For his latest documentary multi-DN alum and BRAVÒ founder Ivan Olita casts his sights on the identity of Jesse Garon, the first Elvis impersonator ever bestowed the honour of conducting weddings in Las Vegas. Garon, who is named after Elvis’ twin brother, recently came to a point in life where he began reflecting on his identity, both as an impersonator but also as an individual reckoning with his sexuality. Olita conveys Garon’s story across a series of mesmerising shots that highlight his life against the backdrop of a less familiar Las Vegas, one more mysterious and old-school in its reality. It’s an eye-opening, reflective and humanist documentary about a person who has been defining their life through the constructed image of an icon. With A King recently arriving online, DN caught up with Olita for a chat about his filmmaking methodology, the challenge of portraying authenticity, and the equipment he employed to capture everything amidst the chaos of sin city.
When did you discover Jesse’s story and what was it about his narrative that motivated you to make a documentary centred around him?
I began researching characters to shoot for a new film and the one that stood out to me initially was a Thai Elvis impersonator who used to work at the Palms Restaurant in LA but unfortunately he has been gone for a number of years now. This just happen to coincide with the same time that the Elvis estate put out a cease and desist for any individuals using Elvis’ name or likeness and that was obviously a big issue for the wedding industry in Las Vegas because these people base their livelihood around impersonating Elvis. I then decided to widen the scope of Elvis impersonators I was looking at within Las Vegas.
There were many newspapers publishing articles that were focused on interviewing some of the most prominent Elvis impersonators and one of them was Jesse. He immediately stood out to me because he’s the OG Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas and you could tell there was more to him than meets the eye. It was that moment I decided to get in touch and tell his story.
Respect for the subject and the context is paramount, but we shouldn’t be scared to exercise our vision.
How would you describe your approach to documentary filmmaking? There’s a blend of constructed shots and more fly-on-the-wall compositions in A King, what led you to land on that method of shooting?
My method of shooting, blending documentary and fiction, comes from my maestro Werner Herzog. He always preached that documenting reality might not lead to any insight or truth and that we must use the filmmaker’s tools to let the subject’s essence shine. I couldn’t agree with him more. His teaching deserves attention because sometimes there is a stigma associated with exercising your narrative power over your subjects. It is perceived as exploitation. There are instances in which this can be true, and we need to be very aware of those instances.
On the other end, I also believe that both as audience and as filmmakers, we need to be careful not to be overzealous in labelling our pursuits allowing storytelling to fully express itself. As a filmmaker, I have to affect the story I’m telling. Whether it’s by scoring a scene with a specific track, lighting the set with a mood in mind, or styling the subject for a location… Respect for the subject and the context is paramount, but we shouldn’t be scared to exercise our vision.
It’s a cliched observation to make but the backdrop of Vegas feels as much a character as Jesse. How did you want to explore the relationship Jesse has with Vegas and, in turn, the one Vegas has with these impersonators?
Vegas is an incredible city to shoot in but it was immediately apparent to us, and we decided this right away with my Director of Photography Andrea Gavazzi, that Vegas shouldn’t be portrayed in the way that you usually it see in a Hollywood movie. We decided to convey a Vegas that was honest to the lifestyle and identity of Jesse. Jesse mainly operates in a different side of Vegas, working in the back-end entertainment side that isn’t immediately apparent to the mainstream public. An older Las Vegas, that is more mysterious and old-school in aesthetic.
We decided to convey a Vegas that was honest to the lifestyle and identity of Jesse.
Shooting began after we spent a week just absorbing the sights and exploring. There were certain shots we had thought about, like Jesse dancing in the desert. We stayed an additional day to shoot that scene specifically. I’m very grateful to Andrea for providing me with such a powerful ending for the film.
How much of a challenge is it to shoot in Las Vegas from a production standpoint?
