Interview with Malcom Leo : Director of This Is Elvis
Source: Elvis Australia
March 2, 2005
Q : When was the first time you saw Elvis?
A : It was the first time I saw Elvis Presley, the Pan Pacific Auditorium on October 28th, 1957, he wore the gold suit and danced with the RCA Victor dog. It became even doubly memorable when we found the police footage used later and were able to incorporate it in a motion picture I directed, 'his Is Elvis' that seemed to have done very well over the years.
Q : You were a fan from then on?
A : I was actually a fan prior to that. The first time I heard an Elvis Presley record was a friend of mine had come back from a San Bernardino, California performance in 55. He wasn't even on Victor then. And he had a copy of 'Mystery Train' I believe. And he played it, it just blew me away. And then I put my antenna up and it became a passion, an obsession, especially the early 45s and EPs that Victor would release. I fought over keeping the picture sleeves in mint shape while my brother would just rip them off and play them.
Q : Did you ever get to see Elvis live after that?
A : I had an opportunity, it's a great story. I was filming for David Wolper at Columbia Pictures an animal sex documentary called 'irds Do It, Bees Do It' And we were out in Canyon Country filming Daisy and Bugsy, two lions that were guaranteed to mate on cue. And Jerry Schilling had arranged for me to catch a show in Vegas, this was like 71 or 72. And for that odd moment Bugsy and Daisy would not do it. And I couldn't leave the set. And I'm callin Jerry at the Hilton explaining, I'm delayed, I'm delayed here, I can't get Bugsy and Daisy to mate. And I missed the show.
Q : So you were never able to meet Elvis personally?
A : No, I have, I never met him. Although I felt very close to him, being around Memphis, Graceland and the opportunity to peruse with affection all his private materials when we made 'This Is Elvis' In particular his home movies of a rather, wonderful and emotionally touched materials that showed Elvis and Vernon and Gladys moving into Graceland and spending the first Christmas there. And it was snowing. It was quite a bucolic scene.
Q : How did you get involved in the production of 'This Is Elvis'?
A : There was an opportunity, we had just come off what was considered a tremendous breakthrough in television, rock and roll music, a two hour special called 'Heroes Of Rock And Roll'. Where we spared no quarter to incorporate an act on Elvis. And we met with Colonel Parker through 20th Century Fox, and it was a very high budgeted special, a good deal of it going to Elvis estate. But we planted the seed, and through the good graces of the working relationship and a social relationship with Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling, and a gentleman named Roger Davis at the William Morris Agency, we took the Colonel to lunch. We bought and it was the start of a year long romance and trying to get across what our intention was. And there was an opening there, and the Colonel said to Andrew Solt and myself, 'Boys, go get, go get a live one on the wire, and if you come back, and it sounds good, it's yours'.
So we went around Hollywood chasing our tails saying, 'We got the rights to the Elvis Presley story' and people saying, 'Hey, what are these guys smokin, get outta here'. Everybody turned us down, and I just said, 'Let's really make them say no. Let's just dare them to say no'. We'd go back and go back, and they said 'No' again and again. And the gentleman that I had worked for years ago doing 'Birds Do It, Bees Do It', was at Warner Brothers, and I went to David Wolper and talked about it and he nodded. And the thing that nobody really knows, I think this is probably the first time it's being revealed, David Wolper's wife, Gloria was a huge Elvis Presley fan. And David came home that night and said 'I spoke to Malcolm and Andrew and they were talkin' about doing this feature documentary on Elvis'. And Gloria Wolper said, 'If you don't make that picture I'm walkin' out'.
Q : How much access did you have to Elvis collections?
A : Unprecedented, unparalleled and much of it, as the years have gone by, we didn't incorporate, we had all the studios including out takes. We had all the television specials. We had all of the newsreel from all of the libraries. And then we started getting into local news that would do silly stories like Elvis donated two teddy bears, or to the Australian Zoo. His gold Cadillac being shipped around the world. All the Army footage through the Department of Defense clearance and contact that I had. All of the home movies ranging from Jerry Schilling to Joe Esposito to Priscilla herself. A tremendous amount of stuff, even eight millimeter movies that fans took, he went back on the road, the police footage from Louisville and Los Angeles. I'll put it this way. The first rough cut was like 17 reels, which meant, which started at one and went til six. It was like absurd. We had everything.
Q : Didn't you find the Sinatra Timex show?
A : Yes we did. The Sinatra Timex show actually came to us through Elvis own collection when we returned from Memphis with a lot of the film material, there was an unmarked box and it was Elvis copy of the Timex show. We subsequently got a better copy from an ABC affiliate station, I forget where. But we had the karate film, we had the screen tests, both for Fox, for 'Love Me Tender', and then subsequently, I learned that the 'Rainmaker' screen test with Hal Wallis has opened up.
Q : You also did recreations, and you used Joe Esposito. How was it to direct Joe in those dramatic recreations?
