Before her death earlier this year, Lisa Marie Presley expressed shock and horror over the depiction of her father Elvis Presley in the script for Sofia Coppola’s new film “Priscilla.” Described in two emails obtained exclusively by Variety, the late Presley asked Coppola to reconsider her vision for the character and to spare her family public embarrassment. The messages were sent four months before Presley suffered fatal cardiac arrest in January.
Presley’s messages called the script “shockingly vengeful and contemptuous,” and contained pleas to Oscar-winning director Coppola to refrain from straining her fragile relationship with her mother – the film’s subject, Priscilla Presley – as well as bringing scrutiny on Elvis’ living grandchildren as they continue to grieve the loss of Lisa Marie Presley’s son, Benjamin Keough, who died in 2020.
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“Priscilla” is a biopic of Priscilla Presley, based on the subject’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me.” It has sparked conversation among critics and audiences for its portrait of Elvis and Priscilla’s courtship – one that began in Germany in 1959 when Priscilla was 14 and Elvis was 24.
“My father only comes across as a predator and manipulative. As his daughter, I don’t read this and see any of my father in this character. I don’t read this and see my mother’s perspective of my father. I read this and see your shockingly vengeful and contemptuous perspective and I don’t understand why?” Presley wrote in one of her messages. Both were sent in September of last year, roughly four hours apart.
While Coppola had yet to roll cameras on “Priscilla” when Presley reached out, the latter told her bluntly that she would speak out against the project and her mother, who is credited as an executive producer and has participated in publicity for the A24 release. Already an awards season contender, the movie opened in limited release on Oct. 27 and expands wide on Friday.
“I will be forced to be in a position where I will have to openly say how I feel about the film and go against you, my mother and this film publicly,” Presley wrote.
When asked for comment on the exchange, Coppola responded through her representative with words she expressed to Presley in response to her September emails, saying it encapsulates what the director intended to do with her film.
“I hope that when you see the final film you will feel differently, and understand I’m taking great care in honoring your mother, while also presenting your father with sensitivity and complexity,” wrote Coppola.
Priscilla Presley was not immediately reachable for comment. A24, which is distributing “Priscilla” domestically and did not produce the project, declined to comment.
An insider close to the film said the exchanges were made on Sept. 2, 2022, only weeks away from starting production on “Priscilla.” The source said the film is exclusively based on “Elvis and Me,” and efforts were made to “tone down” some elements of the book regarding the couple’s courtship that would have been shocking to contemporary audiences. Coppola’s goal was to tell a love story, the insider said, with the primary tension of the film being Priscilla’s struggles to adapt to life with a global superstar. Lisa Marie Presley is believed to have seen an early draft of the script, said the source, which eventually was “trimmed” by about 10 pages when principal photography started on Oct. 24, 2022.
“Priscilla” was an official selection of this year’s Venice Film Festival. It premiered to glowing notices and won its star, Cailee Spaeny, a best actress prize. Both media outlets and viewers have taken note of the age gap and power dynamics between the on-screen Elvis (portrayed by “Euphoria” star Jacob Elordi) and Priscilla.
The project showcases “the attrition by which psychological abuse wears partners down,” wrote one critic. Fans on social media have accused Elvis of “grooming” his eventual bride. Most reviews found the film in line with Coppola’s vaunted filmography, and largely a story about a young woman’s life in “a gilded cage” (a phrase used in multiple reviews). Rolling Stone published an interview with Coppola on Oct. 24 with the headline, “Is Elvis Presley a Monster in ‘Priscilla’? Sofia Coppola Wants You to Judge for Yourself.”
Lisa Marie Presley was doubtful that her mother Priscilla would understand a modern translation of her experience.
“I am worried that my mother isn’t seeing the nuance here or realizing the way in which Elvis will be perceived when this movie comes out,” Lisa Marie Presley wrote in her emails. “I feel protective over my mother who has spent her whole life elevating my father’s legacy. I am worried she doesn’t understand the intentions behind this film or the outcome it will have.”
Lisa Marie Presley also seemed to appeal to Coppola’s own Hollywood legacy.
“I would think of all people that you would understand how this would feel,” she wrote, alluding to Coppola’s famous family, which includes her father, “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola. “Why are you coming for my Dad and my family?” The same insider familiar with Lisa Marie Presley said her communications with Coppola were shared with Priscilla Presley, as well as Lisa Marie Presley’s daughter, the actor Riley Keough.
Coppola has trodden lightly when it comes to questions about the age difference between Elvis and Priscilla.
“I try not to be judgmental of any of the characters and really be as sympathetic as I can to each of them. And I’m really focused on her perspective, but even with the parents, you’re like, ‘How can anybody let their kid go live with Elvis that young?’” she told Rolling Stone this month. Priscilla Presley, making the press rounds in Venice and in subsequent interviews, has clarified that she and Elvis were not sexually intimate when she was 14. The matriarch has also said numerous times that she loves the film.
The emails reveal the specific struggle Hollywood must contend with when creating art around the legacies of icons like Elvis. Estates representing late stars often wade into disputes around adapted content (Elvis Presley Enterprises, which represents the trust and the “Viva Las Vegas” star’s physical estate Graceland, denied “Priscilla” from using his music catalogue for the film).
The emails also reflect what was personally at stake for Lisa Marie Presley.
“Sofia there is one more thing I’d like to add,” Presley concluded her second note to Coppola. She shared an anecdote about one of her young twins, Harper Lockwood, who was sent a trade announcement about “Priscilla” going into production.
“I had to explain that we are going to have to endure another hit in our lives. That there is going to be a movie about her grandfather that is going to try to make him look really, really bad but it’s not true. I had to explain that her beloved grandmother is supporting it. These two little girls have been through so much in the past 7 years, enduring my divorce and horrific custody battle and then losing their brother. We’ve all been drowning,” Lisa Marie Presley wrote.
She praised the 2022 film “Elvis,” which was directed by Baz Luhrmann, as “a break from suffering and a ray of light that hit us last year … it made them so proud and honored to be his granddaughters. It made them feel blessed for a moment and less cursed in life. It made us all so proud because it was a true depiction of who he really was.”
Presley said she did not understand Coppola’s “need to attempt to take my father down on the heels of such an incredible film using the excuse that you are trying to tell my mother’s story, but from your very dark and jaded reality.”
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