“Sadness, or outrage, or hope”: 5 Questions with Eugene Jarecki, director of THE KING

Over the last 15 years, Eugene Jarecki has emerged as one of the most foremost chronicles of U.S. politics and misbegotten policies in films such as The Trials of Henry KissingerWhy We Fight, and The House I Live In. In his latest film THE KING, the Closing Night film of DOC10, Jarecki goes on a musical road trip in Elvis’ 1963 Rolls Royce to chart the American dream, both its lofty ambitions and its bloated corruption. Inviting musicians (Emmylou Harris, Chuck D), celebrities (Ethan Hawke, Mike Myers) and commentators (Van Jones, David Simon) to sit in the backseat and opine about The King, his music and empire—and how it all came crumbling down—Jarecki masterfully interweaves archival footage of Elvis’s career with American history, creating a penetrating and “surprising” journey that will “expand and delight your perceptions” (Variety). Below, the multi-award-winning director speaks to DOC10 about the American predicament, immersion, Elvis Presley and the “seismic election” of Donald Trump.

Over the course of your career, you’ve tackled enormous subjects related to U.S. policy (on war, foreign policy, drugs, etc), so I’d like to know your process for tackling such big topics. Do you immerse yourself in research for a certain amount of time (for how long)? When and how do you start to think about visualizing the film? Because you could obviously write a book about this stuff, but you’ve chosen to make an argument through a visual form?

All my films have come from a place of passion for the American experience, the American predicament. I start with a sense of sadness, or outrage, or hope, or idealism, at a given situation, and that tends to catapult me into a subject. What then happens, though, is what makes the difference between a piece of cinema and the simple voicing of a feeling or opinion. For I then open myself up to the fullest range of perspectives and understandings I can find. I avail myself of whatever experiences come my way. And I don’t script anything in advance. So immersion is the nature of the beast and, from that immersion, I then try to share with audiences the full and often complex and contradictory results of this on-the- fly form of research.

Now, an easy question: What was the spark for THE KING?

I was touring the country with my previous film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, and audience after audience of Americans seemed to me to be brokenhearted, struggling to reconcile what the country has become with what they dreamt of it growing up. In one particular appearance, I remember making a comparison off the top of my head between America and Elvis. I imagined that we had, in some way, started off with all that promise that Elvis had and ended up in a similarly lost, bloated, addicted, and sold-out place. This resonated with that audience. And I found myself exploring that same metaphor in front of many audiences thereafter. Slowly, it crystallized into an idea to explore this connection between the man and the country he left behind.

For the film, you talked to so many people, and different types of people, from actors to musicians to regular citizens: Can you point to any one interview that had the most impact on you and the film, and why?

Public Enemy founder Chuck D is a national treasure. When I first asked him to appear in the film, I just knew that I couldn’t make a definitive film about Elvis and America without including his infamous viewpoint – expressed in the Public Enemy song ‘Fight the Power’: “Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me. Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plan. Motherfuck him and John Wayne.” What I could never have imagined was the extraordinary complexity, magnanimity, and humanism that Chuck would bring to the film, to understanding with complexity and nuance, the full picture of Elvis and the American story. I think he truly reinvents Elvis and his meaning – for better and worse – in an historic way in the film that I will leave viewers to discover for themselves. I am a better person for knowing Chuck and having been graced by his contribution to the film.

I love the way the THE KING is edited. In particular, the final montage scored to “Unchained Melody” absolutely blows my mind. Can you talk about your process of editing, and all the mixture of archival footage, and how some of these montages were created, particularly that last one?

This film, more than any other I have made, represents the collective labors of a team of editors, working over a very long period. It’s a “no-stone-unturned” situation, where we knew how vast and complex our subject was, that we did not have a conventional way we wanted to tell it, and that, in fact, it was going to be heavily impacted by the unfolding realities of an unpredictable musical roadtrip. It is several films in one and the editors worked tirelessly to synthesize these into, I hope, the culmination of the closing montage. In a sense, the entire film is a long prelude to that montage, in which I hope everything falls into place in an unforgettable way. That’s what we were shooting for, anyhow.

The film was originally titled “Promised Land,” which I think has some ironies attached to it, considering the subject matter. Why did you change the title to “THE KING” and what other changes did you think were important to make between the Cannes premiere and the version that we’re showing and is being released?

We were deeply honored when Cannes invited PROMISED LAND, an earlier version of the film in 2017. We were also aware that the world was changing very quickly, and that the film was in a sense unfinished. In particular, the seismic election of Donald Trump had impacted the edit of the film to that point, and I knew I had not fully wrapped my head around how to handle this. I knew that, with time, the film’s poetic commentary on current events would continue to evolve. As it turned out, we edited the film (and even shot more) for 9 more months. The film changed greatly during this period. Steven Soderbergh, Errol Morris, and Rosanne Cash joined as Executive Producers. And then we premiered THE KING at Sundance where it had come very much into its own. For anyone who saw PROMISED LAND, in its heart this is the same film. But it is twenty minutes shorter. And better in every way.

Paula Froehle