Q & A with Writer-Director Stephan Elliott

Writer-Director Stephan Elliott

“Easy Virtue” Writer-Director Stephan Elliott

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Stephan Elliott (“The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, “Eye of the Beholder”) about “Easy Virtue”, an adaptation of the 1924 Noel Coward play, opening May 22 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics.

Directed by Elliott, “Virtue” was written by Elliott & Sheridan Jobbins and produced by Barnaby Thompson, Joe Abrams and James D. Stern. Starring are Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes, Kris Marshall, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Pip Torrens, Christian Brassington and Charlotte Riley. “Virtue’s” executive producers include: James Spring, Douglas E. Hansen, Cindy Wilkinson Kirven, George McGhee, Ralph Kamp, Louise Goodsill, Paul Brett, Peter Nichols and Tim Smith.

The Coward play’s story, according to producer Barnaby Thompson, is “about a guy (Barnes) who meets a beautiful woman (Biel), they fall in love and marry and he brings her home to meet the family. So far so good you think, but the mother-in-law (Thomas) takes an instant dislike to the girl, and then it is about the sparks that fly thereafter — and we all have mothers-in-law.”

Having enjoyed an early look at “Virtue”, I was happy to have an opportunity recently to ask Elliott about the making of the film.

Q: How did you decide to do this movie?
A: Well, I don’t really think I decided. I think it did come to me. I had this dreadful skiing accident (in France in 2004 in which he broke his back, pelvis and legs, keeping him off his feet for about three years). It’s frighteningly debilitating. It’s life changing moments like that. But that moment did actually say to me, “Man, if you can get through this, you can get through anything. You can go back to work.” I’d stopped working. I’d actually hung the towel up and said, “I’m not going to do it. I’ve had enough.” Literally, lying in a hospital bed morphined to the eyeballs, Barnaby Thompson brought it in and said, “How about this?” I initially said, “No. Look at me, first of all. I can’t even walk. I think I’m the wrong guy for the job.” And Barnaby said, “That’s kind of why we’re here.”

I usually develop my own stuff and do my own bits and pieces. I always do it my way. And then finally for the first time it was just out of my comfort zone. Sitting in a hospital bed, I said, “You know what? Rise to the challenge. Get out of your comfort zone. Do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do.” So it was like I challenged myself, saying, “Damn you, I can do this.” Initially I didn’t think I was right for it and then as I started to write it (before bringing Jobbins on board to co-write) I fell more and more in love with it.
Q: When you were getting started on this did you have any trepidation about whether you could get it financed and made? I mean, it’s a period piece, it’s Noel Coward, it’s not exactly “Wolverine”.
A: The timing felt right. Coward’s a hundred years old this year. Oscar Wilde and everybody has had their revival. Coward hasn’t. It was all about timing. It just felt right. Movies for grownups. They’re saying (in Hollywood) counter-programming is dead. I disagree. I think if you put enough comic books out there and put a good little film on the other corner, you’ve still got a chance.

