Fairy Tale Starts to Melt: Sofia Coppola Discusses "Priscilla"

Rendering the Presleys as wedding-cake figurines in the Memphis sun.
Phuong Le

Sofia Coppola's Priscilla is now showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries.

Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023).

Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023) is deceptively soft to the touch. In adapting Priscilla Presley’s 1985 Elvis and Me memoir, the filmmaker brings an astonishing life story to the big screen, but also all of the beautiful, enviable objects that line the cage of celebrity. From luxurious Cadillacs to a lush array of sparkly designer dresses, accessorized with equally shiny handguns, these markers of luxury hum with palpable allure. At the same time, a sense of foreboding looms large. The opening shot lingers on the perfectly manicured feet of Cailee Spaeny’s Priscilla as they gingerly step across a shaggy, coral-pink rug. The seductive, tactile tableau conjures pleasure and comfort, yet it also foreshadows how Priscilla will sink further and further into a gilded sepulcher throughout her turbulent relationship with Elvis, embodied here by Jacob Elordi. 

Celebrated for her keen sensitivity to the aesthetics of girlhood, as seen in The Virgin Suicides (1999), Marie Antoinette (2006), and elsewhere, Coppola—along with costume designer Stacey Battat and production designer Tamara Deverell—furnishes the world of Priscilla with instantly iconic details. Their Graceland, constructed on a soundstage, resembles a wedding cake with a hollow core; the creamy white furniture of the resplendent living room as well as the gaudy lavishness of Elvis’s bedroom bear witness to the couple’s marital breakdown. While the film’s stylized artifice reflects the promulgation of Priscilla’s image to the public, such domestic extravagance is rendered lifeless by Coppola’s muted approach, a juxtaposition that heightens the quietly harrowing tragedy of this emotionally measured film. As her husband and his circle foist a new identity upon her, Priscilla loses the teenage opportunity to sculpt her own inner world, finding herself frozen into an ornamental existence; there is little difference between her and the decorative objects of Graceland. Once the glitz and glamor of celebrity are stripped away, there remains a young woman who, like many of Coppola’s heroines, is forced into a state of perpetual waiting for a change that can’t arrive soon enough.

On the day of our interview, Coppola had a packed schedule, including an in-depth conversation with Richard Curtis at the British Film Institute and an appearance at Hatchards bookstore, where she signed copies of her art book, Archive, 1999-2023, which includes visual references as well as behind-the-scenes materials surrounding her filmography. The event was fervidly covered by a legion of teenage girls and young women on social media, a testament to Coppola’s beloved and enduring legacy. In our conversation, we dig deep into the loneliness of sequestered adolescence, a satin-wrapped solitude steeped in the melancholy of fairy tales. 

Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: For each film, you have a mood board of visual references. What did you have in mind for the Priscilla mood board?

SOFIA COPPOLA: We had so many photos of Priscilla from her life. I think the first ones were her wedding photos. There's one image of her with a flower arch standing next to him with this giant wedding cake. To me, that was the strongest image. I was really excited to recreate that moment. She felt sort of framed in this flower archway and they looked a lot like the figures on top of a wedding cake. That became the starting point for the visual world and the kind of over-the-top romance of her world. William Eggleston also did photos of Graceland. [I used] his still lives for reference for the opening and then pieced together pictures from her life and from that era.

NOTEBOOK: There's a lot of melancholy in Eggleston's photography. Does that influence the look of the film as well?

COPPOLA: I always loved his photos and his color palette and, yeah, I thought of him right away. Also because he was from the South at that time.

NOTEBOOK: What was it like for you to work on a soundstage, compared to shooting on real locations?

COPPOLA: That was really interesting. It's the first time I've done that, and I had thought I never wanted to do it. Real places feel like real places, and how can you make [a soundstage] feel naturalistic and real? I was impressed that you can make it feel real by having a great cinematographer and a great production team. It was really exciting to work in a new way because we could shoot so much in a day. We could run back and forth from her childhood Germany bedroom to Graceland. I guess it's kind of how TV is done, but it felt like an Old Hollywood studio where the sets and the props are all next to each other. And they just go to another room and make the movie.

NOTEBOOK: I thought of the Las Vegas set in [Francis Ford Coppola’s] One from the Heart [1981] as well. Sometimes a set can feel more real than a location. And there's a tactile quality in Tamara Deverell's production design. Lots of close-ups of shaggy rugs, satin beddings, and drapes.

