When Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliot first got attention fifteen years ago with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Hollywood certainly took notice, but after two of his own disappointing adventures with Hollywood movies, Elliot disappeared, having not directed a movie since the turn of the century.
Now, Elliot is back with Easy Virtue, a mischievous take on one of Noel Coward’s early plays, featuring an ensemble cast including Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth and Ben Barnes, all shacked up in a mansion in the British countryside circa late ’20s, behaving badly towards each other and throwing out the type of humorous quips for which Coward is famous. Mixed in is a lot of the madcap humor Elliot clearly brings to the table.
Recently, ComingSoon.net sat down with Elliot and his writing partner Sheridan Jobbins to talk about the movie, and were surprised to have an extra special guest in Marius De Vries, the film’s composer and musical arranger, who some might know from his work with Baz Luhrman on the music for Moulin Rouge!. (Easy Virtue has a similarly playful score which includes ’20s versions of pop hits such as Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough…,” the disco song “Car Wash” and others.)
As you might expect from the director of “Priscilla,” currently experiencing a revival on stage as a musical, Elliot is one of those lively Australians with as much personality, humor and charm as his films, and Sheridan does a good job keeping him grounded during interviews.
ComingSoon.net: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but it’s been some years since your last movie, so was it just a matter of someone presenting Noel Coward to you to get you back behind the camera?
Stephan Elliot: No, it was actually the ski accident. That was what did it. I was not going to work again. I actually said I was never going to work again, I’d given in, but that moment actually spun it around. It was a big one, it was that major. It actually was the thing that said, “You have to get back to work. Life’s really short.” Could I do this and Coward was the right point and the right time at that moment where I was vulnerable to a point where I had to go back to work. Moments like that where you are that sick, sometimes need a ficus, too, and that was something that I had to talk myself into giving me something to live for, which is “I must get back to work.”
CS: But Coward definitely helped in that respect?
Elliot: Coward was the right man, right time, right point, so I don’t know if I would have said “Yes” to anything, but God moves in mysterious ways, and the timing was just right there. The big thing about is “Let’s Misbehave,” that’s what it is. He’s an irreverent bastard. We can’t show anything pretentious in Coward’s world and he’ll go for it.
Sheridan Jobbins: Which is very similar to Stephan. One of the reasons he gets into trouble is our industry is so full of pretension and he’s the first person to get a pin and stick it in it. That was actually a very good match in terms of themes and the quality and in fact, although the play is flawed, it’s got some great themes in it that are really relevant now, but it’s very exciting to be asked to do.
CS: You say that the play is flawed but you must have realized there were purists who would respond, “How dare they say that and want to change it?”
Jobbins: It’s the purists in fact who appreciate it, like the Noel Coward Society, The Trust, anybody who’s read the play is okay. It’s sort of more the pedants, the ones who think “Oh, Australians fiddling with it” as if we weren’t doing it under the auspices of somebody else.
Elliot: The better one we had recently, which was, “Who do these people think they are rewriting Oscar Wilde?” “Oscar Wilde? Sorry, news to me!” They haven’t even read it! The amount of people who’ve criticized us who have never read the original play, ’cause you can’t find it. It’s been extraordinary, the number of people who criticize it and not read it.
CS: It’s also bizarre that the only previous adaptation of it was Hitchcock’s from 1928, which was a silent movie that barely included any of Coward’s dialogue from the play. Did either of you watch that movie to try to get anything out of it you might bring to this?
Elliot: Sheridan did; I wouldn’t. And then one night, I was sitting there late at night and it was sitting there winking at me
CS: After you finished making the movie?
Elliot: No, before. I said that I wouldn’t, when it was just standing there looking at me and I snapped and said, “Oh, I’ve gotta watch it.” And that was the right thing to do. He was a kid with a camera, he wasn’t Hitchcock yet either, and fascinatingly, even in the original play, it talks about a court case. “There was a court case, there was a trial.” Hitchcock’s film is all about the trial, which has nothing to do with the play and nothing to do with anything, so it’s interesting he chose that line. It wasn’t the right line either. My attitude was, Hitchcock wasn’t Hitchcock yet, he wasn’t at all. The play is versed so well that you can’t even see Hitchcock trying to get out, so for me visually, I was thinking what would Hitchcock have done a little older if he had readdressed it? And that was where my visual interpretation came from. What would older Hitchcock have done, not the 1928 Hitchcock.
CS: You talked earlier about bringing in the humor that Coward started writing later in his career, so can you talk about how you incorporated that? There’s definitely a shift in the movie where it goes from a ’20s comedy to being more dramatic and serious, which you might not expect.
Elliot: And more screwball.
