The New Adventures of Old Coward
BY Brandon Voss
May 20 2009 12:00 AM ET
It's been almost 15 years since writer-director Stephan Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert crashed into theaters to become an international phenomenon and instant camp classic. After a long, life-changing absence, the openly gay Australian came out of early retirement to direct and co-write Easy Virtue , a period comedy-drama based on the 1924 play of the same name by legendary wit Noël Coward. The film, which opens May 22 in limited release, stars Jessica Biel as a liberal American divorcée who marries a wealthy Englishman and locks horns with her manipulative new mother-in-law, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Elliott lets the behind-the-scenes cattiness out of the bag for Advocate.com and explains what brought him back aboard Priscilla's big lavender bus.
The last movie you wrote and directed was the 2000 thriller Eye of the Beholder. Why did you choose Easy Virtue as your return to filmmaking after nearly 10 years?
I didn't choose it; it chose me. I'd become disenchanted with the business, so I threw the towel in and promised that I'd never make another movie again. I became a ski bum, which is what I'd always wanted to do, then proceeded to ski off a cliff and snap my body in half. One might call that a career-killer, but it was actually a career-bringer-backer; the accident was what got me to go back to work. First I was told that I wasn't going to live, and then I was told I wasn't going to walk again. Once I got through that, I thought, God, I'm not scared of anything anymore. What am I frightened of? So in that morphine-induced haze, I said "yes" to Easy Virtue . Barnaby Thompson, one of the producers, literally brought it to me while I was still in the hospital. I said, "I think I'm the wrong guy for the job." And he said, "That's why we're here." Sometimes you have to take a gamble and stop being so comfortable.
Was Eye of the Beholder really such an awful experience?
Oh, it was a freakin' nightmare and an absolute soul-destroying monster. I had really gone out of my realm. I'm actually pretty good at having fun, and I was trying hard not to have fun. The most startling moment for me was the realization that I was smothering my natural urges. And we got into bed with a bunch of truly horrendous financers who screwed us. It was just a nasty experience that was the nail on the coffin.
Tell me about adapting a Noël Coward play for the big screen. Did you check out Alfred Hitchcock's 1928 silent film version for inspiration?
Yeah, so I had two masters to answer to: Coward, the master of wit, and Hitchcock, the master of suspense. This was one of Coward's very early plays, and even he acknowledged that he hadn't really found his voice yet. What Alfred Hitchcock was doing making a silent movie out of Noël Coward, I don't know, but he wasn't the Hitchcock we came to know either. It's a pretty clunky early silent film. So I thought of what Hitchcock would've done in his prime if he had had the chance to readdress Easy Virtue , and also what Coward would have done in his prime if he had had the chance to readdress it. Those lines both collided at one point.
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