Interview with ‘A Few Best Men’ director Stephan Elliot

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Director Stephan Elliot chats to Cream about coaxing Olivia Newton John to ‘do coke’, why the wedding genre in film is so massively popular, and his continued success with a story about a busload of drag queens. Interview by Antonino Tati. 

 

A Few Best Men. It’s a clever title for your new film.

When we got to talking about the title, I said, “Do you know how many people are going to think they’re going to see a Tom Cruise movie?” At the last moment I was really pushing for a title change. But ultimately, I think it works.

 

It’s kind of a blessing for you, really. As though a little PR for it has already been paved.

But a lot of people are going online and searching ‘Good’ instead of ‘Best’.

 

The wedding genre is quite popular in cinema. You did realise that when going into this project?

The wedding genre has always been offered to me. Post-Priscilla [The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert] they took me to Hollywood and didn’t know what to do with me after a busload of drag queens. So the only genre they could find for me was the wedding genre. Every wedding film that’s been made in the past 20 years, trust me, I’ve been offered it. What they didn’t know was that I suffer from Wedding Syndrome, having been a videographer for weddings since I was 14 years old. I was doing two or three weddings every weekend most of my life.

 

I can certainly relate to that, having DJ-ed at weddings in the past. It’s kind of a silent torture you’ve got to go through; while the guests are enjoying themselves, you’ve seen and heard it all before a hundred times.

Well as a DJ so you’d understand; you’d have had to play those same tracks over and over again and it would have been hell for you. But on the videography side, in those early days, the invention of videotape really changed things. People just couldn’t believe that you could shoot for longer than four minutes. I’d actually be asked to shoot rehearsals a week before the wedding so I got to see stuff that I really shouldn’t have. Having so much access to the bridal party it got to the point where I could tell whether a marriage would work and how long it would last.

Wouldn’t the recording of rehearsals have defeated the point of capturing the perfect wedding on tape?

They were just so thrilled at the time; people would see a camera and they’d be beside themselves. I’d have the bride on the day, literally about to walk down the aisle, and she’d turn to me and ask, “Do I look fat?” and I’d say, “Well you could pull your tummy in a bit, and I wouldn’t mind going back and doing another take”. I think my record was 17 takes of a bride walking down the aisle. And nobody minded.

 

Would you say some of the bloopers caught on tape in those days have made their way into A Few Best Men?

Lots of them. One classic incident from the past was when the mother of the bride took control of the wedding and this poor girl, the bride, just hit breaking point. On the day before the wedding she fell to the floor and just screamed, “Mum, this is NOT your wedding!” That sentiment is very much in the film. And the mother had the final laugh on the day of the wedding. The daughter got out, dressed in this beautiful wedding dress, and the mother got out after her in the exact same dress.

 

That’s cruel. In your film, it looks like the mother, played by Olivia Newton John, is also having the last laugh. She’s having a better time than the daughter, anyway.

Pretty much. We decided to create the absolute mother-of-the-bride-from-hell. Or from heaven, depending on how you look at it.

 

I’d say Olivia was from heaven. Or indeed, Xanadu.

[Laughs].

 

Did you need to coax Olivia into the scenes where she’s racking up cocaine, or was she a good sport?

She needed a lot of coaxing. Everything you think Olivia is, she actually is. She is one of the most lovely, kind, caring, gentle human beings on earth. And she’s blissfully and wonderfully naïve, too. She was a big star when those Robert Stigwood films like ‘Saturday Night Fever’ were going off. That’s when cocaine really came into being. But back then she really had no idea why people were spending so much time in the bathrooms. She said it took her about a decade to work it out, and that was only because she started seeing the train-wrecks around her of people completely destroyed by coke. She said that by the time she’d worked it out she realised it was not a good thing. So when it came to her racking up for the film, she said, “This is just so not me” and I said, “Well it’s time to play a character outside of yourself”.

 

Do you think that character might be frowned upon by some conservatives who may go see the movie?

