Interview with Thom Zimny director of 'Elvis Presley: The Searcher'

By: Jazz Tangcay
Source: Awards Daily
April 20, 2018

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.

Thom Zimny who has helmed multiple projects for Bruce Springsteen beyond worked on the all-time classic series The Wire - is the man behind 'The Searcher'.

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.

Q: 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?

Thom Zimny: 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.

Q: 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?

Thom Zimny: 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 Records, 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.

Thom Zimny: 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.

Elvis Presley Video An Inside Look | Elvis Presley: The Searcher  (03:05)

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Elvis News Latest Audio (and video) updates : Video courtesy of Elvis Presley Video Elvis Presley Video Central.

Q: 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.

Thom Zimny: 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.

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

Thom Zimny: 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.

Thom Zimny.
Thom Zimny.

Q: 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.

Thom Zimny: 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.

Elvis Presley Video Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018) Official Trailer | HBO (02:19)

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Elvis News Latest Audio (and video) updates : Video courtesy of Elvis Presley Video Elvis Presley Video Central.

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

Thom Zimny: 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.

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

Thom Zimny: 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.

Q: 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.

Thom Zimny: 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.

He was a boy from Tupelo who grew up to become the biggest star in music. Along the way, he absorbed a staggering range of influences, creating a revolutionary sound in his lifelong search for self-expression.

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Articles about Elvis Presley Elvis Presley: The Searcher is the definitive movie about The King

Following his creative journey from childhood through the final 1976 Jungle Room recording sessions, the two-part presentation Elvis Presley: The Searcher includes stunning atmospheric shots taken inside Graceland, Elvis' iconic home, and features more than 20 new, primary source interviews with session players, producers, engineers, directors and other artists who knew him or who were profoundly influenced by him, as well as never-before-seen photos and footage from private collections worldwide.

Buy Now.

3 CD Deluxe Set – 8"x 8" slipcase w/ 40 page book

Artist: Elvis Presley
Title: Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack)
Catalogue #: 19075806732
Barcode: 0190758067322
Release Date: 06.04.18
Format: 3CD – 8"x 8" slipcase w/ 40 page book

Elvis Presley: The Searcher 3 CD Deluxe 8"x 8" Box Set w/ 40 page book in slipcase.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher 3 CD Deluxe 8"x 8" Box Set w/ 40-page book in slipcase.

The new multi-part documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher, directed by Thom Zimny pushes past the larger-than-life image of The King of Rock and Roll, portraying him instead as a man and an artist 'who wanted to heal, to find that thing that was always felt to be missing, and to do it through the music'.

The 3CD deluxe edition box set offers an expanded 55-track overview of Elvis' career as heard in the film including familiar hit recordings ('Heartbreak Hotel', 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?'), powerful vocal performances ('That's All Right', 'Tomorrow Is a Long Time', 'Trouble/Guitar Man') and rare outtakes ('Suspicious Minds', 'Separate Ways'), plus a bonus disc of additional recordings relevant to the film - including singles that inspired Presley (Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's original version of 'That's All Right', Odetta's gospel version of Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow is a Long Time') and two original instrumental pieces composed for the documentary by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (The Original Soundtrack) [Deluxe] includes a 40-page book of photos, liner notes by Warren Zanes, and a producers note from film director Thom Zimny.


Disc 1

1) Trouble / Guitar Man
2) My Baby Left Me
3) Baby, What You Want Me To Do
4) Old Shep
5) That's When Your Heartaches Begin
6) That's All Right
7) Blue Moon Of Kentucky
8) Fool, Fool, Fool
9) Tweedlee Dee
10) Baby Let's Play House
11) Good Rockin' Tonight
12) Trying To Get To You
13) Blue Moon
14) When It Rains It Pours
15) Blue Christmas
16) Heartbreak Hotel
17) Lawdy, Miss Clawdy
18) Money Honey
19) Hound Dog
20) (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)
21) Crawfish
22) Trouble
23) Farther Along
24) Mona Lisa
25) Hide Thou Me
26) Loving You
27) Lonely Man (solo version)
28) Power Of My Love

Disc 2

1) Milky White Way
2) A Mess Of Blues
3) Fame And Fortune
4) Love Me Tender / Witchcraft (duet with Frank Sinatra)
5) Like A Baby
6) Are You Lonesome Tonight?
7) It's Now Or Never
8) Wooden Heart
9) Swing Down Sweet Chariot
10) Reconsider Baby
11) Bossa Nova Baby
12) C'mon Everybody
13) Tomorrow Is A Long Time
14) Take My Hand, Precious Lord
15) Run On
16) Baby What You Want Me To Do (1. Version)
17) Suspicious Minds (take 6)
18) Baby Let's Play House (rehearsal)
19) Words (rehearsal)
20) That's All Right
21) Never Been To Spain
22) An American Trilogy
23) You Gave Me A Mountain
24) Burning Love (rehearsal version)
25) Separate Ways (rehearsal version)
26) Hurt (take 5)
27) If I Can Dream

Disc 3

1) Dissollution 2 – Mike McCready
2) Satisfied - The Blackwood Brothers
3) That's' All Right - Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup
4) She May Be Yours (But She Comes To See Me Sometimes) - Joe Hill Louis
5) Mystery Train - Little Junior's Blue Flames
6) Smokestack Lightning - Howlin' Wolf
7) Rock-A-My Soul - The Blackwood Brothers
8) Just Walkin' In The Rain - The Prisonaires
9) Rocket 88 - Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats
10) Write Me A Letter - The Ravens
11) Blue Moon Of Kentucky - Bill Monroe
12) Ain't That Right - Eddie Snow
13) Just Walkin' In The Rain – Johnnie Ray
14) Home Sweet Home - Gladys Presley
15) Blowin' In The Wind – Odetta
16) Tomorrow Is A Long Time – Odetta
17) The Weight - The Staple Singers
18) Heartbreak Hotel - The Orlons
19) Wooden Heart - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
20) Rebound - Mike McCready

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Elvis Presley Video Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

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.