In a way, Priscilla feels like a culmination of everything Sofia Coppola has learned across 25 years of filmmaking.
Based on Priscilla Presley’s bestselling memoir Elvis & Me, the film begins in 1959, when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl named Priscilla Beaulieu (played here by Mare of Easttown’s Cailee Spaeny). When she first meets Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi) at the US Air Force base in Germany where both he and her father are stationed, the 24-year old musician is already a global superstar. Enamoured with his sweetness, Priscilla finds herself swept away by the ecstasy of first love. But it doesn’t take long for that love to curdle once Elvis invites Priscilla to live at his storied Graceland estate in Memphis.
Much like her protagonist in Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s Priscilla is trapped within a gilded cage, navigating a world she doesn’t fully understand. Charting the glamorous highs—partying in Vegas, getting married, giving birth to Lisa Marie—and devastating lows—affairs, substance abuse, frightening outbursts—of the Presleys’ courtship, Priscilla finds Coppola expanding on themes found throughout her oeuvre: the intoxication and toxicity of fame, the challenge of forging an identity in a world that seeks to define you, and the ennui and isolation of married life.
“I thought Priscilla’s story encapsulated something we all go through, but in such a heightened, glamorous way,” Coppola told Vogue on the day of the film’s theatrical release in the US. “I really wanted to capture how overwhelming that first brush with love is and how confusing it can be trying to understand a man who’s so hot and cold.”
In some ways, Priscilla feels like a spiritual sequel to Marie Antoinette. It’s a visual and aural feast, featuring pitch-perfect recreations of ’60s Memphis locations and fashions that will undoubtedly inspire you to search “how to apply winged liner” as you leave the theatre. The film’s opening alone is quintessential Coppola, showing Priscilla applying her iconic cat-eye and a can’s worth of Aqua Net to her sky-high bouffant while The Ramones’ 1980 cover of “Baby, I Love You” plays. And yet the film never feels like Coppola repeating herself or self-indulging; instead, she seems merely to be commanding the skill set she’s honed since The Virgin Suicides, her lush 1999 debut about a different form of suppressed femininity.
Here, Coppola speaks to Vogue about recreating Graceland in Toronto, finding the right actors to bring pop culture icons to life, and showing the film to Priscilla Presley herself for the first time.
How are you feeling with Priscilla out in the world?
I can’t believe it—it always feels surreal when something you’ve been working on for so long comes out. I feel like I was just talking to you when we started production a year ago. I was fretting so much over how we were gonna get the schedule under control and make the movie I wanted to make, so I can’t believe it’s finally here.
Do you have any way you celebrate whenever you release a new film?
My agent and I love to drive around to different theatres on the first night and see how different audiences are reacting. I’m doing some Q&As at the Angelika [in NYC] tonight, but I hope I see some Priscillas over Hallo-weekend.
You said in one of our past interviews that whatever film you’re working on is usually a reaction to the last one you made. In what ways would you say Priscilla was born out of your experience making On the Rocks (2020)?
That film was so rooted in modern-day reality, so I was really eager to dip my toes into another world. There’s so much style in Priscilla’s memoir, and the entire aesthetic of Graceland and ’60s Memphis felt so appealing. All of that shag carpeting was really calling me!
I imagine you have an eye on multiple film ideas at any given moment, so what was it about Priscilla’s memoir that struck you as a project worth giving your full attention to?
I was in this moment during the pandemic where I’d been working on an Edith Wharton adaption for a long time and it just wasn’t coming together for a number of reasons. I was stuck at home with Covid when a friend recommended Elvis & Me, and I was just really moved by her story. She’s always been perceived as this symbol of American glamour and perfection, and I had no idea how much she struggled and what the details of her life were—like how she was still going to high school while living at Graceland and partying with Elvis all night. It felt like a world that I could really immerse myself in, to paint a portrait of Priscilla and show what it must have felt like to come of age in such a strange setting. I read the book and kept thinking, Well, I just wanna do this—I know how to do it and her story excites me.
The film feels more like a domestic relationship drama than it does a biopic. What can you tell me about the process of adapting Priscilla’s memoir and figuring out how you wanted to tell her story?
I really didn’t wanna just make another conventional biopic. I really wanted to capture how overwhelming that brush with first love is and how confusing it can be trying to understand a man who’s so hot and cold. I thought Priscilla’s story sorta encapsulated something we all go through, but in such a heightened, glamorous way. She spent so much of her life trying to please someone else before realising she had to learn more about what she wanted out of life.
Her book is filled with so many colourful details about this one-of-a-kind life she lived with Elvis. Did you have any specific visual references?
