The Untold Drama Behind the Origin of “Elvis & Nixon”
The original writers of the upcoming film "Elvis & Nixon" (coming out April 22nd) share the true Hollywood story of how they conceived the movie but were later cut out of the production (Part I)
Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley in 1970 and Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon in the movie
UPDATE (April 19, 2016) - There are good movie reviews, raves, and pans and then there are money reviews, when you know this picture is headed for a box office gold medal.
That is the case with Elvis & Nixon, which opens nationwide on Friday, April 22, distributed by a smallish New York company Bleecker Street, for Amazon, the online giant which bought domestic rights at Cannes a year ago from Cassian Elwes, the producer who has been the force behind getting the picture made since the idea was sparked at his 2010 Christmas party in a conversation with Joey and Hanala Sagal.
The Hollywood Reporter has given Elvis & Nixon a money review, calling it “a hoot.” It sends the message the movie works in storytelling, character development and in making the whole thing fun and surprisingly funny. That promises to drive strong box office results across a range of age groups from young to old.
Some samples from the THR review by Frank Scheck, after the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City: “Featuring hilarious yet acutely observed performances by Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey as the titular characters, Elvis & Nixon…"
"Opportunities for irony are rampant, and the film milks them for all their worth. The sharply astute, satirical screenplay by Joey and Hanala Sagal and actor Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) is filled with priceless moments, including Presley's amused run-in with some Elvis impersonators at the airport who assume he's one of them. "
What it doesn't say is that one of those impersonators is Joey Sagal, who is also credited first among the three screenwriters, followed by his ex-wife Hanala Sagal and movie/TV star Cary Elwes. (Cassian Elwes said they are listed chronologically, in the order they became part of the project from his point of view).
As colorful and surprising as the fading King of Pop meeting in The White House with the doomed 37th president may have been, the drama behind the origin of the movie and the writing of the original screenplay is quite a yarn itself.
As it becomes a hit everybody will talk about how the meeting between Elvis and Nxon happened but here exclusively, Block & Tackle.biz has the untold, inside story of how THE MOVIE really happened.
It is a classically twisted Hollywood tale where the writers get screwed, a marriage implodes, there are bad feelings all around, lots of money is at stake, careers and reputations are on the line, and in the end, a great, funny, memorable movie comes out of it.
Be warned this is long, and there is a second part yet to come, But if you want to know how Hollywood really works, Block & Tackle.biz is the right place for you.
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PART 1 - The Gift of Elvis
Joey Sagal and Hanala Stadner’s wedding in her high-rise condo in Santa Monica, California on March 6, 2011 made for a hectic but happy day for the couple, both of whom were actors and budding screenwriters.
They had no idea as they stood in front of about 50 guests that their wedding would trigger the biggest success of their careers - and within a year tear their marriage apart and ultimately become the most wrenching and bittersweet professional experience in the three decades each had spent struggling to succeed in big time show business.
While the wedding was a modest affair, what was unusual was the wedding video camera crew which went well beyond the typical operator and an assistant.
The chief videographer for their wedding was Natalie Maines, the lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, accompanied by a well-equipped a crew that included the late Gregory Peck’s only child, Cecilia, the internationally known artist Damian Elwes and his wife Lewanne, and others.
For about three years, Maines had been making a documentary about Joey, with the working title of King Of Venice, referring to his former home in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles.
With the footage recorded at the wedding, Maines had shot about 120 hours of Joey, his friends, and more recently Hanala as well. The wedding was intended as the climatic ending for the documentary as well a gift to the couple of their wedding video.
Maines had met Joey through her husband, actor Adrian Pasdar, with whom he had been friends for many years. Now the mother of two children, Maines, who is known offstage as Natalie Pasdar, had also become friends with Hanala.
Among the wedding guests was Cassian Elwes, a former agent who since the late 1980’s has become a force in independent film production, credited with getting quality movies made including Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Margin Call.
Cassian was the brother of Damian, who was handling a camera, and of actor Cary Elwes (Princess Bride), a longtime friend of Joey’s who had been expected to attend the wedding but had not shown up.
Joey’s pal Charlie Sheen, who declined an offer to be best man (because he felt his presence might distract from the bride and groom) was also a no-show.
After the wedding ceremony, the newly christened Hanala Sagal recalled Cassian telling her he would be calling soon because he had an idea to talk about.