Jobbins: The astonishing thing is that (Coward) wrote this in the summer with two other great plays, and it took us three years for us to polish it down to something that sounded like something he might have thrown off in a weekend. A great deal of attention was paid to trying to come up with something in his voice. Again, entertaining and all the rest of it and a credit to Ealing Studios that they were very strict about two things: One was “You can do better.” So they’d send it back and…
Elliot: “That was great, now do better.” And you’d think that one or two of those punchlines were getting great laughs for some of those lines. There’s like 40 or 50 attempts in those, and we just kept going and trying that and they just kept saying, “Good, you can do better than that.” It was the most frustrating thing in the world, but you do walk away at the end of it, and guess what? Every time we had another pass, it got 2 or 3% better.
Jobbins: The other thing they were sticklers for were the period was that we said we were late ’20s with the exception of Jessica and anything to do with Jessica, whether it was going to be asparagus or lettuce, they were absolutely sticklers, so that pedants looking at it can enjoy if it’s out of period rather than be scandalized by it. They were quite rigorous about keeping it authentic for an older audience, so while we were concentrating on the young ones, they were keeping an eye on the…
Elliot: Older ones.
CS: What were some of the challenges of getting this cast together to play all the different parts and essentially shooting in location for the whole movie? First of all, can you talk about that location? Did you still do a lot of soundstage work?
Elliot: No, no, no, it’s location all the way. It looks like one house, but it ain’t. It’s a lot of houses crammed into one house. We found the house and I said, “This is what we want.” We wrote and we wanted the conservatory and we had Mrs. Whitaker’s plants and everything. I talked about the perfect house and our location manager Giles put a photograph down in front of me and said, “There you go.” And I said, “That’s it, you got it, we don’t want anything else, this is the house!” But then of course, it was in Nottingham Forrest, long way outside of London, which meant we had to put everybody up. We didn’t have the money, so then we started this horrific crawl around London looking for the right house, and I just kept coming back, and it was actually John Beard, our production designer, who said, “Steph, there comes a time when you’ve got to put your foot down. You want that house and it’s right. Go into bat.” So the compromise was that we could shoot there for a week is all that we could afford, and all the interior rooms we had to make in other houses close to London. So it looks like one location, but it ain’t!
Jobbins: And it’s that one sequence where she’s watching them play tennis, skinning the rabbits, and she’s tapping on the window.
Elliot: It’s four locations.
Jobbins: But it ties it together because that’s the point where you see the geography of the building in Stephan’s mind. (laughs)
Elliot: Yeah, and I was the only one who knew it! My first assistant director was screaming at me going, “None of this makes sense!” My art director going, “Why is she looking over there?” And I said, “You know what everybody? I can’t explain it any more. Shut up. Jessica, look here; everybody else look there. Light from this side. You’re going to have to trust me.” And it wasn’t until the cutting room at the end, and I said, “Ah, yeah, I guess that makes sense.”
CS: That’s why I like seeing movies a second time to see if I can spot things like that.
Elliot: But not only that but the house is wonderful. If we could have shot up there, we would, and the owner was fantastic, and the house was just screaming, “People, love me.” It shot so beautifully and it was house that came to life when it had people in it, because it was way out in the middle of nowhere and it’s funny, you can feel a house when it wants you. That house wanted us bad.
Jobbins: And it wanted its roof bad, which is what they were needing the location for, and when we were there the first day–Steph’s the great Australian egalitarian–he made the crew tea. Went down to the kitchen, boiled the water, “Tea for all my men” and later I was talking to the lady of the house and I noticed she was using Evian to make her tea. I said, “Oh, you’re using bottled water” and she said, “Oh, yes, rat’s dead in the water tank.” So he basically poisoned everybody.
Elliot: I made “rat tea” for the entire crew. We’ve kept that very quiet. I think that made the internet yesterday, Sheridan, and I’m about to be killed.
CS: So anyone you work with in the future is now going to be cautious when you offer to make them tea.
Jobbins: They’re going to sniff the tea before they drink it, that’s for sure.
Elliot: But location shooting is everything. The house, she groaned, she creaked, and in fact, for the rest of the house, the sound of those floorboards, stuff you don’t know, it was just so throaty that in the end, for the Foley of the film, when we put all the footsteps on, we went back up to the house and asked if we could rerecord all the footsteps in the real house. He was fine and said, “Sure, go right ahead” and she missed us terribly when we left. He said, “When you left, the house sort of became this ghost again.”
Marius de Vries: And we put the music in those rooms as well, to get the sound of the room. Those were the reverbs we used. All the music sounds as if it was recorded in the house.
