The Beginning of a New Age

Stephan Elliot's 'Easy Virtue'

by Matt Mazur

19 May 2009


So many talented gay filmmakers...

Right now there are so many prominent, talented gay filmmakers – Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Pedro Almodovar, some of our most important auteurs are queer, and that’s just the contemporary “out” directors, not taking into account people like Luchino Visconti, Derek Jarman or George Cukor. What is it about gay men that makes them such amazing directors and visionaries?

Elliot: That’s really simple: they are in touch with their emotions. I’ve worked on too many sets, specifically; I’ve been on ‘blokes’ sets before, and once the dick-swinging starts… (shakes his head). You get a lot of men on the set, which happens a lot, with the technicians and what other, seriously, I have seen hetero directors, that once the dick-swinging starts, you just watch it emotionally disengage. Gay guys, particularly when they are in that environment, it can actually end up working for them. There’s a sense which is inherent in all of us, and it’s also very much in Coward, if you want to take this back, that he was an outsider. I think that inherent loneliness opens your ears a lot more. From a very early age, it makes you listen and pay attention, a lot more. Sometimes we’re needier. It’s an interesting way that it goes… You’re much more engaged with your emotions. It’s as simple as that.

I want to talk about Kristin Scott Thomas for a minute, because I love her. I talked to her last year for I’ve Loved You So Long and she said that despite being “bored with country manors and dogs” she absolutely had to do Easy Virtue. What was the greatest thing about working with her?

Elliot: “Kristin taught me something on this film. She taught me absolute spontaneity. We didn’t have our cast on the set until day nine. There were no rehearsals. We winged it, and it was absolutely ‘live’, which is exhausting, particularly for the actors, but Kristin thrives on it. For that moment, just going there, the Can-Can sequence, you know that shot where they’re walking home after the Can-Can moment and screaming at each other? I had 15 minutes at the end of the day that the producer said ‘cut it’ and I said ‘I’ve got to cut it?!’ and thought ‘fuck it, I can do it’. I put the steady-cam up and said ‘we’re going to get two takes of this, guys’, because they pull the plug on me every night at overtime, because we’re not a big budget film. We got two takes. I remember lying on the floor after that, literally collapsed on the ground, and screamed ‘I can’t work this way’. And Kristin said ‘what are you talking about?! It’s brilliant. We haven’t even had time to go back to our trailers once. This is really, really cool.’ I really got a lot out of it. There’s fierceness and a spontaneity that comes out of her, which also contemporizes the film an awful lot. Everyone’s thinking on their feet. If you over-think this too much, again, you could get very ‘cigarette holder’ and very ‘martini glass’, because you would be thinking ‘Coward’.”

I don’t often think of filmmaking – particularly directing or writing as being something that it is ‘intuitive’, it seems like such a meticulous process…

Elliot: “I’m learning now to be much, much, much more intuitive. I will never storyboard again. Fuck that. It’s all done in preproduction and everybody holds you to ransom and they say ‘you’re not doing that, you’re not doing that’, I mean it’s a little wilder to make it up on the day, but you know, it’s great.”

Jobbins: “You have to keep the energy going. Some of the other people are doing things that are more meticulous. Sophie Meyer [an associate producer on the film] was very particular about ‘is that period?’, ‘is that correct?’ and going back around to previous drafts, but in some respects that liberates Stephan to be spontaneous, if he can trust that somebody else is watching on something that is period, where people will have a strong opinion about it.”

How long do you research?

Jobbins: Always.”

Elliot: Loads.”

Jobbins: “We were researching on set. Things would come up, and, again, having Colin and Kristin, who were experienced in period drama, and, you know, English (laughing), was very handy with so many Australians. If they wanted to say things, or change a line, they would have to check whether or not it was ‘period’. Two sources. Wikipedia and another source. And not a source that Wikipedia suggested! But, basically, things like the billiard ball…”

Elliot: “I needed a black ball!”

Jobbins: “For the reflection…”

Elliot: “You should have seen the set shut down, with eight people on their phones, trying to work out ‘was a black ball period to whatever…’ The fights that were going on…and I just need a black ball for the CGI.”

Jobbins: “And was it snooker? And would the gentry be playing billiards or snooker? And then ‘my granny played it’ and ‘well, mine didn’t’…”

[Elliot makes a loud, groaning noise, signaling his disapproval of this micro-managing]

Elliot: “There was a great one, where we had Kristin, with the [Picasso] painting at the house. She said ‘get that ghastly painting out of my house, we will not have any more reminders’, and the original line was ‘of your nudist escapades, naturalist escapades’” 

Jobbins: “It was gynecology”

Elliot: “Then it came up when we got to Kristin, who was married to a gynecologist, said ‘gynecological’ isn’t period!’ And we all stopped, and everyone goes like that [opens mouth to feign shock]. And then we watched the set shut down, people got on the phones, and Kristin just says ‘fanny’. And there’s people on the phone screaming ‘fanny’s not period, fanny is not period’ (laughing). You see all of these grown adults on a set were trying to find a fitting word for…I went with the safe word, which I am really bored with. [Kristin says] ‘We will not have any more reminders of your easy virtue’. I thought I could at least use that in the trailer…”

Jobbins: “And, also, the ultimate thing was that it wasn’t in character, that she wouldn’t have said it even though it was terribly funny.”

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