“Three days after the wedding I get a phone call as an actor I’ve been waiting for 30 years from the biggest producer in town,” recalled Joey. “This is great.“
“Cassian gets on the phone and he goes, ‘Jojo, I was so impressed with the wedding, the way you took care of the film crew, everything like that, I am going to greenlight Elvis & Nixon, your project, for about $100,000 (budget),” recalled Joey. “’We’re going to make it in about a week and you will play Elvis. We will shoot it the way Natalie shot your wedding with small cameras, like Blair Witch Project, and we will try and sell it in Sundance. This will be your calling card.’ I said ‘Great!’”
“At that point,” added Joey, “I hadn’t worked for years as an actor. I was groveling. He knew that because his brother and his brother’s wife, who work with him, were friends with Natalie. So everybody kind of knew everybody.”
“Cassian said while watching Natalie film the wedding he came up with the idea,” recalled Hanala. “He said we will do it really low budget, Elvis going to see Nixon, documentary style. He said if you write it, because he knew I was a writer….I’ll produce it. That was my wedding gift from Cassian.”
Starring in a movie as Elvis was Joey’s dream come true. He had portrayed Elvis on stage, TV and in film bits for years. “I kind of got typecast as Elvis,” said Joey.
When asked to comment, Cassian made it clear he did not want to be part of this story because he just wanted Hanala and Joey to be happy they were part of the process that has produced a wonderful movie. He did provide a few overall comments.
“It really began almost as a short,” said Cassian. “After the wedding I thought we could do something really fun like that. And it would do something for Joey, almost a calling card for him, showing people he could act, you know.”
What did Cassian owe Joey? “They’re like blood,” said Hanala. “They go way back.”
Cassian’s stepfather, the late Elliott Kastner, had been a talent agent and a highflying producer. Kastner had known and worked with Joey’s father, the late director Boris Sagal, whose credits included directing Girl Happy, a 1965 movie starring Elvis Presley.
Cassian and Joey knew of each other, and had met through Cary, but didn’t really connect until they were adults. “He’s a very old friend of mine,” said Cassian. “I met him with Charlie Sheen back in the day when I was doing Men At Work (1990). I’ve known him ever since.
“I hang up the phone and Hanala can’t believe the call I got,” said Joey. “I explain it to her. She says I want to write it. I say beautiful. I don’t think the script is going to be any big deal. I think the big deal is me playing Elvis.”
The initial idea for the movie had been sparked three months earlier when Hanala and Joey attended Cassian’s annual Christmas party in December 2010.
“Cassian has a painting in his house of Elvis with a badge, and he (Cassian) is standing under it eating at the party,” remembered Joey. “I said to Cassian, ‘do you know what this painting is? Do you know what that badge is? He goes, ‘No Jojo.’”
“I said Russell Young did the painting,” recalled Cassian. “I’ve had it for a couple years and I’ve been perplexed. It was part of a series of paintings by Russell, famous mug shots of celebrities. He did it in primary colors and the thing was big. I said to Joey because I knew he was an aficionado on Elvis, ‘I can’t believe the cops let him keep on his sunglasses for a mug shot.’”
“He goes, ‘No, that’s when Elvis went undercover,” Cassian recalled Joey explaining. “He went to Washington and got Nixon to make him an undercover DEA agent.’”
Joey told Cassian the story would make a great movie, but nothing more was discussed that evening.
“He tells me the story,” added Cassian, “and about three, four days later, I kept thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it. I thought I really would like to see that movie; and its something I could do to help Joey and Hanala, and particularly Joey.”
“He had his struggles as an actor and when they were getting married,” said Cassian, “I thought I could do something nice for them. That was it. Me wanting to do something nice for everybody.”
Hanala and Joey agreed to write it together, although later each will claim they alone had the most important role in creating the script.
“I went to work,” said Hanala. “We got the research and started the screenplay. Within a couple weeks, I already had 20 pages and the whole thing structured exactly as it was going to go. Then I had 90 pages in about 30 days, pretty much the completed screen play.”
The 90-page script was sent to Cassian and his ex-wife Holly, who works with him in movie production.
Joey meanwhile was growing his mutton chops (large sideburns) so he would be ready to start shooting the low budget, partly improvised movie he envisioned.
This was a long held dream for Joey, to star in a movie. He was one of five siblings, four of whom are actors, including his sister Katey Sagal (Married With Children, Sons Of Anarchy).
Joey’s mother Sara Zwilling was a writer and producer. His father, a Ukrainian-born film and TV director from a Jewish background, had died on the set of the TV movie World War III in a tragic accident when Joey was 27 years old. His mother died of a heart attack when he was only 18.
In 1994, Joey was cast as Elvis in Steve Martin’s play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, when the Steppenwolf Theater Company at the Westwood Playhouse near UCLA presented it..
It was while Joey was performing as the ghost of Elvis that Hanala first laid eyes on her future husband and co-author. She was married at the time. It would be years later that they would really meet and marry.