I was lucky enough to have shot in Vegas before, so I had an incredible producing partner there, Justin Folger. I’m very grateful for his support throughout. He’s a local, and many things were possible because of him. In another way, Vegas is a city of extremes, and the fact that you are inserted in a sort of guided loop that you can’t escape puts you through a stamina test. You stay on the strip. You are surrounded by people that are partying every day, you’re most likely in a casino at all times, and there’s never a quiet moment. Except when you’re closed in your hotel room with the blinds down. I find that sort of constant overstimulation to be somehow therapeutic; you need to find your focus; otherwise, you’ll just get lost. If you’re there for vacation, you can leave at a certain point, but you need to confront yourself if you can’t go.
Another fantastic element was about going from the strip to the parts of Vegas that are less known and having to deal daily with the backbone of the city: the people that work in Vegas, the casino owners, the restaurant managers, and the chapel ministers. It was a glimpse inside Vegas’s entertainment machine, and it was very fascinating. Vegas can be a city of endless inspiration, especially if you are dealing with characters such as Jesse. To experience the town immersing ourselves in it to such an extent was a blessing. It didn’t come for free. It was physically and emotionally challenging for all of us. But it was definitely enriching on all levels.
How did your relationship with Jesse develop throughout the making of the documentary? And how did getting to know him inform the construction of the film itself?
I believe that as a filmmaker when you decide to portray a character, there is always a piece of you in them. Often times it’s not readily identifiable. For example, I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint what Jesse and I share, or maybe I could, but I would go too deep and personal. What matters is that we connected based on a more profound understanding of each other’s character. And I guess for him, it was essential to trust me with his story, whereas, for me, it was crucial to tell his story.
Talking about our relationship, it is important to point out that during a film set of any kind, relationships are heightened, and time is somehow sped up. And so, in a brief period, you get to emotionally experience what you would otherwise experience in a much more extended period. So a set, in a way, is an emotional enhancement of real life. This happens to everyone in the crew, but it’s particularly true in the director/subject relationship.
I believe that as a filmmaker when you decide to portray a character, there is always a piece of you in them.
That certainly happened with Jesse. We had a very fun ride together and we went from highs to lows to misunderstandings and, ultimately, real respect and appreciation. Jesse was a very active and vocal subject, and it was interesting to confront myself with his character on one end and his persona on the other. He provided me with a reflection on my filmmaking process; I’m very grateful to him for that. I also know he really enjoyed the final results, and nothing could have made me happier since, you know, we were talking about his life at the end of the day. Much love to Jesse.
As with any film concerning Elvis, music plays an important role. In A King, it truly feels like it follows Jesse’s emotional arc through the film.
I give all credit behind the music to my incredible Composer Jean. We’ve been collaborating throughout my career. There’s a distinct understanding between us now and he’s one of my most trusted ongoing collaborators. The music is constructed to follow the emotional journey of the film. I decide on specific moments for the music to match what the audience is seeing but Jean takes this and puts his spin on it, evolving and shaping it to develop what is eventually an original score that was composed entirely by him and performed by his collaborators.
Could you give us a rig rundown of what you used to capture A King? Were there any specific reasons why you opted for certain pieces of equipment?
I owe all of the choices to my treasured DoP Andrea Gavazzi, who has been an invaluable partner and ally, not only from the photographic standpoint but most notably from the creative one. When we started brainstorming about the project, we always agreed that we wanted to portray Vegas authentically. We didn’t want to offer the audience a glorified version of the city; on the contrary, we wanted to feel the rawness, the grit, and the unexplored parts of the town coming to life through Jesse. This is why we opted for an Alexa Mini and Zeiss superspeeds package. We chose this combination because we were shooting multiple locations a day and wanted to be able to move fast and discreetly. Also, superspeeds allowed us to shoot night exteriors with minimal lighting, which was the ideal solution given that we were fundamentally shooting a film noir and a lot of scenes were at night.
And finally, what’s next for you?
BRAVÒ is evolving! We’re currently developing two feature films and launching a new commercial production platform using the network of filmmakers we’ve built over the years. Exciting things to come!