Stephan Elliott became a major name in Australian filmmaking back in the 90s ater directing the hit “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. He’s back with his first Aussie film since – the wedding disaster comedy “A Few Best Men”, starring Xavier Samuel, Kris Marshall and Rebel Wilson. You can check our red carpet interviews here – and here’s our full sit-down chat with Stephan about making the film, roping Olivia Newton-John into the cast and being back in Australia.
Hi Stephan, welcome to Moviehole.
Thanks for having me!
I’ve seen the film, and I think it’s a great, funny film that I think Australian cinema’s been lacking in the last few years.
Well thank you, very much.
Where did the film come from for you?
Well I’ve been living in the UK, and then I had that skiing accident there which is old news now, and that knocked me off my feet for a decade. And London’s now being pissed on, literally. They reckon there’s 10% erosion happening every year at national monuments because of people pissing on them. And suddenly they’ve put this mandate on it which means on the weekends any man-hole in London is going to have a plastic urinal on it, so you can basically piss anywhere you want. And then one day I open my front door, and there was this entire rugby team of Scotsmen pissing in a urinal which had been erected outside the door of my house at Covent Garden- and I said, I think it’s time to go home.
Yeah, that’s enough!
Yes I said, I think I’ve had quite enough, it’s time to go. And it was the right time to go. You know, you’ve seen the TV- England’s imploded, all of Europe’s imploded. I just got back and thought “we’re in a really bad state”. And the best thing you can possibly do in that situation is laugh.
And very rarely I read other people’s scripts, usually I write my own. And Gary Hamilton, producer, who had just seen “Priscilla: the Musical” in London. He asked if I could read a script for him, and I said no. And he said “f**k off, I’ve just paid 96 pounds on a ticket to see your show, read the script for me!”
Good way to twist your arm?
Yeah he twisted my arm! He said I saw your show, read my script! So I read it, and I just laughed. It just was that simple, and I was laughing. And that’s very rare with a script. You know, I’ll chuckle, but they say if you get three laugh out loud moments reading the script, you’re onto something. And I think I got up to laugh number 5. It was something else, and I thought, “S**t, this is really funny”. So I thought- stuff it, I’ll do it.
And it was kind of a dream shoot from there on in with everything. We’ve been blessed very much. And what you said is very important. The country’s comedy was very destitute, it was in dire need of something. I’ve seen a lot of films – coming back I’ve watched a lot of Australian films, and I don’t know. I was watching Snowtown and getting ready to kill myself!
Yeah it’s pretty bleak.
Exactly, it’s so dark and I kept watching one after another. I thought, the world’s dying here, why are we making these films! So that was kind of a light bulb moment for me that I wanted to do something different. And firstly it’s a broad comedy. I’ve never done a broad straight comedy before. And I know it’ll cop a bit of a hiding from serious cinephiles and critics, and I respect that because obviously it’s a broad comedy. It has one purpose and that’s to make you laugh. It’s not rocket science, it’s not changing the world, and it’s just for 90 minutes to make you laugh.
And you know what, that’s tough work too. That’s what your aim is, and that’s work.
It’s not as easy as it sounds to make people laugh for that long?
No, people say it’s very hard. It is – to keep it consistent for 90 minutes without losing it is a tough call. And this film was very much made in the editing room, we spent a lot of time cutting.
And why a wedding movie? I know you’ve had a bit of a history with weddings , filming them a long time ago – did that make you a bit of a sceptic? Or was that more of an encouragement to do it?
It’s the great ball and chain. I can’t go to weddings anymore, I throw up. I can’t. I get sick! I literally went from when I was 14 to 20, all I did was shoot weddings. So basically there’s not a wedding I haven’t been to, or a piece of bad behaviour I haven’t personally witnessed. And I’ve seen every tragedy, drama on earth, and I’ve filmed it. And I was a kid! It taught me to direct, but it also taught me to pathologically loathe weddings. And after “Priscilla”, that’s all I was offered. I mean, you name me a wedding film for the 5 or 6 years post “Priscilla”, they came to me first. Think of the Hollywood logic- we want a wedding movie, let’s get the guy who directed drag queens! They didn’t know what to do with me, so all I was offered was wedding movies. So now I’ve got what I describe as ”wedding rage”.
So this is your way of getting back at all that?
It is a way of getting back. And I finally decided we should do that. So I very much took over the writing of the script – Dean Craig [Death at a Funeral writer] had written it very much for England– and I offloaded an awful lot of my wedding rage. I mean, so much of this film actually happened.
I would have loved to say it was based on a true story. I can’t – but it is based on a collection of true stories.
Surely, you can’t have seen a wedding that was as bad as all these disasters?
You know, I’ve been to worse! [Laughs]. I’ve been to worse, trust me! I’ve seen the best man jump over the bridal table, give his father a headlock as he was giving a speech, and a fight broke out that the police had to be called and 3 ambulances came in.
And you left that one out of the script?!
Yeah I left it out, I just couldn’t get the fight scene in!
Part of the film is a big culture clash between Australia and England- and considering the history between the two countries, was that a goldfield you could mine for comedy?
Very much. When I did the first test screening in North America, someone said “You know, Australians aren’t’ really like this”. And then another girl turned around and said “Are you kidding, have you even been there?” And she said no, she’d only seen “Priscilla” and “Muriel’s Wedding”. And it dawned on me that in film, they love the Aussie battler story. Like even “Red Dog”, which was the last perfect example. It fits the case of the Aussie battler doing their best and kicking their way up from the ground and having to fight. And I thought, nobody makes films about the other stuff. I mean, you’ve been to this wedding, we’ve all been to this wedding! Australia has a lot of well-educated, good-looking people with nice manners, who live in nice houses. Why not make a movie about that?
