Interview with John Scheinfeld

Director of the new movie "Fame & Fortune" talks to EIN about what to expect from this new film. . .

EIN Interview by Piers Beagley

The film 'Fame & Fortune' is based on the book, 'Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business' the biography of Sonny West. Emmy® and Grammy® nominee John Scheinfeld has been chosen as the film's director. John Scheinfeld has previously written and directed some critically acclaimed films about  John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson and others.

For Elvis fans this is good news since the film is going to be a serious drama about this extraordinary friendship between two men, rather than the usual disappointing Elvis telemovie.

EIN's Piers Beagley interviewed director John Scheinfeld (shown right) last week about the movie and how he is Taking Care of Business!

Two week ago the media reported that a director had been selected for the new Sonny West Elvis movie "Fame and Fortune".

Acclaimed writer/director John Scheinfeld has tackled many icons in his illustrious career, including numerous feature documentaries and retrospectives of John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Nat King Cole, The Bee Gees, Rosemary Clooney, and Andy Williams amongst others – but none perhaps as big as the first-ever feature film biopic on “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Elvis Presley.

RLF Victor Productions Ltd. recently pegged the Emmy® and Grammy® nominee to direct Fame & Fortune, an adaptation of the 2007 best-selling book Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business written by Sonny West with Marshall Terrill. Fame & Fortune is slated for theatrical release in 2012 to coincide with the 35th anniversary of Presley’s death.

Last week director John Scheinfeld was kind enough to find time in his busy schedule for an interview with EIN's Piers Beagley. 

EIN: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, you must be pretty busy with pre-production. Your previous documentaries cover such a wide spectrum of music how did you first get approached to direct this film on Elvis?

John Scheinfeld: I’m living proof that dreams do come true! Producers Ricki and Cindy Friedlander (RLF Victor Productions) optioned the 2007 best-selling book, “Elvis” Still Taking Care of Business” by Sonny West with Marshall Terrill and were looking for a director-writer to help bring it to the big screen. As I understand it, they met with many candidates.

At some point they saw some of my documentary work and contacted my agents to see if I’d be interested. We had many, many conversations over several months about my vision for the film and, happily, we found ourselves on the same page creatively and they took a leap of faith and brought me onboard.

For a long time I’ve dreamt of making the transition from documentary filmmaker to feature filmmaker and I’m beyond excited that Ricki and Cindy have given me the opportunity to direct my first feature film…and the first theatrical movie to be about the King of Rock and Roll.

EIN: Was Elvis a hero of yours? Did Elvis have an impact on you in your youth and what did you feel when you heard he had died?

John Scheinfeld: Who doesn’t love Elvis? And as time has passed I’ve come to see even more just what a remarkable artist he was and what a powerful influence he had on the musicians and bands that followed. As for when I heard he died, I remember thinking how tragic it was that he passed away at such a young age. Ever since, much of the media has tended to focus on his last years which, to me, is a disrespectful and twisted view of who he was and his ground-breaking achievements. 

EIN: You directed a wonderful biography of Harry Nilsson whose musical inspiration seemed to come from a troubled man. And I can recommend all music fans to watch it! I thought this review interesting.. “John Scheinfeld’s generous documentary portrait of Nilsson the man, the artist and the reputation explores his troubled childhood (and adulthood) and surveys his career and his artistic legacy. Scheinfeld doesn’t shy away from his substance abuse problems, his self-destructive streak or his failures as a husband and father..”
Have you considered the obvious parallels to Elvis’ life – will you be tackling the story in a similar way?

John Scheinfeld: Thanks so much for the kind words about “Who Is Harry Nilsson…” You are absolutely correct that there are parallels between the stories of Elvis and Harry. Not in the sense that Harry had the same success as Elvis – he didn’t (although ironically they were on the same record label, RCA) -- but in that both were the by-product of a complicated and sometimes difficult childhood…both were happiest when making good music…and both were burdened by demons that plagued them throughout their careers and relationships. And yet…and here’s another similarity… everyone close to them really and truly loved them. In this film I want to celebrate one of the most important musical legacies in pop music, at the same time being true to the spirit of a great artist and the love his fans have for him. I want to show Elvis in all his richness and complexity with the key being, as with Harry, doing so in an honest and truthful way with the proper balance between the light and the dark.

(Go here for more great info & clips from Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?’)

EIN: There have been a fair few filmed Elvis biographies over the years. Perhaps a few too many tele-movies, and I think the only one with any well-known director would have been John Carpenter’s ‘Elvis’ with Kurt Russell. How are you approaching this Elvis film so that it brings new light to a familiar story?