In Steve Martin’s play, which he did for about eight months, Joey was on stage ten minutes showing Picasso a painting, which the great artist later uses as inspiration to begin his cubism period.
Joey recalls the irony that it was his explaining another painting to Cassian that provided the very first spark for Elvis & Nixon. “It was like the spirit of Elvis was always in me,” said Joey.
Hanala Sagal on the set taking a selfie and in her theatrical headshot
Hanala had grown up in Montreal with parents who survived the horrors of a Nazi invasion of Poland that forced them to hide in the freezing forest. She was addicted to watching American TV and dreamed of being an actress. She began performing in the Yiddish theater in Montreal.
When she turned 21, Hanala headed to Los Angeles where she got caught up in rock and roll and the drug scene. Her first big acting role was in the TV movie, Elvis and The Beauty Queen, in 1981. She played the part stoned on Quaaludes.
Hanala finally cleaned up her act in 1983 and turned her experiences in getting healthy and sober into a public access TV show called, Shape Up L.A. that she said attracted a celebrity following.
She later moved it to YouTube, where she said some of her videos racked up over 100 million views. But her acting career never took off. In 2006, after an 18-year marriage broke up, Hanala published a book about her life growing up called, My Parents Went Through The Holocaust and all I Got Was a Lousy T-Shirt.
The title of the book was meant to be whimsical but it turned off some people who found it disrespectful. It made it nearly impossible to promote the book.
One day not long after the first draft of the screenplay was knocked out, Joey’s pal Cary came for a visit.
Besides being a movie star, Cary at times has been a writer, producer, and director. He has worked regularly as an actor in film and TV but had found it difficult to re-capture the magic of director Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult classic fairytale Princess Bride. His most recent acting role was The Art of More on the Crackle online network.
“Cary drops by to say hey,” recalled Hanala, “and smoke a little weed with Joey. So Cary says to Joey, ‘What’s with the sideburns?’ Joey says ‘don’t you know what your brother Cassian did?’”
When they tell Cary, he says “’I love that story about Elvis and Nixon,’” according to Hanala. “’Can I read the screenplay?’ We email Cary the 90-page screenplay. “
“Cary asks to come back to our home.,” added Hanala. “He walks in the apartment and the first thing he said is, ‘Who came up with the title?’ Of course I said, ‘I did.’ It speaks to the photo (of Elvis and Nixon) that is the most requested photo in the national archives, Nixon shaking hands with Elvis.”
Hanala recalled Cary as being excited about the potential movie project.
“It reminded me of a scene out of Broadway Danny Rose,” said Hanala. “Woody Allen is being pitched by a comedian who is terrible. Woody Allen just sits and smiles. But you’re hearing this. The guy is out of control. Well, that is what it was like with Cary.”
“Cary flips out,” recalled Joey. “He really wants to get involved, which I go, ‘fine Cary, that would be great.’ I said maybe you could direct.”
“My thinking is it’s a $100,000 budget,” added Joey, “and if Cary gets involved and writes a couple things, I can get Cassian even more involved. So I am fine with Cary pushing his way in. I said you can help us write it.”
Cary did not respond to requests to comment for this article made through his publicist and manager.
Soon after Cary got involved, in a call with Cassian, Joey and Hanala learn that he wanted to direct and be a writer.
“Now Joey gets nervous,” said Hanala. “He says if Cary directs, ‘I’m going to get pushed out of the part because Cary will get a bigger name to play Elvis.”
That was exactly what happened.
With Cary writing and recruiting additional stars for the movie – including Danny Huston (son of director John Huston) to play Nixon - the cost which Cassian had envisioned as “ultra low budget” had grown to over $2 million.
“Finally they call me,” recalled Joey, “and say we’ve got to have lunch. It’s me, Hanala, Cary and Cassian. And Cassian goes, ‘JoJo you knocked this out of the park. It’s incredible what we’ve got going here. You’re absolutely right, you can’t play Elvis. You’re going to be an executive producer with Hanala, co-writers and you’ll both get acting parts in the movie.”
“I was sad because I’d been wanting to do that part for six months and because of my connection to Elvis,” added Joey, “ But I was kind of happy. I didn’t know the movie would turn into this. And I ended up playing an Elvis impersonator in the movie.”
Hanala had written herself a small but juicy part as the ticket agent at the airport where Elvis shows up and wants to buy a ticket. She recognizes him and it is a dream come true to meet the great performer.
She says, “I dreamed I would meet you,” added Hanala, “and he says, ‘You’ve got to hold on to your dreams.’”
