Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, Cailee Spaeny with her Elvis, Jacob Elordi at the 61st New York Film Festival press conference Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The press conference for Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (based on Priscilla Presley’s book with Sandra Harmon, the Centerpiece selection of the 61st New York Film Festival), a portrait of Elvis Presley’s (Jacob Elordi) wife, born Priscilla Ann Wagner (Cailee Spaeny), was attended by the two stars, plus producer Youree Henley, production designer Tamara Deverell, and Coppola’s longtime costume designer Stacey Battat (Somewhere; The Bling Ring; The Beguiled; On the Rocks). Stacey also worked with Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Alex Timbers on Mozart In The Jungle; Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer on Still Alice; Scott McGehee and David Siegel on What Maisie Knew, and Sebastián Lelio on Gloria Bell.
Yuree Henley reading Sofia Coppola’s letter with Cailee Spaeny Jacob Elordi, Stacey Battat and Tamara Deverell Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
“I am honoured to be back at the New York Film Festival with my new film and to be telling Priscilla Presley’s story, the unseen side of a great American myth,” wrote director Sofia Coppola who was not able to be there because she was with her mother, Eleanor Coppola.
Youree Henley reads a letter from Sofia Coppola: “I’m so proud to have our film at the New York Film Festival in my hometown. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than seeing a film screen at Alice Tully Hall. When I saw The Power Of The Dog here as the first film on a screen since the pandemic, it reminded me of the power of cinema and what we love about the communal experience. I’m so sorry to not be there with you, but I’m with my mother, to whom this film is dedicated. Thank you to my great team who helped make this film, thank you to the New York Film Festival, Dennis Lim, and A24.”
In 2022, she created a room for the Costume Institute’s exhibit, In America: An Anthology of Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and in 2016 Sofia directed a production of La Traviata at the Rome Opera House, teaming up with Valentino and production designer Nathan Crowley.
1959 at the West German Air Force base in Wiesbaden, where Presley (Jacob Elordi) is stationed, Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny), whose father is a Commander there, sits at the counter of a diner, sipping a coke, when a man approaches her to invite her to a party at Elvis’s house. It is a recruitment. She is in 9th grade and looks it. After some hesitation, her parents give permission and what follows is the first “fashion show” of the movie. As her mother watches, Priscilla holds up several rather drab dresses and muted mud-coloured outfits. The first encounter with Elvis is delicately choreographed around glances and words. He says; “I like talking to you.” And, in order to talk more privately: ”I’ll meet you upstairs.”
Stacey Battat: “I’m making the costume and they’re playing the role, so it’s really a collaborative effort to find those details. And you saw that.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
In May 1962 Elvis wants Priscilla to visit him in Memphis in the creamy, rather empty idea of a mansion he thought his mother would have liked, complete with scattered tchotchkes, such as a giant porcelain dog beside his desk, and pompous splashes of gold, all carefully chosen by production designer Tamara Deverell. Again he tells Priscilla to head upstairs in front of his group of friends. The sheer act of demanding, followed by her obedience seems to give him a power thrill that Jacob Elordi plays with the most casual nonchalance.
In Elvis’s bedroom, you can spot a tiger, a phone, and Jesus. Priscilla is ready for him in a short tulle nightgown but he says not yet and gives her a pill to make her sleep off the trip. It works more than expected. Seeing the two of them together is disturbing, not least because of the clothes choices costume designer Stacey Battat has so tellingly selected. Priscilla’s attempts to dress like the woman she imagines Elvis to want, look like drag, which shines a bright light on the performative character of identity that goes far beyond Priscilla Presley’s biography precisely because it so deeply informs it.
My comment and question to Stacey Battat at the press conference, moderated by Dennis Lim, was on the costumes often being heartbreaking.
Anne-Katrin Titze: The costumes are also often heartbreaking, because it’s a child playing dress-up. That’s how it feels very often. To the point of the baby having the big earrings. It’s a child playing at grown-up thing. Can you talk a little about working on that?
Stacey Battat on Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla: “It is true that it’s somehow a child playing dress-up.”
Stacey Battat: We had such a great participatory cast. That was a big part of making the costumes because they were both so patient and came to so many fittings and were really the best cast you could ever ask for. I think that helps in just developing the nuances, because if you have somebody there with you that’s participating to play the role or stand still, that’s when you figure out all those little details. It helps to find the nuances.
