Priscilla Presley Entrusts Sofia Coppola to Tell Her Story: “I Felt She Could Get Me”

Priscilla Presley was trying on clothes in the fitting room of a Beverly Hills boutique when she overheard two women whispering about her. It was the mid-1960s, and Priscilla — who had met Elvis in 1959 when she was 14 and he was 24 — in some people’s eyes was living out the fantasy of every teenage girl in America. She was staying at Graceland while finishing high school, wearing sophisticated clothes and dramatic makeup, and traveling on the arm of one of the most charismatic men in history. Her life was thrilling — and often lonely. “I heard the girl saying, ‘You know who that is? That’s the girl Elvis is dating and they’re getting married,’ ” Priscilla recalls. “ ‘She’s pregnant.’ ” Priscilla was not, in fact, pregnant, she says, and she was just beginning to understand that she, too, was now a public figure, subject to scrutiny and speculation. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what’s being said?’ ”

Some 60 years later, now 78, Priscilla has heard and seen a lifetime of other peoples’ stories and opinions about her relationship with Elvis. In Priscilla, a new movie written and directed by Sofia Coppola, audiences will get a rare look at the couple’s story from Priscilla’s point of view. “I’m so nervous because it’s my life,” she says of the film, which will premiere Sept. 4 at the Venice Film Festival, ahead of A24 releasing it in theaters Oct. 27. “The people who are watching, they’re living it with you, and you hope and pray that they get it. They get your feelings, your hurts, your sensitivity.”

More from The Hollywood Reporter

Coppola adapted the script from Priscilla’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, which the filmmaker picked up a few years ago, thinking, “Oh, it would be a juicy, glamorous story,” Coppola says. “But then I was struck by how much I connected with it emotionally. I thought it was just going to be a fun adventure, and I was surprised by how relatable her story was.” As one of cinema’s foremost chroniclers of young female longing — in films from 1999’s The Virgin Suicides to 2003’s Lost in Translation to 2006’s Marie Antoinette — Coppola is, in many ways, the perfect filmmaker for Priscilla’s story. And like Priscilla, the director spent formative years in the whirlwind of a magnetic artist, her father, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. “I know from my family what it’s like to be inside a show business family,” Coppola says. “I know that growing up, people are looking at you in a different way. And also living in a house with my dad, this big personality, a great artist and a lot of our life revolving around that. And seeing my mom’s life, how she was trying to find her way within his, I could relate to that,” Coppola says.

The movie includes scenes that can be read either as reflective of a bygone, more patriarchal era or alarming at any time, from the very fact of Elvis dating a 14-year-old, to him choosing Priscilla’s clothes for her, to him losing his temper during a pillow fight and leaving her with a black eye. All these years later, Priscilla’s own view of Elvis is a tender one. “It was a different time,” she says. “I lived in his world. I wanted to please him. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to have fun with him. I wanted to see what it was that he liked.”

I’m so nervous because it’s my life. You hope and pray that they get it. Priscilla Presley
“I’m so nervous because it’s my life. You hope and pray that they get it.” Priscilla Presley Hair: Deena O’Hara Lewis. Makeup: Mouna Forde. Alexander McQueen dress, Paul Andrew shoes, Cartier earrings.

It’s mid-August, and Priscilla and Coppola are settled in a lounge at Santa Monica’s The Georgian Hotel for an interview that is at times bracingly personal. Seven months earlier, when Coppola’s film was in postproduction, Priscilla and Elvis’ only child, Lisa Marie, died suddenly at age 54 of a small-bowel obstruction. “I did know there was something not right,” Priscilla says of the days immediately before Lisa Marie died. On Jan. 10, the night of the Golden Globe Awards, Austin Butler had just won best actor in a drama for playing Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie, and mother and daughter went to the Chateau Marmont together after the show to celebrate. “We had just gotten there, you go down all these stairs,” Priscilla says. “I tripped a little bit because I had these high heels on, and she started laughing so hard. I started laughing. We hadn’t even had a drink yet. She goes, ‘Oh my God, Mom, you can’t even have a drink.’ … It was fun, a fun memory. Then we sat down and ordered drinks, and she says, ‘Mom, my stomach hurts really bad.’ We immediately got up and left.” Two days later, Lisa Marie’s ex-husband, actor-musician Danny Keough, called Priscilla and said Lisa Marie was in the hospital. “I got right in the car, but she was already gone,” Priscilla says. “I still can’t believe it. I don’t wish this on any mother.”