So the first thing I did with the script was I flipped it – the Australians have manners for the first time in history, and the English who are the yobs. But we were honestly shocked at the American test screenings when they found out Australians actually had class. It’s strange – TV will do it – show classy Australians locally, but not on film.
I guess Australians like the Aussie battler story too?
I guess, but we’ve got to be getting tired of it by now?
There’s only so many battlers out there!
Yeah enough of the battling- stop fighting and get on with it!
On that note, let’s talk casting. Did you have the actors all in mind or make them audition for it? How did you stumble upon it?
You know, this whole film had a very weird fate. I decided I wanted to do it, and to make it really fast. Usually it takes me a decade to make a film, once you write it, produce it and direct it. Which is why I’ve only made a few films because they take me so long. So this one, I thought to make it really quickly. And everyone was like yep, great idea. So we were about to shoot in Queensland, we had a cast lined up, it was all good –and then at the last moment the bank fell out. The day before pre-production they decided they were no longer in the film financing business. So the day before pre-production we collapsed. I actually threw my hands in the air and said, “I’m done”. But thanks to Screen Australia and the producers who really went into bat for it, they went into life support. They begged, borrowed money, just to keep the film alive- I’ve never seen people work so hard.
And I’d actually given in already; I’d wiped my hands and said it wasn’t supposed to happen. But that stall which cost us 3 months, made every single one of the actors in this film – which is my absolute dream cast – available. Not one of these actors were available on the original date.
So the heavens interfered in a really strange way at the last moment – and then when were about to film the second time, we had to recast because the original actors had all moved onto other things. And when we started to recast – Kris Marshall who I adore, suddenly was available. Olivia – available. Kevin Bishop – walked into a room and opened his mouth; he had the job in literally four seconds. He was unavailable for the old dates, and suddenly he was free. It was funny to see the world move, but it was just genius. I can’t believe even now if we’d shot it 3 months earlier, it would have been a completely different film. We’re very, very lucky cast-wise. Nobody got a foot wrong. And even Laura Brent, she’s the bride – the suffering role. In a boy’s wedding movie, the bride role is a tough call. She doesn’t get a lot and is the brunt of all the jokes. And she’s just gorgeous.
Oh, what can you say about Olivia. Worship her. Goddess. She was available, and in a great moment in her life; got married, just left LA. She’d spent 30 year living there, met this new guy, moved and I got to her in exactly the right moment in her life.
And how open was she to being the coked-up mother of the bride?
She was horrified! She said, “What are you talking about, it’s insanity!” And I said just read it, and she did. She did me a favour, flying back to Australia. And the same thing happened to her as it did to me – she laughed about four times and called me and said, “S**t, this is really funny”. And I said yep, Olivia – it’s time for a change.
Yes, it’s a whole new side of Olivia!
I said one day to her – Sandy’s dead, no more Sandy! And she said Stephan, “I’ll never kill Sandy”, and she said to me “You’ll never kill Priscilla”, like it or not – we’re stuck with them!
And speaking of Priscilla, this is your first film in Australia since then, was it strange coming home for you and returning to that scene?
It wasn’t, I spent a lot of time living in London but I’d been home a lot. So a lot of the fun was being able to pick up the phone and get a lot of the great talent back together again! But it was good. It was very much a family reunion – it was a treat. Everybody laughed – the entire shoot was people having a good time. And I think you can see that in the film, everyone having fun.
How did you manage to get anything done on the set with everyone having that much fun?
Well the problem I had was the worst thing I could do was lose my temper! You know, I had a schedule and a budget to stick to, but once they go off, they go off. You can’t stop them. Occasionally the mucking around was so bad the camera department would get the giggles, and then the art department – and everybody’s laughing, no work’s getting done. And I would stand up and scream “Everybody, would you just grow up?!”, and what do you think happens?
It gets even worse?
Way worse! The angrier, more pissed off I got, the worse it became. And that’s when I thought I’m basically back in high school, you can’t escape it. At the end of the day, I thought “I’m the grumpy man from high school”. So after a week of trying to rein it in, I thought just go with it.
Roll with the punches!
Exactly – if that’s how it’s going to get made, that’s how it’s going to happen. And it was actually amazing. Sheer joy going around, and the fun was letting them go off script. I mean, there are very talented comedians in it – I mean Rebel Wilson, Jonathan Biggins are such great stan-ups. I’d just say “Here’s the script, now do what you want”.
How much of that were you able to keep?
Bits and pieces. Whatever worked with the original script. Bits of the script and improv work so well together, once the train leaves the station, you’re stupid to try and stop it.
That one was very hard. It’s always the case. An with a film like this, it’s farce. A classic English farce. There’s no surprises in the film. I mean the whole idea is that the audience is in front of the characters. It’s not the concept of “what’s behind the door”, the audience already knows what is, and sees it. Its nature is to make you squirm, because you know what’s going to happen and you know it’s going to go wrong. And Dean Craig is very good at that. But the nature of that, is it’s got to be fast. It’s an accelerator, and once you start, you’ve got to get even faster. You can’t have a little dip and stop for a minute, you’ve got to keep on going. So we had some gold, absolute gold, but at the end of the day I had to say it’s a 90-minute movie, and that’s all. As funny as it is, we must keep moving.
Save it for the DVD?
Maybe, it depends. We can’t put it all in and lose the nature of what it is.
And what do you hope audience take away from this?
This is a really stupid movie. [laughs] And I’m very, very proud of it. And if I can get audiences to walk out of there and have laughed out loud – in a crowded cinema, it’s great fun to see. That’s its job. We’re not reinventing the wheel, or changing the world, but just making people laugh. And I have no other agenda – if people laugh, mission accomplished. The world’s in a pretty nasty place at the moment, and I think laughter’s the best medicine.
“A Few Best Men” in cinemas now.