Cast your mind back not so long ago to the summer of 2022. Baz Luhrmann was making a dazzling return to the big screen with his eye-popping Elvis biopic, a riot of colour and glitz with a budget of around $85m (£67m).
Eighteen months later, Sofia Coppola is telling a similar story from a different perspective in her film Priscilla. It’s a quieter but no less stylish interpretation of life under the lens from the viewpoint of the wife of the king of rock’n’roll.
Coppola’s starting point was Priscilla Presley’s 1985 bestselling memoir Elvis and Me, which gave an intimate insight into the pair’s turbulent relationship and the pressures of stardom.
The filmmaker first read the book 10 years ago before returning to it more recently, having previously felt the tale might be too similar to her 2006 film Marie Antoinette, about the controversial wife of Louis XVI. The young Austrian princess was 14 – the same age Priscilla met Elvis – when she married the French king.
But on a more recent re-reading of Priscilla’s book, Coppola had a change of heart. “I was really surprised with how much I related to it and how vivid her story was,” she explains.
“So then I called Priscilla up and she was open to it. I loved that it [the book] was so focused on her and their relationship and how intimate the story was.”
Coppola is known for putting women front and centre in her movies, which also include The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. In 2022, a study found that 33% of films featured sole female protagonists and another concluded that women accounted for just 18% of directors working on the top 250 films during the same year.
“It’s really important to me to be able to show a female perspective. I’m happy there are more and more women directors, but it’s still such a small percentage,” she tells me.
As for any Luhrmann comparisons, Coppola says she wasn’t making her film in reaction to his Elvis extravaganza.
“When I started working on this, they were talking about how Baz was making his: ‘Are you sure you want to do this as there’s already an Elvis movie?’ And I was like: ‘Even better, that’s so interesting that the culture is going to be focused on him and then a year later to see the same kind of story, but from her point of view… to have this counter balance.'”
But Coppola had to be creative to produce her lavish-looking period piece on a relatively low budget by Hollywood standards (less than $20m / £16m).
“I just see all these men getting hundreds of millions of dollars and then I’m fighting for a tiny fraction of that,” she says.
“I think it’s just left over from the way the culture of that business is. It’s frustrating but I’m always fighting to get it and I’m just happy to get to make my movies independently and find people that believe in them.”
Despite that frustration, she says there’s also an upside to having less in funds.
“There’s a challenge and a freedom in making things small because if you have a big budget, you have a lot of input from studio executives, and I would never be able to make a movie like that.
“So I have that freedom. And then you have to be really crafty and it was really hard but I had the best team… we were able to re-use sets and I don’t know how we made so many costumes! It was all hands on deck and just having really creative department heads.”
Financial constraints also affected how the movie, which was made in just 30 days, was filmed.
“I would have liked to shoot on film, but we shot digitally because we had to move so fast,” she says.
And there was one other problem – due to rights issues, none of Elvis’s music could be used.
“I originally wanted to have three Elvis songs, but I always knew that we might not be able to get them. I wanted it to really be focused on her [Priscilla’s] story… and to me it is really important to have Dolly Parton at the end, to have a woman’s voice at the end,” Coppola says.
The film plays out to Parton’s track I Will Always Love You (the country star famously refused to let Elvis record her song after his manager Colonel Tom Parker insisted on half the publishing rights as well). Parton also said Priscilla told her that Elvis sang the song to her as they were on the way out of court following their divorce proceedings in 1973.
The lack of Elvis songs isn’t hugely noticeable. The film is so focused on Priscilla’s journey and the couple’s rocky relationship, it almost seems fitting that his music doesn’t feature. The soundtrack includes other well-known tracks from that era including The Ramones’ Baby I Love You and Frank Avalon’s Venus.
The stars of the film are relative newcomers, Mare of Easttown actress Cailee Spaeny – who has been nominated for a best actress Golden Globe for her performance – and Euphoria’s Jacob Elordie.
Spaeny seems to effortlessly morph from an awkward young teen into an increasingly confident young woman on screen.
“I was so impressed by her especially as we shot out of order. So in the same day, she played 15 and then in the afternoon she’d be pregnant!” Coppola laughs.
The director says the fact her leading pair were a similar age – both in their mid-20s – helped her deal with the problematic topic of the age gap when Priscilla and Elvis began dating (she was 14 and he was 24). The pair met when Priscilla’s family was living in Germany at the time Elvis was stationed there while serving in the US army.
“When I was filming the scene where he first kisses her it really helped that Cailee is the same age as Jacob.
“It was tricky to get the tone right because I didn’t want it to feel creepy. I wanted it to be from her point of view, being romantic, but I had to turn off the side of my brain that’s a mother and an adult. She’s a young girl with Elvis, this rock star and what would that feel like?
“So you have to shift perspectives. I just always tried to go back to Priscilla’s experience and I thought if I could just show it through her perspective and suspend judgement, then hopefully after the movie it invites conversation.”
Critics have questioned how modern viewers will feel about watching Priscilla and Elvis’s early relationship.
“Some audiences no doubt will bristle at a 14-year-old girl in a sexually adjacent situation,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “But Coppola handles that aspect nonjudgmentally.”
In the New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg wrote that the power dynamic is “appalling from a contemporary standpoint”.
He added: “Die-hard Elvis fans will no doubt call some of the characterisation in Priscilla slander, but part of the achievement here is that Elvis is not simply a monster.”
Priscilla herself has said they didn’t have sex until they were married when she was 21. She is credited as an executive producer and was in close contact with Coppola as the film was being made.
“She was really open to answering my questions as I worked on the script, and she went through all the drafts, but then she didn’t want to come to set. She didn’t want to make any of us nervous. When I showed her the film for the first time, I was so nervous. I was dreading it.
“And then she was really emotional and told me: ‘That was my life.’ And so she was touched by it. And I felt relieved because it was the first time I had that responsibility of someone who’s alive, telling their story.”
Elvis’s daughter was more cautious about the film, writing a letter to Coppola before her death in January last year, concerned that the script made her father appear as “a predator and manipulative”.
Coppola told Lisa Marie that Elvis is depicted with “sensitivity and complexity”.
Sadly, Lisa Marie didn’t live to see the film’s completion but Coppola now says: “I really tried to be sensitive to all the characters and make them feel human and understand where his (Elvis’s) temper came from, from his frustration.
“But then I was really focused on Priscilla’s perspective and I always go back to that because I can only tell her view.”
Priscilla is in cinemas from 1 January.