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|SCHILLING WAITED FOR THE RIGHT SCRIPT
April 08, 2016 - By Michael Donahue of The Commercial Appeal / Elvis Express Radio
Jerry Schilling turned down seven scripts until he found one suitable for the movie "Elvis & Nixon."
Opening nationally April 22, the movie is based on Elvis' 1970 meeting with President Richard Nixon at the White House. Schilling, a close friend of Elvis for almost 25 years, was
with the King at that meeting and recounted the story in his book, "Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley." He's an executive producer on the movie,
which stars Michael Shannon as Elvis, Kevin Spacey as Nixon and Alex Pettyfer as Schilling.
Earlier scripts misrepresented the friendship between him and Elvis, Schilling said. "They had me in charge telling Elvis what to do. And I never did that. That would have been so
Schilling has worked on several Elvis projects, including the Golden Globe-winning documentary "Elvis on Tour." "As a filmmaker, my bottom line on Elvis projects was, 'Would I be
comfortable if he was sitting beside me watching what I did?'"
He was concerned because "Elvis & Nixon" was a comedy. "I had a rough time because I knew Elvis, and I knew what this meeting meant to him. And it was the true American story."
Liza Johnson directed the film. "The script is so interesting — a surreal episode of American history," Johnson said. "Elvis means so many things to so many different people, and
there are so many accounts and versions of him. And there's also so much interesting work that's been done about him. I love the Warhol painting and an Alice Walker story, '1955.'
I really like the Gillian Welch song about him, 'Elvis Presley Blues.' The William Eggleston photographs of Graceland. He's been inspiration for the work of other people, but I guess
in his extraordinary iconicity, I feel it's uncommon for a project to start to think, 'But what did Elvis want out of that?'"
Schilling met Elvis in 1954. "I used to listen to 'Red Hot & Blue,' Dewey Phillips' radio show," he said. "I was 12 years old when he played Elvis for the first time. He said, 'My boy from
Humes High.' I could see Humes High from my grade school, Holy Names. I was a lonely kid. My mom died when I was a year old, and I was living with my grandparents. Music was
my thing. I was really into James Dean and Marlon Brando. When Dewey played that record and said, 'My boy from Humes High,' and Elvis came down and did the interview, he
reminded me of James Dean. That night I prayed, 'Hey, God. This neighborhood's not that big. I want to meet this guy.'"
The next afternoon, Schilling was asked to join some older teenagers playing football in Guthrie Park. He was surprised when he saw the quarterback. "That's that boy from Humes
High. I knew it was Elvis."
Elvis asked Schilling and the other guys if they wanted to play football again the next weekend. "That started the whole 23-year friendship and 10- year professional friendship."
Sixteen years after that first football game with Elvis, Schilling was pursuing a film editing job in Hollywood when he got a late-night call from the King. "He was changing planes in
Dallas, and he asked me if I would pick him up at the airport. I was asleep when he called."
When Schilling asked who was with him, Elvis said, "Nobody. And I don't want anybody in the world to know where I am."
"And that's how the lost weekend started."
Schilling picked up Elvis at the airport in Los Angeles, and they drove to one of the King's houses in Beverly Hills. Elvis, who didn't bring any other clothes, was dressed in "that
Nehru look — the bell-bottom look. Elvis was Elvis and had the high collar, kind of a cape. San Remo boots."
Schilling couldn't sleep that night. He thought, "I'm the only person who knows where Elvis Presley is. Vernon Presley and Priscilla, they don't know if he's kidnapped or what.'"
But, said Schilling, "He was on a mission. I didn't know what the mission was.'"
The next morning, Elvis said, "I need you to go to Washington with me.'"
He told Schilling why he had suddenly left Memphis.
"His father and Priscilla were complaining about how much money he was spending. It was Christmastime. He was OK with that. He knew they meant well. It was his money. But the
fact that the Colonel (Tom Parker) got in on it — he was furious. I think he got in his car, went to the airport and took the first plane out. I don't think he had a plan at that point."
Schilling said he would go to Washington with Elvis if he was allowed to call Priscilla and Vernon and tell them where Elvis was. He also asked if one of Elvis' security guards could
meet them in Washington. Elvis agreed, and Memphis Mafia member Sonny West flew to Washington.
Schilling discovered Elvis wanted to go to Washington to get a new badge for his collection, which included a Shelby County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy badge that belonged
to Schilling's brother, former Shelby County Sheriff Billy Ray Schilling. "Elvis was planning on traveling overseas. That was at the time he bought the Lisa Marie jet," Jerry Schilling
said. "And he wanted a badge that was honored overseas, where he could carry his guns. He had a couple of serious death threats. So I think that was the motivation."
Schilling also discovered which badge Elvis wanted. "He had a contact for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a guy named (deputy director) John Finlator. And that was
the badge he was going after.
"Elvis always wanted to be an undercover agent. He felt it was his way to give back to the country. He had friends in law enforcement throughout the country. He went on raids with
policemen for drug busts and stuff. In Memphis, we'd be going to the Memphian (movie theater), and a car would go by real fast, and he would put the sheriff's light on his car and
pull them over."
