Elvis Mitchell has built his reputation on his ability to talk to filmmakers, but his new TV show is all about using that ability on a whole new level.
After a long career that’s included writing for the LA Weekly, The Detroit Free Press, and The New York Times, Mitchell is currently the host of the KCRW radio show “The Treatment,” but the new Epix series “Elvis Goes There” gave him the opportunity to do something on a whole new level. The show documents him teaming up with various filmmakers to explore cities that reflect their work: In this first batch of episodes, he wanders Oakland with Ryan Coogler, Paris with Sofia Coppola, London with Paul Feig, and Los Angeles with Guillermo del Toro.
“Something I’ve always wanted to do was talk to creative people when they don’t have a project to pitch, so some of the pressure’s taken off,” he said to IndieWire. “So, it was a really liberating experience in that respect, to have this kind of circumstance, where we could go to a place that really meant something to them.”
Mitchell said that he got a range of time with each of the directors featured in the episodes, from three days in Oakland with Coogler to a week in London with Feig. For the Paris episode, Coppola took Mitchell on a tour of the Coco Chanel apartment as well as Versailles, while exploring Los Angeles with del Toro mean that the two of them could discuss “how many different cities Los Angeles is.”
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While each episode of “Elvis Goes There” focuses on the central director, Mitchell does speak to other artists who relate to the area — in the Ryan Coogler episode, for example, he also features Boots Riley (director of Oakland-set “Sorry to Bother You”) as well as “Blindspotting” star Daveed Diggs and queer filmmaker Cheryl Dunye. By bringing together multiple voices, he said, the show was able to create a portrait of Oakland as “this real crucible of creativity and politics. That these filmmakers all found very different ways to present and represent that city, I thought it was a remarkable time to be there.”
Added Mitchell, “These are all people I’ve known — even Ryan I’ve known for a while… I’m lucky to have a number of pretty good friends who I could just call up and ask, and they said yes. It was shocking to me that Ryan Coogler, the hottest director on the planet, cleared his schedule to do this, and I couldn’t be more grateful that he did. And I thought his contribution to this show is just terrific.”
The key, he said, was that he wanted to “break open the idea of a travel show a little bit, and take filmmakers to places that really have shaped their careers.” It was an idea, he fully acknowledged, owed a lot to Anthony Bourdain, who he was friends with.
“It’s hard to do a travel show and not have to think about what Tony did,” Mitchell said, remembering that a few months before the iconic host died by suicide, the two of them had dinner. “I mentioned this show to him, and he just went, ‘I want in, but, well, what did you want to do?’ I said, ‘Well, here’s what we would do. I was thinking about the movie “The Warriors.” Do you know “The Warriors”?’ He goes, ‘Oh, of course I know “The Warriors.”‘ I said, ‘Well, I’d love to go with you to all the places that they go in that movie that are all now gentrified.’ And he just said, ‘I’ll do it under one condition, that we wear leather vests, and we’re bare-chested throughout the entire show.'”
Mitchell was game, because as he said “you want that kind of blessing from him. He was completely down with this and thought it was just a terrific idea, just because he was such a big film lover himself.”
In fact, Mitchell prided himself on the fact that he and Bourdain never talked about food when they were together. “For the paperback edition of ‘Medium Raw,’ he asked me to do the Q & A with him in the back of the book, because he said very nicely that I had done the best interview with him that he’d done in 20 years, for his short story collection,” he said. “He felt like he wasn’t being asked to perform, but could be himself.”
And while Bourdain was comfortable with Mitchell, Bourdain was also teaching Mitchell how to approach his own show. “You can’t do this type of show without thinking about how he upended what we think of as the travel show, I think, by just making it as much about his reflections on the place as well as the people who intersected with him on camera,” Mitchell said. “I think in the way that he redefined what a travel show could be, I would like to do that too.”
Mitchell said that when it comes to future installments, he’s heard “yes” from a number of “really cool” people. “Now that this thing has materialized, and I get to have the embarrassment of having my face on a couple billboards in some fairly shady areas of Los Angeles, people have now started to call up and say they want to do the show too,” he said.
He also hopes that “we get to break this out into the arts in so many other different areas. I want to do musicians, and writers, and visual artists, and I think the show offers a chance to do that.”
Mitchell’s natural mode is conversation, and thus it makes sense to let his own words speak for themselves going forward.
How do you feel “Elvis Went There” adds to your own legacy, as a critic and interviewer?
