James Dean Movie Directors Initially Wanted CGI Elvis Presley

Though the cultural icon, who died in 1955, will return to the screen via CGI in 'Finding Jack' using actual footage and photos, the filmmakers originally had their eyes on the King to play an Army unit leader.
Twentieth Century Fox Films Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images; Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images; Adobe Stock

James Dean’s return from the grave — as a CGI character in the upcoming Vietnam drama Finding Jack — doesn’t have a lot of breathing stars cheering ("This is awful," Chris Evans tweeted about the resurrection). But if the film’s directors had their way, they’d have dug up an even more iconic figure to play an Army unit leader in their $40 million film: Elvis Presley.

After get knock-backs from a couple of still very much alive A-list names (scheduling issues, apparently), Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh originally had their eyes on the King, but were turned down by his estate, though he has already had a brief digital outing, popping up as a malfunctioning hologram in a scene from Blade Runner 2049. He was also, notes Ernst, “in the Army,” being famously stationed in West Germany in the late 1950s. (Movie audiences can still get their fill of the rock 'n' roll legend in Baz Luhrmann's upcoming biopic starring Austin Butler.) 

For the lead role — a soldier named Fletcher who attempts to rescue his beloved military dog Jack at the end of the war — Ernst also admits there had been a short debate about deploying the same VFX technology being used on Dean to cast a “young Paul Newman.” However, they soon settled on having just one CGI castmember.

“We don’t want this to become a spectacle — more than it already is,” he says, describing the reactions to Dean’s posthumous casting as “nuts, just nuts."

Given the blowback over exhuming a legend, finding a co-star for Dean (whose character has "significant “significant” screen time) might prove challenging.

“But it’s a good challenge: Can they outshine James Dean?” says Ernst. “You’re going to need someone with big balls.” He actually claims that a script was sent to Evans, hearing that he “liked the story”).

While the onscreen Dean will be a CGI model crafted from old footage of the icon, there’s then the issue of who will voice this avatar. Golykh says she’s had "a lot of emails” from people claiming they could do solid impressions.

Technology is also an option, with an Australian AI company specializing in training computers to speak like people based on recordings having been in touch. “But that’s where we drew the line,” says Ernst. “We said no, because that would have been a bit ghostly.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.