Stephan Elliott: The New Adventures of Old Coward

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. 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.


Tags: film, film

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