Ivan Olita directs ‘A King’.
The official Elvis impersonator of Las Vegas must confront his identity and sexuality as his public persona slowly fades away.
Words from Ivan below.
Ivan, when did you first meet Jesse, and how did this documentary materialise?
I first met Jesse in the summer of 2022. ‘Elvis’, the Baz Luhrmann movie, was in theaters. I stumbled upon a bunch of articles reporting on how the Elvis impersonator community was distressed because the licensing company that controlled the usage of the Elvis trademark had ordered chapel operators in Vegas to stop using Elvis in wedding ceremonies. Out of the dozen interviews, I was immediately drawn to Jesse – the official Elvis impersonator of Las Vegas.
I called him right away and left him a voicemail. When he called me back, I knew his story would be extraordinary. I told him I wanted to shoot a documentary on his life.
Can you talk a little bit about the narrative journey of the piece, and your process in discovering and building it?
I believe there are always at least three layers to a narrative. (…) The subject’s layer, reality’s layer, and the filmmaker’s layer.
I believe there are always at least three layers to a narrative, so my process always comprises them: The subject’s layer, reality’s layer, and the filmmaker’s layer.
My main interest as a filmmaker was documenting the dichotomy of someone devoting their whole life to playing someone else. In my mind, this film has always been about identity but once I had the chance to interview Jesse for the first time, what he brought to the table was even more than I could possibly hope for. Jesse’s identity is not only influenced by the idea of him being Elvis; it’s actually fully informed by it.
Jesse’s evolution as a man happened through the lens of his performance, and his sexuality also played a big part. I believe he decided he wanted to be Elvis to legitimize and, at the same time, escape an orientation that, in his native Texas, would’ve not been welcomed.
On top of that, when we first spoke, he recently had health issues, which brought him to a position where he had to confront his own mortality and legacy for the first time in his life. So it was a perfect narrative storm that I found myself in, and we had to balance the multifaceted complexity of Jesse’s life on screen.
Things kept happening when we started shooting, and we adjusted our vision accordingly. The foundation of the piece never changed, though. I always wanted this film to be about identity.
There’s an easter egg in the film: the Elvis puppet that speaks to him in his dreams is actually reciting a line from ‘One, No One and One Hundred Thousand’. A novel by Italian Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello, a phenomenal playwright whose work mainly focuses on identity and the self.
You have described the film as a “noir character study”. I’m interested in your take on that, particularly your methods for bringing fictional and non-fictional elements together.
I recently read a definition of film noir: “What is a film noir, if not a night in which you can see shadows?” I loved this definition, which applies very well to what I tried to do with ‘A King’.
Jesse will always be several steps behind the image he is trying to embody; he will never quite get there, living as a Simulacrum of a sort, removed from his body and the world around him. Inhabiting a state of limbo that, contrary to the limbo of actual stardom, doesn’t allow concealing the emotional and psychological cracks that come with his profession.
What is a film noir, if not a night in which you can see shadows?
The night of a film noir does not conceal shadows; on the opposite, it highlights them. And, speaking metaphorically, shadows mean everything that represents the main character’s inner turmoil. And so I think that the definition above says a lot about the nature of the film.
In terms of mixing documentary and fiction, I owe everything to my maestro, Werner Herzog. I’ve studied with him, and one of the most important things I learned is to never confound facts with truth.
As he states in his manifesto (The Minnesota Declaration):
“Facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable…there are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”
I believe that when you hold a camera in your hand, you’re already somehow fabricating the story, but when I started directing, I used to be obsessed with being as objective as possible. Today, I have no interest whatsoever in being objective. I relish in the license that I conceded myself as a filmmaker to treat my subjects as a metaphor for the truth I’m seeking.
I believe that when you hold a camera in your hand, you’re already somehow fabricating the story.
As long as I’m not disrespecting anyone, I feel entitled to the poetic license of shaping the narrative elements of the story to serve my vision. And I owe this 100% to Herzog. It’s single-handedly the most important teaching I’ve ever received in filmmaking.
When it comes to the method, I believe that as a director, you have all the tools at your disposal. Whether it’s the settings, the photography, the script, the music, editing… I could go on forever. What I’m trying to say is that every single one of the tools impacts and changes the perception of the story you’re trying to tell. You should be using the tools responsibly but unapologetically.
I want to stress that this methodology has a huge responsibility, especially if you’re dealing with living subjects and real people, but this shouldn’t be a deterrent. It shouldn’t be confused with any sort of exploitation. This is just the poetry of cinema, and we should preserve it at all costs. It is not only our right to shape the stories we decide to tell; it’s our duty. We’re not journalists. We’re filmmakers.
It is not only our right to shape the stories we decide to tell; it’s our duty. We’re not journalists. We’re filmmakers.
What are you reading at the moment?
An excellent book by David Thomson, arguably the greatest film critic alive: ‘The Whole Equation, A History of Hollywood’. Props to my dad for gifting it to me!
- Ivan Olita
- Justin Folger
- Andrea Gavazzi
- Director of Photography
- Nate Katz
- Den Hoelscher
- Dante Pasquinelli
- Jsds Studio
- Production Company