Easy Virtue, which opens today at the Esquire Theatre, marks a return for Stephan Elliott, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with fellow Australian Sheridan Jobbins, who accompanied him during a recent publicity trip to Denver and took part in the rich, forthright and funny Q&A that follows.
Elliott introduced himself to cineastes with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a vibrant 1994 crowd-pleaser that continues to be his best known piece. He hasn't helmed a major production since the 2000 Ewan McGregor vehicle Eye of the Beholder, an adaptation of a classic cult novel by the late Marc Behm that was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences. But this rough reception isn't the only reason why his profile's been subterranean for most of the decade.
In 2004, Elliott suffered a terrible skiing accident that required months of hospitalization and an even longer rehabilitation process. Along the way, however, he rediscovered his sense of humor and passion for moviemaking, both of which inform Virtue, an adaptation of a Noel Coward play throughout which a tony British cast led by Colin Firth, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Ben Barnes is juxtaposed with Boulder-bred Jessica Biel, in an against-type performance meant to establish her acting chops. No one will confuse her with Katharine Hepburn, but Elliott's brisk, witty staging keeps it entertaining anyway.
Jobbins has an interesting background of her own. Until recently, she was recognized by the Guinness World Records folks as the youngest-ever TV host for fronting Cooking With Sherri on a major Australian TV network when she was just nine-years old. (Elliott jokingly -- or perhaps not so jokingly -- suggests that her loss of this distinction was something of an inside job.) Since then, she's worked as an actress, a journalist, a producer and a writer whose admiration for Elliott is obvious. They play off each other well during a conversation of Elliott's past features (among them, 1997's Welcome to Woop Woop); his disillusion with the film industry, and what convinced him to get back into the game; his approach to Virtue, which draws from both latter-day Coward and the mature oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock, who made a silent version of the play as a young man; the chance he took on Biel, who admittedly wasn't his first choice for the part of an older American woman married to a much younger Brit (Barnes); the different reactions audiences around the world have had to the finished product; and his newfound willingness to direct material that he didn't conceive.
And now, let the dishing begin.
Michael Roberts (Westword): I'm guessing that the question you hear most often is, "What have you been doing since Priscilla. Do you have a stock answer for that?
Stephan Elliott: I don't, really. I made an anti-Priscilla film straight afterward, which was a disaster: Welcome to Woop Woop, which is now becoming a very big cult hit.
WW: I understand that Woop Woop and the film that followed, Eye of the Beholder, weren't good experiences for you....
SE: Absolutely awful experiences. I did those films pretty much back-to-back, and at the end of them, I was completely broken and pretty much financially ruined....
WW: What specifically was so unpleasant about those two projects after your positive experience with Priscilla?
SE: Post-Priscilla, of course, everyone just wanted me to make Priscilla again. But once I was done making Priscilla, I saw a really ugly side of Australia -- a really dark, racist, homophobic side. And with Priscilla done, I wanted to get out there again and have a go with a really much darker version. And on top of that, what I was also doing was I wanted to make a big-budget, really bad John Waters movie. A tasteless, big film, with something to offend everybody.
Sheridan Jobbins: There's a whole history of that in Australia -- very smart people making very sharp social satire that's usually universally reviled by Australians and usually only appreciated by foreigners...
WW: Is that how things worked out? Is the film still hated in Australia but liked elsewhere?
SE: It's taken its time. The big mistake I made was, the film wasn't finished, and one of the people from the Cannes Film Festival -- every film I've made has played at Cannes -- saw a rough cut and said, "Let's put it on at Cannes." I'd only been cutting for six weeks, but he said, "Look at Coppola. Coppola put Apocalypse Now on before it was finished and won." So I stupidly put together a very long version of the film with a temp score. It was hodge-podged together, and after it screened, that was the end of that.
WW: You were never able to recover from that first reaction?
SE: No, I never got it back. The film company put out a version in one of the territories and let it die. And the fun part about it was, I wanted something and I got it. Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. But finally, now, it's finding this massive audience - it's happening worldwide.
