Millions of Americans clung to the hope that Elvis Presley faked his death. For the executives at Sun Records that fantasy became an opportunity in the form of Orion, a mysterious masked performer with the voice of The King. But who was the man behind the mask? In this stranger-than-fiction true story, Jeanie Finlay explores a life led in service to those who couldn’t let Elvis go. [Synopsis Courtesy of Tribeca]
Writer and director Jeanie Finlay talks about her film “Orion: The Man Who Would Be King,” her inspirations and challenges in creating the film, and why she doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures.
“Orion: The Man Who Would Be King” tells the story of a mysterious masked singer that was launched on Sun Records in 1979, two years after Elvis Presley died. No one knew exactly who was but he sounded exactly — and, I mean, exactly like the king, perhaps the king was reborn.
We delve under the mask to find out about the man underneath, how he ended up as “Orion” — the fictional character plucked from the novel by Gail Brewer Giorgio, and the huckstering genius of Shelby Singleton at Sun Records.
It’s a film about the machinations of the music industry, identity, desire, about chasing a dream and what happens when you get what you always wanted but by compromising who you are.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I’m an artist and filmmaker from Teesside now living in Nottingham, UK.
I’m not as loud as the dresses I wear, and I’m interested in making films about shy people and peeking under the surface of pop culture or something familiar to find the hidden layers beneath. I love the excavation.
I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions or guilty pleasures (why would you feel guilty about something you liked?). I believe in Dolly Parton, Powell and Press burger, my 11-year-old daughter and the irreplaceable rush of making films — it’s the best job in the world.
Biggest challenge in completing this film?
All films are a challenge, but this one has been a corker!
It took forever to get funded and in the end I decided, inspired by American filmmakers I knew, rather than wait for the funding, to just get on with it and make the film. I raised a tiny pot of development and would fit filming trips in, in-between showing “Sound It Out” and “The Great Hip Hop Hoax” theatrically in the US. My Nashville based D.O.P Stewart Copeland would pick me up and we’d get the next bit of the film done then we’d drive to the next screening. Once I’d gotten about 80 hours shot and 20 mins cut, people could really see and feel what the film was going to be like. All my funders (BBC Storyville, Creative England, Ffilm Cymru Wales, Broadway and Crowdfunding) came in one after another and have been fantastically supportive.
There have also been the challenges of making a film that uses a huge amount of fan archive, sourcing it from people who may not be online or dislike technology. We developed an online memory box #MyOrion for people to submit materials or stories. Even if they couldn’t use it, the request elicited a lot of fascinating stuff.
Lastly, sadly some of the characters in the film are no longer with us, so bringing their story to life through pure archive testimony was a huge challenge. Hopefully we got there in the end, I feel like I know some of them so well but will never have the chance to meet them in real life.
What do you want the Tribeca audience to take away from your film?
I’d like audiences to delve under the glitter and feel that they’ve gotten to know the man behind the mask, someone they may not have heard of before but that has an incredible and moving story.
I’d also like them to think about their limits — what would they do to get what they’ve always desired? Would you wear the mask?
I am so excited about Tribeca and cannot wait for the world premiere.
Any films inspire you?
It’s very different but I thought a lot about “American Movie” by Chris Smith. One man on a mission to follow his dream to make the great American movie.
I gorged on films that go behind the spotlight — “The Nashville Sound” (we use a clip in “Orion”), Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” “A Star is Born,” starring Barbara Streisand, “Slade in Flame,” “Change of Habit” starring Elvis and the amazing David Essex & Michael Apted films — “That’ll Be The Day” and “Stardust.”
I also read a lot of books set in the South — “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers really stood out. The film was shot in Selma, close to where Orion grew up.
I have a few ideas that are too early to tell you about just yet, but what I can say is that my next film will be about a woman.
What cameras did you shoot on?
I just got back from SXSW where I was hosting some of the Q&As and if anyone started on “kit talk” I veered them quickly away from the subject. I rarely ask filmmakers about cameras — it’s much more interesting to find out what they do with them!
If you really want to know… the film has taken so long to make I have used almost every camera going as technology has changed. From shooting on tape on a Z1, to digital on a 7d, EX3, C100, C300, a drone, a super slow mo camera and done some in-camera effects to make the title sequence and work with the archive by hand. It also runs the full gamut of fan-sourced archive from VHS, Super 8, Beta SP and DVD. It’s a real mixed bag.
Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?
We crowdfunded a portion of our budget on Indiegogo. Back in 2010, my film “Sound It Out” was one of the very first films to be crowdfunded in the UK, and we (my MD Sally Hodgson and I) wanted to see if we could bring the audience from that film and my other work to “Orion.”
Of course the money was important, vital in fact, but we were as, if not more interested in the audience engagement aspect of crowdfunding.
Our successful crowfunding campaign also persuaded our various funding partners that there was an audience for “Orion’ and it helped them to say yes! I’m excited that one of our crowdfunding execs Andy Copping will be flying out from the UK to attend the world premiere.
Did you go to film school? If so, which one?
I didn’t go to film school — I went to art school, and my degree is in art and music. I made large-scale work for galleries and public spaces and fell into filmmaking. I realized that the conversations and stories I heard as I was photographing people or making portraits were “the work.” So I started filming them.
I made an interactive doc, a 10 min short, and a maverick commissioner at the BBC took a chance on me and commissioned my first broadcast film (“Teenland” — 60 mins) and I haven’t looked back. “Orion: the Man Who Would Be King” is my 6th feature.
I get into trouble sometimes when I visit film schools to deliver a masterclass, as I encourage students to think about whether the fees they are spending on a course would be better spent buying their own kit and going out and making their film.
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.