The Presleys have always prized privacy — her ability to keep a secret is part of what Priscilla believes endeared her to Elvis. After meeting him at a party at his house in Germany, where both Elvis and her father were stationed in the military, Priscilla says she never told anyone at school about the encounter. “He said, ‘You never told them you came to my house? Really?’ He just was actually stunned that I didn’t reveal it,” she says. That discretion, Coppola says, is part of why telling Priscilla’s story was so appealing. “People are curious about your story,” Coppola says to Priscilla, “because you have mystique, which is so rare today.”

There have been some pop culture takes on Priscilla’s story over the years. In 1988, director Larry Peerce made a TV miniseries version of Elvis and Me starring soap star Susan Walters as Priscilla and B-movie actor Dale Midkiff as Elvis — unlike Coppola’s movie, which opens with Priscilla as a teen, that film opens with performance footage of Elvis. In 1989, Depeche Mode released the song “Personal Jesus,” which songwriter Martin Gore told Spin was inspired by Elvis and Me. “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else,” Gore said. “It’s about how Elvis Presley was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?” After Elvis died in 1977, through the 1980s and early ’90s, Priscilla began to establish a public persona separate from his. She acted for five years on TV’s Dallas and appeared in three Naked Gun movies. “When I’m on a plane,” she says, “usually people either clap or they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, I saw Naked Gun. It was so good. We were hoping there’d be more.’ ”

I know that growing up, people are looking at you in a different way. Sofia Coppola, on being raised in a famous family
“I know that growing up, people are looking at you in a different way.” Sofia Coppola, on being raised in a famous family Hair: Cervando Maldonado at The Wall Group. Makeup: Jillian Dempsey at Walter Schupfer. Top and pants: Loro Piana


In early 2021, Coppola was in bed with COVID-19, on the phone with a friend, sharing her frustrations about a stalled attempt to develop Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country as a series for Apple TV+. “My friend was like, ‘You need to go back to being a director,’ ” Coppola says. “ ‘Stop all this producing, trying to get something together. You have to go back to doing what you love.’ ” Coppola had been ruminating on Priscilla’s book. “Her story was so vivid in my mind and the visuals of that world, Memphis, the ’60s. It’s so American,” Coppola says. “And I always like themes about finding one’s identity and teenage girls growing into adulthood.” She reached out to Priscilla, who says she had been a fan since Lost in Translation, which won Coppola an original screenplay Oscar. Priscilla, who has an executive producer credit on the film, felt Coppola was someone she could trust. “I just got who she was and I felt that she could get me,” she says. “I thought, we have different stories, but she could understand this better than any writer because she kind of lived it in her own way.”

Italian producer Lorenzo Mieli and his company, The Apartment (which is owned by Fremantle), backed the film, which Coppola made for less than $20 million, a budget that meant she did not need to cast stars. Coppola was developing her movie when she learned about Luhrmann’s $85 million Elvis film, which would go on to gross $289 million worldwide and be nominated for eight Oscars. “I heard Baz was making a movie about Elvis,” Coppola says. “I was like, ‘That’s OK. That’s even better, in a way, that people are looking at his story.’ He’s so much in the culture always, but even more so now. It’s interesting, then, to look at Priscilla’s perspective.”

Coppola cast Cailee Spaeny based in part on the recommendation of her frequent collaborator Kirsten Dunst. She had shot the upcoming Alex Garland movie Civil War with the young actress, who plays Priscilla from age 14 to age 24. When Priscilla met with Spaeny, she had just one suggestion. “She asked what I could tell her, and I said, ‘Just be sensitive to him,’ ” Priscilla says. What mattered was “that love was there, that the care was there. And she’s soft. I like her demeanor, that it wasn’t hard.” Coppola cast Jacob Elordi, who also stars in Emerald Fennell’s upcoming film for Amazon, Saltburn, after meeting him in a coffee shop near where she lives in New York. “All the girls in the room just turned to him, they gravitated,” Coppola says. “I just felt like, ‘Yeah, he has that kind of charisma that I imagine Elvis had.’ ”

Coppola pulled stories from Priscilla’s book and pushed for more details about the glamorous, chaotic and often uncomfortably public life she was leading — like that the first thing she did when she went into labor was apply her false eyelashes, and that she would pick out the right pistol to go with her glittery dresses when she and Elvis went target shooting.