SJ: There's a bit of a cult following in Australia as well. It's a very funny film, and a very angry film. You'll especially like it if you're angry (laughs).
WW: So the key is to get upset before you sit down to watch it?
SE: Oh, no, it'll do it for you. Don't worry. It was an interesting exercise, and quite a damaging one -- and I didn't quite recover from the mauling I got from that. So I said, "Okay, I'll change genres" and did Eye of the Beholder, which was a complete fiasco.
WW: I've read the book on which Eye of the Beholder is based....
SE: Very few people have read [author Marc] Behm's books. Good one on you.
WW: I really enjoyed it -- but it had the reputation of being, if not entirely unadaptable, at least extremely difficult to adapt. Is that what you found?
SE: Yeah. There was one enormous technical mistake -- one absolutely fundamental flaw -- is it was so long. It spans, like, forty or fifty years. And they wouldn't let me do that, the timeline wouldn't work. So we kept hacking it down and hacking it down. And in the end, we got to that terrible moment when it was just too long. It was a fundamental mistake. I thought I'd solved the problem by shrinking the type.
WW: Shrinking the type so there wouldn't be as many pages in the screenplay?
SE: (Laughs). I shrunk down everything, and by doing that, it went from being 150 pages to a shootable 120 pages. I thought I'd solved the problem! But at the end of the day.... well, the financiers ran off with the money halfway through the film. They left me high and dry, and I had this rambling mess that was way too long. And then the film went through about nine changes in ownership. Everyday I'd wake up and there was a new owner. It was just a completely heartbreaking experience. I lost everything just trying to patchwork it together.... I went up to Canada, and I should have been there for a year. But I was there for nearly four years on my own. I had no producers. I became the producer to finish it, but it's a completely broken script, and it led to a very damaged, wounded movie. And I never really quite recovered from that.
SJ: There's also great things in it. I don't know if you've had a chance to see it....
WW: I have.
SJ: ...but there are some brilliant elements to it. There are moments in it that you remember, moments that couldn't have been made by anyone else. You can feel that life, those moments of humor, and those sharp tongues that you remember from Priscilla through Woop Woop and Eye of the Beholder all the way through Easy Virtue. I think there is a natural progression, with Stephan becoming more sophisticated, and becoming a more mature filmmaker. You can tell that he's held onto the lessons learned on the way to getting there.
SE: It's interesting to watch me try to remove myself from my sense of humor in Eye of the Beholder -- and now I think it may have been the wrong book to have done. It's not a funny book. It's a very dark and wonderful journey, but it's not funny - and I have a strength. The funny stuff is actually incredibly easy for me. That's not difficult. I know how to do that. That comes very naturally. But I just tried to cut that part of myself off. On set, it was hilarious! But it wasn't on camera -- and I was out of my depth.
WW: So after that experience, from what I understand, you wanted to be done with filmmaking?
SE: Pretty much. But there was a moment there where I didn't decide that. I couldn't get any work. It was that old Hollywood thing that happened, where the film came out and suddenly I couldn't get a single phone call. And that was a difficult experience. Everyone kept saying, "Make another Priscilla!," so the answer was not to. [Gestures to Jobbins] So we started writing, polishing other screenplays. Polish writing is good because it pays the bills. You can just scrape across the finish line... It was an interesting time, and that's when we basically teamed up and it's been very good. Having a women's point of view has been a huge and wonderful change.
WW: How did the two of you meet?
SJ: I used to work at the company that made Priscilla, and we became friends. And I moved to London, and he was doing research on this very funny true story, and after that, we began working together.
WW: [To Jobbins] You have quite a fascinating background yourself.
SJ: I've done a little bit of everything (laughs).
WW: I understand you've lost your world record for being the youngest-ever TV presenter....
SJ: I have. It happened about two years ago, so I held it for 33 years.
