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Elvis Has Left, Secured and Detonated the Building

Creator John Eddie and executive producer/showrunner Mike Arnold discuss their foray into neo-mythmaking in Sony Pictures Animation’s first adult animated series, ‘Agent Elvis,’ premiering today, March 17, on Netflix.

How often have you found yourself wondering: what would it be like if, instead of being a boozy, misogynistic, devil-may-care narcissist, Sterling Archer had been the King of Rock and Roll?  Well, even in the unlikely event that you’ve never entertained this evocative thought experiment, the answer is now at hand. Premiering Friday, March 17 on Netflix, Agent Elvis is an all-new, wonderfully stylized adult animated comedy in which Elvis Presley trades his jumpsuit for a jetpack after joining a secret spy program to stop villains from destroying the world.

Created by Priscilla Presley and John Eddie, and featuring the voices of Matthew McConaughey (as Elvis) and an embarrassingly rich roster of talent that includes Kaitlin Olson, Christina Hendricks, Kieran Culkin, Simon Pegg, Fred Armisen, Gary Cole, Priscilla Presley, Johnny Knoxville, Don Cheadle, and Tom Kenny, among many others, Agent Elvis imaginatively expands on the King’s own dream – expressed to President Richard Nixon in an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 21, 1970 – to be a government agent in the war on drugs. It’s highly possible that the creators utilized a degree of poetic license in their extrapolation on this strange historical moment.

The first adult animated series from Sony Pictures Animation, the show is produced in partnership with Authentic Brands Group and Titmouse, with Presley's iconic look designed by Oscar nominee Robert Valley and Agent Elvis’ wardrobe designed by legendary fashion designer John Varvatos.

A very, very fine – and "cool" – Season 1 has finally arrived.

We spoke with co-creator Eddie and executive producer and showrunner Mike Arnold about their foray into the mythological wilds of Elvisdom, and the risks, repercussions, and rewards that attended their iconographic enterprise.

But first, take a moment to enjoy the trailer…

AWN: How did this project come about and how long did it take you to develop? And at what point did Priscilla Presley become involved?

John Eddie: It's been an even longer journey than you could imagine. I first pitched the idea to Priscilla in 2012. It's basically inspired by the famous photo of Elvis and Richard Nixon, and the idea that Elvis wanted to be a DEA agent and go undercover and fight the evil forces of the counterculture. And so, it started from there, but we also had this idea that it would be like Forrest Gump, in that Elvis was somehow involved in everything that ever happened in pop culture history. And the reason I pitched it to her as an animated project – this was before the Baz Lurhmann film, obviously – was that in every live-action version of the Elvis story, you can never get past the fact that the person wasn't Elvis. And I just felt animation would be the way to capture that. The first studio we pitched it to was Sony Animation, and they got it right from the beginning, and that's how the journey started.

Mike Arnold: Elvis is an iconic, singular person in not just rock and roll history, but really in all history. He was one of the first globally famous people ever. Pair that with a coked-out monkey with a shotgun, and it sounded like a lot of fun. We set out to make a very cool show. “Cool” was the word that we always kept in mind because we knew that was what Elvis would want and it also was faithful to who he was. We tried to keep the dialogue grounded, but quick and fun and clever. But it all turned on keeping Elvis the cool center of the entire world we were building.

AWN: Especially with the chimp character, who obviously is over the top in just about every way possible, it could very easily have gotten far too frenetic. But you maintained a certain, even tone, at least with Elvis, throughout.

MA: Yeah. There was an element of grounding that we wanted to maintain, because you're right, a show like this can get really wacky and fly off the rails really fast. And we deliberately set out to stay in that grounded world and walk through history and have fun with it, and have our characters be loud and outrageous in their own way. But all the time, there’s that grounded element that we wanted to maintain.

JE: Everything in the show has a basis in reality. Elvis really did have a monkey named Scatter. And the monkey really was a troublemaker that would lift up girls' dresses at the parties they would throw. And so, we just took that and then made him a coked-up ex-NASA chimp who is also a weapons expert. We just took everything that had a germ of reality and raised it to the nth degree.

AWN: Elvis is not only one of the most recognizable, but also one of the most parodied, icons in history How did you keep him from becoming a parody of himself?

JE: From the beginning, we were determined to keep Elvis cool and grounded. We didn't want to go for the obvious Elvis jokes. There are no peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. He doesn't get fat. Elvis is in on the fact that he is this icon, and he wants to be the superhero. His day job is the King of Rock and Roll. But what he does in his spare time, for fun, is fight crime in our world.

MA: We were able to pull that off thanks, in a big way, to Matthew McConaughey. He has that voice, and he can bring the confidence that comes with his voice; it helped us portray the Elvis that we’re describing – one who can be a global icon, but also be secretly fighting crime and be in on the joke. All of that comes with a certain amount of swagger that we thought Matthew just absolutely had in droves. So, his version of Elvis and the way he brought it to life really helped us do what we were trying to do with him.