Priscilla and Elvis Presley on their May 1967 wedding day in Las Vegas. The couple with their 4-day-old daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, who died Jan. 12 at the age of 54. “I don’t wish this on any mother,” says Priscilla.
Priscilla and Elvis Presley on their May 1967 wedding day in Las Vegas. The couple with their 4-day-old daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, who died Jan. 12 at the age of 54. “I don’t wish this on any mother,” says Priscilla.

For a tight 30-day shoot in Toronto, production designer Tamara Deverell replicated Graceland, Las Vegas and Germany. “We talked about Graceland looking like a wedding cake,” Coppola says. “We wanted to have a real contrast between Germany and her arrival at Graceland. In Germany, it’s winter and gray. All the palettes of the clothes are muted. When she goes to Vegas and Graceland, it’s all very colorful and heightened, and exciting. It was almost like Oz when you first see the exterior of Graceland and the flowers are bright.”

Coppola also used a different editing style and sound design for scenes with Elvis versus scenes without him. “When Elvis is in the building, there’s a different energy because he’s so full of life,” Coppola says. “When he’s gone, it’s more quiet.” Coppola’s longtime producer Youree Henley puts it another way: “Every time Elvis shows up, we just burn money. With Priscilla, things felt sure-footed and we knew what to do and we had the means to do it. And Elvis would whirl in and it would be like, ‘Oh man, that guy’s always got to be in some crazy outfit and he’s always got to have 10 people around him.’ ” A scene Coppola fought to keep despite budget-conscious producers wanting to excise it involves Elvis demolishing a building on Graceland’s property and accidentally starting a fire. “I just hung on to it till the bitter end because it says so much about being in his world, his eccentric way of living, all his whims.”

Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars, and his pop-rock band, Phoenix, were music supervisors on the movie, along with Randall Poster. Their music choices include a cover of the Frankie Avalon song “Venus,” which was playing when Priscilla and Elvis first met and which becomes Priscilla’s theme in the film. Much of the music references the era while still being anachronistic — the movie opens with a 1980 Ramones cover of The Ronettes’ 1963 song, “Baby, I Love You.” One thing the film does not have is any of Elvis’ music: Coppola asked Elvis Presley Enterprises, the entity that is 85 percent owned by Authentic Brands Group — the branding company that also owns the rights to the Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe likenesses — and was turned down (the Presley family owns the other 15 percent). “They don’t like projects that they haven’t originated, and they’re protective of their brand,” Coppola says. “But that made us be more creative.”

The relationship between the movie and other stakeholders in Elvis’ brand is a delicate one, which only got more complicated after Lisa Marie died. Though Priscilla and Elvis divorced in 1973, they remained close until he died in 1977, and she has been a key figure in shaping Elvis’ legacy. In his will, Elvis had named Lisa Marie, then 9, his sole heir; Priscilla became a co-executor, helping to oversee the Elvis Presley estate. Together with a management team, Priscilla helped rescue an estate that was soon to run out of money, turning Graceland into a museum and signing lucrative licensing deals. Today, the Elvis brand makes more than $100 million a year. On Jan. 28, Priscilla filed a petition questioning the “authenticity and validity” of her daughter’s will, disputing a 2016 amendment that removed her and the family’s former business manager, Barry Siegel, as trustees and replaced them with Lisa Marie’s two oldest children, Riley and Benjamin Keough (Benjamin died by suicide in 2020 at age 27). Priscilla had not been notified of the change, as required by the terms of the trust, and she felt her daughter’s signature looked odd. Press citing anonymous sources reported that Priscilla and Riley’s relationship was tense as they navigated the will. In May, attorneys for Priscilla and Riley, who is garnering Emmy buzz for her lead turn in Daisy Jones & The Six, announced that they had reached an agreement over the estate.