SE: And a friend of hers who had a kid rang her up and asked her about the details. And then he set out to destroy the record with a little girl who didn't know what was going on....
SJ: Not that I'm bitter (laughs).
SE: Not bitter at all!
SJ: That record for me was a bit like Priscilla for Stephan. I was a presenter from eight until eleven. I had my own show, I was recognized, and everything I ever did was referenced back to Cooking With Sherri. And you have to kind of accept it. Some people are born beautiful, some people are born rich, and I -- I was given this very strange opportunity that was actually meaningless to the things that I did afterward. But it all comes back to that.
WW: You've done a great many things subsequent to that. Acting, directing, producing, writing....
SJ: After doing Cooking With Sherri, I was on a show called Wonder World!....
SE: And it was huge. It was enormous.
SJ: I did some acting on some soap operas as well, and even with all the producing or writing or directing I did subsequently, they will still mention it. They'll mention that and Wonder World! and Cooking With Sherri (laughs).
WW: During the period when the two of you were writing, Stephan, you had a very serious skiing accident, and had to go through a long serious of rehabilitation...
SE: Only occasionally are you given a moment like that. I had never been hurt skiing before, in thirty or forty years of doing it. And then, suddenly, I'm flying through the air knowing that my body was going to snap in half, which is more or less what happened. Part of me said, "Here it comes. Let's get this over and done with." It was a weird one. I was told by a doctor on the mountain that I wasn't going to make it, and to make my peace. And I got through it. And then they said, "You're not going to walk," and I got through that. It was the wake-up call. It was a massive wake-up call. And when I got through it, I thought, if you can get through this, you can handle the film industry. And I've finally got the opportunity, eleven years later, to go on to this next step.
WW: While recuperating and rehabbing, you obviously had a lot of time to think -- and I understand that instead of losing your sense of humor, you got it back. Is that right?
SE: The hospital was hilarious! It was incredibly painful. Today, I was taking a shower and I was thinking this. [To Jobbins] I think you were there. I was taking my first steps, just learning to walk again. It was really painful, and I had this huge exoskeleton holding everything together, with bars coming out of me all around. And I'd just managed to do, like, ten feet, and there was this guy behind me who'd hurt his leg, and he was saying, "Ah, I hurt my leg, and it's been terribly traumatic!" And I spun around and looked at him, and he saw these pins holding my body together, and the color just drained from his face. He was talking about himself, and then suddenly he realized - and the look on his face. The horror of it. It was funny....
SJ: Stephan had a private room, which was unusual - but it was the room they set aside for the dying...
SE: I wanted to get in there. People were sending me a lot of screeners, and I was giving the nurses all these screeners of movies that hadn't come out yet. So they banished me to the death room (laughs).... It was funny, and this is funny, too. It's a very stressful job, and it can be very frightening, especially when you're involved in this kind of American juggernaut. I've seen fellow Australians just become monsters -- and that's something I'm absolutely determined not to do.
WW: So you won't be ranting about the Jews on Pacific Coast Highway anytime soon?
SE: No, no, no. Although you've got to give ol' Mel [Gibson] points for sticking his neck out there. Man! What went wrong?
WW: At what point did the idea of adapting Easy Virtue come up?
SE: Well, I had an offer to put Priscilla onstage, which is something I'd fought for ten years. And at a certain point, I just thought, get on with it. It was Richard O'Brien, who had the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and he said, "I understand why you see it as a curse. I've got it, too. I learned to hate it. But then, twenty years later, I realized, nobody else has got this." Even Coppola doesn't have this - a cult film that won't go away. So he said, "Stop hating it" - and I did. And that's a really simple key to moving on. So I started adapting Priscilla, and then we had some other writing gigs. We were actually pretty busy in that period. And around then, Barnaby Thompson, the producer of Easy Virtue, had another writer on the film: Peter Barnes, who'd actually won an Oscar for The Ruling Class. He'd done a draft, and he died after the first draft.
WW: The script didn't have anything to do with his death, did it?