If I was gonna make a film about these two, I knew it had to be stylish. In terms of visual influences, I looked at a lot of William Eggleston’s photography. There are so many home movies of Elvis and Priscilla on YouTube that give such a strong impression of how they acted at home. It helped so much to see the way they moved and the clothes they wore behind closed doors, so I referred to those a lot during filming. They never came downstairs without a full look on, so we really embraced all of the big hair and winged eyeliner.
It was fun to recreate some of those famous moments, like when Priscilla leaves the hospital wearing that pink suit. But we always said that we’re not making a documentary and that we should be allowed creative licence. There’s all this documentation of Graceland but no photos of their bedroom or Elvis’s “man cave”. It was fun to imagine what those different parts of their world might look like. Priscilla talks in the book about how Elvis’s bed looked so big and that all she could think about were all the women who came before her. I knew we wanted to make Elvis’s bed tall and intimidating with flat velvet covers.
I feel like that power dynamic is also represented in the height disparity between Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi [Editor’s note: Spaeny is 5’1” and Elordi is 6’5”].
I wish I could say that was intentional, but I did embrace that it could be metaphorical. At first it was always a matter of, How are we even gonna fit them in the same frame? We were building all of these platforms under Cailee and putting her in platform shoes on top of apple boxes. But even with that bit of movie magic, Jacob always sorta looms over her. Ultimately I think it works for the story. And that’s the thing I’ve learned making movies—things come up and you just have to roll with it.
You have an incredible history of directing young actresses at transitional phases in their career—Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, and now Cailee. What was it about her that made you confident she could pull off the nuance that Priscilla requires of its lead?
The entire movie really hangs on the shoulders of Priscilla, so I knew I had to find someone who could believably play her from ages 14 to 28. My casting people had told me Cailee was an up-and-coming talent that they thought I should be aware of, and they know my sensibility well and what kind of girls I like. I thought Cailee was so good in Mare of Easttown, and she had such a baby face that I thought she really was 15. When I found out she was 25 I knew she could pull off Priscilla physically. Plus Kirsten had just worked with her on a movie and said she was really talented, so that was the only recommendation I needed. Then I met her and thought she was just so thoughtful and magnetic. I felt like she could convey that thoughtful dignity mixed with delicateness that the real Priscilla has.
Priscilla seems like an especially challenging character to play because so much of her perspective is communicated wordlessly—you learn so much about her from just the way she glances at Elvis.
Cailee can convey so much with so little fanfare. We had a lot of conversations before production, but I really like to let my actors do their own thing once we start shooting. I knew she knew what I was looking for. I would occasionally give her a note and she’d alter something about her face that added some entirely new meaning to a scene, and I’d just be standing in awe behind the monitor like, How’d you do that?!
What can you tell me about your conversations with Jacob about finding his take on a larger-than-life figure like Elvis?
My film is so much about what Elvis was like behind closed doors rather than the way he presented himself as a performer. Priscilla’s book talks about how vulnerable and sensitive he was when they first met, and then how cocky he seemed when she saw him in his element at Graceland. I took all my cues from her book, and then I cast Jacob because he’s so effortlessly charming. He just has that magnetism that I imagine Elvis had, but he’s also so thoughtful and sensitive. It was important to show Elvis’s more vulnerable side, so I just asked Jacob to focus more on capturing his essence. It was more important to get a feel for his voice and presence at home as opposed to how Elvis presented himself in interviews and acting roles.
You’ve spoken quite a bit throughout the press cycle for Priscilla about how difficult it was to get financing for the film and how scrappy the shoot was. I have to say, that doesn’t translate to the screen—every frame feels so lush and detailed. What can you tell me about the work you put into pulling off something that looks so expensive but was made on a fraction of your budget for something like Marie Antoinette?
I’m really proud about how the film looks because there had to be a certain grandeur to it. Our production designer Tamara Deverell had to get really inventive with what little resources we had in Toronto. I’d walk onto set and one corner of the soundstage would be Lisa Marie’s nursery, and then in another corner would be the Memphis hair salon. Her bedroom in Germany was a set right next to the Graceland living room, so we were constantly bouncing back and forth. It was a lot of fun to see it all come together, but that sometimes meant Cailee would have to play a 15-year old and a pregnant housewife on the same day. It was a real scramble but everybody from the prop guys to my costume designer Stacey [Battat] got really into it.
As someone who has directed films on a pretty wide range of budgets, do you prefer working in one mode versus another?
For me, doing anything on a smaller scale means having total creative control. No one is paying attention to what you’re doing versus when you have a bigger budget with a lot more cooks in the kitchen. There’s a lot of executives keeping an eye on you when you make a movie at a certain price point, so I think there’s a real freedom in just going off and doing my own thing like Priscilla. It felt more like making a student film, where everybody was hand-making costumes and props and trying to come up with great solutions. And I think there’s a lot of heart in that because it feels more like a puzzle and it gives the film more of a handmade quality.
