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Sofia Coppola imagines Priscilla's teen years, living at Graceland with Elvis

Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi are Priscilla and Elvis Presley in Sofia Coppola's new film.
A24
Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi are Priscilla and Elvis Presley in Sofia Coppola's new film.

Sofia Coppola wanted to tell a different kind of Elvisstory in her new film, Priscilla.

Elvis and Priscilla Presley are iconic figures in American culture and folklore — "kind of the closest we have to royalty," she says. Though Coppola knew Priscilla was 10 years younger than her husband, she never really understood what that age gap meant until she read Priscilla Presley's 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me. In it, Priscilla describes meeting Elvis in Germany when she was 14 and he was a 24-year-old music superstar.

"I felt like my role was just to explain her experience and always go through [Priscilla's] point of view," Coppola says of the film. "I thought [of] all the things we have to go through as a teenager [that] she was going through while she was living in Graceland with Elvis."

Priscilla fits neatly into Coppola's body of work, which includes Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides,The Bling Ring and Marie Antoinette. All center young female protagonists — a viewpoint that felt lacking when Coppola was coming up.

"I rarely saw teenage girls depicted in a way that I felt was relatable and kind of true to that experience for me," she says. "I always like stories about transformation — and that's such an extreme time of transformation."

Through TikTok and streaming, a new generation of young women — some born after her earlier films were released — have discovered her work.

"There's girls and women that feel seen, and a lot of them are telling me they want to be filmmakers," she says. "It's so exciting that I think, 'Oh my God, there's going to be a huge wave of all these films made by these young women that I can't wait to see.' "

Coppola's new book, Archive, is a collection of photographs, annotated scripts and documents from the eight films she's made thus far.


Interview highlights

On Elvis controlling Priscilla's appearance

He had really definite ideas of how she should look, and she was almost like this doll to him. I think at first it was fun. He would take her to these stores with glamorous dresses — intimidating, but exciting. That thing when you're young, you're trying to be more grown up, or fit in with the older kids, and so I approached it like that. ...

One of the details from the book that I loved, that is in the film, is that she was putting on her false eyelashes as she was going into labor — just the commitment to glamour at all times. I think she was always "done." I don't think she ever went downstairs without full hair and makeup and dressed completely. And she said he always came down in a full outfit, like there was no lounging around and outside.

On relating to Priscilla's young life growing up around celebrity

I can't imagine anything on the scale of what she went through. To be around someone so famous — that must have been such a shock, because her childhood was nothing like that before. I know what it's like – the difference between a celebrated public person and then in private, they're a normal person. Seeing the way people acted around my dad [filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola], or going to the Cannes Film Festival as a kid. ... I had some sense of how people act around celebrity. ...

I remember talking to my mom about some of her frustrations of being a woman of that era. Priscilla was the same generation as my mom. ... My mom said that to have a successful husband and a beautiful home, that was supposed to be enough to fulfill a woman, and she felt so confused that she had creative expression that she wanted to realize. What was wrong with her, that she wasn't happy with just having a family and a beautiful home? ... And when [Priscilla says she] wants to get a job and [Elvis] says, "No, I need you to stay at home" — that was just what was expected of women at that time.

On finding music for the film after Elvis' estate denied use of his songs

I always knew that we might have to have backup plans and figure something else out. And because the focus is her story, it's kind of cool that there isn't even Elvis music in it, but I would have liked to have [the song] "Pocketful of Rainbows" of his that I love. But I'd heard that [his estate is] very controlling about the material made on him. ...

I didn't listen to a lot of that music growing up, but I always loved girl groups and Phil Spector, so that was familiar to me. That's my favorite of that era. And there's something about the Phil Spector sound that has, like, a grandeur and this big production, and it's kind of swelling and strings. It's really romantic. And I wanted the story to be ultra romantic, of her first teen love and sort of this fairy tale. It looks perfect on the outside, and then it sort of melts in the reality of when she goes into this world. It has an Alice in Wonderland feeling to me, her time in Graceland.

Jacob Elordi, Cailee Spaeny and Sofia Coppola on the set of <em>Priscilla</em>.
/ A24
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A24
Jacob Elordi, Cailee Spaeny and Sofia Coppola on the set of Priscilla.

On casting Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla

It was daunting. I mean, the first thing I thought of is, for Priscilla, how am I going to find an actress that can play 14, believably, to 28, that range? And it's always important to me that that teenager feels authentic and that that's done right. I asked my casting team for help and they suggested meeting Cailee Spaeny because she was an up-and-coming actress that they thought was talented. And I remember seeing her in something else and I thought, she was like 15. I couldn't believe she has such a baby face ... when I met her, she really looked like a kid. And so I felt like she could pull that off. And because she's in her 20s, I knew that she could express the older woman and Kirsten Dunst had just worked with her ... and she told me ... how talented she thought she was. So that really gave me the confidence that I felt like that would work well together because I trust Kirsten so much.

On her career-long collaboration with Kirsten Dunst

Working with her on my first film in Virgin Suicides, we just formed a bond. ... I always love to work with her and always I'm excited about projects that I can do with her. She just has a way of expressing some side of myself or something I'm thinking about in a way that ... we barely have to say. We have a shorthand. And I just love her sensibility and her sense of humor. It's just fun to see what she does with the material. And we kind of grew up together in our career life and as people. I met her when I was 29 and now we both ... have had kids. And it's fun to see her now be a mother. And so she's like a little sister.

On her book, Archive

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MACK

Every time I finish a film, I kind of throw all the stuff from my desk and the materials from prep in a box. During the pandemic I was looking for some photos and sort of going through them and I found all these packets from a Japanese one-hour photo place ... from Lost in Translation, and I thought I should do something with them and make a scrapbook. ... I felt like there's been enough films that I hoped that young filmmakers or young people that are interested in my work — It might be interesting [for them] to see the references and how things are made a little bit. ...

By making this book, it was nice to just have a moment where I looked like, "Wow, I have a whole body of work!" ... You don't usually sit back and see that, but yeah, I'm so grateful because it was really ... a lot of work and really daunting in the beginning of my career to be taken seriously and to make a name for myself. ... So to be at this point where people respect my work and see me that way, it's really gratifying.

Sofia Coppola naps on the set of her 2003 film,<em> Marie Antoinette.</em>
/ Archive (2023) by Sofia Coppola published by MACK
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Archive (2023) by Sofia Coppola published by MACK
Sofia Coppola naps on the set of her 2003 film, Marie Antoinette.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.