SE: Well, we don't know, do we? (Laughs.) But it was interesting, because Peter had done it exactly as you would have thought it would be done: a by-the-numbers period melodrama.
WW: Not a lot of changes?
SE: No, not really. It was stuffy and English. No insult to him: Thank God he got the ball rolling. But he handed that draft in and Barnaby looked at it and said, "This is exactly what I don't want. This is exactly the trap you fall into when remaking this." And it is a melodrama. So they came to me when I was literally in a hospital bed, and I said, "No, this is wrong. I'm the wrong person to do this." And Barnaby said, "That's why we want you. Because you're clearly not the right choice. We went with what we thought was the right choice, and it didn't work." So I said "no," which is what I always do. I pass on everything. I'm too fussy. But then I thought, you always say "no." Why don't you say "yes" for once? And I looked on it as a challenge. And what I realized was, it was originally written as a melodrama - it wasn't that much fun. And the Noel Coward that we all know and love is fun. But that is a much later Coward.
WW: So do you see your version of Easy Virtue as a merging of those two different Coward styles?
SJ: I think the effort is to use the basics of a drama -- one that's about hypocrisy and the clash of generations and the clash of ideals and then bring all the expectations of what Coward should be into it. All his best jokes were in the fine print. They were all in the stage directions. Of the thirty sort of classic Coward zinger lines that are in here, most of them are in the stage directions.
SE: He was trying to keep himself interested as a kid...
WW: He was very young when he wrote Easy Virtue, wasn't he?
SJ: He was 24, I think.
SE: And full of venom. He'd just had a huge hit with The Vortex. He was on top of the world -- venomous and gay and full of himself. And so he writes a new play that just completely bites the hand that fed him. It's very Coward, and it's great. So that level was very interesting: What's the Coward that we know and love and then bringing it back into this. And then, of course, the other thing we brought back was Hitchcock, who did a silent version of the play.
WW: It seems absurd to do a silent version...
SE: Of a word play!
SJ: The Hitchcock version has one line of Coward in it. The one where Mrs. Whittaker says, "Is it true you've had as many lovers as they say?" And she says, "Of course it's not true. Hardly any of them loved me."
SE: And it's on a title card.
WW: I was going to ask if you'd bothered to watch the Hitchcock version.
SE: I did. Initially I said I wasn't going to, but I cracked one night and had a look at it. And, of course, he wasn't Hitchcock at that point. He was just another director working with a silent camera. But I thought, if we're imagining how Coward at 45-years old would address this material, I wondered how Hitchcock would address it at that age - instead of twenty-year-old kids, which is what they both were. How would the more seasoned, blossomed versions of themselves take on the same material. And that's how I came at it -- the master and the master of suspense. If they had the same material, how would they do it? And the film is very Hitchcock.
WW: Interesting. That's something I didn't pick up...
SE: Somebody said, "Oh, it must be the reflection work," because there's reflection shots in the film. But there's Hitchcock all over the film. There are classic Hitchcock reveals and much more. I know what they are. And I think it's a good pairing. We've upset the purists, but that's fine.
WW: Speaking of the purists, there are a good many changes in the plot, even though the set-up is generally the same....
SJ: I don't know that there are that many changes. There are changes in respect to opening it up. Because of the nature of the play, it's set inside a drawing room. And there are changes to the character of Whittaker, the father....
SE: No, there are a lot of changes. Mrs. Whittaker, she's become a human being. She was just a proper dame before. That's all she did. We've given her some real depth, which is something I feel very strongly about. As someone who's anti-globalization, I feel very sorry for her. There's so much tradition, and they refuse to let go.
SJ: In terms of purists, the ones that have been critical have all been faux-purists. The people who have expectations and want to go see some old musty museum piece. We've had no criticism from anyone who's actually truly knowledgeable about Noel Coward. His estate, the film has been featured on the website and there have been good reviews and they've been very supportive. And anyone who's read the original thinks it's an excellent adaptation, because it's true to the spirit of it.
