How do you accurately make a film about a legendary performer whose life story has been well documented both on film and in print?
When Elvis impersonators abound, who do you cast so that the legend comes alive but is not a parody?
Those are questions that producers asked themselves when they decided to make a movie about Elvis Presley.
ELVIS, a new four-hour movie event, will be broadcast as the "CBS Sunday Movie" Sunday, May 8 (9:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) and Wednesday, May 11 (8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
The fact-based drama is about the life of Elvis Presley, one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived. His electrifying story -- from his humble beginnings to his meteoric rise to fame -- will be told. Also, Presley's master recordings will be heard in a biographical film for the first time.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("Bend It Like Beckham") stars as Elvis Presley, Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Camryn Manheim ("The Practice") stars as Gladys Presley, Golden Globe Award winner Randy Quaid ("LBJ: The Early Years") stars as "Colonel" Tom Parker, Rose McGowan ("Charmed") stars as Ann-Margret, Robert Patrick ("Terminator 2: Judgment Day") stars as Vernon Presley and Antonia Bernath ("Living Neon Dreams") stars as Priscilla Beaulieu Presley.
Robert Greenblatt, David Janollari, Howard Braunstein and Michael Jaffe are the executive producers who contacted the Elvis Presley Estate prior to going ahead with the project to talk about making a movie. "While we were interested in doing the film, we felt that with such an iconic figure [as Elvis Presley], we didn't want to move forward without the blessing of the Presley family and the estate," said Braunstein.
"Once they agreed to cooperate with us, they also opened up their archives so that we could really show Elvis in a way that he hadn't been seen before."
"In the movie, we see Elvis between the ages of 18 and 33 and we learn about his upbringing -- how poor he was," Braunstein continued. "We see his musical influences, watch his rise to fame and get insight into his relationships with the key people in his life including his mother, Gladys, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, Ann-Margret and Priscilla."
One more piece fell into place, that had never before happened in an Elvis movie. "We were able to convince the Estate to let us use actual master recordings of his [Elvis'] music," said Braunstein. "So every time you hear an Elvis song, you are actually listening to an Elvis recording."
Next, they set out to find the right actor to play the legendary Presley. "We did a worldwide casting call," said director James Sadwith. "We saw actors in Los Angeles and New York as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and England." An open casting call was held in Los Angeles, where Elvis wannabes, including a number of bona fide Elvis impersonators, lined up around the block.
But, from the very beginning, there was one actor who they felt was right. "We liked Jonathan Rhys Meyers from the start, but he wasn't interested originally so we moved on," said Sadwith. As they went through the process there was another person who came very close. "He was one of 11 children born to a traveling tent preacher. All of the kids played musical instruments and the father had told them that they were born to carry on Elvis' work. He came very close, but ultimately backed out because he really wanted to be a preacher himself and felt that his congregation wouldn't take him seriously if he had been an actor reading lines and doing love scenes."
Finally, casting director Mary Jo Slater went to England to meet with Rhys Meyers and convinced him to read the script and then to take the part. Sadwith said: "So we got the very first person ever mentioned to do the movie. It was really great!"
Rhys Meyers studied Elvis, his films and his music, all the nuances that fans know and love. He also worked with a dialect coach and a dance instructor so that his sound and moves were authentic.
Both Rhys Meyers and dialect coach David Dahlgren had reservations about the accent: the actor didn't want to sound like a nightclub impersonator and the dialect coach was concerned about getting an Irishman to sound like a southerner.
"Elvis had more than just a regional accent," said Dahlgren. "He had very distinctive speaking mannerisms, pronunciations and inflections that are well known to his audience."
Actor and coach worked on inflection and intonation and individual word pronunciation. Rhys Meyers also found it helpful to have his dialogue written out phonetically. "For example, if he had to say 'I can't sing right now,' it became 'Ah cain't sang rat now,' " Dahlgren explained. "We also worked on speaking sincerely and naturally and, once this process became second nature, Jonathan was free to concentrate on just his acting [in the scenes]."
