Elvis World - Japan presents


DENIS SANDERS 1970 Interview

I was privileged to meet Denis Sanders, director of the MGM film "Elvis - That's The Way It Is" now being completed for autumn showing, during the shooting of the film. He contacted me as one of Elvis' fans and used my definition of being an Elvis fan in the picture. You'll find what I said later in the article.

In return, he has given me this revealing, exclusive interview about filming Elvis.
However, before I start on the Question-time, I want to tell you about Denis Sanders himself.

He is an independent film-maker who, for his past films, has been honoured With the highest possible citations, including two Academy Awards.
His first Oscar was awarded for "A Time Out For War." Then in 1970 he received an Academy Award for his documentary movie Czechoslovakia 1968." He was honoured with the "Saturday Review" TV Award this year for his television documentary "Trial: The City And County Of Denver Versus Lauren R. Watson," which was shown on BBC-I. That documentary was also chosen as "Best News Film" at the Cannes Film Festival.

Sanders also wrote the highly acclaimed TV Special "The Day Lincoln Was Shot "; and has directed many TV shows in the U.S. In 1970, he was chosen for the "Elvis" assignment, which is planned for late November release in the United States.
Now here is my Ask-in interview with Denis Sanders.

Lucien Ballard and Denis Sanders

Ann Moses: When you were chosen to do the Elvis film, where did you begin? How much did you know about Elvis Presley?

Denis Sanders: I didn't know that much about Elvis. but I do know a lot about American music. I was not of the earliest jazz buffs in this country. I have one of the major Jazz collections. Since I was twelve I have been collecting records.

Ann: So, you were really deep into music when Elvis first came out?

Sanders: Oh, I knew about Elvis! I liked him right from the very beginning.

Ann: So, where does one start when you make a movie? Did you look at any of his old films?

Sanders: No, mainly because the film that I'm doing is about Presley as an entertainer, with a quarter of it his show at the International. The other elements that I have chosen to emphasise were the putting together of a show and the fan phenomenon.
In a way, its a film by one professional about another professional in another field. So I have no interest, really, in his personal life, I really don't. My interest is solely in Elvis as a performer . . as a multi-talented performer and as a musician. And as an organiser of his show.

And, as a matter of fact. I wouldn't even take an assignment of doing a story of the personal life of a professional like Elvis, because then we'd be arguing about my view versus all kinds of other people's views. I'd be in the same difficult position all biographers are in when It's an authorised biography.
But really, in this case, its not a controversial film. Oh, there might be a few areas, like my view of Las Vegas might not be or coincide with everybody else's, but it is my view.

Ann: What about Elvis' contribution to the film? Did you sit down with him and ask him what he thought should be in the film? Or is it strictly your ideas?

Sanders: I told him the elements I was interested in. I told him I wanted to be privy in addition to the show and to the rehearsals and to the process of putting a show together. So would he try to. when I was shooting a rehearsal, organise that rehearsal in such a way that it would be a bit more lucid than if it just completely happened.
It would completely happen, but where he felt he needed to make a comment he would, and to me that's not out of context of the film.

Ann: When was your first meeting with Elvis? How did it go?

Sanders: I met with him in his dressing room at MGM, surrounded by hordes of people - hit contingent, the colonel's contingent. my contingent. It was a summit meeting.

Ann: Did you get anything accomplished with so many people there?

Sanders: Well. I sort of got over next to him and while everybody was talking with everybody else, I sort of put my head next to his head and told him what I was going to try to do. And at that point all the other noise ceased and we could talk, and had to use the time fruitfully!

Ann: Did you get the impression that he was excited about the film? So many of his films have been criticised, one disappointing script after another. There's no script at all for this one. Did he seem excited?

Sanders: Without question! In fact, he thinks it's the first film he'll approve of!

Ann: When you decided to do the film, why did you feel that the fans had to be included?

Sanders: Because I feel you don't have an entertainer without an audience. I feet that they are completely inter-related. Some sense of his effect on his audience is as much a part of the drama as the entertainer himself.

Ann: Did you have any idea when you began that the fans would be like the ones you've put on film?

Sanders: No. I didn't know anything about Presley fans.

Ann: Where did you start?

Sanders: With two girl fans and they put me in touch with other girls who - had been in fan clubs, or were in fan clubs, and then the whole thing snowballed. Part of the problem on a picure like this is not only to do what I'm saying, but to do it in a short period of time, because I didn't have too much time.
Function as a detective. follow the leads, follow where all the lines run as best you can, at least locally. I could neither spend the money or the time to fly all over the world. I also wanted to get a cross-section. I didn't want to have just girls of 18. I atso wanted everything from teenyboppers to old ladies. men, different nationalities, and had to find them. I found you that way. I got in touch with you from a f an that said: " Go see Ann Moses, she's a fan."

Ann: Thanks! Will you be making any statements about the fans, like your opinion of them? Or will it be an objective view?

Sanders: I never work in generalities. The only generality I could say is that generally I don't think generalities are meaningful.