After the budget grew and Joey was relegated to a cameo, Hanala was next. Her role was given to actress Ashley Benson.
“She has four million twitter followers,” said Hanala. “So while the actress in me was grieving, the producer is like, ‘I hope it helps make some money by bringing in a whole other audience.’”
A few weeks later there is a trade story that Eric Bana has been hired to play Elvis opposite Huston.
But in 2012, Cassian gets cold feet.
That night Hanala and Joey went to a nightclub in Hollywood to celebrate their one-year anniversary. They ran into Danny Huston and said Cassian had put the movie on a temporary hold. “He said haven’t you heard,” Hanala recalled Huston told them. “He was absolutely drunk off his ass. He said ‘I got fired. Yeah, the picture is off. It’s not happening. That’s what I found out on my wedding anniversary.”
“Cassian told me the reason it fell through was because of Cary,” said Joey. “He said Eric Bana didn’t trust Cary any more. I always felt it should have gone to an experienced director all the actors wanted to work with. But Cassian wanted to push Cary because he was his brother.”
“Cary apparently flew all over the world to get Eric Bana to agree to go to Graceland and be part of the movie,” said Hanala, “Well, after his trip to Graceland, Eric Bana walked off the movie. He didn’t want to work with Cary is what I heard from Cassian.”
Hanala and Joey’s marriage had been shaky almost from the start, but it had held together thanks to the shared dream of making Elvis & Nixon.
When it was abruptly shut down, that also ended their marriage. “On the way home from finding out the news,” said Hanala, “I said ‘Joey you have a choice. You can either get a job or move out. He said ‘no, I don’t have to do either.’ That’s when it became really bad. We broke up the night of our anniversary.”
Hanala who had owned the Santa Monica condo before her marriage demanded Joey move out. He refused at first. She went to a lawyer for help.
Hanala said Joey sued her for $55,000 when they split, claiming she was an older woman who promised to always care for him. Hanala, who is less than a year older than Joey, said his case was thrown out.
Joey denied ever suing Hanala for refused to take care of him. He said she took judicial action. One day he said that he came home and Hanala handed him legal papers. He said she had gone to the police and charged him with domestic abuse, and gotten a judge to issue a restraining order ordering Joey leave the condo.
“She brought false domestic violence charges against me,” insisted Joey. “I had to retain a lawyer even though I was broke at the time. I had to borrow money. We went before a judge and she ended up paying my lawyer’s fees and paying my moving costs.”
She said she gave him $20,000.
Joey Sagal as Elvis and in his theatrical headshot
Joey stayed with friends for the next six months. Four of those months were spent living in Charlie Sheen’s home at the top of Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. “When Charlie found out I was in need,” said Joey, “even though we hadn’t been hanging out for a few years, he sent me a message saying I could stay with him for as long as I wanted. It said, ‘The guards know your name at the gate.’”
The movie, however, wasn’t as dead as the marriage. “When I put it aside for a while my ex-wife (and business partner Holly) got involved,” recalled Cassian. “She said lets go back to it and she got Michael Shannon for the part (of Elvis).”
Cassian put it out for actors and directors consideration and one of those who liked it was Kevin Spacey. His participation changed everything, starting with the budget, which was going up. It was back on.
In November 2014, Hanala was in a voting booth when her cell phone rang. She saw it was Cassian and said to herself, “I took the call. I’ll vote later. This is important. Cassian is saying don’t tell anybody because we haven’t finalized the agreement with Kevin Spacey but we are filming in New Orleans in January. My knees went weak. I sat down right on the cold pavement. I’m like, ‘It’s happening!’”
Hanala approved of the choice of Lisa Johnson to direct, she recalled: “Cassian was brilliant to go after Lisa who had worked with Michael Shannon. He trusted her. She was really good and she’s a respected female director.”
Once Cassian geared the move back up for what was to become a nearly $20 million production, Hanala and Joey were no longer consulted. They do not agree on how much the other contributed to the script but they both agree that Cary’s contributions are over-stated.
In a New York Times article April 15, Cary is even credited with coming up with the opening scene in which Elvis doesn’t like what he is watching on TV, so he takes out his gun and blasts the TV set to smithereens.
That article sent both Hanala and Joey into spasms of anger. “I wrote the scene where Elvis shoots the TV,” stated Hanala. “That is in the original script before Cary ever saw it.”
“It’s a total lie,” said Joey. “When I told him that was my opening, Cary said, ‘No, it should be a bunch of demons, and he should do it quicker to show all the turmoil.’ It just ended up being a different person (on the TV screen) when Elvis shoots, which was Abbie Hoffman or someone smoking a joint.”
