The untold story behind a revealing yet humorous moment in the Oval Office.
On a December morning in 1970, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll showed up on the lawn of the White House to request a meeting with the most powerful man in the world, President Richard Nixon.
Based on an actual encounter that took place on December 21, 1970, Elvis & Nixon hilariously re-imagines the unlikely meeting between rocker and politician as dramatized by two of America’s finest actors, starring Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon as Presley and two-time Academy Award-winner Kevin Spacey as Nixon.
The film is directed by Liza Johnson (Return, Hateship Loveship) and written by Joey Sagal & Hanala Sagal (Traumedy Central) and Cary Elwes (“Family Guy,” The Princess Bride).
Kevin Spacey stars as Richard Nixon (left) and Michael Shannon stars as Elvis Presley (right) in Liza Johnson’s ELVIS & NIXON, an Amazon Studios / Bleecker Street release.
In 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) flies to Washington D.C. with the goal of convincing President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) to deputize him as a federal agent-at-large. Showing up unannounced at the Northwest Gate of the White House with his buddy Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Presley persuades awe-struck guards to hand deliver a letter to Nixon requesting a secret meeting. White House staffers Egil “Bud” Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) tell the president that a sit-down with Elvis during an election year could generate good PR, but Nixon is in no mood to humor the legendary rocker.
Undeterred, Jerry and Elvis’ sidekick Sonny (Johnny Knoxville) re-group with Krogh and Chapin to hatch a deal: Elvis will sign an autograph for Nixon’s daughter Julie in exchange for face time with the president. Prior to making his grand entrance, Presley is instructed in a litany of White House protocols, which he quickly disregards. To Nixon’s surprise and the astonishment of his nervous aides, the pair bond over their shared contempt of counterculture.
The idea to make a feature film about the meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon was originally inspired by a portrait of an unsmiling Elvis, facing the camera and in profile, mugshot-style, that hangs in the home of producer Cassian Elwes.
At a Christmas party, Elwes’ longtime friend, Joey Sagal, also an Elvis impersonator, explained the story behind artist Russell Young’s silkscreened artwork. “He told me the picture was taken when Elvis secretly went to Washington and became an undercover narcotics agent,” recalls Elwes. “He said, ‘This is the official photograph from Elvis getting the badge.’ And I go, ‘What are you talking about?’ So Joey proceeded to tell the whole story.”
Encouraged by Elwes, Sagal, who appeared as Elvis in Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” and his then wife, Hanala, worked together on a first draft of Elvis & Nixon. Cassian’s brother, actor and screenwriter Cary Elwes, later expanded the script into its final form.
Essential to fleshing out the story were two first-hand accounts of the meeting and the events leading up to it. The memoir Me and a Guy Named Elvis, by longtime Presley confidant Jerry Schilling, became a road map for the writers in early drafts. The handwritten notes taken during the meeting by Nixon counsel Egil “Bud” Krogh, which he later compiled into his own account, The Day Elvis Met Nixon, were incorporated into the final draft.
With Schilling offering Presley’s side of the story and Krogh representing the White House perspective, the producers knew they had the makings of a great movie. “When I read the script I was like, ‘I gotta make this movie,’” says Cassian Elwes.
Elvis & Nixon delights in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction bond forged by two very different, iconic Americans. The story also offers a rare perspective of the Elvis mystique as experienced by his lifelong friends. “My number one hope for the movie is that it inspires people to take another look at Elvis,” says Shannon. “I also think it’s a great story about someone who has everything but can’t just relax and enjoy it. Elvis had this profound concern for other people and for the world. He feels like he has to do something about it and I think that’s always a good story.”
In terms of sheer entertainment, Cassian Elwes is confident audiences will be knocked out by the virtuoso performances and on-screen rapport of the men who inhabit its title roles. “Michael Shannon is one of the best actors working at the moment,” says the producer. “Seeing Kevin Spacey go toe-to-toe with him is like watching one of the greatest boxing matches of all time.”
Adds Johnson, “I love the way the story was written to acknowledge the absurd clash of two worlds, but it also has something to say about the context of the U.S. in 1970 and the way the two such powerful men are both terrified of the counterculture.”
Presley confidant Schilling knows moviegoers around the globe will enjoy the film, but he has one big concern. “Elvis is big in Japan, his biggest market is England and he’s huge in Germany, so I know his fans all over the world will have fun,” he says. “If Elvis is looking down from above, I hope he’s happy with this film,” Schilling laughs. “Otherwise I’m in trouble!”
Kevin Spacey, who has twice been Emmy-nominated for his role as fictional president Frank Underwood on the Netflix drama “House of Cards,” was the filmmakers’ first choice to portray the real-life 37th president of the United States. “It just so happened that the five days we needed Kevin to film fit perfectly into his schedule,” says Cassian Elwes. So the two-time Academy Award winner hit the ground running. “Kevin won the Golden Globe for ‘House of Cards’ on Sunday night in Los Angeles, did four interviews backstage, arrived in Louisiana at 3:30 in the morning and went in front of the camera at nine o’clock doing an absolutely perfect Nixon,” he says.
