Q&A with Thom Zimny, Producer/Director of New Elvis Documentary ‘The Searcher’

Q&A with Thom Zimny, Producer/Director of New Elvis Documentary ‘The Searcher’

Numerous documentary films have chronicled the life of Elvis Presley but few have been as thorough, thoughtful and comprehensive as The Searcher, a new three hour-plus HBO documentary on “The King” slated to air on April 14th.

Directed and produced by Thom Zimny, the film follows the life of a poor boy form Tupelo, Mississippi through his rise on Sun Records and, later, RCA Records — a move that helped catapult him to meteoric worldwide fame. Featuring commentary from Priscilla Presley, members of Presley’s “Memphis Mafia”, Red West and Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ Comeback Special director Steve Binder and avowed Presley acolytes Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Robbie Robertson and others, the film offers a fascinating heretofore unseen window into the heart and soul of Presley.

We spoke to director Thom Zimny, who shared the backstory behind this extraordinary film.

Rock Cellar: What was the impetus and thinking behind naming the documentary The Searcher?

Thom Zimny: The way I discovered The Searcher as the title for the Elvis documentary was after having a late night conversation with Jon Landau and discussing the film in general. We talked about one of the first cuts. He said to me, “I love this moment where Priscilla calls Elvis a searcher” and we both stopped and said, “Wow, what a great title.”

It summed up so much of the theme that I was looking for as a director, but also a lot of the elements that Jon I had discussed when we were first going over the project. When you tie “the Searcher” to the name Elvis Presley, for me it takes away the cartoon vision of him and also leaves you with a an understanding of how the point of view of the film looks at Elvis — and more importantly, the term sums up his artistic journey. He was constantly looking for new music and exploring different genres, R&B, gospel, rock and roll. He was searching for that sound and he was connected to that music, I felt, in a very spiritual way.

Rock Cellar: The way I took it was in the mid 1970s when Elvis had that spiritual crisis, he was interested in the question of, “why was I the one picked to be Elvis Presley?” What do you think Elvis was searching for beyond transcendence from his music?

Photo courtesy of ABG / Graceland Archives
Photo courtesy of ABG / Graceland Archives

Thom Zimny: I think Elvis as an artist was searching for a place where he would be challenged, a place where he would discover new things and learn. He was surrounded by people who didn’t want him to experience that as a musical artist and also as an actor. The theme of the searcher plays throughout, where you see Elvis wanting to do more, and that’s the tragedy of the story. You get the sense he didn’t get to explore music, and the system that The Colonel created that in the beginning was very powerful and helpful for him to reach a national scale — but later held him back tremendously.

Rock Cellar: What was the story you set out to tell, and how did it change through the course of production?

Tom Zhimny: The story from the very beginning stemmed from a dialogue that I had with Jon Landau and people at HBO about the music and the artist. That was my approach for the film I’ve done about Bruce Springsteen, and that’s always been my interest as a filmmaker. So I didn’t want to explore the stories of Elvis giving away Cadillacs or his days with the Memphis Mafia.

But what was missing was the beauty and love of the music, so that was the central theme. But what also happens when you make a film is you learn. When you interview people like David Porter from Stax or Tom Petty, you get these moments that reveal their appreciation of Elvis as a fan but also provides a different understanding to me as a filmmaker. So a big part of the Elvis journey for me has been learning about the story that was lost — and that came from Priscilla Presley, who spent hours and hours talking to me. I asked her questions that no one had ever asked her.

Rock Cellar: Like what, for instance?

Thom Zimny: One of the best things about Priscilla is she had a knowledge of Elvis’ love for gospel first, and from the moment that they met in Germany. Many times, people want to just talk about the relationship and personality or other things that I wasn’t interested in. What I love is how Priscila offered a complex view of Elvis’ understanding and love of gospel. He also used their relationship to teach her about music and his love of music, so their whole courting was this dialogue about music.

I feel a lot of times Priscilla’s connection to Elvis wasn’t honored in a way that I was able to get out of any interview, because I simply didn’t care about gossip or things that had been covered before. And that just opened the door for Priscilla to talk about this artist and talk about this artist playing in the living room and singing gospel; finding gospel at different points in his career as a solace.

Rock Cellar: Gospel music was something he always came back to to center himself against the pressures of fame and problems in his personal life.

Thom Zimny: When you’re working in the editing room, you’re listening to the rhythm and the voices of the story and Priscilla’s voice drives the movie. Her emotional tone gave me an understanding that things weren’t so black and white; the Colonel helped Elvis at times and also held him back. Also, she was able to say ‘Elvis found solace this way.’

She explained how Elvis’ connection to gospel was how he processed the loss of his mother, and how later on he used it to comprehend his reality.  Elvis found his place in the world again and again through gospel because it was tied to a childhood feeling of comfort and connection to the world.

If you look at his celebrity, especially in the mid ‘60s, things were so big and he was so distant from the sound, the sound that gave him those early records, and the way that he was making records with the movie soundtracks. He was lost, spiritually and emotionally, and what does he do? He returns to gospel. When Elvis goes into the Army he sings gospel songs. That’s major theme throughout.