“Riley is now the executor, which should be right, obviously, being her daughter,” Priscilla says. “Riley and I are on good terms. We were never not on good terms. That was all publicity. This is private and this is not something to fool around with and say that we’re not agreeing. In fact, I’m having dinner with [Riley] tonight. We understand what needs to be done. I’m there for her. She knows that. She wants me there for her to help her.” In comments to Vanity Fair published the morning of this interview, Riley characterized the relationship similarly. “Things with Grandma will be happy. They’ve never not been happy,” Keough told the magazine of Priscilla. “She was a huge part of creating my grandfather’s legacy and Graceland. He was the love of her life. Anything that would suggest otherwise in the press makes me sad because, at the end of the day, all she wants is to love and protect Graceland and the Presley family and the legacy.”

Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla. The important thing was “that love was there,” Priscilla told the actress who plays her.
Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny in Priscilla. The important thing was “that love was there,” Priscilla told the actress who plays her.

A throughline of Coppola’s work has been the unusual care and attention she devotes to depicting the interior lives of teenage girls. “As a young woman starting out making films, I always felt like I didn’t see teenage girls represented in a way that was relatable,” Coppola says. “Films weren’t made for them in a respectful way, or with beautiful photography. That was something I didn’t see very often and I wanted to express,” she says. Priscilla doesn’t shy from the discomfort of seeing a petite 14-year-old courted by a full-grown rock ’n’ roll star. “Priscilla, what about boys at school?” asks Priscilla’s mother in the film, played by Succession’s Dagmara Dominczyk. “Must be some handsome ones.” Looking back, Priscilla says that if her parents had prevented her from dating Elvis, she would have run away. “My parents were really beside themselves,” she says. “I basically threatened them and told them, ‘If you don’t let me go, I’ll find my way.’ ”

For all the adolescent girls represented in her filmography, Priscilla is the first film Coppola has made as the mother of two teen girls herself. “Now I can see the mother’s point of view also,” Coppola says of how her perspective has changed. “And I see all these teen-girl objects in my house that look like set dressing from one of my movies. In my life, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, now I’m the villain character.’ That’s new. I can’t believe that.”

Coppola’s 16-year-old daughter, Romy Mars, recently went viral for a since-deleted 49-second video she posted on TikTok. “Make a vodka sauce pasta with me because I’m grounded because I tried to charter a helicopter from New York to Maryland on my dad’s credit card because I wanted to visit a camp friend,” Romy says in the cooking video. Coppola does not allow her children to post publicly on social media, and she only recently joined Instagram herself — that Romy’s TikTok ended up being picked up by The New York Times suggests that has probably been the right policy. “We were raised to be so private, and social media is so the opposite of how I grew up,” Coppola says. “So it was the best way for her to be rebellious.” Much of the internet reaction to the video dealt with Romy’s entertaining storytelling choices and her awareness of her own privilege, saying of her parents, “They don’t want me to be a nepotism kid, but TikTok is not gonna make me famous, so it doesn’t really matter …” Coppola says of the video, “I got lots of compliments on her filmmaking. And comedy. She’s funny. But people discussing my parenting publicly is not what I would’ve hoped for.”

A24, which owns only the domestic rights, is counting on Coppola’s female fan base to help propel the film to success — she may be the only Oscar-winning screenwriter to have T-shirts sold at Uniqlo devoted to her work. Some of the international rights to Priscilla, including distribution in the U.K. and Germany, sold to MUBI in August, while other territories are still for sale, in a dealmaking environment that is complicated by the SAG-AFTRA strike. A24 applied for one of SAG’s interim agreements — allowing actors to promote films from companies that are not in the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — and was granted one in late August. But as of press time, it was unclear whether the actors would attend the Venice premiere.

From left Coppola accepted the 2004 best original screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation and attended the 1979 Cannes Film Festival with her father, Francis Ford Coppola.
From left: Coppola accepted the 2004 best original screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation and attended the 1979 Cannes Film Festival with her father, Francis Ford Coppola.

In May, Coppola screened the film for Priscilla. “When I saw the movie, I tried to separate myself and live it as if I was just a fan or just someone that’s wanting to see the movie,” she says. “At the end, I actually, I was quite emotional. Only being 14. You look back and you go, ‘Why me? Why am I here? Why am I driving in a limo, going through the gates of Graceland with Elvis?’ ”

Update: This story was updated to clarify the role of the band Phoenix on the film.

THR Cover Priscilla Presley and Sophia Coppola Photographed by Melodie McDaniel
THR Cover Priscilla Presley and Sophia Coppola Photographed by Melodie McDaniel

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter

Click here to read the full article.