The fans are all alive and they're talking. I try to choose a fan who can quickly, in the little time they have before the cameras, convey to the audience a whole sense of who they are. That the tip of the iceberg reveals the whole iceberg, or at least is sensed by the viewer. There is no narration. I don't say anything.

Ann: The early Press releases on the film stated that the Elvis film was "going to be a Woodstock on Elvis." Do you think that's an accurate description of your film?

Sanders: The only picture like "Woodstock" is "Woodstock"! The only picture like "Elvis" is "Elvis"!

Ann: How have you found working with Elvis?

Sanders: Well, if I needed something, I always got it. I never abused it. When I asked, it was never for anything trivial.
That's the secret of working with most people anyway. You don't use up your shots on trivial things, but you make it very clear that when you finally ask for something it's for something very important.
So the lights are going to come up in the audience and it's going to bother him, but he's going to have to live with it and he did. He knew I had to have it. I didn't bother him for most of the week, once I had the lights up on opening night.
And the final night we were shooting I just said I had to. I had to get the audience. I could have said: "I left you alone all week." but I didn't need to say that. And if Elvis was bothered, he'd say: "Kill it, kill the lights." And I'd kill it. That was the deal.

Ann: Do you feel you've caught the "real" Elvis or some portion of the "real" Elvis?

Sanders: Every time the cameras were rolling he knew it. He's very suave about it. He's made too many movies to not know whether the camera is on or off.

Ann: Will we have a glimpse of Elvis when he's not "on"?

Sanders: Yeah. I have a scene backstage opening night. It may be heightened a little by the fact that he knew the cameras were on. but still his problems were bigger than my camera at that point.

And that's true generally when you're doing a documentary. If you can be there when they've got to cope with something unexpected, then finally they are functioning as they would without cameras.
As I say there's probably still some mixture of the sense of theatrics and what was really happening, except that what was really happening was really happening!

Ann: Are there any amusing incidents involving putting Elvis on film?

Sanders: Well, his boys razz him occasionally and at one rehearsal they were really kind of giving him the "business." I thought it was pretty funny. I sort of set it up. I said: "Let's go give him the business and I'll shoot it."
There was one line he was singing in rehearsal that went "I've lost you . . ." and they were razzing him and he started to sing "I've lost you . . ." and one of the guys said something like "You certainly have!"

Ann: When you finally got to the International. What did you want to record on Stage?

Sanders: I wanted to get as varied a series of views of the performance as possible - close on his face and full figure, the orchestra itself the girl singers, everything.

Ann: You had never seen Elvis on stage before. Did your opinion of Elvis change when you saw him perform?

Sanders: I think he's fantastic. I knew he was fantastic the very first time I saw him in rehearsal. I knew where he was. From then on I knew what I wanted to go after.
He's got what Brando had at that perfect moment in his career where you couldn't anticipate Brando as an actor. That's what Presley has The audience can't anticipate him.

Ann: Did anything unexpected happen to make you say to yourself "We have to get that" or hope we got that"?

Sanders: It would have to be "I hope we got that!" I'll tell you about something that got away from me which had to do with Elvis indirectly. I'm so sorry about it.
You know when he kisses the ladies during "Love Me render." one gal had a hammerlock on him and he sort of pulled free and her wig fell off! It was a great movement but my camera wasn't rolling because they had just run out of film!
She suddenly went from a blonde to a brunette! I wish I had that! That's the miss that breaks my heart the most!

Ann: After working with Elvis on this film, Would you like to make a scripted movie with him?

Sanders: I'd love to. It would have to be the right piece of material. Cast right, there's no question about it. I think the mistake with Presley would be to put him into things that are too close to his own personality,
But if he could touch the part with his own life experiences, without too much difficulty, then I think he'd be sensational!

Ann: Would you call yourself an Elvis fan?

Sanders: If I were to use your definition, Ann which I filmed for the movie, "It's like falling in love and one day you wake up and you're an Elvis fan" then no, I'm not a fan! To the extent that I'm ever a fan, I'd say, yes. I am a fan.

Ann: Would you pay to see his show again?

Sanders: Oh, sure! I'm a professional fan. He moves me as a member of an audience. I admire his great sense of theatrics, and so I'm a fan an that sense. But I don't fall in love with entertainers.

Ann: How much would you say Elvis contributed in the way of creative ideas?

Sanders: I don't know. He said a few things to me, but then things would filter to me through the Parker office. I have no first-hand knowledge. Obviously, I was given access through the joint discussions between Elvis and Col. Parker as to what they considered the proper elements of the film.
I'm sure some thought was put into the creative matters. But it is difficult to assess how much creative thinking on time part or the Elvis Presley - Col. Parker group was instigated by Elvis himself. But Elvis does the whole show. He's it. He puts it all together. He's the captain of the ship.

Ann: You said you thought Elvis was going to be proud of his film?

Sanders: I think he will be. It's going to be one hell of a picture!