Very much so. This is a broad comedy. I set out to create a very big, dumb, laugh-out-loud comedy, and it is very silly and not to be taken seriously. There’ve been many films made like this; and I’m not pretending it to be anything else. There will be some people out there that will be a little disappointed over what Olivia did that but she got to say, “You know what? I got to act for once”. And she loved it.

 

There’s quite a bit of toilet humour in the film. Let’s just say, for those who have not seen it, and without giving too much away, it involves a sheep, some drugs and one of the character’s fists. I’m wondering if you thought about editing that back?

I think that humour is an imperative part of it. As we were saying, wedding films have been proven successes in Hollywood but I think things changed when ‘Wedding Crashers’ came along. Then I think they started making wedding movies for guys, too. They were still about love stories, so the girls went along to see them, but the boys got to enjoy seeing some terrible behaviour, too.

 

So you obviously want your films to appeal to both sexes?

Yes. You know I was speaking to the late Patrick Swayze when he turned up to a rehearsal one day, and he had two bodyguards with him, and I said, “Patrick, really, do you need the bodyguards today?” and he said, “You don’t understand; I can’t even walk through a shopping mall without some guy walking up and hitting me in the head from behind because his girlfriend made him watch Ghost five times. So it was a wonderful way to cross the genres over, to try and make a film that would appeal to both girls and boys. And kids and grownups. So there’s a bit of toilet humour in it; and the job was to make you feel uncomfortable. It may be a little excruciating for some people; other people think it’s hilarious.

 

Pardon me for bringing up another recent film in the wedding genre, but Bridesmaids got away with its bout of toilet humour because it was women delivering it for the first time, and you never actually saw the mess under all that lace… Do you think some people might wish you’d have covered it up in a similar manner?

Some people might and some people mightn’t but as far as I’m concerned the horse is out the door…

 

Let’s get to the actors. You’ve rounded a motley crew of them. Did you sit in on the casting sessions?

No, I picked my actors.

 

And they each jumped on-board readily?

Yes. The only character we didn’t have an actor secured for until the last minute was the lead, David. And Xavier Samuel was a real find. He’s the straight guy in the piece; it’s his wedding and it’s all going wrong; and that was a tough role to fill. We did see an awful lot of people and Xav had just come off Twilight. Personally I didn’t want to see him but he was absolutely adamant.

 

Having Kris Marshall in there was quite a coup.

Kris was in my last film Easy Virtue; he played the grumpy butler. And it was through working on Easy Virtue that we struck up a strong friendship. He’s a damn fine actor and a very, very funny man.

 

You had a major hit with The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert. Do you realise what impact you’ve had with that film?

At the time we honestly didn’t realise it. I was a kid; I was 26 years old. I wrote the script in two weeks and honestly didn’t have any expectations, or particularly care. I just said, “You know what? It’s only costing a million dollars. Let’s have a really good time making it and the honest truth is, it will probably go straight to DVD”. I went forward with that attitude, thinking let’s just have fun. But then the complete opposite happened and we’d made one of the greatest cult films of all time. It’s very hard to live down. For years I was quite angry with it because all people kept asking me was, “Where’s the next Priscilla?” and it got to the point where I realised I’m never going to live up to it and I’ve got to stop bothering and just get on with making other movies.

I look at the film’s pop cultural and societal impact. We were brought up in a very ‘ocker’ society in Australia where if you didn’t talk about football or other butch subjects, you were left out of the conversation. And you managed to have a film that created a wave of deconstruction in gender so strong that we ended up having Footy Show hosts dressing up in drag a few months after its success…

Yeah, I remember the Wallabies all came on one year, just before an international match, and the whole lot of them were in drag. It was hysterical.

 

You do realise that you helped rip through the gender restrictions we used to have in Australia?

Well yeah; it was a good flip and an amazing flip. And the real fun part was that I really didn’t mean to. I still get 30 letters a week from people saying ‘thank you’; particularly parents of gay kids who say thank you for helping me understand. Now, the stage show has taken off internationally; we’ve just opened in Italy; we’re on Broadway; we’re in London. It’s turning into Mamma Mia.

