How 'Priscilla' uncovers the vulnerable woman beneath the hairspray

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Sofia Coppola and Cailee Spaeny
"She told me, 'That was my life,' when she saw it," says writer-director Sofia Coppola, left, of Priscilla Presley seeing "Priscilla," starring Cailee Spaeny. "And that was the most rewarding thing. To hear that from her." (Lila Barth / For The Times)

“She was very kind but hesitant,” Oscar-winning writer-director-producer Sofia Coppola says of Priscilla Presley, recalling the first time the two discussed Coppola turning Presley’s 1985 bestselling biography, “Elvis and Me,” into the film “Priscilla.” “She’s very private and wasn’t looking to put this out right now. But she said she would think about it…. It’s such a personal story. She’s definitely protective of it.”

Thanks to the admiration Presley has for Coppola’s oeuvre, she ultimately agreed, serving as executive producer on the film, which won lead actress for Cailee Spaeny at this year's Venice International Film Festival. Presley, though, made no demands for casting input and stayed away from the set during filming. Such was the trust she had in the project and its key players.

“She didn’t have any big notes or specific beats she wanted me to get right,” adds Spaeny. “She just said, ‘Make sure that the love is there between us.’ Because it was, and she looks back on those memories fondly.”

Over a joint Zoom session, The Envelope spoke to Coppola and Spaeny about doing right by Presley with “Priscilla.”

Sofia, why were you drawn to this story?

Coppola: When I read Priscilla’s book, I was surprised with how moving it was. It was so unique. I was surprised by how relatable it was [despite] such an unusual setting. I realized how little I knew about her. She’s such a famous figure in our American pop history and culture. I had no idea she was going to high school while she was living at Graceland. I was really struck with how much she opens up in the book about what her experience was like. She goes through all these experiences most girls go through growing up, but in such an unusual way…. And I thought it spoke a lot about the roles of women of that generation, which is my mother’s generation, so I thought it was interesting.

What about you, Cailee?

Spaeny: If I’m being completely honest, it was the fact that it was Sofia. The story was so daunting, and to play this character was really terrifying. With anyone else, I would’ve said no.

How did each of you collaborate with Priscilla Presley?

Coppola: I worked with her while I was working on the script. She was very open to answering questions and talking with me, so I spent a lot of time asking her about different parts of her story. And then she didn’t want to come to set because she didn’t want to make Cailee nervous. She just had a lot of respect about wanting me to do it my way but also to give input and be helpful where she could.

Spaeny: I think if she would’ve been on set, I would’ve probably rolled up into a ball. [Laughs] But she was always like, “Whenever you need to call me before a scene, you can.” We met twice in person and had numerous phone calls before filming.

Had you seen Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” and how does your film position itself against it?

Coppola: I saw it [in the summer of 2022], but it was after I’d written my script, so it wasn’t at all a reaction to that. I feel like [“Elvis”] is so different in tone and that that’s really his public life, and [“Priscilla”] is really his private life, and Priscilla’s story…. I just thought it’s even more interesting to have a film about Elvis and then a year later to have Priscilla’s story. They’re great companion pieces. I feel like I learned a lot about Elvis as an artist through her perspective of his struggles and him as a person. Priscilla’s such a small character in the “Elvis” movie that I think it’s really interesting to see another side of the story. Her side.

Spaeny: I still haven’t seen [“Elvis”] yet, so I feel like I can’t really speak on that. But it sounds like it’d be a fun double feature!

What was the project’s biggest challenge and biggest reward?

Coppola: The biggest challenge was having such a big, epic life and love story, condensing that into 90 minutes, shooting it in 30 days, covering so much time, and having [Cailee as Priscilla] go from 14 to 29 or whatever.

Spaeny: I agree with that. I feel like the greatest challenge and the greatest reward were sort of the same thing. Making this film for Priscilla. Her feeling safe with the story that we told. And getting that right for her. Because I feel she deserves that.

Coppola: She told me, “That was my life” when she saw it, and that was the most rewarding thing. To hear that from her.

Spaeny: The weight off of our shoulders was massive at that point.

What do you hope Elvis would have thought of your film?

Coppola: Oh, I never thought of that. I was so focused on what Priscilla would think about her story. I don’t know. I feel like that’s really between them. It’s her portrayal of their relationship. So, I don’t want to get in the middle of that. [Laughs]

Read more: Lisa Marie Presley didn't like the script of Sofia Coppola's 'Priscilla,' and she told her so

What’s the one thing you discovered about Priscilla that you didn’t know before you made this movie?

Spaeny: Oh, well, almost everything. [Laughs] Gosh — that she put on false eyelashes before she went into labor. There were so many things I didn’t know — like her being really hungry when she first went to meet Elvis on the first night at that party in Germany. And then he offered her a sandwich — and she really wanted it — but she said no because she couldn’t imagine eating a sandwich in front of Elvis Presley!

Coppola: You just see these pictures of her looking like the perfection of a ’60s glamorous woman. [But] of course, she has this human side. I was struck with how vulnerable she was. She’s very sweet and delicate and very sensitive. I was just surprised by her sensitivity in all these situations, which makes sense when you see her real story — behind the hairspray.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.