The Untold Story: How A Member of the Memphis Mafia Shaped “Elvis & Nixon”
Jerry Schilling at first refused to cooperate with the filmmakers because he didn’t like the way his relationship with Elvis was portrayed. His objections led to changes, and then he got involved. Second of two parts
Elvis with his Memphis Mafia (shown in a circle with Jerry Schilling). Their motto was TCB (Take Care of Business)
Part II: Making Something “Classy and Cool,” Not “Cheesy and Plastic”
The original writers and the key producer behind the new movie, Elvis & Nixon, were often at odds, and before principal photography began essentially stopped communicating, as related in the first installment of this two part article.
However, one thing they always agreed on was that Jerry Schilling, who had been one of The King of Rock and Roll’s best friends, was central to telling their story about the weekend in 1970 the famous star met the 37th president in the oval office, with Jerry in tow.
Those original writers, Hanala Sagal and Joey Sagal, disagree with producer Cassian Elwes on when Jerry became a big part of the story - as the script was rewritten several times.
Cassian in a brief interview praised his brother, movie and TV star Cary Elwes (the third credited writer on the movie), with developing the script and turning it from almost a “home movie” into a big time picture. He said it was Cary who first contacted Jerry to see about getting his cooperation and permission to use his story and image in the movie.
Cary Elwes did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
“I don’t want to go into this too deeply,” said Cassian, “as to who did what. It was (originally going to be) like a 30-minute short. Jerry is part of that story. But we didn’t have the rights (to his story or use of his image).”
Hanala and Joey are adamant Schilling was always a major character, with the story told from his point of view from the first draft. They also said it wasn’t ever gong to be a short, which is why they initially wrote a 90-page script.
A copy of that early script was reviewed by Block & Tackle.biz, and Jerry’s character is important throughout and acts as narrator for much of the story.
In real life Schilling actually did accompany Presley to Washington, D.C. over one crazy weekend, and to the White House for a meeting with then President Richard Nixon. However, almost everything beyond that is fictionalized to make it an interesting story.
The writer’s were concerned Elvis at that stage of his life and career wasn’t a sympathetic character. “We had to find somebody you can relate to,” said Joey. “So you have to have a character like Jerry. So we tell part of the story though Jerry’s eyes and we go on his trip with Elvis. And that was kind of the basis of the whole movie.”
“What happened was we didn’t know how to structure the screenplay,” said Hanala. “It had to be about Elvis but then I saw Jerry talking about stuff in (video from) The National Archives. So I said to Joey, ‘Let’s do it through Jerry’s point of view.”
Hanala recalled reading about Jerry in a book by Priscilla Presley and in Jerry’s own 2006 book, Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship With Elvis Presley.
They built into the story around the contrast between the complex, often dark (and drugged) Elvis, and his nerdy nice guy pal Jerry, whose wife Sandy was always complaining he spent too much time with the rock and roll star.
“Then we added a ticking clock by saying (Jerry) had to get back to Los Angeles by Monday or he would miss out on a new job at Paramount,” said Hanala, “and he might lose his wife. His wife is really pissed off. She’s like, ‘When am I going to be as important to you as Elvis?’“
“Jerry,” added Hanala, “was a little younger (than Elvis), super smart, nice and loyal, loyal, loyal. So Elvis brought him along.”
Hanala later learned from Jerry that he, “found out about this screenplay while he was driving Elvis’s grandkid Riley around. She was on her phone and said, ‘Hey, there is this thing, this movie Elvis & Nixon.’ She had seen it on Facebook or Twitter I think.”
Jerry was 12-years-old when he first met Elvis and became a lifelong friend and a charter member of the star’s entourage known as the Memphis Mafia. Since Presley’s death in 1977, Jerry has moved on to his own career in the music business but has remained close with Elvis’s family and acted as an unofficial guardian of the Elvis image.
Cary had already done a rewrite of the story as originally conceived by Hanala and Joey when he showed his version to Jerry.
“I just said thanks but no thanks,” Jerry told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in an article about his involvement in the movie and his friendship with Elvis on April 8, 2016.
Jerry told reporter Michael Donahue that the first scripts he read misrepresented his friendship with Elvis: “They had me in charge telling Elvis what to do. And I never would do that. That would have been so phony.”
The idea of turning the story into a comedy made Jerry nervous.