Marcus L. Brown was cast as Wynonie Harris, a blues singer from the '50s, who influenced how Elvis Presley performed. Rhys Meyers asked the producers to hire Brown to help him perfect his own dance moves. Brown and Rhys Meyers watched a number of Elvis performances together and then went to work.
"We saw how his body moved and acknowledged the sexual essence of his performance," Brown said.
"Jonathan was a very quick study and very passionate about what we were doing. We would work on a couple of things [movements] for a shot and then he [Jonathan] would master another on his own. He was able to hit a signature move at almost any point in the performance." Brown also noted that in the process of breaking down Elvis' movements, his and Rhys Meyers' appreciation of Elvis Presley's talent deepened.
And if clothes make the ordinary man, Elvis Presley's wardrobe stands out all on its own. Eduardo Castro served as the costume designer on the movie and noted that there are volumes of books and archival footage on Elvis' clothes.
"We were lucky that there are so many books available that illustrate Elvis' style," said Castro. "One book, Elvis Fashion, was published recently and it was invaluable. We had close-ups of the gold suit as well as the black leather suit that Elvis wore [on his comeback television special]. It also has a lot of archival photos from Graceland."
Castro's department had over 100 costume changes for Elvis alone, and actor Rhys Meyers wasn't in the country until a few days before production began.
"We just 'guesstimated' his sizes and luckily we were accurate," Castro said.
"We built most of his performance wear in Los Angeles, including the famous gold suit and the black leather suit that Elvis wore for his comeback television special." For the gold suit, Castro found a special fabric that needed to be fused to a backing because it was so fragile.
"It's very lightweight, but it's very close to the original fabric. The beads were made of Austrian crystals and covered the lapels, the side stripes, the bow tie and part of the shirt. The beading process took more than three weeks."
Castro also had to work with the differences in Elvis' style from his humble beginnings through his rise to fame. "We wanted [his clothing] to be worn out in the beginning, then get slicker as he became successful. Elvis created a look for himself and had a patina about him. We were very careful to keep that image alive."
As production drew to a close, all involved felt they had done their best to meet the requirements of the Elvis Presley Estate. Per Todd Morgan, the Director of Media and Creative Development for Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., "We wanted the movie to be unflinchingly honest, but properly balanced and, overall, to be as historically responsible as possible."
To that end, the Estate pulled out all the stops to be of help to the production team. They made suggestions for the script to be sure that the dialogue and sequences in the movie were accurate.
"The Graceland Archives provided access to photos, home movies and artifacts," said Kevin Kern, Media Coordinator for Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
"We worked with the wardrobe and makeup departments on the movie to help create the look needed for the 20 year span of the movie. Their set designers and locations scouts visited Graceland in an effort to get a feel for the home they would create in New Orleans [the primary location for the movie]."
Best of all, the Estate allowed the production to shoot for a day at Graceland, the first time that a movie had been allowed to do so.
"Six scenes were shot on the grounds of Graceland," Kern continued. "[Graceland] tours continued while the shooting took place, which required careful planning." Almost 3,500 people took the Graceland tour that day, and some guests were able to snap pictures of the home and the stars in the movie.
As the cast and crew were arriving at Graceland the night prior to the shoot, they were offered a special evening tour of the mansion. "We felt that everyone would want to have the Graceland tour experience, but with the intense one-day schedule [planned for the shoot], most would not have the opportunity to break away for it," Todd Morgan said, so he and his staff arranged for a special nighttime tour.
"Being at Elvis Presley's home is a special experience anytime, but it's never more magical than at night, when the regular daily public tours are over and you're there with just a few other people. There's a spiritual presence of Elvis there all the time, a certain kind of warmth, but it's stronger in the quiet of the night."
Morgan knew that taking the Graceland tour would increase the production team's knowledge about Elvis and that they would feel closer to the very real and fascinating person behind the legend. Did the experience contribute an extra-special element to the actors' performances?
"Maybe it did," he said. "Everything shot at Graceland turned out just beautifully."