COPPOLA: She's just so talented. And she was so thoughtful about the textures and the shine. It just felt like Graceland in 1960s Memphis, and Elvis has to have a lavish feeling. It was so in contrast to [Priscilla’s] childhood in Germany, which felt like all the fabrics were scratchy, and it was always winter there.

NOTEBOOK: Her bedroom is quite cute and quite pink.

COPPOLA: It was really cute, yes, but it's all faded colors and kind of sad.

Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: What was it like shooting a feature on digital? Because that's also new for you.

COPPOLA: Philippe [Le Sourd] suggested it because our shooting schedule was so short. He said, "I really think we need to shoot digital." We both love film, and I prefer to shoot on film, especially for period movies. It just has a different feeling. But with digital, we can move more quickly. I was really happy and impressed with the look he was able to make on digital because I'm kind of sentimental and snobby about film. Philippe had shot digital before, when we did a short film for the New York Ballet. So I knew that he could make anything look beautiful.

NOTEBOOK: And the wedding footage was shot on film.

COPPOLA: Yes, that was shot on 16mm, as well as the home movies. Priscilla shot a lot of home movies and you can see them on YouTube, so that was a big reference. We shot all the pool parties on 16mm, and also the prop Super 8 cameras had film in them that we used. We wanted to have that feeling of their real home movies. The actors had fun shooting it, and it's nice to have a different texture too. 

NOTEBOOK: I'm also curious about your writing process. On the one hand, it feels like adaptation as you were bringing Priscilla's memoir to screen. But you were also working with a real-life, living person. Were there any moments when you and Priscilla might have different interpretations of the same event?

COPPOLA: I tried to always defer to her and how she saw it. I wanted to feel her point of view. So I really went by the book. And then we went through the script. I think sometimes she was—you know, she's still protective of his legacy. I think I had to push a little more to include the darker side. But she understood that it had to have the highs and lows and the light and the dark to have a full picture of a complex relationship.

NOTEBOOK: When I read the book, I was amazed to see that the scene when she took the pills and didn't wake up for two days actually happened.

COPPOLA: I know; I was so shocked! I remember reading that in the book. You're like, What? That is so crazy? A lot of the stuff in the book is really surprising.

NOTEBOOK: Did you try to reserve judgment when it comes to a moment like that?

COPPOLA: I mean, when I read the book I definitely had opinions. But then when I made the film, I wanted it to be non-judgmental. I want to really show what it was like through her eyes. And I saw it sort of like Alice in Wonderland, her going through this strange world.

NOTEBOOK: It reminds me of a dark fairy tale, almost like the Bluebeard story. She has come into this house, and there's this mysterious, intimidating figure.

COPPOLA: I don't know Bluebeard as much, but I did think about it being like a fairy tale, because there are this fairy tale prince and the beautiful castle. And then, to me, the idea was that the fairy tale starts to melt, and it's not. In the end, she gets out.

Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Cailee Spaeny's performance here is extraordinary. She's great at playing not just a teenager, but a teenager who is trying desperately to seem like an adult. Is that tension already in your script?

COPPOLA: I think it's just in the situation that we were talking about. Cailee also talked to Priscilla, and she knew Priscilla felt like he really saw her and made her feel grown up. But it's true. It's tricky for an actor to be playing a younger person playing at being older. 

NOTEBOOK: That comes through in the costume as well. In the beginning of Priscilla's transformation, the clothes seem to be wearing her instead of her wearing the clothes.

COPPOLA: Priscilla talks in the book about being uncomfortable. These clothes, they felt too grown up for her. So it was important to commission specific clothes and how Cailee would be in them, how she holds herself in the early days when they go to Vegas and she's not comfortable with it yet. Stacey [Battat, Priscilla's costume designer] really thought about that too and made Priscilla look really, really young when she first goes to Graceland. It was really important to have her feel young and fresh-faced before her transformation.

NOTEBOOK: Some of your other films have an ensemble of female characters. In this one, Priscilla can't really connect to her peers, but she is also not comfortable around the older women, who are the wives and girlfriends of the Memphis Mafia, either. 