Cary rewrote the script but Jerry said although he “really did some nice changes,…I just walked away….It’s just a project I don’t want to do.”
Jerry Schilling did not respond to a request to comment on this article.
Hanala and Joey had both read Cary’s rewrite and didn’t like it any better than Jerry. “When I read what Cary had rewritten, my beautiful 90-pages turned into 130 pages, I was horrified,” said Hanala.
Then Hanala and Joey’s one-year marriage broke up, and they got involved in a bitter divorce.
Hanala, however, said she didn’t want to give up. She had a friend who said he knew Jerry, so she arranged to send him her version of the script.
“Jerry read it and said, ‘I would like to meet with her because I would get involved with this version,” recalled Hanala. “I like this screenplay. This represents my friend well.”
Jerry Schilling with Hanala Sagal when they met in Pat Boone's offices in Summer 2012
Hanala attended the meeting in the summer of 2012 with their mutual friend but without Joey or Cassian's knowledge or involvement.
Jerry meet Hanala in the offices of Pat Boone Enterprises in a glass and steel office tower on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, California. Jerry told her he is friends with Pat Boone.
At that meeting, “Jerry said that Cassian brought him Cary’s script and he absolutely hated it,” recalled Hanala, “and he would not stand behind it. But he would help produce my script.”
She described her version, written with Joey, as “a sweet story where Jerry and Elvis look great and get along great and it’s a beautiful ‘bromance’” – a Hollywood term for a movie in which two male leads bond, and their relationship helps drive the storytelling.
It was shortly after that meeting Cassian told Hanala that he was close to a deal for Kevin Spacey to play Nixon. It was that casting that got Elvis & Nixon on track to actually being financed and made.
Joey never saw or met with Jerry, and after that one meeting, Hanala did not talk to Jerry again until shortly after the Commercial Appeal article, which completely left her and Joey’s role as writer's out of the story.
She said after she read the article she sent Jerry an email reminding him of what he had said in Pat Boone’s office. “You said what a writer dreams of hearing,” wrote Hanala in an April 8 email, “you said you loved how I wrote your part.”
She said they spoke by phone for 20 minutes the next day and Jerry apologized for leaving her and Joey out of the article. “He said his point of view was Elvis-related,” said Hanala, “not writer’s related.”
“He said his concern was to let the Elvis people know he was not O.K. until he was, so that Elvis’s image is protected. We see Elvis in a good light. That was his intent (in the interview) but he clearly remembers our conversations.”
While Hanala and Joey were left in the dark as the movie grew in budget and scale, Cassian got even more involved. Cary did more rewriting and according to Jerry, two other writers were brought in to shape the story to his liking.
“They brought in two script doctors who were really good,” Jerry told the Commercial Appeal. “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, talking about his career and how it felt to be Elvis.”
Jerry signed on as a consultant with an Executive Producer credit on the movie.
Cary Elwes, left, star of "Princess Bride," and his brother Cassian Elwes, one of Hollywood's most prolific producers of independently made movies, including "Dallas Buyers Club"
Cassian would not comment on the use of any other writers. “Jerry and I spent enormous amounts of time together,” said Cassian. “That wasn’t an easy situation, dealing with his best friend in the world who is not alive any more. (Jerry) wanted to make sure we were going to make something really classy and cool out of this and not something cheesy and plastic.”
Cassian added that he too wanted to make a movie, “that would be fantastic for Elvis’s memory.”
To do that he wanted Jerry on hand during production. “I wanted him involved in the entire process,” said Cassian. “I wanted it to be a legitimate attempt to tell this story and Jerry was an integral part of it. I wanted to make a movie he would be proud of and be able to show it to his family, his friends and some of Elvis’s relatives.”
Jerry said he approved the choice of 26-year-old English actor Alex Pettfer (Magic Mike) to play him.
However, he still had some qualms with the movie. “Is it the movie I would have set out to make?” Jerry said to the Commercial Appeal. “No. Is it a well-acted, well-done movie? Yes. The movie is based on facts.”
“This movie,” added Jerry, “as the director (Liza Johnson) would say, is not a History Channel documentary. This is more of a docu-comedy.”
The movie starring Kevin Spacey as Nixon and Michael Shannon as Elvis, has already gotten a favorable review. It opens in the U.S. tomorrow (April 22).