SE: It's actually very difficult to read the play. You have to go to the library, and who goes to the library anymore?
WW: When was the last time a major production of it was mounted in either London or on Broadway?
SJ: I think there was a revival version staged in about 1998, for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.... But Coward himself said he wanted to make a thoroughly modern play for young people. He was writing for himself. He was writing for his generation, just as Cole Porter was - Cole Porter, who was writing subversive lyrics about homosexuality. So of course he would have wanted to write about "Car Wash" and "Sex Bomb" [two songs featured on the Easy Virtue soundtrack] and anything else that was talking about change and was saying, "We're coming to get you."
SE: There's a lot in the play that's subversive. Look at the difference in ages between John and Larita. Any eighteen-year-old boy who comes home with a forty-year-old woman, all hell's going to break loose. So at that time, it was groundbreaking. Not only that, but she was an American, and a divorcee. She'd been through this incredible murder trial -- and not only that, but she's this old woman, so to speak. So it's not that irrelevant now. He was really trying to push things, and we keep that spirit, and take it up in other ways. Visually, with metaphors. And at that point, there's a certain type of person who wants to see Brideshead Revisited, and we're going to lose them. And it's a joy to lose them. That's not the kind of film we made. I really made up my mind that I couldn't go and see that film. I would never go and see that film. I hate that film.
WW: I'm guessing that the first description most people would apply to Jessica Biel wouldn't be "that old woman." Could you talk about the decision to cast her as Larita?
SE: Casting was very difficult. We were looking around, and there were a lot of girls who were very good at this kind of thing and could do it with their hands tied behind their back - but it wouldn't have been fresh. You know who they are. There's a certain kind of American actress between 35 and 40 who could do this, and we actually had one of them onboard, who was very good. But when she dropped out, that opened the door, and we started thinking outside the box, thinking, who are the unusual choices? And it still works very well as an older woman. Jessica has this amazing ability to dress herself up to 33. It's just a matter of a makeup brush.
SJ: She's got a maturity about her.
SE: But we battled that, too, once we got her. People were like, "Oh, good, let's make them the same age." There was a huge battle at that point, and we said, "No." There's got to be years between them. She's still American, she's still been divorced, and she's still got to be older. And Jess was totally up for it even if many others weren't, and we stuck to our guns. And what we also got with Jess was a freshness and a surprise. She hadn't done anything like this before and she was hungry. And why shouldn't she?
WW: Most critics would probably have though she couldn't have handled this kind of a role....
SE: Oh, yes. Many of them.
SJ: But people who thought they'd be seeing Brideshead Revisited, I don't think they're disappointed by her. Certainly my mother's generation, and my aunties', they all adored her. It's really just the snobs who think they know something - thinking, what are these Australians doing with Noel Coward?
SE: I saw a great one today. Someone what about what a terrible thing we'd done to destroy one of the great literary figures, Oscar Wilde. The guy's saying we ruined Oscar Wilde, and we're not making Oscar Wilde, you pretentious fuckwit! That's great. That's fantastic. Like you fucking pretentious dick. Fuck off.
SJ: And we made this with Ealing Studios. They rode us hard every day about, "Is this period? Is it billiards or snooker?"
SE: That went on for days -- what they were playing?
SJ: "Would they eat lettuce or asparagus? Would they have camellias or carnations?" Every single day, me or someone in the production office was dealing with this. Lines or words: "Could they say 'plunker' back then? Is that viable? Would that person say it? Is it correct?" They went to a great deal of trouble so that the carnations-and-crinoline set wouldn't be let down when they went to a Noel Coward picture. And then for someone to say we've butchered Oscar Wilde?
SE: The big thing for us is, we released it in the U.K., and the broadsheets, the Times and all the big papers absolutely destroyed us -- and we had pretty soft box office.
WW: When I was talking with Sheridan before we started, she mentioned that you went head-to-head with Quantum of Solace and High School Musical 3...