I’ve got to say my biggest achievement in this is that I opened the film up. I definitely didn’t want to shoot it as written by Coward because it was a young play for him and he was young and hadn’t developed yet. He was a long way off writing his best. He acknowledged later on in his biographies that it was an imperfect play. He wished he’d done some other things to it. That was like a license to let go. He was writing this for a young audience. He was 24 when he wrote this and he in that whole period he and Cole Porter were writing about drugs and cocaine and flying in an airplane and sexuality. They were really cutting edge. He wrote this for a young audience. Once I looked at this I thought, “Damn you. He’s right. I’m making this for a young audience.” And with that, we brought some elements like some of the visual effects, the music, a lot of slapstick comedy. I said, “Let’s make this for a younger crowd.” The prime achievement to date has actually been sitting in a room with eight 10 year olds seeing their first period film and absolutely loving it. In fact, (the) older audience because we haven’t done it as Coward per se has been quite pissed off with it. I said, “I’m not making this for an older audience. I’m doing what Coward did. I’m making it for a young crowd.”
Q: And you took some steps to make it feel contemporary rather than a period piece.
A: Very much (in terms of) the tone. The first thing, if you think about traditional Coward there’s a lot of “dear boys” and to quote Coward, “Too many dear boys, dear boy.” And there was a lot of martini swirling and a lot of cigarettes and cigarette holders. I said (that’s) the first thing that’s got to go.
Q: And you only had seven weeks of principal photography.
A: We had a very, very tight schedule and to get the cast all together at this one point in time was incredibly difficult. We didn’t have everybody on the set until day nine (of shooting). There were no rehearsals. Instead of being frightened by that — again, coming through a life changing accident can do things for you — I said, “You know what? We’re going to use this. We’re not going to rehearse at all. I’m turning the camera on.” And (as a result) there’s a level of that which was so raw and so crisp and so live. You know, we were exhausted at the end of it. The cast were falling over because we were doing it live. And that really contemporized it. I knew what I was doing. It actually felt very, very good.
Q: You hadn’t made a film for quite a while before this one.
A: For about 12 years. It was like being a first time director again. The other thing is, I was past the fear barrier, which was amazing. There was a part of me that said, “I don’t care” and that instance was like being very young again. It was like starting from scratch without all the weight that comes with it. When we did “Priscilla,” I got a bunch of my mates together and we just went out and (shot) guerilla and had a terrific time. There was no weight. And I honestly thought the film was going (straight) to DVD or that it would never see the light of day. Then after the success of that (with) the expectation level it becomes a huge weight and all people can say is that, “It’s not ’Priscilla’” or “’Priscilla’ was this” or “Could you do another ’Priscilla?’” That was another reason which stopped me from working again. I couldn’t get past that. I kind of went back to square one again and was like saying, “You know what? I don’t care. It never happened. Let’s move on. Let’s have some fun.” That level comes with maturity and with time.
Q: When you write a script that you know you’re going to direct, do you give any thought to how when you have to direct it something’s going to be very difficult to do? Do you ever manipulate the writing to help yourself as the director?
A: I’d have to say I think you do. You can’t help it. The pictures start forming in your head. I’ve never done a storyboard for a film. I’m actually quite strong on that unless it’s a special effects sequence and you have to. People say, “Wow, you work without storyboards.” I don’t really tell anyone, but when you’ve worked for two or three or even four years on a script, like it or not it’s storyboarded in your head. And it’s not even a conscious decision. When I start looking at it, I start seeing it.
Q: When did you shoot?
A: It was January and February that we kicked off (in England), which is dead in the middle of winter with four and a half hours of daylight. It was horrendous. They warned me and I said, “Oh, no, it’s fine. I can do that. I’ve shot in the worst places in the world.” I’ve shot in the middle of the (desert) and the difference between shooting (there), where you get 18 hours of sunlight, compared to shooting in Nottingham forest, where you’ve got 18 hours of night is a big difference.
Q: Obviously, you had to move very quickly.
A: Very, very quickly. But, look, I’m quick anyway. That’s the fun part about it. It’s also the joys of being your own writer-director and working with Sheridan together. When we’d get into corners, we’d write ourselves out of it.
Q: Any examples come to mind?
A: Oh, we’d have things that were set outside and we’d suddenly just readapt them very quickly for inside. Or, classically, that sequence in the film where Larita (Biel) reveals a family secret. She says, “I’m going outside for a cigarette” and she and Colin go outside and Kristin and the girls chase them across the lawn. That’s nine pages of dialogue. We were sitting inside and doing it and suddenly the sun came out and I screamed, “Put the camera on the steadicam. We’re going out.” No one was prepared. We hadn’t read the lines. I said, “We’ve got a rough idea. We’re going to feel our way through this.” And you had the most exhilarating nine takes in a little tiny breath of sunlight.
Q: So you really took advantage of whatever you could get.
A: But that’s the joy of actually being a writer-director. If you’ve got to tweak it you do it live. You’re not frightened of doing it. And that’s exhilarating. At the end of that one Colin almost fell over, he was so exhausted.
Q: I’m assuming you didn’t have a great deal of money to spend to make the film.
A: It was a very modestly budgeted film. It was about $12 million, which for a cast like this is not a lot of money. We spent the money very wisely on the cast and the rest of it gets tortured on shooting time.
Q: Where did the money come from?
A: It was financed out of Ealing Studios. Barnaby Thompson (the Head of Studio) at Ealing got together with Jim Stern (producer of over 50 stage plays and dozens of films, including the new Summit Entertainment release “The Brothers Bloom”). Joe Abrams (President and CEO of Brilliant Films) actually found the property. Basically, with a film like this you have to (finance it) piecemeal. Every time you get a bit more money you’ve got to add another executive producer. Between the last territory opened and this territory (the U.S.) we’ve added another three executive producers. Sheridan said, “I think they’re in a room and they’re breeding.”
Q: This was a very different project for you. What will you do next?
A: I have absolutely no idea.
Q: Well, what kind of film would you like to do?
A: I have absolutely no idea. That’s the fun of life changing accidents. It can open a door (to all sorts of things). I said no to (doing) an American movie for many, many years. I said I didn’t want to do the studio system. Maybe it’s time. I’m not so frightened (now). I used to (have) the fear of interference or the fear of not being able to handle the politics and I’m not worried about it anymore. Part of me says, “You’re okay. Fair enough. If you’re going to spend a hundred million dollars of someone else’s money, be a bit more responsible with it.”
Q: In making a film like this where you don’t have a fortune to spend, but you do have the ability to really do it the way you want to do it, that has to have some sort of liberating feel to it.
A: Yeah. Look, I’d like to once have some money. That’d be really interesting to try that. But everyone who’s ever worked with me says the same thing — I work best when I’m absolutely cornered. When there’s absolutely no way out and they say it can’t be done, apparently that’s when the animal kicks in. So it would be interesting to say, “Okay, you’re not backed in a corner. See how you go.”
Q: How did “Easy Virtue” come to Sony Classics?
A: We screened it at Toronto last year where we didn’t know what we had. We sat there and the place just went wild. What was really nice about it was it was the first time I was ever with an American and Canadian audience. It’s the first post-Bush Administration (film) where the American gets a pat on the back. America walks out in this film with pride intact. I think America’s been beaten up for the last couple of years pretty badly by the stupid administration. It was really good to see that reaction (at Toronto). They just went bananas and Sony jumped on it there and then in Toronto. I still had some work to do on it and we’re just rolling it out now. We’ve just opened in Australia, Spain, France and Italy and every territory’s done incredibly well. My gut (feeling) is that it’s time to laugh at the English.