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'Elvis Presley: The Searcher' director Thom Zimmy talks working on HBO film

HBO debuts the new documentary, "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" coming April 14th on HBO. The documentary follows Elvis' creative journey from childhood through the final 1976 Jungle Room recording sessions and features atmospheric shots taken inside Graceland, Elvis’ iconic home. 

The film also features more than 20 new, primary source interviews with session players, producers, engineers, directors and other artists who knew him or who were profoundly influenced by him, as well as never-before-seen photos and footage from private collections worldwide.

The film's director, Thom Zimny, chatted about the documentary and shared his impressions of Elvis. 
Check it out below:

When did you discover Elvis? What were your initial impressions of him?

Thom Zimmy: I first discovered Elvis when I was nine years old, listening to a greatest hits tape that I played continuously, completely obsessed with the song “Trouble.”

How did you get involved in this project? What was your goal in making the film?

Thom Zimmy: Priscilla Presley reached out to Kary Antholis and HBO, who then approached Jon Landau and myself about the possibility of making a film. The goal was always to put the music first. That never changed, but our understanding of Elvis and his depth as a musical artist certainly did.

Was it a challenge to sort through what must have been an overwhelming amount of archival material? 

Thom Zimmy: Finding still images and footage of Elvis that had not been used was the exciting part of the storytelling. We had complete access to the Graceland archives and contacts in the collector world, which gave us the opportunity to use rare and unseen materials to tell the story. We utilized images from sessions, behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes, not to mention the 6,000 recordings that Ernst Jorgensen gave us.

The film is mainly about all sides of Elvis’ life, creative and personal. Was it difficult to achieve the right balance?

Thom Zimmy: In the process of making a film, you are always learning about the artist, but also carving out a narrative that feels emotionally fair to the artist’s creative and personal life. The right balance is found in the cutting process, when the film dictates to you what it needs for an exciting and honest portrayal.

Did your view of Elvis’ art change over the course of the project?

Thom Zimmy: My view of Elvis’ art did change over the course of the project, because I felt he was deeply connected on a personal level to music throughout the course of his life. I don’t think it was conscious. I think it came from a connection to music that began in early childhood.

People have different impressions of Elvis’ depending on if they grew up with him and only knew of him after his death. How did you approach both perspectives? 

Thom Zimmy: My conversations with Jon Landau, Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling were helpful guides to understanding how the story of Elvis was lost through the years, and how a generation missed out on this beautiful music, and more importantly, the artist. Many other films and books have focused on other details and made the music secondary, which is the thing we really wanted to focus on.

Elvis was greatly influenced by the great Memphis music?  

Thom Zimmy: In the documentary, I try to be as clear as possible to how Elvis was influenced by the music of Memphis. The voices of David Porter and Tom Petty give detail to what it was like to grow up there and to the musical influences that surrounded Elvis.

Tom Petty talks about Elvis in the film.

 Thom Zimmy: I didn’t know Tom Petty beforehand, but the time he gave me for this film is something I’m extremely grateful for. He captured the soul of Elvis as both a fan and a fellow musician. Having his voice added so much to the narrative. It’s a great honor to have been able to interview him.

Forty years after his passing, what do you think Elvis’ legacy is today? 

Thom Zimmy: I hope future generations take away that Elvis had so much more to give than what they’ve usually been able to access. I hope as a filmmaker that this documentary conveys the message of his love of music, but also his humor and his love for his family.

What did you take away from the film on a personal level and did anything surprise you as you made it?

Thom Zimmy: On a personal level, the film was a wonderful emotional journey, where every day I felt I was discovering something new. Each interview brought out new stories and details about this amazing artist. What surprised me the most was how little he has been understood.

Catch "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" premiering on April 14 on HBO.

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