CS: As far as the cast, I think Colin and Kristin are givens, because they’ve done a lot of theater and they’re good at what they do. Jessica has never done theater and she’s the one American in the group, so can you talk about how you went about getting this cast together?
Elliot: Well, first and foremost, Colin and Kristin, for this kind of film, they say that it’s a no-brainer and both of them said they didn’t really want to do it, because they just felt like they’d done it. The first thing I said to both of them was “Believe me, you’re working with me. You haven’t done it.” Look at it this way. They both played 50-year-olds with grown-up children, and they’ve never done it before, and that’s big for both of them. Really tough as well, to which there’s only one step from there and that’s playing the grandfather. This is the first step towards that. And mentally it was tough, but we also rolled Colin in the mud, we fattened him up, we put facial hair on him, we put him in terrible clothes. He’d never done that before. Kristin, we put her in a bad wig and terrible old lady make-up. She had a much tougher time, but then again, I let her be as camp and let her be so big that she would acknowledge halfway through that she’d never actually done anything as big as this before, performance-wise, turning into Norma Desmond, which she did at times.
Jobbins: I think it’s her funniest performance.
Eliot: She admits it’s the funniest thing she’s done.
CS: The first half hour I was watching the movie I didn’t even realize it was her and I’ve seen her in other movies and interviewed her.
Jobbins: She’s just an unqualified beauty. You meet her and you think, “That face, she’s so elegant and refined.”
Elliot: And then we put old lady make-up on her. Jess (Biels) and Ben, too. Ben was young and fresh and we needed that and then Jess came from that young and fresh department, too. I met with a lot of actresses who have done this a lot, and I just met them and there were one or two girls that had done it before and wanted to do the role. It’s like putting (Terrence) Stamp in “Priscilla.” No one saw it coming and I met Jessie and thought, “No one is going to see this coming.” No one has given her the opportunity to fly before (Note: Elliot has obviously forgotten about Rob Cohen’s “Stealth”… we envy him for that) and the difference between giving them wings and never having done it before, they work their butts off for you, because they really want to fly. Jessica flew. She was so thankful to be there and there was other actresses who just don’t want to be there.
CS: Marius, I’d like to bring you in here because I would like to talk about the music. I loved the score and the fact that you had some more contemporary songs played in a ’20s style. I wanted to find out how you figured out how to arrange those and ask if Billy Ocean has heard the version of “Going Gets Tough” you did?
De Vries: He’s heard it! Yeah, he likes it.
De Vries: So we hear.
CS: How did Stephan bring this up to you as the way to go with the score?
De Vries: We sat down very early in the process and we thought, “What are we going to do with the music for this?” We started from the point of Stephan saying that we would want to do this without using underscore. There’s no narrative music in the piece at all, so I thought that was a very brave thing to do but also a very cool thing to do. I said, “What would our repertoir be?” And we felt at that time that we needed to very firmly establish the authenticity of the period and the atmosphere of the piece by sticking to a fairly narrow time-scale in terms of where the music could have come from. We thought to be authentic, we’d stick to the late ’20s. I did a bit of a crash course and I got some people around me who knew the area, and we employed a band. We got a band together from the very early stage, who all knew how to play that way, and I think it was very much in their blood and we just let them go with some of the material.
Elliot: They think 1922. That’s a big difference. They think it rather than play it.
De Vries: It’s regressive as well. I mean you see them in the movie.
Elliot: The band at the end for the tango, that’s them.
De Vries: Those are our musicians or at least some of them, as many of them as we could fit onto the set. It was only a few months into the process and after the shoot, when we were into post-production. We had done a certain amount of music and it was sitting very well, but it somehow, it wasn’t telling the story of how this is a culture clash between two different worlds and two different times. We had spoken and dismissed the idea of doing modern repertoire and it came back again. Stephan said, “We really should try this. We should try just a little bit of music from out of the time into this time.”
CS: So then you went to the producers and said, “Can we get ‘Car Wash’ and ‘Sex Bomb’”?
Elliot: No, we were trying a lot of different things just to see what stuck and as I said, this was very organic. We had these guys and girls in front of us who were 1922, so sometimes finding stuff that came out of them, which was really interesting. “Car Wash” is spectacular. The scene it’s over the top of is the tractor and the end of an entire generation, a bunch of guys with pitchforks, their lives are now over, and there’s a whole there and “You might not ever strike it rich. Let me tell you it’s better than digging a ditch.” It kind of sticks and who knows where they came from? It was very organic and it began to grow.
CS: But how did the producer react when you told him?
