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In the last two years, there have been two films about the life of Elvis Presley and his wife, Priscilla Presley. In 2022, Warner Brothers released a bombastic biopic of the American singer and actor directed by Baz Luhrmann. Last year, Sofia Coppola offered a more intimate portrayal of Elvis’ ex-wife with A24’s production, Priscilla. A few weeks ago, on May 24th, Priscilla Presley turned 79. At the end of last year, when Priscilla was making its Oscar run, we had the privilege of sitting down with production designer Tamara Deverell. Deverell shared fascinating insights about transforming Toronto into various key locations, the meticulous color palette choices that mirrored Priscilla’s emotional journey, and her collaborative process with Coppola to capture the essence of Priscilla’s life with Elvis.

How did your collaboration with Sofia Coppola begin?

Well, this is my first project with Sofia. Initially, I really didn’t want to work because I had just come off a very long, arduous shoot, and I was planning to take some time off. But then I heard that Sofia was looking for her regular designer, who wasn’t available at that time. It was all very last minute and rushed; I was kind of leaning towards saying no. Then I spoke to Sofia because everyone told me to just talk to her and see if we clicked, and of course, we did. It was like talking to someone who really made sense to me. In our initial meeting, I even asked her, why this film, why now? We talked a lot about her themes and the themes of Priscilla, and the fascinating story of Priscilla’s life with Elvis. So, I was hooked.

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Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi play Priscilla and Elvis Presley in Sofia Coppola’s movie.

How did you get into production design?

I fell in love with filmmaking when I first started. I was in art school, and I was one of those people who liked to do everything. I wanted my finger in every piece of the pie. I enjoyed sculpting, graphics, printmaking, photography, painting, and filmmaking. I just kind of ran the gamut. With all those talents and being a bit of a lost soul, an artist, an art student, it was actually my father who suggested that in film or theater, people with multiple talents are put to good use. He didn’t even know for sure — he’s a writer and a lawyer. But he kind of nudged me towards film and set me up with some producers he had been writing for. I begged them for a job and ended up working in costumes. I didn’t even really know what the art department was or what they did; I had never thought about it. I discovered my love for filmmaking by being on set. People around me noticed I could draw, and it was actually the continuity script person who said, “You should be in the art department. You’re an amazing artist.” I said, “Yeah, I’ve always drawn,” and that’s kind of how it happened, a bit by fluke. I didn’t plan on being a production designer when I was 17.

Surely, the experience at art school, where you could do many different things, helped you become a production designer.

Exactly. The more you know how to do, the better. I was talking about this with my trainee on the production I’m currently working on: “You know, there’s no place where you can go to study to become a production designer.” You can study the arts, like I did, or you can study architecture or interior design, but you’re not really learning to be a production designer. Even in the States, there are theater schools and theater-design schools, but there’s no real place where you can say, “Hey, I’m going to be a production designer.” It’s something you just have to learn on the job.

You mentioned earlier that you’re currently working with one of your trainees. I was wondering, did you have the opportunity to work as a trainee for any production designer who helped you understand how to approach the craft, or did you mainly gain your understanding through experience in various departments?

Yeah, I started in different departments. I started with two production designers that I worked with in Canada that really formed me. One, who I worked with, was mostly doing set-check, buying, and dressing sets. Then I learned how to draft, because I realized I wanted to get into the art department, so I knew I had to learn how to draft sets; the only course I could take, because I was working in the day, was a drafting for engineering class. So, I took that, but learned how to draw, sort of self-taught, a little bit in class. Then I worked with Carol Spier, and by the time I worked with her, as I moved to Toronto, I worked with her. She’s an amazing Canadian designer, who is kind of my mentor, but I I started with her almost as an art director. I started with her as a set designer, so I was drafting and I was doing graphics and then I quickly jumped into being an art director with her. We were just a good fit, and I was still learning from her all the time.

Since Priscilla was filmed in Toronto, do you believe that your experience working on so many different projects in Canada made it easier to create the look of America?

Yeah, that’s a tough one because I’ve been working in Toronto for much of my life, not exclusively, but a lot. I’ve often transformed the city into New York, which is challenging because there are no Brooklyn brownstones in Toronto; they simply don’t exist here—they only exist in Brooklyn. I know this because my brother lives in one. Thankfully, there are things you can cheat, especially now with the help of digital effects.

