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Interview: Thom Zimny Reminds Us of Elvis, The Man Behind the Music, The Artist, The Creative in New HBO Doc, Elvis Presley: The Searcher

Thom Zimny’s new documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher is not just another documentary on The King. Zimny offers us whether you’re a fan or an enquiring mind an authentic take on Elvis. The two-part documentary takes us all the way from his childhood, looking at how gospel and blues would influence him.

The documentary offers a wealth of unseen footage and interviews with Jerry Schilling, Priscilla Presley and Tom Petty as we’re reminded of the man and the artist and his legacy. It’s a fresh, new and much-needed look, an absolute must-see for fans and non-fans alike. From this, a whole new appreciation is born as we’re given a new perspective, a reminder of Elvis, The King, and what he loved the most, his music.

 

I caught up with Zimny recently to chat about making Elvis Presley: The Searcher.

I’ve seen a few Elvis documentaries in my lifetime and the one thing I have to say was you capture an authentic side to Elvis, one we haven’t seen in a long time. So, for you, why Elvis?

I think for me, the desire to do a film about Elvis came about when I realized there was a generation that was missing out on the beauty of the man and his music. The message got lost in portraying Elvis as a cartoon figure. I wanted to get to a closer place and examine the artist. We looked at what he accomplished and kept away from the backstory that has been the focus of other films which looked at the character defects and the losses in his life. I felt the music needed to be revisited and our generation would not see him as a caricature, but as a person who was deeply connected to the music and whose life has not been clearly explained in books and films.

How do you tackle that when you’re dealing with an icon like Elvis? How do you get access to that estate like accessing Priscilla Presley?

When you’re dealing with someone like Elvis who is that iconic, you have to acknowledge the history and that there is another relationship in this, and that’s the fans. They know things intimately. One of the things I tried to get at in both the storytelling and visual aspect was a more humanistic level of looking at Elvis and less iconic imagery. I used the home movies and I used stills that were outtakes that visually grounded him to this place of looking at Elvis differently, more like a man. I tried not to fall into the shorthand version of history meaning leaving out race and details of influence in Elvis’ life by not repeating that same story of him going to Sun Record, Ed Sullivan and invented Rock n’ Roll. By not doing that, I was able to look at the person differently, and that for me was the goal to have the casual fan connect to it, and have the uber fan connect to it, like you just said, with a difference.

It’s not easy to do because he’s so powerful visually and you get swept away with the magic of his music and performance, but that’s why I had Priscilla tell a lot of stories. She was key in capturing a different side of the story and I sat with her for many hours.

That’s the other thing about it that I really loved, you have so many key figures from his life, including her, but you didn’t cut to them and by doing that, you’re not taking us away from the film. You’re keeping our focus, talk about that choice.

I looked at the idea of not using talking heads as this great challenge. In some ways, it brings you to this place to listen to the music and rhythm of the voices telling the stories, but also opens up the possibilities of what do you present visually? It’s very challenging when you’re working on two movies and the only thing you have is the soundtrack, so it puts you in this great place to look at the story differently. As an editor and film director, I feel it challenged me to look at the Graceland Estate as a character, the details of Elvis’ life. It puts you in a different headspace as a viewer by putting you in a space and in a bit of a dream. The dream of his landscape, his growing up, Memphis, the studio, Graceland itself. All of this stays as a bit of a dream space.

The beauty is stepping into that archive and knowing this is his world and you don’t lose that magic by cutting to someone who’s sitting in a chair. It also gave me the opportunity to go through archives to get the voice of Elvis through people who have passed and put their voice in the film. For me, I feel it was the first time I did something like that and it presented great challenges for me that really helped out in the storytelling.

You mentioned the soundtrack briefly. Did you know that going in or did it come during the filming?

In the early days of making the film, I always thought of the soundtrack. It’s working with the researchers or the writers. Going through the edit on a daily basis, I would go through his music that felt like the sonic soundscape I wanted. It was very important to me and I always wanted to dig into the vault to get past the language that only deals with the hooks of the songs or the greatest hits. I went to Mona Lisa, an army cassette recording of Elvis singing alone with the piano. I went to outtakes of Suspicious Minds that were stripped down without the girls or horns or the production just to find those spaces that show a raw beauty and quality of Elvis as a musician, but also for the viewer to connect to something and to feel different. The last thing I wanted was the wall to wall greatest hits moment because there are gems that Tomorrow is a Long Time which is a Bob Dylan song. The beauty of that is it’s lost to a lot of people but they demonstrate that even when Elvis is making bad films, he’s still making some great music you just have to find it.

I loved the deconstruction of the man and the music, the artist and the creator. That’s where his soul was. Talk about how you researched this because that must have taken a long time to get to that.

Oh gosh. When working on a film about Elvis, you have to tap into all kinds of worlds to find images of stills and footage that hasn’t been seen before. We went deep into the collector’s world and gathered Super 8. We had over 8000 stills and spent months reading and researching, reading transcripts of interviews, reading books that pored over his life, we talked to people. We did over 50 interviews and had letters. I couldn’t even tell you a number of hours of footage. There was also archival footage and it all mattered in the world of filmmaking. In documentary filmmaking, there is no B-Roll. Every shot mattered. The beauty of how do you present a moment in time, all those choices are important. How he looked and what he was conveying visually was always examined.

How did you decide on the time because this could have been a long series? Talk about editing that?

In coming to a place where you understand how long someone’s life story is going to be, the film itself dictates that to you. In the editing room, the film starts talking to you. Certain stories hold up and others will go by the wayside. The beauty of editing and directing is it has its own rhythm. With the story of Elvis, I needed to make sure certain key things got across to reexamine his history, but I knew there was a lot I could leave behind. Sometimes, the biggest editing happened by saying, “It’s been covered before.” The two films organically took shape by listening to the film respond and that’s the magic of editing. You want an emotional journey so between the two films, if you’re feeling hurried or you’re missing an emotional point, that’s when you go back and say, “We need to spend more time on Elvis in the army because it went by too fast.” That’s an abstract thing can only be conveyed in the presence of viewing the whole film.

When you watched it from watching it yourself for the first time?

That’s such a great question. In making the film, I learned so much more about Elvis that I couldn’t comprehend until I spoke to Priscilla and the impact of his loss. I realized it was a story about a man who lost his creative desire. By the end, was struggling with just being held back. I had a sense of that before going into the film, but I got a real sense of that by spending time with Priscilla and Jerry Schilling and listening to them talk about his artistic frustrations.

When you make a film this intensely, it’s this relationship that’s in your life and when you come to the place of letting it go out into the world, there’s a bittersweet sadness to it, there’s a lot of gratitude that you have this experience. The beauty of making these films is that you learn things yourself and you apply to your life experience. That’s what I hope with this viewing of Elvis someone gets, is that it goes to this place of understanding universal ideas of goals, dreams, lost dreams, dreams found. For me, one of the highlights was watching it with an audience with Priscilla. You realize the film is going out there into the world.

It gave me a new appreciation for him, in how you portrayed him, the creator, the artist, which as you say, sometimes we lose sight of.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher airs on 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14, HBO