On the plane to Washington, Elvis told Schilling he wanted to write a letter. "He only wrote four letters in his life. The other three were when he was in Germany."
It was a letter to Nixon asking if he could have a meeting. "He said that he admired the office and he would just love if the President had time for him to stop by and just say hello."
And, Schilling added, "Knowing Elvis, I think it was an insurance policy, too, in case he didn't get his badge."
They dropped the letter off at the White House, and a few hours later Schilling received a call saying the president would meet with Elvis. The King already had been turned down
for a badge by Finlator.
Schilling and West were told Elvis was the only one allowed to meet the president, but later they were told Nixon wanted to meet Elvis' friends. "Elvis thought I was afraid, a little
intimidated. He kind of pushed me in the room and started laughing. He said, 'Come on in. Don't be afraid.' It was like being at Graceland. Elvis had taken over the Oval Office."
Elvis and Nixon hit it off.
"Two guys at the top of their careers that were influential around the world," Schilling said. "It's lonely at the top. I think they really identified with each other. Elvis tells Nixon that he
basically wants to give back to the country. He feels somewhat responsible. He was the leading force in rock and roll. He didn't want it to be a drug-driven industry, and he felt he
could help by influencing people behind the scenes if he was an undercover agent."
Elvis got his badge, which was delivered by Finlator.
Four years ago, Cary Elwes, star of "The Princess Bride," brought Schilling the first script for "Elvis & Nixon." His brother, Cassion Elwes, who produced "Dallas Buyers Club," "The
Butler" and other movies, was a producer on "Elvis & Nixon." "I just said thanks, but no thanks. It's OK to have a comedy, but I just didn't like the portrayal of Elvis."
The movie makers didn't give up. "Cary Elwes was really rewriting the script to make it more palatable for me," Schilling said. "He really did some nice changes, but I just walked
"It's just a project I don't want to do."
Finally, Elwes asked if Schilling would read one more script. "They brought in two script doctors who were really good. They had read my book. We had a long, long lunch and
meeting, and they asked a lot of the right questions. What came out of that was some nice scenes between my character and Elvis' character that made a human side of Elvis
talking about his career and how it felt to be Elvis."
Schilling, who became an executive producer, was impressed with Shannon, who was cast as Elvis. He doesn't think Shannon looks like Elvis, but, he said, "I didn't care if somebody
looked like Elvis. I've gone through that so many times through the years." The actor "took the comedic role seriously."
Schilling took Shannon to Memphis, where they went on a private tour of Graceland. They also visited Lauderdale Courts, where Elvis lived as a child. They went in several rooms,
including Elvis' bedroom. "He said being in that room, he got who Elvis was. I don't know. He's the actor. But he just experienced something about him in that room."
"I thought about Elvis siting in that bedroom when he was teenager and looking out that window," Shannon said. "There's barely enough room in there for that bed. And I know that
feeling about being in your tiny little bedroom and staring out the window and wondering what the heck's going to happen to your life. Having dreams. Having aspirations. I could
picture him sitting in that room: 'How the heck am I going to get out of here?'"
Schilling gave Shannon an audio copy of a 45-minute interview he did with the King for "Elvis on Tour." "Between all the takes and stuff, you would see Michael walking and just
listening to the tape," Schilling said. "For days that's what he would do. There are certainly inflections in his voice that the public won't know. Also a little laugh that's a lot like a
hiccup that he does that's actually right off this tape."
"Some people hear the voice I do in the movie and say, 'You don't sound like him too much,'" Shannon said. "I say, 'I don't sound like him in public. I don't sound like his
performance voice.' What I was going on was the sound of his voice when he was just sitting in a room with a couple of other people having a conversation. More conversational. Off
Said Johnson, the director: "When they brought the script to me, Michael was already interested in doing it. I think he's such a wonderful actor. He's a serious person. He has so
much depth. But also a lot of warmth and good humor. If you didn't read the script, you might not think of Mike (as Elvis). But if you read the script, it requires this level of depth, this
level of warmth. That totally makes sense."
Schilling was asked to look through several photos of actors who potentially could portray him. "You won't believe one of them," he said. "It was Justin Timberlake."
Schilling chose Pettyfer, whose movies include "Magic Mike" and "The Butler." "I think he had me down."
As for the finished film, Schilling said, "Is it the movie I would have set out to make? No. Is it a well-acted, well-done movie? Yes. The movie is based on facts. The fact that we went
to Washington. That we got to the White House. The fact that he got the badge. This movie, as the director would say, is not a History Channel documentary. This is more of a docu-
And, Schilling said, "Everybody on this film had the highest regard and love for Elvis Presley. That's what really makes me comfortable with this film."
Would Elvis have liked it? "I think in certain things he would laugh and have a good time on it. I think on another side, he would probably have had a hard time because this was a
very special meeting in his life. It meant a lot. So, I just don't know. That's something Elvis would have to answer."