A : Well nobody could recreate Joe Esposito, but we were looking for a Joe Esposito look alike, but we decided that we could pay them SAG minimum and use both Jerry Schilling as himself and Joe as himself. Joe was terrific. He's got a natural flair for being somewhat of a character. But I would like to say that there was something that went askew on the movie in terms of recreations. Naturally there was no footage of Elvis as a youngster in Tupelo, so we opened the picture with a flashback, starting with the funeral. And there was a couple of minutes of a young boy portraying Elvis. And then, as soon as we made the transition to real Elvis Presley footage, no more than three or four minutes of recreations involving Johnny Harra who played the older Elvis and David Scott, the sort of 50s and 60s Elvis was used. And those were primarily background scenes. The hospital where there was the blue robe, catching a plane from Fort Hood, just to visit his mother at Baptist Memorial. One interesting thing that came to pass was, you take the backhanded compliment however you can get it. One reviewer actually thought that the most riveting piece of the film, the ending where he's singing 'Are You Lonesome Tonight', which is where he's virtually doing a first person sort of singing, recitation of what his life was like at that time if you will. One reviewer thought that we had gone to the expense of recreating that. That we had got a fat Elvis and we had rented an auditorium in Fort Platt or wherever it was, filled it, and we had Joe Esposito and all of the crew, look-alikes with the red jackets. And we had gone to such lengths, and they didn't believe that that was the real Elvis. Because you have to remember, the concert special of the 77 tour didn't air til after he died. And they were very sensitive and very concerned and only used very, very little material that was sort of genuflecting if you will again about reading something into Elvis biography, that was roughly 30 days before he passed. And I just got tired of trying to defend the fact and that there was only three minutes of recreations. I've done it before in my other films, but I guess I did it too well with that one."
Q : What was the toughest challenge on 'This Is Elvis'?
A : Very good question. The toughest challenge wasn't the filmmaking skill that was required. The toughest challenge was doing it right and the judge of doing it right was my partner at the time, Andrew Solt. And, and our entire editing staff, because we recognized the responsibility, not so much the moral responsibility, but the creative responsibility. We had broken our teeth in the film business in documentaries, we had done a terrific two hour breakthrough documentary that got us a lot of attention. And we were very pure in the sense that we did not want to fuck this up. And we fought for what we felt was best instinctively down the line. There was a couple of, I'm not so sure I would have stayed with Ral Donner doing the narration, I would have liked to have let it play without narration, but it just wouldn't hold because you needed somebody to guide it through in terms of some narrative points. And the last thing we wanted was some on camera narrator, like a voice of God or somebody like from the BBC. So, and I don't have misgivings about it, but there were a couple of little, I call them pimples, like the recreations turned out to be a little bit of a knock, doesnt really need anything after all these years. And the narration may have been to make it a hundred percent pure. So, but I'll take 95 percent any day.
Q : Is 'This Is Elvis' gonna be re-released that you know of?
A : I'll tell you, if there ever was a DVD that called out for chapter stops, bells and whistles and the additional material, it's 'This Is Elvis'. I have so much material that was not used that could lend itself to fully articulate chapters and different strands to not only enjoy the music and the visual delights, but you could do things such as chronological full play of all of the press conferences. And I have all of the press conferences, and they go back to 1956 with the TV Guide, which is an audio recording, all the way up to Hy Gardner, the Army, the stuff with Madison Square Garden, the stuff even at Elvis house when he got out of the Army, it's just endless. Then there's all the news footage that has recently come across my way because we filed it and we just never really thought we would use that much, and we used a smattering of it, but there's just tremendous things. Then of course there's a photo gallery that you could do, and additional songs, but I think there's a treasure out there.
Q : Do you think it might come to pass?
A : I would lobby for it, but those things are controlled by Warner Brothers, Andrew and myself and most importantly the estate. And Priscilla I think would be up for it. But I think the convincing has to be done with Warner Brothers. They're in the business of releasing new movies and making new DVDs. I don't think they'd go back in time to a 20 year old picture. Although, thats what a DVD really is about. They decided not to opt to release 'Big Wednesday' on DVD which surely there's a potential with that film.
Q : What was the premiere like in Memphis?
A : Most exciting thing in my life other than two months later when the film was in Cannes. And a gentleman who works for Mr. Esposito and Jerry had the bright idea, I think maybe I sort of urged it along, to drive the Elvis Cadillac that he gave his mother, a 55 pink Cadillac to the Memphis premiere. And the place was packed, there was a giant cutout, like a 50 foot tall Elvis above the Memphian theater. I was off the ground, it was phenomenal. And then the very next day, a fellow who had seen an advance version of the film, Roger Ebert of "At The Movies" selected it to be in the USA Film Festival in Dallas. So without any sleep, I got on a plane and went to Dallas. And I was on stage trying to introduce the film, I was practically falling asleep. But it went over real well there, and when they released the picture, the reviews were great, but they released it in the South, which I don't think was such a good idea."