For Spacey, a longtime political junkie who recently narrated and executive produced the “Race to the White House” documentary series for CNN, the allure of re-enacting the Elvis-Nixon summit proved irresistible. “First of all, it’s a hilarious story,” he says. “And I couldn’t turn down the chance to work with Michael Shannon. He’s a great American stage actor, and he became so Elvis-like that we had a great time shooting.”
Spacey prepared himself by taking a deep dive into Nixon’s behind-the-scenes persona before filming began. “I listened to hours and hours of recordings of Nixon’s phone conversations and private meetings in the White House,” Spacey says. “I was stunned by Nixon’s paranoia about people on the outside trying to destroy him. He had a tremendous distrust of the press and lots of enemies. It was kind of remarkable how grumpy he was as a person, and Nixon’s use of foul language was shocking. You just could not believe the kinds of things he said.”
Acclaimed actor Michael Shannon, Academy Award-nominated for his role in Revolutionary Road, didn’t know much about Elvis aside from his public identity when he was originally approached about the part. But producer Holly Wiersma, who had worked with Shannon on the 2006 thriller Bug, was relentless in her efforts to win him over. “I’d get stuffed animals that played Elvis songs and send them to his little girl, who was six years old,” Wiersma recalls.
Eventually Shannon came to see the role as an opportunity to reshape public perception of an iconic American figure. “I never imagined myself playing Elvis in a million years,” Shannon says. “But once I started working on the part, I realized he was much more complicated than he typically gets credit for. Unfortunately, impersonators have turned Elvis into some sort of cartoonish caricature. In fact, he was a very intelligent, complicated man.”
To get a better understanding of the man behind the aviator shades, Shannon visited Graceland and Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios, where Presley launched his recording career. He also traveled to the humble home of Presley’s youth. “The thing that really blew my mind was when I went to Lauderdale Courts, the subsidized housing project in Memphis where Elvis lived when he was in high school. They preserved this tiny apartment where he lived with his parents, and you can walk into Elvis’ bedroom. I stood in that room imagining him as a teenager sitting on his bed, looking out the window and dreaming about what he wanted to do with his life. That really stuck with me.”
When I first read the script for Elvis & Nixon, one of the first things that struck me was how surprising it was that Nixon didn’t understand why he should meet with Elvis. Obviously today we’re living with an almost total merger of entertainment and politics. I suppose Nixon was famous for not understanding the media, but it seems so quaint and historical now.
To Elvis, the meeting was very serious, and the letter he wrote to Nixon offers insights into his private side. Elvis is such a huge figure, and he means so many different things to so many different people, but it’s rare that anyone stops to think about him as a person. What did Elvis want? In the ’50s, he was the embodiment of rock ’n’ roll youth counterculture, so how did it come to pass that by 1970 he so badly wanted the approval of the Establishment?
When I was presented with this bizarre, wonderful script with Michael Shannon attached, I was excited because I knew he would be able to handle the depth of Elvis’ storyline and also the incredible absurdism of the situation. Kevin Spacey thought so too, and it was exciting to work on the Nixon role with someone who has thought so much about characters who personify state power, from Richard III to Frank Underwood. Together, they magnetized the rest of this ensemble, which was a total privilege for me.
The script embraced the absurd and comic juxtaposition of the world’s most charismatic rock icon and arguably America’s least rock ’n’ roll president. I also love the writers’ approach to history. For anyone who is looking at historical material, there are data points that we know and then empty spaces between them. I love the way the writers drew wonderful, imaginative scenes to connect the dots. For example, we know from Nixon’s televised debates with Kennedy that he was a slow adopter of the changing relationship between entertainment and politics. And we know from the National Archives that Bob Haldeman really did respond to Krogh and Chapin’s request for a meeting between Elvis and Nixon by writing in the margin, “You must be kidding!” But we don’t know exactly what happened in every moment of that morning — Nixon didn’t start his famous taping project until February of 1971.
I loved the ways the writers shaped all this historical detail, and the production reflects that. Alex Pettyfer drives a Cadillac El Dorado, white with red leather interior, exactly like the car Elvis bought for Jerry. The Graceland TV room is recreated down to the last detail, including the mirrored coffee table, the white porcelain monkey, and the TCB paint job. The suits that Michael Shannon wears are made in his size from the original patterns used to make the suit that Elvis wore to the White House. His necklaces and glasses are exact replicas.
Thankfully, we had Jerry Schilling consulting with us so there was a lot we could know. His book was like a North Star for the writers and me. For example, I believe that Jerry remained lifelong friends with Elvis because he made efforts to find his own path, and he took some distance at critical moments. This wasn’t the case for the whole Memphis Mafia and for some people that really blew up with pyrotechnics. But that was Jerry’s approach. A lot of these elements really did happen on the White House trip, and others happened right before, right after, or in the years that followed. The writers are compressing certain truths and combining them into this story in a playful way that’s different from a docudrama, that lets them think about character truths and emotional truths alongside all the known facts. I think it adds up to something more like a Historical Bromance.