AWN: Tell me a little bit about how you approached the design. Every element has to be accurate for the period, but the look also has to have a humorous feel to it, like it's also in on the joke.

JE: When we sold the show to Sony Animation, the first character designs we got were from [Oscar-nominated animator and designer] Rob Valley, and we didn't look any further. He has been such a touchstone for this whole show. We built the world around his character designs.

MA: Absolutely. It felt like those Valley designs were the central guideposts and everything grew from there. Rob's sense of what this world would look like was so perfect that we tried to bring it to everything – to the cars, the houses, the backgrounds. It really gave us the overall look of the show.

JE: Of course, there are other designers on the show, but whenever there was a major cameo, we'd always go back to Rob to give us his version of Marilyn Monroe or whoever. We wanted to make sure that they had that Rob Valley look.

AWN: Titmouse did the animation for the show, so you couldn't have been in better hands. You know their team of lunatics is going to ensure that every frame is fantastic. So, in the show, you've got freeze frames, you've got split frames, you've got frozen frames in the middle of action. It’s a very interesting style and it all fits together so well. Tell me a little bit about what it was like to work with Titmouse.

MA: Titmouse surprised us at every turn and brought us such great stuff. In those set pieces, we wanted to be loyal to the time, to the era. And a lot of what you're describing has that great late-60s, 70s feel. And Titmouse just does their thing, they're amazing. They would bring us scenes done in ways that we hadn't envisioned at the time. And there was a lot that we tried to find a home for it in each episode, to make sure that each episode had a particular visual style. There's a risk of set pieces becoming repetitive and feeling like you've seen that. And Titmouse was great at saying, "Okay, this is a new way we could do this set piece that we haven't done yet," and trying to keep it inventive and different from episode to episode.

JE: Early on in development, [co-executive producer/co-director/co-writer] Fletcher Moules, who directed Entergalactic for Netflix, was very instrumental in setting up the rules of our universe and our world. One of the things that we always talked about was wanting to capture the feel and the color, and the graininess, of late-60s, early-70s cinema – like split-screen Sam Peckinpah violence, or Tarantino’s recreation of it in Grindhouse. So that was very important.

AWN: In a show like this, there are always decisions made with regard to the degree and nature of violence and gore, and how much to show. Tell me a little bit about how you arrived at your “maturity level.”

MA: I think we were very careful to make sure that when we were doing more heightened moments of violence there was a narrative reason for it. We didn't just want to be violent for the sake of being violent. And we picked and chose where to do that. In the pilot, there are certainly moments like that and, when we get to Episode 4, there is a helicopter blade. And then later we have Scatter with a chainsaw. So, there are these moments when you say, "Okay, here’s where we do it." And we looked a lot to Titmouse to help us find the fun in those moments, but never just to be violent for the sake of violence.

JE: When we pitched the show to Sony, we said it's animated Elvis fighting crime as if directed by Quentin Tarantino. Because we wanted the sex, we wanted the violence, we wanted to capture that time period, but in most Tarantino movies, no matter how violent they get, there is always a sense of humor to it. It can be the most violent thing, but there is a reason for it, as Mike was saying. That's what we tried to do in Agent Elvis.

AWN: Is Priscilla Presley pleased with how this has all come together?

JE: I think she is surprisingly pleased with how it's come together, because it's definitely outside of her wheelhouse. But she was very involved from the very beginning, and throughout the whole project. Remember, she is an actress. She was in the Naked Gun movies. So, she was very generous to Mike and me, and the other writers, in letting us push the envelope and really build this fictional Elvis Presley world and this fictional Elvis Presley character. And I think that was a very brave thing to do. She knows there might be some older Elvis fans that would be like, "Oh, Elvis would have never said that." But she really trusted the writers to keep the spirit of it. And with Matthew McConaughey, and the rest of the cast we have, it's just come together so strongly that I think she's really happy with the way it turned out.

AWN: All said and done, what do you think the biggest challenges have been for you on the show?

MA: Well, one of the challenges was we were making this during COVID, so we had to do everything entirely remotely. We had to get our actors at their houses, and set them up with kits, and do recordings from their closets or wherever we could get the best sound. That was certainly one challenge, but it also became part of the fun for us to get to know each other without ever really being in the same room.

The other challenge was that we were always aware of there being a certain degree of responsibility. We're dealing with Elvis, who was a real person, and Priscilla is a real person. So, yes, we're making a fictional show about an Elvis that is our action version of Elvis, but we were always trying to be loyal, in a way, to his world and who he was and what he wanted to do, and what he was about.

JE: We always said there could be two versions of the show – the stupid version and the cool version. And I would say that was the biggest challenge: to do our best to make sure we made the cool version that worked for Elvis fans and also for people who aren't necessarily Elvis fans. We wanted it to work as a story, we wanted it to have multiple layers, we wanted it to be a smart show and not just a silly show. We put a lot of effort into making it smart.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.