Q : What is there about Elvis that makes him so unique?
A : He's dirty, he's dirty. Well, I have a couple of clichd answers, and a couple of heartfelt ones. One that I use rather flippantly, and I don't mind saying 'f***', but he taught America how to f***, first of all. Or let America do all that kind of stuff. But the key thing about Elvis Presley to me was the absolute shaking of the roots of America, which is still very provincial country. But you've got to remember, and perhaps you're not old enough, but I was certainly, I wasn't even in my teens when suddenly this rumbling, threatening sound came blaring out of radios. And it was like, hey, somebody out there is talkin to me. And it was not Doris Day. And he also had an attitude and the looks, the whole package. That's what got you off as an individual, it's rather Philistine a view, I think but then when the hits just kept on coming and you realized, hey, what you knew about his past, gospel roots, adoration of black musicians. And his sort of just persona, you wanted to hook up with the guy. And the great way of testing it is, for all of that, those enormous bankable qualities, what's called a bankable, no matter how many times he was overdrawn, like withdrawing, with doing stupid ballads, cockamamie movies, or, that might have a dilution of his power, he never bottomed out from either, there was always something that I could still find that would keep my sort of feel of, he always would resurrect himself in a way. And even towards the very end, I think with his overt honesty and the fact that I have a feeling he knew where he was going, that honesty in itself, he put on weight and he had certain habits that were deleterious, but he didnt hide it, he went out there. He had to go out there, he wanted it, that was his life. And so there's a certain nobility about it too.
Q : What was the ultimate high point of Elvis career?
A : Oh God, that's tough for me, there were two periods. 1957, 'Too Much', 'All Shook Up', the whole fuckin year was Elvis, and they were the Christmas album, which was just terrific. And it was like spring of, June of 56 to end of summer 57, with 'Don't Be Cruel' and that period, everybody had their last vestige of the singles. I mean, then they started getting into albums. The other period was when he finally really got me excited was the 69 Memphis sessions. That Chips Moman I think was the producer, they did it in Memphis. And the musicians and the selection of material from 'Suspicious Minds' to 'Only The Strong Survive' to 'Long Black Limousine' to 'True Love Travels On A Gravel Road', those were peak periods for me. And you could just feel it in his music. I also was delighted with his interpretations of Gordon Lightfoot stuff, 'Early Morning Rain' and Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time', which when that came out, it was sort of just snuck out. But if you listen to that, his version of Dylan's 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time', oh, you cry, you just cry.
Q : If you could say anything to Elvis, what would it be?
A : Oh, God. Oh God, I don't wanna be flip here. I tell you something, I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Dylan when I was making 'Heroes Of Rock And Roll', and I always had a joke, saying, what are you gonna talk to Dylan about? And when I met him I said, you know, Bob, I swore, I would say one, the first thing I was gonna say to you when we met, and that's, became a joke around my place is, 'Bob, I've got all your records'. 'Elvis, I got all the hits'.
Q : Can you say what Elvis really means to you?
A : OK. This might be a bit off-putting, but Elvis became a rite of passage for me. there are certain iconographic things that you go through in your life. Whether it might be a generation that came of age with you, falling in love, the first time you feel you're an adult, the first time you may f***, make love to a woman. But Elvis seemed to me to be right at my side as a youngster while I was going through all the things on the way to growing up. And I would almost like say, hey, I'm doin' it for the man, you know. It'd be like, I would be living my life going forward. I remember I was in the eighth grade when he went into the Army. And I had a calendar and I marked the days til he got out. And when he did 'Stuck On You' which is a pretty ok song, but not really a killer, and I saw him do it on the Sinatra show, and he had a whole different groove goin', I was just say, oh, he's marchin right along. the 50s were definitely over. When he came back and did that tune. And it's not a religious experience for me with Elvis, it's more of the intimacy of spending a year and a half making the film and chronicling everything that you see visually and you hear from associates, you have sort of reinterpret it. And the thing that I'd like to just close with, I finally got a sense of what it must be like for individual whose persona and charisma is at the peak. And his, and just being, has an aura about himself that I often questioned what it would be like with Elvis knowing every day that a tremendous amount of peoples lives depended upon how he felt, and that people were keying off him. If you know what I'm saying, in other words, it must have been half pleasure, half pain when he would be able to communicate with his people and friends and associates, knowing that if wasn't Elvis, they would be down. And while at the same time, maybe he had his own problems that he couldn't be 100 percent to all people at one given time. So that sort of burden, which I think mounted as he got more successful through the years, must have really been a tough nut to hoe. I'magine every day of your life, peoples lives depending on how you feel. It's a tough thing. It's tough to be, to maintain a real sane life, forget the entertainment side, but when you're elevated on a pedestal. And, you know, it's hard, it's amazing that he held out for so long. You know, he wasn't an educated man. But he certainly was street smart. And had a very decent heart. Very decent heart. Condemned to be honest, I think. "
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Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.
This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.
The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.
Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.