Photo by Alfred Wertheimer. Courtesy of the Estate of Alfred Wertheimer, © Alfred Wertheimer
Photo by Alfred Wertheimer. Courtesy of the Estate of Alfred Wertheimer, © Alfred Wertheimer

Rock Cellar: How did the tragic passing of Elvis’ mother, the key figure in his life, contribute to his quest as a searcher?

Thom Zimny: Elvis’ loss of his mother, as described by DJ Fontana and others, is of him never getting over it. Priscilla summed it up when she said he changed from that point on. He changed as an artist, but he changed as a person too. If you think about the time of Elvis’ mother’s passing, it came while he was in the Army and it came while all of his reality was shifting. It also came at a time where he placed a lot of more faith in The Colonel because he was stopping his runaway train of a career that was just at such a fast speed and at such a powerful level with television, film and records.

So Priscilla has described to me the loss of his mom in a way that I was able to carry into the film and also explore how he related to Priscilla herself and how Graceland in some ways was symbolic of his love for his mom. Graceland I used as character in the movie and Graceland I use as a place that not only described his attempt to live a life not like the way he grew up, but it was also a place he bought for his parents and a place in which he found solace.

Rock Cellar: Were there any key footage finds for this film?

Thom Zimny: There was no footage I was’t able to get, but some key things were discovering the Super 8 footage from a collector of Elvis in concert circa 1973. We synced that footage up by eye and it appears in the documentary. It’s really good, steady Super 8 concert footage that has never been seen; we also accessed Elvis’ 1960 press conference, it’s the one where he’s signing he checks. We have a lot of footage of Elvis in 1960 that has not been seen. By the way, I took an original 16mm print that Elvis owned himself and used that for his appearance on the Frank Sinatra Show performances and The Dorsey Show. They are new transfers of Elvis’ copy in the vaults.

Rock Cellar: Elvis did a very revealing interview for the “Elvis On Tour” film which was never used in the actual film but portions have surfaced on YouTube. He’s very candid about his movie career and how it made him physically sick to do those films. You used a different audio clip from Elvis in the film that is not as powerful. Was there any attempt to get that audio footage for this film?

Thom Zimny: I looked for that footage and I know that quote. But I did end up using the other quote from Elvis about his film work because it was conducted in the ‘60s, in the middle of him making those films, and the quote from “Elvis On Tour” was more reflective. So it was a voice that jumped around the narrative in some ways.

In some ways, Elvis tells his own story, but in other ways the filmmaker has to tell it. In my decision to use the audio of Elvis talking about his film work done in the ‘60s, I actually used a quote where he is slightly defending it, saying “you have to do something like this,” which makes the tragedy a lot more powerful because we already know that he was sad to do those films. But to hear him go in denial, it’s a much more powerful place to be.

Rock Cellar: In terms of the musical selection for the film, there are some very surprising selections, what was your mindset behind culling the musical soundtrack?

Thom Zimny: I had spent a lot of time, thanks to Ernst Jorgensen, discussing the tracks for three years and listening to 6,000 tracks that Ernst gave me; every Follow That Dream release, every RCA release, bootlegs, everything was available to me. I spent the time listening to it as the film was developing. One of the key things was that there are certain songs that need to be part of the narrative, and there are certain songs that I felt were lost in the vault or in the catalog. There was no need to tell the Elvis story with the greatest hits, so I go to “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” which was written by Bob Dylan. I go for “Hurt,” and I go for tracks that drive the narrative and that felt like a part of Elvis’ life story.

You want to have the person who is the casual listener to be emotionally moved, and you want to be in the fan’s zone where they say, “Oh I recognize that.” That’s the beauty of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ version of “Wooden Heart.” It’s a fantastic version and it makes you look at a song like that differently; it starts to symbolize a lot of things in the Elvis narrative.

Rock Cellar: Besides Elvis, is there one person alive or dead that you wish you would’ve been able to interview for this film?

Thom Zimny: Of course you would want The Colonel in a room talking, but I felt like the list of artists we picked was good. If they were a musician, you had to feel like their life changed because of the music of Elvis Presley; that’s why we had people like Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson and Tom Petty.

Petty was amazing and I sat with him for an hour in his home studio and we went through the whole life of Elvis and he fit perfectly in the movie. I wasn’t interested in celebrity; I wasn’t interested in somebody for the sake of a name.

Rock Cellar: Here’s a hypothetical question: Elvis is back on earth for 1 hour, and you have a few minutes with him. What you ask him?

Thom Zimny: I would have no question for him. I would just have to express my gratitude for his music and extend a thank you and say to him I hope I got it right in the film. Priscilla said that if Elvis was around, she felt he would be happy–  so that’s as close as I can get to that analogy. I have tons of gratitude of the experience. I felt his journey is fascinating to look at and it was an honor to be entrusted by the people around him. I hope everyone enjoys it, because I had a tremendous time exploring both the man and his music.

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