I would imagine having a smaller budget would force you to get creative in some ways that might benefit a film versus having $200 million at your disposal.
Good things can come out of it. I had to cut something like 10 pages of the Priscilla script right before filming because we lost a week of production. That was really hard at the time but it made me really have to focus on what elements were most important to the story. Ultimately I think it was good to be forced into that corner. When it came to costumes, Stacey would say, “Cailee can wear that skirt again with a different top.” We asked Chanel to make an interpretation of her iconic wedding dress, so it’s not quite an exact replica but more our take on it. And Valentino really came through and made some of Jacob’s suits and knitwear. That was so helpful because we didn’t have as many resources to hand-make everything.
Is there any particular scene or moment in the film that stands out to you as a personal favourite?
One moment that comes to mind is when Priscilla’s water breaks and she puts her lashes on before going to the hospital. When I read the book, that really felt like the ultimate moment of glamour. There was also a part in the book where she describes partying all night with Elvis and going to school the next morning, and she says, “I don’t know how to tell the nuns that every night I’m picking which handgun goes with which outfit.” I knew we had to include a shot of her matching all of her handguns with different glittery dresses. It’s such a small visual detail, but it really helps convey the world she builds in her book. But I was probably the most excited to recreate the image of Priscilla and Elvis in front of the flower arch on their wedding day. That was the first image that really caught my eye when I started pursuing this project. They look like a fairytale couple that you’d see on top of a wedding cake, and it sorta encapsulates this entire air of romantic fantasy that surrounds them. I love that the film sorta melts away from reality for those moments.
Did you keep any mementos from the set?
I kept some of the gold records with Jacob as Elvis on the cover. I kept more of the Graceland stuff because the art department made all those amazing props, like the vintage magazines and old plane tickets.
Priscilla insists in her book and in recent interviews that she views her relationship with Elvis as a pure romance, despite the fact that he was 24 when he pursued her and she was 14. How did you navigate portraying their relationship in a way that doesn’t pass judgement, but also doesn’t gloss over those more unsavoury aspects?
I think it would’ve been easy to make a much darker movie, especially because seeing something unfold onscreen can be so much more visceral than reading it. But I didn’t want the darker side of their relationship to completely overshadow the film, so it was a matter of trying to show the reality. It was important to Priscilla that it was still her love story and to show Elvis as a real human being instead of some two-dimensional villain. I just wanted to show her point of view and leave it to the audience to come to their own conclusions about this relationship. But it was a matter of finding some balance because I don’t want the film to seem like it’s condoning certain things, but I also wanna portray Priscilla’s experience as she says it was. It was important to me for her to feel good about the film, and that it felt truthful to her experience and how she told it.
I saw that Priscilla is listed as an executive producer on the film. How involved was she throughout its journey to the screen?
She was incredibly open and supportive throughout the entire process. She never came on set because she wanted to give us our space and didn’t wanna make Cailee nervous. But she always said, “I’m here whenever you need anything,” so I would go through the script with her a lot. I would talk with her for hours on the phone just collecting memories and going through the script page by page, and she would give me any notes or opinions she had. It was important to me for her to feel comfortable with everything going into the film, but sometimes she would wanna lighten things up and I’d say, “Priscilla, you have to show the full ups and downs of this relationship.” So she was involved in the script process and then she just sorta let me do my thing once we started filming. She wasn’t involved in anything to do with the editing, and then I showed her the cut when it was ready.
What can you tell me about showing her the film for the first time?
Oh my God, it was maybe the most nervous I’ve ever felt. She got really emotional towards the end of the film when Priscilla had her baby. It used to be such a happy moment and now, of course, it was a very emotional experience for her to relive. [Editor’s note: Lisa Marie Presley died in January 2023, shortly after Priscilla finished production.] She seemed very moved and when it was over she just looked at me and said, “That was my life.” She said Cailee expressed all of the emotions she felt during her time at Graceland. It was so meaningful to me that she felt like we got it right.
Priscilla’s book opens with a prologue about the day Elvis died, and it feels like a very deliberate choice on your part not to include his death and let it overshadow the film. Was there ever a version of the script where you did include it?
When I first thought about telling her story, I wanted it to begin and end with her time at Graceland. Obviously I had to show how they met and how she got there, but I knew I wanted it to end with her leaving the gates of Graceland—that image of her driving off to find herself and start a new life was always the final frame.
It’s a beautiful ending, and one that’s really bolstered by the use of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”. I’m curious if the story about how Dolly refused to let Elvis record it because he demanded too much of the publishing rights is part of the reason you chose it?
