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Priscilla production design

Designing the ’buttery’ world of Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla

In the lauded director’s latest movie, production designer Tamara Deverell carefully crafted interiors to reflect the relationship between Priscilla and Elvis Presley.

When it comes to distinctive film design, nobody does it better than Sofia Coppola. Reinventing the period film—from the macaron-colored world of Marie Antoinette, to the California vibe of Somewhere and the 70s-style bedroom in Virgin Suicides—she is synonymous with creating visually stunning images that transport viewers to another time and place. The pedigreed director’s latest work is Priscilla, a film adaptation of Priscilla Presley’s best-selling 1985 memoir Elvis & Me that tells the story of her relationship with ‘The King’ beginning with the couple’s first meeting when she was fourteen. 

Key locations in the movie Priscilla, including the exterior of Elvis’s Graceland mansion, were created using visual effects, while the interiors were built on sound stages in Toronto

During filming, Toronto was chosen as the setting to depict Elvis’s Southern mansion Graceland, along with casinos in Las Vegas and the couple’s Palm Springs home. The interiors were designed on a soundstage, and the exteriors of houses were created with the aid of special effects in Canada. Canadian production designer Tamara Deverell was tasked with creating these period looks, despite never having visited the famed Memphis home, which was also not very well documented. But working with three photographs, and architectural drawings from the original decorator, she created sets for the house that reflected Priscilla’s arrival and her perspective in 1963, to moving out some 10 years later.

Production designer Tamara Deverell looked to the photography of Memphis-based William Eggleston when selecting the color palettes for the interior spaces

“This is the first time I worked with Sofia,” says Deverell, “and I showed her key images of Priscilla and Elvis that were chosen to replicate those moments.” The designer was also influenced by the work of Memphian photographer William Eggleston. “His vibe, color and composition informed me in a big way [in imagining] what Sofia was looking for, as it was the essence of [Priscilla] coming to Graceland as a young woman living in that space.”

Elvis’s world was dark, and Priscilla’s was light, which was appropriate for their characters.

Tamara Deverell

The interiors are designed with the film’s protagonist in mind. For the overall color scheme, Deverell used the metaphor of a wedding cake, as she details, “a lovely and warm buttery cream.” This translated into off-white furnishings and a white piano with gold striping in the living room, a creamy carpet and logo, and mid-century modern furniture. A large 11-foot-long sofa was built to accommodate Elvis (played by six-foot-five heartthrob Jacob Elordi of Saltburn and Euphoria fame) while Priscilla’s (Cailee Spaeny) feet dangle like a child sitting on the sofa. “It says everything about their relationship,” explains the designer. Personal kitschy touches are also depicted in the choice of accessories, such as an orange and black tiger, and a statue of Jesus that represents the singer’s spiritual phase.

Details like a creamy carpet, kitschy decor and golden accessories all formed part of the wedding cake-inspired color scheme

The designs also represent a contrast between the couple, the designer explains. “Elvis’s world was dark, and Priscilla’s was light, which was kind of appropriate for their characters.” For Elvis’s “man-cave” where he spent an excessive amount of time sleeping due to a pill addiction, the designer employed a palette of royal colors such as dark blues, blacks, and golds. She also designed a tufted leather door, heavy gold wallpaper, and thick velvet drapes to create the feeling of a womb.

Spaces inhabited by Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis (Jacob Elordi) were treated differently to reflect their characters, and several metaphors for the control balance of the relationship were woven into the production design

Priscilla’s memory of that time, as detailed in her memoir, was also crucial in developing the designs, Deverell reflects. “What is it when you think back to those things in the past? It’s all about mood, a color palette, and a few specific things that stand out. Listening to the book as an audio read by Priscilla, I had to remind myself to focus on her and her memory. The center of this world is Elvis; even in the movie, he’s so magnetic you get sucked in. This is really a movie about how hard it is to take a woman out of the shadows of a great man, which is one of Sofia’s ongoing themes.”

Jodie Hatton of Brintons on Priscilla and the resurgence of wall-to-wall carpets

When it comes to interior design, period films often depict the adage that “everything old is new again.” In the case of Priscilla, wall-to-wall carpeting has its moment in the spotlight. As Jodie Hatton, design manager of heritage carpet brand Brintons, notes: “Priscilla is a marvel of luxurious mid-century interior design. Delving into the world of Elvis’s iconic Graceland, the set design features an opulent showcase of eccentric furnishings, garish color combinations and plush shag-pile carpets. A real feast for the eyes.”

One of her favorite moments is at the very beginning of the movie. “The film is awash with buttery carpets from the get-go,” she says. “The opening shot features a young Priscilla sinking her feet into a deep shag carpet, a visual metaphor for how the show will be infamously immersed into Elvis’s world. Despite this scene’s apparent creative license, it is the same enveloping and comforting qualities of carpet that have sparked a revival in the design world.”

Read more: Canada | Design | Film | Interior design | Production design | Set design | USA