COPPOLA: I feel her story was that she was so isolated. And I know there are women who feel isolated within a relationship. Priscilla talked about how she wasn't able to be friends with the wives of the Memphis Mafia because she saw what they were doing when the wives weren't around. It put her in this terrible position of not being able to really connect to them. I thought about how lonely that would be if she wasn't allowed to have friends from school and she couldn't really have an honest relationship with the other women.

NOTEBOOK: It's interesting how you almost never see her taking the flight to Memphis. She just goes straight from her parents' house to yet another house. She doesn't have any time to just be by herself.

COPPOLA: I think she never had a chance that most people do to kind of develop your identity in that age, which is so important. She didn't do that ’til after she left him. And then she had a period where she finally discovered herself.

NOTEBOOK: I also read Priscilla didn't keep any clothes from her time with Elvis. And in the film, the house is full of beautiful shiny things, but it seems as if nothing really belongs to her. It's like she's living in someone else's house.

COPPOLA: Yeah, definitely. She talked about how she didn't even know what her taste was. Because it was always Elvis, his taste. When she left to move to LA, she was able to discover what she liked. Elvis's clothes were saved in a museum. When I asked Priscilla about her clothes, she said at that time, people just gave old clothes to Goodwill. They didn't really think of keeping them. But I was like, where were those clothes? I wish she had them because I wanted to go through them. It would have been fun.

Priscilla (Sofia Coppola, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of light and darkness, how do you achieve the balance between an appreciation for beautiful and feminine things and also an understanding of the trappings of femininity?

COPPOLA: I felt like there's an aspect of it that's fun. And then there's also an aspect that is confining. At first it was fun that he was buying her clothes, and then it turns into this pressure that she has to be his ideal woman. It starts out fine, and then you realize that it's actually constraining.

NOTEBOOK: What was it about Jacob Elordi that made you think of him for the Elvis role?

COPPOLA: He was really thoughtful about it. He did a lot of research. He worked on his voice and movement, but then he kind of put that away and just made it about a relationship between this man and woman. He didn't focus too much on the Elvis persona because we didn't want him to feel like a caricature ever and he did such a good job of just having the essence of who he was through her eyes.

NOTEBOOK: His Elvis also had this sort of vulnerability and insecurity in the beginning.

COPPOLA: Yes, that was really important. Priscilla talked a lot about that in her book and how when she first met him, she's always trying to connect with that side of him. I felt that Jacob was able to show that sensitivity.

NOTEBOOK: I really love the opening title as well, which was created by the Peter Miles studio. Was the cursive font also a part of the mood board?

COPPOLA: I actually don't know what the font is called; I just asked for a cursive. It reminds me of old movies, where they would use the satin background for the title. I think I saw it in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore [1974]. It's also an 1940s, 1950s Old Hollywood thing.

NOTEBOOK: The smash cuts of all the iconic elements of the Priscilla image are also very evocative. It made me think of your first film, Lick the Star [1998]. The opening credits for that short have close-ups of Audrey Heaven's lips and eyes.

COPPOLA: Oh yes, you're right. That's so funny; I totally forgot about that! It does look like that. I guess I just love the idea of just, like, a fragment of what's to come in the story. So you get just a little glimpse of it. And then you start with the story and then get into it. It's a little tease of what the feeling is.

NOTEBOOK: Do you have a lot of these moments of filmmaking déjà vu?

COPPOLA: I do. I didn't think about the Lick the Star connection. But when we were shooting them in the bedroom, it's similar to Marie Antoinette. There are a lot of scenes like that. So as I was shooting, I was like, "Oh my God, this is the same scene." But I just kind of go with it. It's just how I work. But I don't feel like we're done. I always feel that there are new challenges. There's a similar approach and vocabulary because it's from me.

NOTEBOOK: Alongside girlhood, you've also explored different aspects of Americana. You've done suburbia, Southern Gothic, and now Memphis royalty. What's next?

COPPOLA: It was fun to do these ones, but I'm not sure yet. I always like building a whole world that's so different from today. That's what excited me about doing different periods, or just constructing a world that has a really strong visual sense. It doesn't feel like today, so you can kind of escape into another world.

NOTEBOOK: Is there a genre that you haven't done that you would like to do, like a musical?

COPPOLA: I don't know. I wouldn't know how to do that. I'm kind of curious about science fiction because it's so not my thing.

NOTEBOOK: It can be with a fairy tale angle. 

COPPOLA: Yeah, I don't know yet. It's fun to look at genres because you can put your own stamp on it. That will make it interesting.

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