That was definitely part of it. I knew early on in the script that we had to have that song at the end, and I was so happy that Dolly let us use it because I don’t know what we would’ve used in its place. That song is filled with so much pain and love and heartache, and it expresses exactly what Priscilla felt at that moment in time. She knew it was time to move on despite this well of emotion she still had for Elvis. I also thought it was important to end on a woman’s voice. But I thought that story about Dolly keeping the song for herself was so cool. It’s a beautiful song by itself but the lore was definitely part of the appeal.
Had you hoped to use more of Elvis’s music in the film if his estate had been open to it?
I knew I wanted to include a few Elvis songs but it’s Priscilla’s story. I also knew the estate may not be open to letting us use his music, so I just started with the Phoenix guys. [Editor’s note: Coppola is married to Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars.] I always knew that if we didn’t get the rights to his music that we’d be okay because it’s Priscilla’s story. Now there’s just more emphasis on her!
What can you tell me about finding the sound of the film?
We made lots of playlists with songs from that era. I started with “Venus” by Frankie Avalon because that song is playing in the book when Priscilla is at a diner in Germany. Phoenix did an instrumental, almost lullaby-esque version of the song that’s playing when she gets to Graceland. It kinda becomes Priscilla’s theme song. But then it was just a matter of editing down all of these songs. I love those Phil Spector girl groups like The Ronettes, but otherwise I don’t really listen to a tonne of music from that era. A lot of it sounds really corny to me, so I wanted to find a way to include music from that time period that connects with Priscilla’s story but also still aligns with my taste.
It’s a lot of different styles and time periods, but it all flows together seamlessly. I’ve been listening to that Spotify playlist you recently shared on Instagram nonstop.
Oh, I’m so glad, because that’s what I’d listen to while we were trying to figure out the soundtrack. I didn’t want it to feel like a Frankenstein of styles, and the Phoenix guys helped me so much with that. I remembered The Ramones had recorded with Phil Specter in the ’80s, and their cover of “Baby, I Love You” felt like such a perfect introduction to Priscilla’s world. And that Spectrum song [“How You Satisfy Me”] that’s playing when she first arrives at Graceland samples an Evie Sands song from the ’60s [“I Can’t Let Go”], and so there’s a lot of little connections to that period, just not in the most direct ways.
Were you surprised at all by the feedback from the Elvis estate?
Oh, God, are they still saying stuff?
Nothing as of late, but they’ve been very critical of the project since it was announced. The most recent comments I saw from them referred to the film as “another Priscilla cash grab”.
I don’t really know what the relationship is between Priscilla and the estate, but I thought they would have a little more respect for her since she’s such an important part of Elvis’s story. I’ve since learned that they’re just very protective of the Elvis brand and not very supportive of any project that they’re not controlling. I understand that they’re business people but I really do respect Elvis so much as an artist, and I think my film portrays him with some insight and sensitivity. Priscilla’s book has also been out for a while so I didn’t think my film had too many surprises. These stories have been available for years and I thought I could’ve gone a lot darker, to be honest, but I tried to handle it with a delicate touch. I think they’re just trying to protect the Elvis brand or whatever. But I’m just gonna focus on Priscilla.
The Elvis estate is also very much an outlier in its opinion—the reviews coming out of the Venice premiere were glowing, and Priscilla has spoken so lovingly about the film. How has it felt to do press for the film—as well as your new book—and encounter so many young fans who grew up on your work?
It’s been really touching and surprising. I’m usually just in my bubble making stuff, and so I love knowing that younger people have rediscovered some of my early films. But then to meet some of these young girls with such cute style who tell me how much my work means to them is really touching. I really feel so much love for them, and it makes me so happy to see that they’re connecting with it.
I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but have you given any thought to what you’d like to do next?
I honestly have no idea—I feel like we just finished this one, and it’s been such a whirlwind getting it done. I still can’t believe it’s out in theatres, and so I’m gonna have to take a pause. Right now I’m just happy to have Priscilla out so people can go to the theatre and get lost in another world. I still have to fully digest it to know where I’m going next. But I’m definitely about to go have a margarita to celebrate!
Before you go, I wanted to ask if you’ve read Britney Spears’s memoir yet?
No, I haven’t yet! How is it?
It’s very powerful. And maybe it’s just because I’ve had both her book and Priscilla on the brain, but I couldn’t help but visualise your version of the film as I read it—there are a lot of passages in the latter half of the book where she talks about being locked in her big LA mansion and stripped of her autonomy during the conservatorship that felt very Virgin Suicides. I’m curious if Britney is an artist you have any relationship with and if that’s a film you’d ever wanna make?
You know, I have a fascination with Britney because my generation grew up with her. I have such affection for her and everything that happened to her. I’m naturally curious so I do wanna read it, but I’m not gonna say I’d do the movie. I might have to wait a little while before reading her book after just spending so much time in a different locked prison of suppressed womanhood.
This story was originally published on British Vogue.