Stephan Elliott: The New Adventures of Old Coward

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com 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 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 and explains what brought him back aboard Priscilla's lavender bus.

Advocate.com: 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?
Stephan Elliott: 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.

What can contemporary audiences take away from a story about stuffy British aristocrats in the 1920s?
When Coward wrote the play they'd just come out of a hugely unpopular war. There was a mass unhappiness with the government and a huge recession looming. If you look at the times then and the times now, they're almost frighteningly identical. Coward said he wanted to write it for a younger audience, and at the time it was a dangerous, modern piece of work. So we wanted to contemporize it with the use of music, special effects, and the casting of Jessica Biel. Inevitably we'll piss a few purists off, but younger audiences think it's absolutely hilarious.

What inspired the film's eclectic soundtrack, which mixes Cole Porter standards with songs like "Sex Bomb" by Tom Jones and "When the Going Gets Tough" by Billy Ocean?
I knew I didn't want to use an underscore in the film — you try making a movie with no happy music during the happy parts and no sad music during the sad parts — so we created a band like the one at the Kit Kat Club that played all the songs throughout Cabaret. We got some brilliant boys and girls together, started throwing ideas around, and just jammed it. I said, "Think 1924, but open up your brain at the same time."

Some might call your casting of Jessica Biel controversial and a bit risky. Were you a fan of her film work, such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry?
No, I was very unfamiliar. Being out of the industry for such a long time, I've paid no attention whatsoever, so it was good to have a blank canvas. But I'd seen Jessica in The Illusionist, which is a fine piece of work from her. I was looking for something different. We did see quite a lot of girls for her part, but when Jessica walked in the room there was something very fresh about her that nobody else had. She has the weight of that beauty, and people make a lot of assumptions when they look at her. Sometimes it's a gamble, but you decide to give someone a shot who's hungry, and she worked her butt off. I think she's extraordinary.

Did Jessica's boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, really fume over her love scenes when he'd visit the set?
That's all fabricated. Justin did come on set a couple of times, the poor little mite, with a horde of helicopters and paparazzi chasing him. Sometimes it gets a little hairy on set when you're trying to shoot a 1924 comedy and there's a seven-foot telescopic lens creeping up.

They portray rivals, but word has it that there was some tension between Jessica and Kristin Scott Thomas during filming.
Oh, I encouraged it. We had no rehearsal time, so there were very brief introductions and we had to start shooting immediately. They didn't know each other, and they were a bit frosty. They were really smart about it: They were very respectful of each other, but they deliberately went their separate ways in the evenings and didn't become friends. It was a good thing for the film.

I hear that you directed Kristin to play her character, Mrs. Whittaker, like a Disney witch. Did you have the gay audience in mind when bringing this delicious villainess to life?
I can't say I do anything specifically for the gay audience, but my camp side does come out every now and then — big surprise! With anything I do, there will always be a gay sensibility. Kristin was uncomfortable at first with how far I made her go, and it was fun to watch. I just kept pushing and pushing her, and at one point she turned around and screamed, "I'll never work again after this! I'm finished!" I said, "Honey, just give me another 20%, please." She screamed, "I can't get any bigger!" And I said, "You just did. Action!"

Priscilla made you a star in 1994 and certainly raised expectations for your career. Do you still feel pigeonholed as a gay director who can only make gay movies?
Totally. I built the big stiletto and I couldn't get from under its shadow. You don't know how difficult that is. All I ever get is "It's not Priscilla, it's not Priscilla," and that's another reason I pulled out of the industry. I just couldn't top it, couldn't deal with the weight of it anymore, and it was stopping me from growing. But Richard O'Brien, who wrote The Rocky Horror Show, gave me a slap across the face one day and said, "Steph, no matter how big their resumés, very few directors have a Priscilla. So stop hating it and start looking at it as a gift." That really resonated with me. Then the accident pushed me further, and that's when I agreed to co-write the book for the Priscilla stage musical.

A huge hit in Australia, Priscilla Queen of the Desert — the Musical recently opened on London's West End. Are audiences reacting the way you'd expected?
The film did really good business when it first came out, but its DVD life gets bigger every year. There's a big difference between seeing a movie like Priscilla at home and physically going out and paying one of the most expensive ticket prices in town to see a gay show. I didn't think it was ever going to work, but I could not be more thrilled to have been wrong, because it's going through the fucking roof. It's totally and utterly infectious, and there's nothing more fabulous than watching the audience's reaction. We've had people up dancing within the first five minutes. It's like being in mosh pit at a concert. So once they're through the door, people absolutely love it.

Is America ready for the return of Priscilla?
Oh, yeah, we're on a roll now. A lot of producers and investors are flying in to see it now, and they're loving it. We're going to Toronto with it next, and we'll bring it to Broadway when the timing's right.