Travel

I Road-Tripped Across America in Elvis's Rolls-Royce

Behind-the-scenes photos from 'The King,' a new cross-country Elvis documentary directed by Eugene Jarecki.
The band Lindy Vision get into the Rolls-Royce in New Mexico. 

It’s been 40 years since Elvis left the building. But the roads he paved along the way still criss-cross the battered American landscape. That’s evident in Eugene Jarecki’s latest documentary, The King. The American filmmaker saddles up Mr. Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V for a great American road-trip that parallels the icon’s career with the sociocultural evolution of the US. As celebrities, hitchhikers, and musicians alike join the journey inside and outside of the car, what emerges is a complex and patriotic film that looks to Elvis’s biography to gain a sense of where this country might be going.

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If it sounds like a dream trip, it was—a friend of mine took it. Two years ago, I met Georgina Hill on a press trip to Stockholm Symposium. At the time, the British artist was working in PR for the city-wide conference. We kept in touch and, over the years, Hill got involved with Jarecki’s productions. During the filming of The King, she worked as a cameraperson and a producer. She followed the production from Memphis to New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.

The King debuts in New York on June 22 and Los Angeles on June 29, and later this year it will make its small-screen premier on PBS's Independent Lens. In anticipation of its release, Hill shared her personal stills from the production of the film and told me what it was like on the road.

VICE: How did you get involved with The King?
Georgina Hill: I worked on Eugene Jarecki’s previous film, The House I Live In, helping to convey its message about the pernicious nature of the war on drugs within a British framework. I wanted to do more of this kind of work. After doing a project in Cuba with Jarecki and his team, I had the chance to work as a producer and cameraperson on The King. The crew is extremely talented and experienced, so I tried to learn from them as much as possible. I started filming in the cracks and gradually had the chance to do more and more.

In Detroit, 'The King' crew gathers around musician Robert Bradley to film a performance in an abandoned car lot. Photo by David Kuhn [Ed. note: Georgina Hill is third, clockwise from top left]

What were these photos shot on?
The photos are stills from 4K footage I shot on a Panasonic GH4. It's a small camera that allowed me to fit into small paces, especially while shooting inside the car. It also helped not to disturb organic situations too much, as it seems relatively benign and unobtrusive. Our whole crew used 7 GH4s, many rigged to the car, FS7s, A7s, and a DJI drone. The Rolls Royce was rigged like a Google mapping vehicle to capture everything that was going on inside and outside the vehicle.

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The Rolls-Royce travels through New Mexico.

What challenges did the shoot provide?
A huge challenge was the ratio of footage we shot compared to a less than two-hour film. We shot thousands of hours of things we all felt were meaningful. This is the editors’ challenge, but it is also a challenge for me as a shooters because you become attached to the stories and impressions that have touched you.

Another challenge was the urgency of the subject matter—looking at the state of the USA at a point of political upheaval and uncertainty. How to manage the joy you naturally experience on the road with musicians and great figures and beautiful land… with the unfathomably painful politics all around you.

A hitchhiker takes a ride with his dog in Colorado.

What challenges did the car provide?
The car broke down often—in the middle of shoots, at the beginning, or the end, unscrupulously. This was challenging for the crew and interviewees, but it was also strangely positive, as members of the public and crew would join together to push the car. In New Mexico, we drove with the hood up, looking somewhere between an archaic winged messenger and a tricked-out lowrider.

In addition, it was important to contrast this emblem of capitalism—the car—with the reality of life facing everyday North Americans. We needed to show the dangerously seductive beauty of the automobile, so antithetical to an equitable society, without losing hope.

A man shows us his Elvis tattoo in a car lot in East LA, California.

What was your favorite place to visit and why?
That's a very hard question. Every place involved good, interesting people who gave so much of their time. Las Vegas was probably the most confusing. The casinos are open 24/7 with money pouring out of visitors like IV drips. It was difficult to witness. At the same time, we filmed a young couple getting married in one of the Elvis-themed wedding chapels, which was disarmingly sincere. They looked straight out of a 70s fashion book and were without cynicism. This kind of dichotomy made Las Vegas captivating. Marc Cooper calls Vegas "the last honest place in America." There truly is something confounding in the way it brutally lays it all out.

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A young girl points at kites flying above the beach in Santa Monica, California.

What's one particularly touching moment you recall along the way?
The road crew chief Wayne Gerster (Jarecki’s long-time friend and mentor) brought his 11-year-old granddaughter on one of the long cross-country road trips. Elizabeth Gerster helped prepare the car, strap it to the truck that would haul it long distances, and generally assisted on the shoots. Her youthful presence, confidence, and learning was very touching and ensured the movie shooting was moored in something tangible about the future of the country. Also, to see a really positive relationship between a granddaughter and grandfather was a great contrast to the unchecked misogyny that was being emboldened by the rise of Trump.

Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Gerster looks out of the car window in Badlands, South Dakota.

What'd you learn from the trip about Elvis?
I didn’t know much about Elvis before this trip, and by the end I feel I learned a lot. The most important debate I experienced about him was on the issue of cultural appropriation. Van Jones, Chuck D, and David Simon explored the nuances of this vital issue.

In a large abandoned car lot in the Motor City, a man strips an old car of its automatic window mechanism to re-sell.

What did you learn about America?
About America, I learned it is really really vast. It might sound obvious, but until I experienced it, I couldn’t feel its size. It is many countries inside a country: many different groups of people, facing different issues, histories, and frameworks. To tell its story is an almost impossible feat. But to an extent, the overriding principles of the film that Jarecki set out, exploring the corrupting effect of power and money, were coherent and intersectional.

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Wayne Gerster, farmer and road crew chief, inspects the Rolls-Royce in South Dakota.

Finally, what did you learn about yourself?
On the trip I learned under duress that humans can survive for weeks on a diet of beef jerky.

Elvis's legs swing on a sign at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

An Elvis impersonator sings outside his house in Bristol, Vermont.

A rodeo queen waits before entering an arena in South Dakota to wave the rodeo sponsors' flags.

A Mexican singer plays the accordion in East LA, California.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Rennie Sparks from the Handsome Family plays alongside her partner, Brett.

Native American Marty Suox Otter looks after and trains animals. Here he is riding in Southern Colorado, on the way to another state.

Anna Stankus, a circus performer, contorts her body inside the Rolls-Royce, while the neon lights of Las Vegas blink on.

In Los Angeles, California, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers play music and steam up the windows of the Rolls-Royce.

A Las Vegas sign remembers the famous phrase used by public address announcers, 'Elvis has left the building,' in order to disperse crowds waiting to see the King.

The King opens in theaters in New York on June 22 and Los Angeles on June 29.

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