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“Break a leg” is the traditional showbiz good luck wish, but breaking your back, pelvis and both legs is way more good luck than anyone wants.
Just ask Stephan Elliott about his skiing accident in France five years ago in ’04 that wound up reviving his directing career. After three years recuperating, Elliott (“The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert”) was back on his feet — and directing and co-writing with Sheridan Jobbins “Easy Virtue.” Opening May 22 in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics, the pic stars Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ben Barnes.
Elliott was in the hospital “morphined to the eyeballs” when Ealing Studios head Barnaby Thompson came to ask him about making a movie based on the 1924 Noel Coward play. Elliott: “I think I’m the wrong guy for the job.” Thompson: “That’s kind of why we’re here.”
Obviously, Elliott came around. And he came to relish the project as he got into it. “The timing felt right. Coward’s a hundred years old this year. Oscar Wilde and everybody has had their revival. Coward hasn’t.”
He says his biggest achievement was opening up “Virtue” after finding that Coward had later called it “an imperfect play.” For Elliott that was like a license to let go. “He was writing this for a young audience. He was 24 when he wrote this. He and Cole Porter were writing about drugs and cocaine and flying in an airplane and sexuality. They were really cutting-edge.”
Hence, Elliott’s decision to target a young audience and to scrap Coward’s out-of-date “dear boys, martini swirling and cigarette holders.”
His shooting schedule was a super-tight seven weeks, allowing for no rehearsals. But working live, he pointed out, made it “raw and crisp, and that felt very good.”
Moreover, he hadn’t made a film for about 12 years so he felt like a first-time director again. “I was past the fear barrier. It was like starting from scratch without all the weight that comes with it.”
Elliott’s budget was a modest $12 million, “which for a cast like this is not a lot of money.”
Ealing arranged the financing and producer deals for Thompson, Brilliant Films president Joe Abrams, who found the property, and veteran stage and film producer James D. Stern. There also are nine executive producers, he explained, because “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. Sheridan said, ‘I think they’re in a room and they’re breeding!’ ”
Elliott, who is Australian, shot in January and February in England when there’s maybe four and a half hours of daylight. He thought he could handle that just fine, having already “shot in the worst places in the world,” but even in the middle of the desert with “Priscilla,” the director had at least had 18 hours of sunlight daily.
So he made the most of whatever English winter sun there happened to be, changing one scene to have Biel suddenly say she’s going outside for a cigarette just to get her out of the drawing room. “I screamed, ‘Put the camera on the steadicam. We’re going out.’ No one was prepared. I said, ‘We’re going to feel our way through this.’ And you had the most exhilarating nine takes in a little tiny breath of sunlight.”
Thinking on his feet is how Elliott prefers to work. He doesn’t, for instance, storyboard unless special effects are involved. “I don’t really tell anyone,” he told me, “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.”
Sony Pictures Classics saw the picture last year at the Toronto Film Festival. “We didn’t know what we had,” Elliott recalled. “We sat there and the place just went wild.” It was the first time they’d shown “Virtue” to an American and Canadian audience, and he felt good about how well its story was received. Biel plays a beautiful young American who has just wed a dashing young Englishman (Barnes) only to find that her new mother-in-law (Thomas) is out to destroy their marriage.
“It’s the first film post-Bush administration where the American gets a pat on the back,” he said. “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.”
As to his next project, Elliott confided, “I have absolutely no idea.” Well, what would he like to do? “I have absolutely no idea,” he repeated. “That’s the fun of life-changing accidents. It can open a door to all sorts of things.”
But on reflection: “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 used to fear interference or not being able to handle the politics and I’m not worried about it anymore. Part of me says, ‘You’re okay. If you’re going to spend a hundred million dollars of someone else’s money, be a bit more responsible with it.'”
In fact, Elliott thinks it might be nice for once to actually have some money to work with.
“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.’ “
See Martin Grove’s Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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