Elliot: Well, that was part of that thing again. I told them there’s a certain schtick I’m bringing with this. You can’t employ me not to do me schtick, so again, you throw something like that out and we waited for the fireworks and to Barnaby’s credit, the fireworks never came. There were a couple months where they would go, “Okay” (sigh) and you could hear it in there “We’ll give it a go.”
De Vries: What was great was that we had a well-oiled machine that we could throw this material into. We had the band in there and we could chuck them this and say, “Play this but don’t come out of style. Stay in character.”
Elliot: But there’s nothing more wonderful, too, than watching… you do know that we’ve made a couple enemies on a couple of these music jumps. I’ve sat in a room and watched purists, so to speak, literally get up and leave the theater. You’ve killed them. They’re out. They don’t want to go past there. They’ve sad, “It pulled me out and shot me in the head.” But then you watch a bunch of 17-year-olds who’ve never seen a film like this before light up like Christmas trees. You know what? I’m making the film for them. I’m not making it for the purists.
CS: Can you market a movie like this to Noel Coward fans? It seems at this point, you’ve gotten so far away from the play that it’s not exactly being made with them in mind.
Jobbins: I mean, the film is made with the Trust…
Elliot: …and the Estate.
Jobbins: It’s made with their approval to start with, but the Noel Coward Society has given it a brilliant review online, and it’s well worth looking at. Everyone who’s read the play or who has had dealings with it gets what we’re doing, which is what he was doing. It’s a contemporary piece for young adults, and it brings all the references in so that you can see why the Can-Can is a shocking dance, why Picasso was a shocking artist for his period. Like we’re doing all the references that we can so if that takes using contemporary music as the hook to take you into the period.” It’s kind of that thing between pendants or purists. I think the purists like it but pedants don’t.
De Vries: But also, there isn’t that much modern music in there and I think that’s important, because we restrained ourselves. We didn’t try and drive that through as a gimmick and say, “Well this will make it useful.” I think it’s measure, the way we’ve done it.
Elliot: I think that anyone who does know the play will know that we’ve done a good job, because the play was flawed and Coward has admitted the play was flawed.
Jobbins: In “Present Indicative,” he talks about the fact that he would move the structure of it. He talks about the way the performance was done.
Elliot: He was a kid. He was a kid when he wrote it.
Jobbins: Look, he was 17 in the first World War, but you look at him as well and he’s the son of a clerk and a seamstress who left school at 14 who basically became this icon of British wit, and he’s terribly subversive.
CS: I do want to ask you about a couple other things because I think a lot of people will glad to have you back directing. I know that you’re working on a Disney comedy, with a dog no less, so I’m glad you got the Chihuahua killing out of your system now. Can you talk about some of the other things you’re doing? They just seem very different.
Elliot: We did a lot of writing. That was my down period when I wasn’t directing anymore, we wrote a lot of stuff. We don’t actually know what we’re going to do next, I mean I have no idea. It’s kind of cool to instead of having it all mapped out–again, life changing accidents can do this to you–there’s a part of me that’s a little bit blowing in the wind at the moment. I actually don’t know what’s next and it’s a really nice feeling.
Jobbins: Yeah, it’s exciting.
Elliot: It’s exciting for the studios are lining up, and I’m saying, “No, I don’t know.” I’ll decide.
Jobbins: There’s stuff to draw on but nothing’s compelling us forward at this precise moment.
CS: But you do have some scripts that are finished that theoretically you could work on getting financed or sell and start making them?
Elliot: Yeah, we’ve got a couple absolutely doozies. We’ve written brilliant scripts out there. I don’t know. And it’s really fun. That’s a question I’m getting a lot now.
CS: Well, it’s been eight months since this movie premiered at Toronto and the movie’s done and you’re probably finishing up promotion soon…
Elliot: Well, that’s the thing. We have two more days of this and then when it’s finished, that’s actually it. We get to put this baby to bed, and I think on the end of those two days, I’ll have for the first time ever have a clear breath, and we’ll say what’s next. I think getting “Priscilla” on stage was a big chunk and we’re rolling that out across the world. That one’s going to be fantastic to watch that one roll. We’re going to Toronto next and we’ll see how long Toronto goes and think about when to come to Broadway. It’s all about the right timing when you go to Broadway at the moment, and I think we have to get the show absolutely right for Broadway.
CS: That show’s going to be huge in New York.
Elliot: I can’t imagine it not. My own admission, as you know, is I was the one who kicked and screamed about it all the way, but seeing that audience on their feet every night. I was wrong. My whole thing about “You can’t put a desert on a stage.” It’s not about a desert on a stage, it’s about the music, it’s about the heart of the piece, and on that level, if you look at it from those two angles, then it’s fitted perfectly for a stage. I just couldn’t get the desert out of my head.