 

When Priscilla is staged, do you get any royalties?

No. No-one pays me any royalties. A misconception about me is that I must be rolling in cash. I signed a table napkin at the start, and got a flat fee of $50,000 and that’s all I got. But there’s that great conception that I obviously must be rolling in it yet I never saw another cent. I was bitter about it at first, but you know what? I got a career out of it. But don’t ever get the idea that you get rich from filmmaking; very few people do.

 

Do you think critics have had too high expectations, in comedic terms at least, after the success of Priscilla; continue to use it as the litmus test?

Every single time.

 

Well you received a lot of negative feedback over its follow-up Welcome To Woop Woop.

I was crucified! No matter what I did afterwards I was going to get into trouble. Welcome To Woop Woop was picking up on some of the worst pieces of Australian [culture] back then: you know, bigotry, racism, I went after absolutely everything. In that instance it was quite a dangerous movie. I knew I was in trouble even with the cut-down version and when Pauline Hanson saw it and said she loved it – I said, “Oh no, this all going terribly wrong”. But let me tell you, Woop Woop was never completed. The film that I actually did make was so out there, and so anti-Priscilla that when MGM Studios bought it, they recut it into something else and didn’t really release it. So one of my plans one day is to get back in there, reconstruct it and put it back to what it would have been. And trust me, it’s a hundred times more dangerous than what’s there now.

 

No doubt you’re expecting a better reception for A Few Best Men

The reviews have been pretty darn good. We’re in a recession at the moment and I’ve sat in on about five or six full-house screenings and watched people just laugh, so as far as I’m concerned: mission accomplished. We are really just making people hugely entertained for 90 minutes, and that’s all the film’s job is.

 

There’s quite a twist at the end, but I believe what we see is not the original ending. Can you tell us a bit about that?

We had an ending set in the tent [ie: the wedding marquee] and it just didn’t get a big enough laugh. It was interesting, sitting in on test screenings, realising you’ve got to go out with a bang. But at that point everyone had gone home or was working on other films so I had to recreate the ending using the most elaborate computer generation imagery I’ve ever done, and with no money. In the end it cost me $11. I literally shot each of the four main actors in different parts of the world and stitched them together in CGI just to give it a big bang ending. And it works; it gets a good laugh.

 

As a result, that post-production appears to pay homage to the glory days of Technicolor in film, would you agree?

Totally. I thought if we’re going to have this ending, let’s give that absolutely perfect, storyboard, picturesque, or what I like to call it ‘the chocolate box’ look. And then at the very last moment, just sabotage it.

 

On the subject of semantics; most auteurs have a signature trademark flowing through their filmography: Kurosawa with the colour red; Tarantino with his kitsch soundtracks. What would you say was the Stephan Elliot trademark?

It actually took a reviewer in Denver to point this out but he said, “All your films are about people who don’t fit in; they’re all fish-out-of-water comedies”. And he’s right. There’s a storyline through each of my films that’s pretty much about someone who doesn’t fit in. And there’s certainly a sense of mischief in all of them. Even in Easy Virtue, which is an English period piece, the sense of mischief is really naughty.

 

On a serious note, you had a major skiing accident a few years ago…

I had a corker, and I broke pretty much everything. It was pretty horrible. Thank God for morphine because it did help wipe out four or five very bad years. They told me I shouldn’t have lived. Then they told me I wasn’t going to walk. They had to teach me to re-walk again. What I learned after the accident was that life is very, very short and that you’ve got to get on with it. There’s too much fear in the world and my fear levels kind of disappeared. Once you’ve faced death, there’s not a lot worse in the world. The world’s a pretty fun place if you want to make it that.

 

Are you keeping away from adventure sports now?

Oh no, I’m right back in there again; don’t you worry.

 

‘A Few Best Men’ screens nationally. To view a trailer of the film, click on the image below.