That’s touching, the idea that I have a legacy somehow. I’ve never thought about anything that grand before in my life. I just hoped I could make a show that people might want to watch. That’s kind of how I approach my entire career, is doing the things that I’d like to do, and hoping that I could get other people interested. I think if I have a strength, it’s enthusiasm. And I have the same enthusiasm about the arts and popular culture that I always have, and hasn’t abated for a moment.
But you do occupy this really interesting place in pop culture, where, for example, you make a cameo on “BoJack Horseman,” and anyone who knows the film world will also know that it’s you. Is that something you’re at all conscious of?
Long answer, no. I’m always shocked when I get that kind of request to do something like that, because I figure I’m just toiling away in the basement of KCRW, and it’s just me and whomever is sitting across from me talking. And I’m always shocked when people tell me that they hear this show. I’m lucky that KCRW’s given me this incredible venue to do this thing for as long as they have. And I have to say that, I’m the luckiest person I know. I get to do what I want for a living and almost make a living at it.
I just want to communicate the fact that you can be exuberant about this, and maybe in broader terms, to make it clear to people of color that we can broaden the conversation about the arts a little bit. Because I’m a black guy from Detroit, and that comes into play in everything I do and say and the perspective that I bring. You asked me about inclusion before. One of the reasons whenever I get asked to speak at a school, I try to do it just because I do feel I have to lead by example a little bit and show that people who look like me can do this, that you should be emboldened to think that this world is open to you, and that there’s a demand for different perspectives on this.
Because if I’m lucky, all I have is a point of view, which I think can be lacking sometimes in interviews. And I feel like I’m not just asking questions. There are things that I want to know. And this thing happens frequently that embarrasses me a little bit, because I like to think of these interviews as being conversations, but the part where somebody says, “I’ve never been asked that before” — you realize, well, people don’t say that in conversation very often, or ever. And so, when that comes up, it changes the dynamic a little bit.
Hopefully, I’m getting people to think a little differently about what they do. And if I have a legacy, it is I think that I try to pay these people the compliment of taking what they do seriously enough that they don’t think they’re wasting their time when they talk to me, because so many people are doing so many interviews, as you mention. You know what this is like. All you want to do is get the person’s attention that’s sitting across from you, and if you can do that, then it’s downhill from there.
It seems like the core of a good interview is about that kind of engagement.
Yeah, I get asked that a lot. How do you do it? I don’t know. Maybe I’m fortunate too in that I come from print, so I do all my own preparation. I’ve never had a situation where people give me a list of questions, because I get to ask what I want to ask, in the ways that I want to ask it. And so, I’m trying just to satisfy my own curiosity about these people.
The other thing I’ve always tried to do, too, is to never have a list of questions in front of me. I’ve been interviewed by people who have that, and who are wedded to those questions, and I will consciously try to break them from that.
I don’t want to get too meta here, but at the same time, it’s hard to avoid it, just because we’re doing an interview about interviewing people.
Yeah, but isn’t that fun though, when something just pops into your head, and you can just do that, and the conversation takes a different shape? There’s a bit of excitement in that, when you know that the person you’re talking to is listening to the questions all of a sudden and not trying to go to answer number 46.
One of the reasons I’ve maybe tried to stay away from actors a little bit too much, because they can be so practiced in doing an interview. They can tell a story, and make it sound like the very first time they’ve told it. And then you turn on the TV, and they’re talking to the exact same actor on “The Today Show.” You just kind of swallow hard and go, “Oh, I fell for that. I’m a sap.”
It’s really great when you catch them early on, when they haven’t had a chance to practice and become this polished media person. I mean, with Ryan, I’ve known him since all this got started, and I’ve been watching just how smooth he’s become, just because he’s a bright guy. He learned from it. He learned what not to say.
You do want to keep a part of yourself just so that you can feel like you’re sane, after this whole process is over. I’ve had so many people say to me, “Oh, my God, how do you hold onto a piece of yourself when you get asked all these questions?” Either you’re bored by it, or it’s something you don’t want to answer, but if we’re doing this well, I think they do want to participate in a way that makes it a much more active conversation than not, otherwise it really just feels like another dead spot in their day.
It seems like the key to making that happen is just really being open.
Yeah, and I mean, I guess, if you get that much time with somebody, at a certain point, they are gonna have to open up a little bit. I mean, you have to be a real expert, or Dick Cheney, to be that guarded your entire life. But they all came in ready to play. They’re all really game about the experience of doing this, and that they trusted me. In just talking to you about this, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of faith that all of these people had in me, and I can’t thank them enough for it.