John Scheinfeld: The most significant difference is that this is NOT a biography of Elvis -- it is Sonny West’s story. Because he was there and close to Elvis for 16 years we are able to provide the audience with a very special window into the world of Elvis Presley. In essence, they will be a “fly on the wall” to experience little-known and fascinating stories as an “insider.”

Whereas the previous TV productions you mention were big, career-spanning productions, I want our film to be an intimate drama, not unlike THE KING’S SPEECH which, at its heart, was about an extraordinary friendship between two men. So, in a sense, this is a “buddy movie” with our lead characters being Sonny and Elvis. To my way of thinking, this approach provides a totally unique and powerful perspective from which to fashion a compelling and highly entertaining movie.

EIN: What did you think of Albert Goldman’s debacle?

John Scheinfeld: In my opinion, Goldman did to Elvis what he did to John Lennon…and the less said about either book the better.

EIN: Who is writing the screenplay, and are you working with it from a creative point of view?

John Scheinfeld: Cindy Friedlander, Michael Schlau and Sonny West developed a script over the past three years and that is the foundation for the rewrite I am now doing. The new script will reflect my vision of the film -- the characters, their personal journeys over 16 years, overall pacing and, in general, what I believe is necessary for the movie to be the best movie it can be.

EIN: Are you using other of Elvis’ friends like Linda Thompson, Red West, Marty Lacker etc for input to the film?  

John Scheinfeld: As the process unfolds I have been speaking with some of the people who were close to Elvis and are in a position to help us tell the truth. I’m sure I will be talking to others, but as this is Sonny’s story, it is his unique perspective and memories that are at the heart of our film.

EIN: Will any of the "Memphis Mafia" be doing subtle cameos in the movie?

John Scheinfeld: It’s hard to say right now as I’m still working on the script. However, in my documentaries I often make some unexpected choices of people to interview (For example, in my film about Chicago’s love affair with the Chicago Cubs I feature both Hugh Hefner and the Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago). Therefore, it’s very possible I’ll include people from Elvis’ inner circle in unexpected ways.

EIN: Goldman also did a hatchet job on John Lennon. Which leads me to your film ‘The U.S. vs. John Lennon’ particularly impressive being far more investigative than the usual biopic, is this what you hope to bring to ‘Fame & Fortune’?

John Scheinfeld: Absolutely. Some authors and filmmakers start with an agenda and then bend everything they present to support that agenda. I am much more interested in going where the truth takes me. In the documentary form I prefer to interview people who were there and who can speak to what really happened and, in doing so, the truth will be revealed. However, this can be a tricky exercise. Often witnesses to a singular event (i.e. an accident) will see it differently based on where they may have been standing. In our film, because it’s the truth as Sonny saw it, I want to be true to his memories, yet I also want to make sure we’re being historically accurate. But this is in no way a documentary film – it is a dramatic theatrical release.

EIN: Sonny West first started working for Elvis in 1960. Does your screenplay delve back further than that?

John Scheinfeld: Yes…and no. We will show how Sonny met Elvis for the first time in 1958, but the remainder of the film explores what happened between 1960 and 1977.

EIN: Most fans will have heard that Sonny had a bad accident recently and was hospitalised for a while. This must have been a big worry for you all. Is he recovered now, and how is he feeling?
John Scheinfeld: I understand that Sonny was hospitalized for many weeks and his health is still fragile. He is now recovering slowly at home but he is a very strong-willed man and I’m sure that he will pull through.
EIN: You said he also helped write the screenplay, how much is Sonny still directly involved in the on-going project?
John Scheinfeld: Sonny is focused on recovering his health and has not been involved with the production since he became ill.
He provided a wealth of stories and insight when he, Cindy and Michael developed the initial script, all of which are available to me now during the rewrite.

I know I speak for the entire RLF Victor production team when I wish Sonny a speedy and full recovery even as the business of making the movie pushes forward relentlessly.

EIN: How much is EPE involved in this movie?

John Scheinfeld: At this time EPE is not involved with our film. However, in many of my documentaries I’ve worked closely with artist’s estates and family members and remain on good terms with them today. Once EPE sees that we’re going about things the right way, that we’re celebrating a great artist, I hope that that they will be supportive of our efforts.

EIN: Are you being allowed to film at Graceland? If so how do you get around the fact that for the late seventies Graceland had its RED theme, yet now it is back to the earlier blue theme?

John Scheinfeld: Again, as I’m still rewriting the script, it’s a bit early to know where and when we’ll be shooting. However, this is a dramatic film, not a documentary, and, if need be, with the magic of Hollywood…and  the amazing talents of art directors, scenic designers, set decorators and construction crews…anything can be authentically recreated.

