirit was far more important.

“I think they’re both incredibly charismatic and electrify the world around them in a similar way,” she said. “There is an incredible comedy of situation when this supercool rock ‘n’ roll world and, let’s say, this not cool governmental world collide with each other.”

For the cranky and dyspeptic 37th president, Ms. Johnson cast an actor rather familiar with the fictional ins and outs of the nation’s capital.

“We were so excited when we got Kevin [Spacey] to do it,” she said of the Oscar winner known for his portrayal of the vile Francis Underwood on “House of Cards.”

In addition to the Netflix political show, Mr. Spacey also auditioned to portray Nixon for the film “Frost/Nixon,” a part that eventually went to Frank Langella.

“So he had literally thought about the character before,” Ms. Johnson said of Mr. Spacey. “That plus I think he was excited to play off Michael. You can see it onscreen what it means for two actors to be that responsive and reactive and listening to each other, and having that much fun getting each other’s games up.”

While Ms. Johnson is proud of her achievement, the fact remains that film directing still remains a field dominated by men. Ms. Johnson believes that parity may yet come, and she says the issue may be more complex than many people believe.

“What that data tell us is that it’s structural. When you’re a person in a meeting and you don’t get a job, it could be discrimination or implicit bias, or it could just be you’re not as good as the other person,” she said.

A key consulting voice on the set was that of Jerry Schilling, Presley’s close friend and confidante, who is played in “Elvis & Nixon” by English actor Alex Pettyfer. It was very important, Ms. Johnson said, that the end result would be something that not only Mr. Schilling but the entire Presley family would be proud of.

“Whenever you represent a real person, it is truly that person’s prerogative to think whatever the hell they want,” she said. “Michael Shannon really [did] his best to understand Elvis from the inside out. And I witnessed that, Jerry Schilling witnessed that, and I think you can see on the screen that he does not have a bone in his body that’s interested in mocking Elvis.”

Ms. Johnson said that she hopes Presley’s surviving family members and descendants take to the film, but adds it is their “God-given right” to dislike it if they so choose.

“I really do honor that even though I hope for the best,” she said.

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