Bursting into the Australian movie scene with the quirky comedy The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert back in 1994, director Stephan Elliott took his talents to the UK where a series of underperforming films and a horrific ski accident (that sidelined him for 10 years) saw him take stock of his life and career.
Now he has returned to Australia with the raunchy comedy A Few Best Men. Written by Death at a Funeral scribe Dean Craig, the film takes us into the wedding from hell with lovelorn Brit David (Xavier Samuel) travelling to the vast regions of bushland New South Wales to marry his affluent bride to be Mia (Laura Brent).
What he didn’t count on were his best mates (Kris Marshall, Kevin Bishop, Tim Draxl) turning his wedding into a disaster zone with a coked up mother in law (Olivia Newton John), an emotionally unstable drug dealer (Steven) and a prize winning sheep named “Ramsey” all joining in on the havoc.
A cheerfully hung over Eliiott spoke to Matthew Pejkovic of Matt’s Movie Reviews about A Few Best Men, his decision to return to Australia, and why he hates weddings.
Mr. Elliot. How are you?
I’m hung over. Dreadful. Terrible.
…but with great irony! (laughs) The cruellest thing they can ever do is give you a premiere and then the next day give you the press. I’m thinking “Guys…that’s just cruel”.
Must have been a pretty good premiere, though?
It went off! It went totally off.
That’s excellent. I can understand watching a movie like yours that a lot of people would want to celebrate afterwards. It’s a great comedy. I enjoyed it very much.
Great! Thank you.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did A Few Best Men come to you?
How did the movie come to me?
Well, I had been living in the U.K. for about 17 years and I saw the U.K imploding. There was actually a great moment where I was at Priscilla… the musical when it was running in London, and a drag queen was sitting quite up front of the house. The wig was two feet high and the drag queen refused to take the wig off, and people behind started punching the drag queen and then a fight broke out!
This was in the middle of a theatre and at that point I realised that England was about to explode. So there was a moment where I said: “You know what? It’s time to get out.” I think I got out of there at the best possible time, because only 5-6 weeks afterwards I turned the television on and I think I saw my house on fire!
So it was time to go, and I came home and said: “You know what? It’s time for love.” This script landed on my desk…I usually write my own work and this was an English script. I said: “You know what? I can Australian-ise this.” My sole aim on this one was that I have nothing more to do than make people laugh.
"Australia has been brought up for years… on the Aussie battler. I decided to make a film about rich, wealthy Australians. Good teeth and nice manners. The yobs, the badly behaved ones, are the English." - Stephan Elliott
The script was written by Dean Craig who wrote Death at a Funeral. From what I read it was originally set in England and then, as you said, you re-located it to Australia.
Yeah, I re-located it and did a lot of writing. Dean and I worked together, than I eventually took over. He took care of the English and I took care of the Australian’s.
Was it an easy task to convince the producers that Australia is the way to go in regards to the films setting?
No, it was a nightmare! It was quite simple. I said: “We shoot this in Australia or I don’t make it.” It was as simple as that. So they took a lot of convincing and it took a lot work, and if you noticed I did a really interesting twist.
Australia has been brought up for years… I mean its entire filmography was brought up on the Aussie battler. I decided to make a film about rich, wealthy Australians. Good teeth and nice manners, and I don’t think that has ever been done before. The yobs, the badly behaved ones, were the English and that was quite a twist from the original script.
That was exactly my next question. It was a fun role reversal. Was that a fun thing to play with?
Oh, hysterical! Living in England for 17 years I had so much material, and basically the flip was really interesting.
We had a test screening in America a couple of weeks ago and someone stood up and said: “Are Australian’s really like this? Are they really well mannered? Do they have nice clothes and nice houses?” You realise that the Aussie battler is still for the rest of the world what people do think Australia is.
You’ve been to this wedding. I’ve been to this wedding. We’ve all been to this wedding! So it was a really fun flip and it was great watching it last night with an audience and, to be completely honest I’ll give you bit of a scoop here…I actually based the father character on Malcolm Turnball! And Turnball comes to the screening and completely pissed himself.
(laughs) Could he see himself in the role?
Well, I warned him on the way in. I said: “Look. I’m not stealing you, but I’m stealing your lifestyle.” And he got it because Australian’s just don’t do that. They’re still stuck on the Aussie battler.
We are a big country now. We’re the strongest economy in the world and it’s about time we started standing up and proving to the world that we’re not yobs, we’re not…you know, as much as I love the whole Paul Hogan thing, that was over 30 years ago! It’s time to move on.
Casting is important in every film, but especially in these type of comedies. What was the process in casting the four blokes who will make this a wedding from hell?
Well, people say comedy is hard. It’s actually not. When you’ve got funny people, it’s done. It’s as simple as that. People say to me: “Comedy is really hard.” I actually find it really easy, because I can walk down the street and laugh at anything and I’ve actually realised now many years down the line that’s my strength. I just find everything funny.
I nearly died in a ski accident 10 years ago. I look back at that now and think it’s funny. That’s all you can do. So by the time I got Kris Marshall and Kevin Bishop, who are the two lead English boys, who are stand-up comedians, have known each other all their lives, have worked with each other since they were kids…they are just funny people!