Joey said it was Robert Goulet on the TV screen that Elvis shot at in his version.
When asked to comment, Cassian would only say: “Honestly, I don’t want to minimize the contributions any of them made including Cary. Cary took it from being a kind of treatment script to a real movie. He transformed it into what could be a real film.”
Joey agreed that, “What Cary did was pump it up from a $100,000 movie to a $20 million movie.”
On the morning before Hanala was to fly to New Orleans to shoot her bit, she attended an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting. “I’m going to be the best damn extra in the pretend White House.,” said Hanala. “I’m feeling really good. I got up at the AA meeting and told my story. Somebody put their hand up afterward and said, ‘I love victory in the morning,’ and the room went wild.”
She came crashing back to earth later in the say when she got an email from Cassian. “Just the subject line said, ‘Don’t come to New Orleans,” recalled Hanala. “I don’t want you on the set and id rather save the money.”
She was convinced Cassian was mad at her because she had asked for extra money in the contract negotiations if the movie did well and refused to immediately agree to defer Joey’s salary. “He was mad at me for not saying, ‘Yeah, defer the payments.’ But I didn’t know,” insisted Hanala. “My lawyer didn’t tell me, and then he swayed me not to respond. You know how lawyers can get you in trouble. Mine got me in real trouble with Cassian.”
She called her lawyer and he advised her to go anyway. The ticket and room had been pre-paid. “So I went and felt so bad,” said Hanala. “I never talked to anybody. “
In her scene, Hanala is a secretary handing the Elvis letter to her boss, Nixon aide Dwight Chapin. “Well, I didn’t fly all that way and my parents didn’t survive the Holocaust so they could film the back of my head,” added Hanala. “So when I handed him the letter I jumped around and read it with him. That wasn’t my direction. I improvised in the spirit of my mother, who survived the war. They liked it. They wanted me to keep doing it every take.”
In New Orleans, Hanala got a look at the final shooting script which she said is largely the movie she and Joey turned in originally. She can’t be sure because they haven’t been allowed to see an advance screening of the movie, which has been finished for some weeks.
Hanala and Joey will see it for the first time tonight (April 18) when they separately attend the premiere which is part of the Tribeca Film Festival, where it is being given a special slot as a centerpiece movie.
This week Hanala celebrates her 60th birthday. Oddly on the same night that Elvis & Nixon screens, at almost the same time, a documentary in which she appears, that in part is about her holocaust book, is also screening at Tribeca. She has chosen to go to the Elvis & Nixon.
In declining to do an extensive interview for this article, Cassian chastised Hanala and Joey for talking about what happened at all. “This doesn’t sound very nice to me,” said Cassian. “Everybody should be proud of the result and that is what they should focus on.”
Hanala and Joey both hope the reviews and publicity from Elvis & Nixon will boost their sagging careers as actors and as writers. Hanala will attend with her new husband Aaron Webster, who she married on Elvis’s birthday.
Webster is an Elvis historian and has written articles and books including one on Elvis’s radio history. “He’s a huge Elvis guy,” said Hanala. “He plays guitar. We just fell in love.”
The documentary Maines was making about Joey is apparently dead. Maines did not respond to a request for comment for this article, but Joey said that she wasn’t able to get the huge amount of footage edited into a coherent documentary.
“For three years I told her you’ve got to edit, “said Joey. “Finally I went kind of ballistic and left some nasty messages. I said how can you do this after I got my whole family and my whole life involved in this thing.”
“Now we don’t talk,” added Joey. “this whole thing ruined the relationship.”
Hanala and Joey are still being paid for their work, and if the movie grosses over $20 million at the box office, they will be due 1.5 percent each of the net profits.
Still, that cant make up for their disappointment in how this worked out. “It’s like I was pregnant for five years,” said Hanala, “and when I finally gave birth, they took it away and I couldn’t even see it.”
“It was a bit heart breaking as an actor,” said Joey. “I lost my Rocky part,” a reference to the 1976 movie that made Sylvester Stallone a star.
On the set of Elvis & Nixon, Joey was able to talk to director Lisa Johnson briefly. “I told her what my vision was,” said Joey, adding with a sense of fatalism: “But once it got to be a bigger budget, they wanted to take it over.”
“I honestly find it amazing that Hanala and Joey want to go and push this,” said Cassian, adding: “They are credited on the movie as writer’s (along with Cary). But the movie got away from them. It got bigger and more important. It became a Hollywood movie.”
In Part II, Hanala and Joey share their version of how Elvis’s friend Jerry Schilling became a central character and narrator of Elvis & Nixon, and how he came to be an executive producer and consultant on the movie.