How did you come up with the idea of exploring the American dream through the eyes of Elvis Presley?
In 2014, I was on the road showing my film, The House I Live In, when I got the idea for Promised Land. It dawned on me that Elvis' story was inextricably linked to the that of the American dream, but not just in his rise. Rather, I saw that in the fullness of his life lay a metaphor for the rise and fall of the country. The more I thought about the parallels, the more poignant and illuminating they became.
How close is Elvis Presley's career to the American dream?
Elvis died young, yet somehow managed to embody a great deal about the meaning of America. From his meteoric rise to his brief interval atop the world to the bloated tragedy he became, Elvis’ life parallels that of his country. In his ultimate demise, too, one sees a cautionary tale for today’s America.
Can you describe American's perception of the American dream today?
The American Dream was always part fact, part fiction. America is a country where Barack Obama can be elected president, but can be replaced in the next moment by the closest thing the country may have ever come to a monarch – a billionaire who cleverly gamed the American election system that is already woefully biased toward the wealthy. Travelling the country in Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce was a symbolic act as well as a real one. The car, by its very nature, evokes both sides of that America – the ideal that anyone can rise by dint of talent and hard work and the reality of a country where the top 1% today hold more wealth than the bottom 90%.
Can you say a word about the making process of the documentary?
Originally, the film had a more traditional approach. But once we chose to turn it into a one-year musical road trip in Elvis’ Rolls Royce, the challenge became preparing both the car and our camera setup for filming across thousands of miles of America’s roads and highways. We followed Elvis’ ghost across 21 American states and even to Germany. But our greatest challenge was in the editing room, where the sheer quantity of footage gathered on the journey – thousands of hours of multicamera shoots – set us the intense challenge of weaving music, archives, interviews, and truth into a tapestry of past, present, politics, and culture.
How did you want your film to look visually, and in terms of editing?
I wanted to remind the viewer of all that once seemed so promising about America – her physical beauty, the quiet grandeur of her people, and yet, for all that, the challenges of slavery, oppression, and exploitation that haunt her cities, hills, and fields. Editorially, this ambition posed a separate challenge of balancing such impressionism with the film’s intellectual goals. To fully explore the metaphoric link between Elvis and America meant travelling, editorially, through time, space, and ideas with agility and invention.
Why did you meet not only"ordinary people", but also celebrities?
It was vital that our road trip should take us not only through places relevant to Elvis, but also to places where we could find the full spectrum of the American people. This spectrum also includes celebrities, sometimes performing music in the film, and at other times reflecting on their own connection to Elvis and key themes in American life.