SE: We went into it thinking it's counter-programming. But every young girl went to go see Daniel Craig in shorts or Zac Efron. So we mistimed it, and the critical response was just dreadful. I walked around thinking, it's over. And then we opened in Italy, and it went through the roof.
SJ: Seven weeks in the top ten....
SE: For a little, tiny film. And then Spain followed, and Australia, and it was a complete turnaround. And after that, I realized what our mistake was. The English are the bad guys in this. We didn't see that coming, and they reacted badly.
WW: It didn't occur to me that English viewers could be offended by the film...
SE: What was happening there was a factor, too. If you think America is in a bad spot right now, you should see over there. It's dismal. It's gone. I'm getting out now, because the taxes are up to the highest in the world. Europe is doing better, but they refuse to join the European currency, they refuse to give up the pound. And meanwhile, the country's dying. It's dying. It's going into a terrible spiral, and there's no way out. They're having a terrible time, and we made a film, right at this moment, in which there's been a terrible war that's been raging forever, a ghastly recession. If you look at then and now, what's happening is almost frigging identical. And the criticisms we've had are the same criticisms they had in the 1920s. It's exactly the same. Word for word. Whereas in America, it's completely different. In the end, the American walks away, and it's great. When we screened the film at Tribeca, when Jessica pushes over the statue at the end, the audience ruined the next couple lines of dialogue by cheering. And we didn't quite see that coming. The American walks away okay...
SJ: With dignity.
WW: You didn't think at any point, "The film will sell in America for this reason"?
SJ: Not at all. We were more worried about making the characters less abrasive and less caricatured.
SE: Including Larita. I don't think we could have gotten away with portraying her the way she is in the play. In the original, she walks in and she's just scathing. She hates all of them. And what's beautiful about the play is that you may not like this woman, because she's very abrasive - but as the rest of the characters in the play fall apart, and their world starts crumbling on top of her, what you like about her is her absolute consistency. The lines in there. She says, "I won't change. This is who I am." And you admire that she'd walk away from all this. As she's about to walk out of the house, she let's them all have it. She tears them all to shreds. It's venomous, bordering on vicious. And we thought, we can't do this. So we softened the blow. Larita actually tries to help the girls in the end. She says, "Get out. Don't stay here. You'll die. See the world through your own eyes." That's us giving the daughters some hope. Whereas originally, Coward just let them have it.
WW: I get the sense that despite some of the criticism, both of you are very happy about how the film came out?
SJ: Oh, yes. I think it's beautifully directed, sophisticated, lively, elegant and young. And that's the hardest thing. To keep it fresh and young.
SE: Holding the audience at the turn is the hardest part. Up to then, you've got the hunt, you've got the can-can. It's fun and games. And then the curtain lifts, drastically, and suddenly it's not so funny anymore. It's actually tragic, and it's beautifully done - beautiful writing by us, beautiful acting by Colin [Firth]. And from that moment until John and Larita are making love in the barn and John picks up the dog to cover himself and the explosion of laughter at that point - it told us, "They're still with us. They rode through a very difficult ten or fifteen minutes that's not funny at all," and they're still with us. We were able to pull off something very, very difficult, and I know from experience that it doesn't always work. Eye of the Beholder, I know the moment where we lost the audience and never got them back...
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WW: This experience seems to have reenergized both of you when it comes to film. What's next for you?
SE: There's a lot of stuff that's out there that we've written over the past several years that are all possible shootables. But I'm at a point where I'm thinking about doing something I always said I wouldn't do, which is make someone else's script. And post-accident, I've said to myself, "Maybe I should give it a shot."
WW: So you don't have anything specific that you're committed to, but you're open to the possibilities?
SE: I'm open to the possibilities. I haven't said it publicly before, and I'm saying to you, for the first time, in this interview, on the record, if something good comes along, I'll consider it. Because developing things like this, it's five or six years work. So part of me is saying, if someone brings me a script, and it's good, and it's something I think I can do, then I might be ready to give it a shot.