Sing When You're Winning - Stephan Elliott Interview
A battle of wits, life after the war and Jessica Biel making her musical debut, Easy Virtue isn’t your ordinary period piece. 3D’s Anita Connors caught up with Aussie director Stephan Elliott to hear about life after Priscilla and the Noel Coward play that marks his comeback.
“England. 1928. Let’s misbehave.”
Stephan Elliott wryly grins. His much understated premise fails to mention his latest film Easy Virtue has 7th Heaven’s Mary Camden (Jessica Biel) racing cars, modelling for Picasso and doing the cancan, all between being serenaded by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), tangoing with Mr Darcy (Colin Firth), and being chastised by Four Weddings and a Funeral’s Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas). It is also a project that signifies a return for the Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director to the silver screen. His was roughly a 10-year absence after vowing to give up the film industry.
“Directing, I’d lost interest,” he recalls. Finding the success of Priscilla both “a blessing and a horror”, Elliott spent many years struggling trying to deal with it.
“Everybody wanted me to follow up Priscilla with another Priscilla, and I did the complete opposite. And that’s maybe not a smart thing to have done, in retrospect, but that was me fighting against it. But you know, I used to find it very, very frustrating because you can’t trump it. You can’t trump the untrumpable, it’s one of these films that happens once every now and then.”
Elliott was eventually lured back to the movie business to make Easy Virtue but only after breaking his back, pelvis and legs in a horrific skiing accident in France five years ago.
“It was a bit of a wake up call,” reveals Elliott. “So [I was] fighting my way through morphine, when this came to us, the original play, knowing that it is something I wouldn’t ordinarily not ever have done, having been what I’ve been through…I had to try something that I had not done before and challenge myself a bit. And within that it was finding Jessica Biel’s Larita’s character and her not really wanting to be in this environment either. That became a real voice for me and I began to realise Larita-Jessica was my way through this.”
An outsider, a modern, contemporary and strong-willed American woman, Biel’s character Larita takes the stuffy, old-fashioned and country-residing Whittaker family by storm when she marries their only son. She’s a passionate individual who finds herself having to fight for her rights, a common theme in Elliott’s films.
“They all have a running theme of…the outsider all the way through all of them. That is more important to me than absolutely, absolutely anything. Just for me personally, I don’t agree on the needs of the masses, I think the individual is more important than absolutely anything else. It’s just a private thing and I think that I’ve always felt that way and I feel very strongly myself.”
Elliott hopes that Easy Virtue will be “a chance to really shake off Priscilla” although he admits there are elements of Priscilla that found their way into the film. “I can’t help myself,” he says.
By this, the director means the “absolute joy” of music. “There’s no traditional scoring,” tells Elliott. “No underscore, no little piano intros to make it sad or anything like that.” Instead, the soundtrack is made up of a mix of Noel Coward and Cole Porter songs and contemporary songs recorded in a 1920s-flapper style, like Sex Bomb and When The Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going), several of which are sung by Biel, Barnes and Firth.
“At first I fought it, but sometimes when something gets an organic movement like that, you can’t stop it,” he says. “So we started playing the Car Wash and it was hilarious.”
Easy Virtue opens 12 March.