The Beginning of a New Age: Stephan Elliot's 'Easy Virtue'

Matt Mazur talks with the filmmakers behind the big screen adaptation of Noël Coward's classic play Easy Virtue about the challenges of translating Coward to film, the strengths of gay filmmakers and, yes, Kristin Scott Thomas.

Easy Virtue

Director: Stephan Elliot

Australian writer-director Stephan Elliot nearly did not make Easy Virtue. In the wake of becoming disenchanted with filmmaking and leaving the business, Elliot (infamously) skied off a cliff in the French Alps. He fractured his back, pelvis and legs in the accident and cheated death multiple times while being rescued. Convinced he was going to die on that mountain while hemorrhaging, Elliot has said that the medics at one point gave him ten minutes to live, in which he “let go”.

According to reports, he woke up five days later, surprised to still be alive, and now somehow eager to returning to work, artistically reborn through this near-death experience.

While he was learning to walk again and going through intense physiotherapy, the director says he barely “had time to think” about his return to the profession, when producer Barnaby Thompson brought him Noël Coward’s play. It was exactly what he was not looking to do: a period piece (“I don’t think I’ve sit through an entire period film in my life,” the director once said). Slowly, he began to recognize that the film would actually be about the subject nearest and dearest to his heart: rebellion. Realizing the challenge of making Easy Virtue would lie in finding a modern, commutable translation, Elliot and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins eventually found a way in, through the viewpoint of his free-spirited, sometimes prickly leading lady Larita, played by Jessica Biel in a scene-stealing star turn.

What emerges from the marriage of Coward’s, Elliot’s and Jobbins’ blending of styles is a lovechild born to the flintiest, sharpest wits in the room; modern in every sense even though it is set in the mid-1920s in the wake of the first World War. Dangerously careening between Marcel-waved, bugle-beaded shenanigans and Dickensian pseudo-aristocratic buffoonery, Easy Virtue dares to be flip in the face of reverence and innovative in both a stylistic sense as well as in blithe spirit.

Knock-out American race-car driver Larita explodes into the Whittaker clan’s lives (“She’s so cool, said Biel. “I have a Lexus hybrid SUV. It’s like a mommy car”). She has impetuously married the young John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), much to his mother and father’s surprise (mom and dad are played by the incomparable Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth, who lend considerable gravitas to what could have been caricatures). When he returns home to introduce his new wife to the secretive, withholding Whittaker clan, both comedy and tragedy ensue and Elliot fearlessly lets both get equal play.

Larita is like an alien to the family. They are curious and instantly drawn to her, yet they are also repulsed by the kind of freedom she possesses. She and Mrs. Whittaker circle one another tentatively, until full-out war is declared between the two women over the ownership of the John. The men in this film actually serve the women, for a change. Meanwhile, Mr. Whittaker has a few secrets of his own to share with Larita. For the actors, it is a veritable field day of make-up, costumes, and new frontiers. “It’s very parallel at the moment”, said Biel talking to reporters about Easy Virtue’s similarities to the current economic crises and war in Iraq. “I spent a lot of time, really, not concentrating too much economically speaking or politically speaking, on that time period, I was looking at the movies. I was looking at old Katharine Hepburn films and Jean Harlow films and just watching those large, in the sense of personality and talent, the women of that time and that era. The way they just controlled the scene.”

The film’s emotional adventurousness is contagious and just when you think you know the direction it is headed in, it sweeps you off your feet with a lusty tango and tonal shifts that will leave you gasping. Carefully placed little surprises, both in the technical elements and in the plot, add a sense of madcap wonder that recall Elliot’s 1994 smash success The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

I was fortunate enough to get to spend a little private time with the gracious writer-director and co-writer Jobbins in New York, while Easy Virtue’s composer Marius de Vries, the man responsible for some of Björk, Madonna, and Massive Attack’s best music, quietly observed and scribbled away near us in a little notebook. Elliot legendarily, accidentally peed on a paparazzi photographer camped out in the bushes during Easy Virtue’s shoot. No members of the press were urinated on this time, although several, who were shamelessly, unprofessionally begging for autographs and personal photos from the cast and crew, probably deserved to be.

What is collaboration like? What is your process on a script like Easy Virtue?

Sheridan Jobbins: “It varies from script to script. Usually if it’s an original idea of his, he will do the first draft. If it’s one that is brought to us, he’s very much the ‘director’ of the script, and he’s the senior writer. He’s produced more, he’s directed more. So, we’ll spend, usually, one or two weeks just working through the plot. Basically, what each thing is going have and what will happen in each scene, and write that up into a story and one or the other of us will do the first draft. On this occasion, I did the first draft because I had the play and we’d been working off of that, and I’d done all of the research on the period. He lets me have a full go at it. It took four to six weeks to do a first draft. Then I give it to him, he has four to six weeks, and completely re-wrote it. There and after, we worked together, frequently on Skype, because I live in Australia and he lives in London. We’ll do four, six, occasionally eight hours straight, on Skype. Once it gets closer being delivered or to fruiting, we’ll need to get into the room together. He was putting Priscilla on the stage at one point, so he was in Australia for about 18 months, so we had a lot more face to face contact. It’s very much a dialogue between the two of us.”

So Priscilla, I hate to bring it up again, but for me, it was a bit of a seminal film-going experience for me as a young film enthusiast from Detroit, from the Midwest, where it wasn’t really ok to even really talk about being gay, let alone go out to see a “gay” film in the theater, yet there I was, with a diverse crowd of people, laughing along to this very unique, effervescent film. What were the challenges with getting that movie produced? Because it seems, in retrospect, to be very ahead of its time, in terms of its gender and sexuality politics.

Stephan Elliot: “Well, you know the best part about it? It wasn’t over-thought. It was a rare moment and it’s never happened again or since. I had just been out to Sydney. I just saw a couple of these drag acts; in particular Sydney drag was just getting totally kabuki. They were-flat-out trying to impersonate women, and it was getting insane. I went to the Sydney Mardi Gras one day and a drag queen’s head plumes broke off, off the headdress, and rolled down the street like tumbleweed from an old Sergio Leone western. In that singular moment, I got it. We didn’t over-think it. We got it out there. I whipped a script up in about two weeks. We went out there with a bunch of mics and we just shot it and had an absolute blast. I didn’t over-think it and that was the big key to it. It was at its right time, at its right place in the world of exactly where it is and it struck, and it struck hard. None of us saw it coming. It just fell out. There’s a real joy with that. Of course, since then, it’s very difficult to get past that, because it is seminal for so many people, straight or gay. And I’m held for ransom over that a fair bit, which I find incredibly difficult, over the last decade, also, because I can’t get past it. And I can’t repeat it, either, because that would mean thinking about it.”

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