We got Rebel Wilson involved. Then I got Jonathan Biggins who is a stage actor in Australia, but a gifted stand-up comedian. It was really fun when I realised I had five stand-up comedians on set and some days the best thing you can do is turn on the camera and get out of the way. Let them go and you’ll never have that much fun.
Stephen Windon shot the film and he shot the Fast and the Furious movies. I had to throw him off the camera several times, because the camera started jiggling and I realised that Steve was giggling. So when the director of photography has got the giggles and then everyone has got the giggles…what a great job! What fun can you possibly have!
It was really good going to work every day, because the sillier takes will happen. I think one day the record was about 97 takes because Kris Marshall got the giggles.
Which scene was that?
That was a really dopey scene, it was a dumb scene where Rebel Wilson was being introduced to Kevin and Kris calls him Dorothy. It was just a dumb scene.
Another good one was a big close up we did of Steve Le Marquand’s underpants, where he had that tattoo. I had to do a close up on a 35mm camera, wide screen on this guy’s underpants…and everyone got the giggles. It was just stupid. I screamed: “Guys! We’re running out of time. Grow up.” The worst thing you could possibly say to a 250 manned crew is “Grow up”, because by that stage we were back in high school. That shot took me 4 hours and by that point everyone had the giggles, and the angrier I got the more they laughed.
I remember I was so angry and finally when I got home, I got the joke. What fun! People are paying us for this?
"(Olivia) is one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest human beings you’ve ever met in life, but get two drinks in her and she has one of the naughtiest laughs!" - Stephan Elliott
Was it always a dream of yours to cast Olivia Newton-John as a cocaine snorting hell-raiser?
I wanted to work with O-N-J all my life. Everything you ever thought of Olivia, she is. She’s one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest human beings you’ve ever met in life, but get two drinks in her and she has one of the naughtiest laughs!
At the end of the day, underneath Olivia is a good ol’ Melbourne school girl. She will get a drink into her, she gets the giggles, she’ll laugh…she and her sister once they get together are two of the filthiest...they seriously sound like two dollar hookers. They are very funny girls, but she doesn’t let that out.
So knowing her for a couple of years and realising how silly she is, I just picked a moment and rang her and said: “Olivia…it’s time to let that other person out!” But she said: “That’s not me. That’s not my projection. That’s not who I am.” And I said: “It is who you are! It’s about time we let that person out”. So it was a big jump for her. She actually pulled the mask off and just let go. She came for two weeks and ended up staying for six.
The film features several gross out gags, especially involving “Ramsey the Sheep”. What is the trick in pulling off a great gross out scene?
The trick with a gross out scene is to absolutely make sure, right to the very end of the day, that everyone knows what it is. You’ve got a sign posted way up front and at the same time are very proud about what it is.
Don’t shy away from that. People who get half way there, they get scared of it. The point about it is that we’re about to do something really disgusting, and when you see the film and Kevin Bishop has his hand up a sheep’s arse…he hasn’t really. His hand is on the other side of the camera. It’s like a sword swallowing trick where you swallow the sword, but really the sword is going down the other side that you can’t see.
His hand wasn’t in the sheep. His hand was on the other side of the camera. That became funny. But the sheep was fine, he was just standing there. You’ve just got to say...if you’re doing gross out, you absolutely have to go all the way and not back off.
You know what would lose a lot of people over that one? I suspect from that one I’ll have no problems…I have not made this film for cinephiles! I have made this film to make people laugh and I’ve never done that before.
Every morning when I got up I said: “Right. Let’s see how much fun we can have. Let’s see if we can make people laugh.” People will say this film has no substance, it has no…whatever. But by God I saw with 600 people at the premiere last night, and they almost peed themselves.
You talked about your move back to Australia. Are you now going to focus on making films here?
Yes. It was a big decision. All directors go through it. I mean…everyone does. There is a point where you want to go ashore, and you want to go to Hollywood, and make a big, important Oscar film. I think that ski accident that I had, which took 10 years away from me actually woke me up realising that I really don’t have 10 years left.
So I came home a little bit earlier than I expected, and my aim now is just to basically enjoy life as best I possibly can, and if I can make people laugh then that’s what I’m gonna do. And you know what? It’s a pretty good country to be in at the moment.
You actually filmed weddings in your pre-Priscilla days. Do you feel like you’ve come full circle with this film?
Well, post Priscilla… all I was offered was wedding movies. I had no idea why. Even My Best Friend’s Wedding and films like that, people were saying: “Let’s find a director here. I know, let’s get the guy who does drag queens.”
It didn’t make any sense. I had been offered every wedding movie in the last 30 years that has ever been made, and I couldn’t do it because I directed wedding videos from 14 to 24, and I have what they call a serious case of “wedding rage”. I feel sick. I go to weddings now and I want to throw up.
But the moment came when an eventual wedding film came up, and Dean was open to it and I said: “Look. I’ve got to have some revenge here. I want to put those almost 15 years of wedding videos, of stuff that I’ve seen, if I can put that into a film it can be a cathartic experience.” Which means I don’t have to see a psychologist any more about weddings, because I have a problem.
So Dean said: “Yes. Let’s go for it.” So in the end what we have made is a film where I let off a lot of steam from all of those wedding videos I had directed for almost 15 years. So many of the jokes that are in the film actually came from me when I was directing those wedding videos.