EIN: Have you permission to use the real Elvis vocals yet? How are you handling the all too crucial music?

John Scheinfeld: It’s too early to know how which songs will be used in the film. The selection process will be on-going during the rewrite – I will be choosing songs that I feel best fit the emotional content of the story and an individual scene. In addition, producer Ricki Friedlander has a great and extensive music background, so Elvis fans can be assured that the music will not be a concern. In addition, Ricki has spoken with the Jordanaires who have expressed their enthusiasm for recording new tracks especially for the film, and conversations have also taken place between Ricki and members of the TCB band about doing the same.

EIN: Some scenes are so iconic, the Comeback Special, Las Vegas, Aloha etc that they would be virtually impossible to re-create. Are EPE allowing you to use real footage? 

John Scheinfeld: I cannot see us using much real footage in Fame & Fortune. After all, this is a dramatization, not a documentary.

EIN: You need the backing of EPE for major publicity and such-like, yet EPE likes to stick to the story pre Priscilla break-up and certainly not mentioning the major role of Linda Thompson nor the affairs pre Priscilla and Elvis’ split in 1972. How are you going to tackle the true story vs the sanitised EPE version?

John Scheinfeld: We need to keep uppermost in mind that this is Sonny’s story, not an Elvis biography. Our film focuses on what Sonny experienced during his years with Elvis.

EIN: Most Elvis films have focused on the early glory years and dashed through the final sad years, how are you going to tackle the last part of Elvis’ life without upsetting core Elvis fans?

John Scheinfeld: Unfortunately, you can’t please everyone. With and WHO IS HARRY NILSSON…? we received great (sometimes fantastic) reviews and attention, and yet there were people who didn’t like or understand what we were trying to accomplish. The same will be true of this film. All of us involved with FAME & FORTUNE are doing our best to make a great film and sincerely hope that core Elvis fans will enjoy it.

EIN: Sonny West’s first book about Elvis was ‘Elvis: What Happened?’ This upset a fair few fans – and of course it upset Elvis. How are you going to tackle this tricky topic in the movie as we all know what happened too soon after?  

John Scheinfeld: Sonny’s first book has no relevance to the story we’re telling.

EIN: Elvis fans are truly fanatic, so part of the difficulty in any Elvis movie is getting all the minor facts correct. Who is fact checking all the aspects of the screenplay?

John Scheinfeld: Internationally-known and respected Elvis experts Cory Cooper, Patrick Lacy and Marshall Terrill have graciously made themselves available to me and we are in touch almost on a daily basis with regard to the specifics of Elvis’ life and career. They will be keeping an eye on the script as we move forward.

(Right: Sonny West and Elvis rehearse a Double Trouble fight sequence)

EIN: When does ‘Fame and Fortune’ start filming and when do you hope to have it in the cinemas?

John Scheinfeld: We’d love to have this film in theaters to mark the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ passing. However, there are so many variables when it comes to filmmaking that nothing can be certain. Once we have a script that we love, casting will begin. That could be a short or long process. And once someone is cast, we may have to wait for them to be available. Stay tuned!

EIN: Your John Lennon documentary ‘The U.S. vs. John Lennon’ had its own CD Soundtrack release, with 2 previously unreleased tracks no less. Is a matching Elvis soundtrack album being considered?   

John Scheinfeld: Yes, there will be a movie soundtrack CD. As to precisely what will be on the soundtrack, the decision will be made by myself and producer Ricki Friedlander.

EIN: This has to be the final question! Trickier than all that is finding the right actor to play Elvis properly. A look-a-like won’t be able to act and an actor won’t look like Elvis, especially if you have to cover the lean gorgeous years through to the sad ending. How are getting around this problem?

John Scheinfeld: Ricki, Cindy and I are all in agreement that we will be mounting a worldwide search to find a relatively unknown actor to play Elvis. This is crucial as we don’t want to have an actor who brings with him the “baggage” of recognition from previous performances. This would make it more difficult for the audience to become totally immersed in the movie. We want an actor who can totally inhabit the role and bring Elvis to life as a fully realized human being, not a caricature. A tremendous challenge, to be sure, but we believe we’re up to the task. There will be a special site set up to accommodate the search.


- For more information about the movie check out the FAME & FORTUNE website here
- Or via the RLF Victor Productions website
- And our FAME & FORTUNE Facebook page here
- Or Twitter @ FameFortuneFilm, often for details and other production news.

Click to comment on this interview

Interview by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN September 2011
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

President Nixon with Sonny West, Jerry Schilling and Elvis - December 1970

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