It was particularly tough making Toronto into Priscilla’s world. We had to transform Toronto into Memphis—Graceland, which is in Memphis—and then into Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Germany… I always forget that. [Laughs.] So, it was a tough call. As a designer who primarily works out of Toronto, I knew where to go. If I had never shot in Toronto before, I think I would have found it impossible to really pin it down.

For example, I knew the places to take Sofia to capture the colorless Army-tone Germany. We used a historic home for that. I knew how to couple things together because we had to shoot a lot of little bits and pieces in the most unlikely places, like the pink hair salon. We created that in a classroom that was originally painted blue, and it was just a small room. So, we pulled off all these little tricks to indicate all these different places—a lot of greens for LA, and some help from VFX for Las Vegas. They added the visual effects, including the street, which really sells it. But yeah, it was a bit of a dance to make Toronto look like so many different places.

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The pink hair salon in Priscilla.

Throughout the film, there are changes in the color palette, with scenes in Las Vegas appearing much more vibrant compared to the more intimate, emotional scenes.

Yeah. For Germany, we distinctly chose to make it all very drab and monochromatic so that when Priscilla arrived at Graceland, it would be this beautiful pastel explosion of creams and blues. This was a very carefully thought-out process, including the costume design by Stacey Battat. We created a whole color palette of dull, boring Germany, and then, wow, she goes to Graceland, and everything becomes more beautiful, and Priscilla’s world opens up, even though she’s kind of in the cage of Graceland. We were all trying to honor the colors of Graceland from the period we were portraying, which is not how Graceland looks now.

Everything becomes more colorful in Memphis.

For Las Vegas, I initially considered using more 60s pastels and green tones in some locations. Then we went to the Elgin Theater, which is all reds and golds—really rich and deep. I realized this would really set it apart from the rest of the movie. It’s quite an elegant theater, but we brought in all the props, like slot machines, blackjack tables, and the roulette wheel. We made some of these items, rented others, and had to ship in period pieces. I really embraced the red and gold, and we added gold palm trees and other elements. It was a quick “let’s cheese it up a little bit” for 1970s Las Vegas.

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Reds and golds in Las Vegas.

The film spans from the 1950s to the 1970s, so it involved not only different places geographically but also a lot of time jumps or time evolution, I should say.

Were there any films, photographers, or even archives that you worked with or looked into when preparing the film for inspiration?

Yeah, Sofia was looking a lot at William Eggleston, a photographer I was familiar with because my husband is a photographer, and we have some of his books, and I admire his work. We really focused on his punchy, saturated colors for the scenes when Priscilla arrives at Graceland. I also revisited many of Sofia’s films; even though I had already seen them, I watched them again because I wanted to get into her head. There were many similar color tones. I watched The Beguiled (2017), which is a very different film, but I felt that some of the tonality and the lighting by Philippe Le Sourd, our cinematographer, were things I aspired to. Lastly, we looked at In the Mood for Love [花樣年華, Wong Kar-wai, 2000], a fantastic Chinese film, and we paid homage to it in the hallway scene at the very end in the Las Vegas set, which we built.


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Paying homage to In the Mood for Love.

Did you have any conversations with Priscilla?

Not directly. For example, we asked her what her room was like in Germany. There were very few reference photos, historic images of Priscilla from her early days at Graceland. There are no photos of the upstairs, Elvis’ room, etc. We just did our own thing: what we felt represented Elvis because that was really his space. So, no, I didn’t chat with her. I asked a few questions through Sofia because we didn’t want to inundate her, but she didn’t really remember much. She wanted more than anything for Sofia to get the right emotional tone: the tone of a woman who was really in love with a man and who was maybe too young to try to live through what she was experiencing. In a way, she’s quite innocent, and we tried to honor that. I tried to honor that in the story by creating her bedroom as just this tiny room in Germany with the pink wall. It was just the typical 1950s girl’s bedroom, you know, because those army bases were all like US-built homes.

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Priscilla in her bedroom in Germany.

Before we conclude, I wanted to ask if there are any upcoming projects that you are currently working on?

I’m currently working exclusively on Frankenstein and not thinking about anything else. It’s really hard to talk about Priscilla [laughs]. I’m doing Frankenstein with Guillermo Del Toro, who’s writing and directing it.