For her latest documentary feature, director Jeanie Finlay once again delves deep into the dark corners of the music industry to find a story that's stranger than fiction.
'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King' tells the unusual tale of a man plucked from obscurity and fast tracked to stardom in the days following Elvis Presley's death. Suited with a bejeweled eye-mask and a healthy dose of mystery, producers at Sun Records saw in Orion an uncanny sound-alike and an opportunity to keep Elvis-mania alive, despite The King's untimely death.
The film was supported in-part through Creative England's Production Fund and gets its European debut this weekend at the Sheffield Doc Fest. To celebrate its UK debut, we caught up with Jeanie to discuss finding Orion, her dedication to the documentary medium and what attracts her to unbelievable real-life stories...
Hi Jeanie, Your previous feature ‘The Great Hip Hop Hoax’ was a documentary about another bizarre real-life story. What is it about these stranger than fiction tales that attracts you?
I just think that there are so many things that are appealing about making films about real life. I love telling stories that you just couldn’t make up and if you did it would sound like it had been made up. I found Orion through buying a record twelve years ago and as as soon as I researched his story I knew that it was something that I wanted to make into a film. Six years ago I started pursuing it. It’s this idea that you just couldn’t invent, in the same way that happened when I read Gavin Bain’s article about 'The Great Hip Hop Hoax', as soon as I knew about Orion I knew something deep inside just said there’s a film in there.
What can you tell us about Orion's story?
I would say that Orion tells the incredible rise and tragic fall of the man that hundreds of thousands of people believed was Elvis back from the grave. He was put up by Sun Records in the months after Elvis Presley’s death and his incredible sound alike voice led lots of people to just believe that he could be The King. He wore a bejewelled eye-mask so no one knew who the man was and the film goes in search of the man underneath the mask.
What was it about the mask? It’s quite an important part of Orion’s image…
I would say that the deal with Orion was like a Faustian pact that once he became Orion it meant never taking the mask off in public, so he was getting fame and admiration but for playing someone else. The mask enabled a fantasy to come to life because even if he was taller than Elvis and if he had a different eye colour to Elvis, the mask led people to think well maybe… Some people believed he wore the mask to cover up plastic surgery scars but it just seemed like a brilliant symbol for me, a bit like a fable or an allegorical tale. Everyone wears masks but some people’s masks are spangley and rhinestone-encrusted.
Who was the driving force behind this myth – Orion or Sun Records?
It was Sun Records’ conceit. Orion believed that if he entered in to this he would get success as a singer in the way he had always desired but Sun Records knew that this was a brilliant marketing devise and they pretty much invented the myth that Elvis had faked his own death. Even though you may not have heard of Orion, the idea that Elvis is living out in Saskatoon doing his laundry, that idea went viral. It all started in the marketing offices of Sun Records.
Were the people involved surprised at how quickly this myth took off?
Orion’s band mate Nick ‘Scott’ Petta says in the film: ‘1979, that’s where it all started, it was a phenomenon'. He said he had never seen anything like it. It had just become bigger and crazier than they ever imagined.
This story really is stranger than fiction. Did you ever consider shooting Orion’s story as a fiction film or did you feel the raw story was appealing enough?
I think that a documentary telling a real story is much more powerful because you’re hearing from the people who were there to witness it. Obviously ‘The Great Hip-Hop Hoax’ is being made in to a fiction film and Orion could be a fiction but to my mind, it was just much more powerful seeing the man in the mask in front of audiences full of screaming women. That just had much more power for me. I make documentaries.
Do you ever see yourself doing fiction films?
One of the things that is pretty appealing about documentaries is that you can be pretty fleet of foot. You see an idea that you want to make and you can be quite autonomous and just go and make it. A lot people I know make fiction and it just feels really long because the budgets are so much bigger. I’m just too impatient.
You talked to a lot of people who were there when this story was unravelling. Did you find anything that surprised you?
To be honest, I didn’t have an expectation about what I was going to find because I was going in to things with my eyes open and that's part of the joy of it. If you have too much of a fixed idea before you start making it, then you’re not really making a documentary, you’re plotting a story. I was really open to the people that I found and what they had to tell me and people were incredibly open. So I was just really open to whatever I found and people were incredibly open. I think one thing that was surprising was how remote some places in the South were. Orrville, Alabama where Orion grew up has a population of 112. It’s a tiny place. People would talk about their neighbours and they would be three miles away.
Were a lot of people willing to talk about the story?
It took a long time initially to get people on board because there was a sense of ‘who is this strange British woman coming to talk to me?’ and ‘Why isn’t an American telling this story?’ But once people were on board and met me - I flew out there and made the effort and went to see them - people were more than generous with their time and their stories.
Orion isn’t around to see your documentary. What do you think he would have made of it?
Well his son and his friends and family think he would have loved it. They think he would have loved the attention and would have thought it was funny. The film is no Hagiography; we show Orion’s life warts and all. I think he would have enjoyed it but I don’t know.
You’ve just come back from touring Orion on the US festival circuit. Were American audiences particularly interested in this story?
Yes they really responded well, especially in Nashville because a lot of the film was shot in and around Tennessee. It was a really good fit for the film and we won the Grand Jury Prize there so it all worked.
How did you feel when you won the Grand Jury Prize at Nashville?
It was amazing to win it. I was feeling absolutely apprehensive because lots of the band members hadn’t seen the full film yet. Lots of people had seen it at the pre-screening, like the people who were close to Orion but other people like his band members hadn’t seen it. Someone stood up at the end of the screening and said ‘we came today to make sure this wasn’t terrible but it was magnificent.’ To win the Grand Jury was the cherry on the cake.
Do you have your next project lined up?
Yes I do, I’m going to make a film about a woman. I want to make a film with a woman front and centre. I’m making some plans at the moment that are very exciting but the thing always is ‘what do I want to do?’ not ‘what should I do?’ and going for the project that I really want to make.
'Orion: The Man Who Would Be King' gets its European Premier at the Sheffield Doc Fest on Saturday June 6th at 9pm. The film will be screened again at 3.15pm on Tuesday June 9th.
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