Somebody comes in and says “I have an hour. And that’s all we’ve got” And to do 120 costumes in an hour, it’s a lot more difficult to find the nuances. You find the character in all those things kind of together. I’m making the costume and they’re playing the role, so it’s really a collaborative effort to find those details. And you saw that. It is true that it’s somehow a child playing dress-up.
Stacey also explained the research process:
There is a historical element and then we have real life to draw from and also trying to find what is their life privately and who are they privately without the photos that we’ve seen. So kind of filling in the blanks and doing that with research obviously through magazines and other publications, libraries, that sort of thing. And working closely with Tamara [Deverell] because I think a big part of it is also just making sure that the dolls belong in the dollhouse.
Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) with Elvis (Jacob Elordi) and the wedding cake
Tamara Deverell: The wedding cake!
SB: The wedding cake!
TD: That’s how we approached Graceland! Sofia wanted it to feel like a wedding cake. It was mainly layers of cream and cream paint. We looked at the research and surprisingly there’s very little research on Graceland in the early time when Priscilla first arrived. We had one or two photos that we kind of clung to. But then we just created our own world. The upstairs, Elvis’s bedroom and bathroom - in our period there’s nothing. There’s just nothing! There’s later photos when when he did sort of this red Empire look. Yeah, the research kind of didn’t exist and we kind of had carte blanche to do what we wanted and make our own world specific to Sofia’s vision.
Dennis Lim: Did you look at the William Eggleston photographs of Graceland?
TD: Absolutely and I’m a huge fan of William Eggleston so I knew that when Sofia brought that up as one of her main references that we’re going to be in a good place. We were drawing a lot from that, both Stacey and I.
Tamara Deverell: “Sofia wanted it to feel like a wedding cake.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
TD: The colors and just the composition. And there was a couple of other references, like In the Mood for Love, the Chinese film, was a big reference for Phillippe [cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd] and I. There’s a hallway that we kind of grabbed for the hallway in the hotel at the end. So we picked from different things that we loved. …
Later Tamara adds:
The bedroom as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t really have much to go on, so we were really free. But I did look at the plans which are available online - having never been to Graceland. If you do go to Graceland, you can’t go upstairs. It’s off-limits. I was really free to make my own world up. I did follow the basic plans of the house, that you went up the stairs, the geography was correct.
And there were little tidbits, some them were from some later photographs of Elvis’s room. Those were from post-Priscilla in his life. And there were just things in Priscilla Presley’s book and other things I was reading, like going to the university of Elvis and Priscilla crash course for a few weeks when we started. The Jesus statue is something that Elvis had. He did have those kooky dog statues. We found them when we looked at the research and Sofia said “I love that stuff!” They became a real sort of element of the stillness of the movie, these little statues and things. To me it’s the feeling of you’re in Elvis’s world, but really you’re being watched all the time. And that’s Elvis’s character.
Cailee Spaeny, Yuree Henley, Jacob Elordi, Stacey Battat and Tamara Deverell Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
For Priscilla, to me it was always like, and this is just me, she was always a guest in the house. It was never really her place. So I took the production design more from Elvis - it was all Elvis. Elvis had gold walls in his office, which was kind of based on research but we took it a bit further. We played around with some of the real research and some of the stories and some of the tone, really. The tone that Sofia wanted.
And the stuff that would work with costumes. Stacey had these long conversations about Elvis’s blue pajamas. And the blue in the room.
TD: And how would that work. Like Elvis had blue pajamas in a blue room and he’s kind of matching his space. Remember those conversations?
SB: I do remember. And I have a really great photo of the hair salon with just the robe inside the sink. I think we went in there together and went “Which robe do we like?” We put the robes in the sink with no Cailee. We didn’t need her that day.
TD: And I mean Graceland is kitsch. And we were sort of celebrating the kitsch of Graceland in that way.
SB: And it looked really good!
New York Film Festival 61 at Alice Tully Hall Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The remaining screenings during the 61st New York Film Festival of Priscilla are on Sunday, October 15 at 12:00pm - Walter Reade Theater; Sunday, October 15 at 3:15pm - Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
The New York Film Festival Main Slate selection committee, chaired by Dennis Lim, also includes Florence Almozini, Justin Chang, K. Austin Collins, and Rachel Rosen.
Priscilla will be in cinemas in the US on November 3.
The 61st New York Film Festival runs through Sunday, October 15.