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Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Liza Johnson – ‘Elvis & Nixon’

Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Liza Johnson - 'Elvis & Nixon'

Liza Jonhnson is a writer and director whose feature films “Return” (2011) and “Hateship Loveship” (2013) have screened at the Cannes, Toronto, New York, Berlin and Rotterdam film festivals, among many others. She also helmed the pilot for “Good Girls Revolt.” Johnson has been a fellow of the DAAD Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Sundance Institute. (Press materials)

“Elvis and Nixon” will premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival on April 18.


W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

LJ: It’s a historical bromance set in 1970, based on Elvis Presley’s real-life journey to meet Richard Nixon.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LJ: I liked the script a great deal — it’s quite unusual tonally. I am always drawn to any opportunity to work with Michael Shannon. He will always be a magnet for me, and I know that Kevin Spacey felt the same way; he was also really excited to play against Mike.

I think the story is very funny — there are no jokes in the movie, but there is a lot of comedy in the situation. It’s an absurd juxtaposition of these supercool rock-and-roll dudes and the Nixon boys who have, let’s say, a different style. But I also liked that alongside this absurdism, the story has depth in terms of Elvis’ arc and his friendship with Jerry Schilling.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

LJ: I think people will feel like they’ve been on a journey with Elvis. It’s unexpected, I think: We all know that Elvis was the iconic figurehead of the rebellious rock-and-roll youth culture of the 1950s, [so] it’s surprising that by this time he has developed a deep need for the approval of the establishment.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

LJ: It’s independently financed, and it’s my understanding that this happened by combining funds from our equity investors with strong international presales by Bloom, with production tax credits from Louisiana and post-production credits from New York.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

LJ: I rarely feel misunderstood [when it comes to perceptions about me as a director and my work.]

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

LJ: My friend and colleague Dee Rees told me you should never make a film with someone unless they’re the kind of person you would rob a bank with. This still seems like good advice, and if I were going to rob a bank I would want Michael Shannon on the team!

I got another good piece of advice from Christine Lahti and her poker-playing friends — don’t read your reviews. She says that if you’re going to believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones, so just don’t do it.

I countered because I had a memory of Joan Didion writing the opposite — that you must read your reviews, otherwise it’s like there’s a fire burning outside your apartment and you refuse to look at it. When I brought this up, a very established TV writer got out his wallet and pulled out this crappy little scrap of paper. He did a dramatic reading of the worst review he had ever gotten. And he was like, “Do you want to be like me? Do you want to be carrying this kind of negativity around with you all the time?”

For what it’s worth, they also taught me a lot about poker.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LJ: That is almost impossible! There are so many!

Today I’m going to go with Elaine May’s “A New Leaf.” I would die happy if I ever made a scene as good as the one where it’s her wedding night and she gets her head stuck in the armhole of her nightgown. I have a picture of it on my desk because it gives me so much joy.

But if you ask me again tomorrow I might say: Barbara Loden’s “Wanda,” Lynne Ramsay’s “Morvern Callar,” Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman,” Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg,” Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” Suzana Amaral’s “Hour of the Star,” Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” Lucrecia Martel’s “La Cienaga,” Catherine Breillat’s “A Real Young Girl,”  Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy” or one of Elaine May’s other movies, like “The Heartbreak Kid” or “Ishtar,” “Mikey and Nicky.”

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