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.”
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: “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.”
I was intrigued by your use of mirrors…
I was intrigued by your use of mirrors – there are a few scenes that are shown through this reflective point of view. What is the significance of these mirrors for you?
Elliot: “Hitchcock had shot this film in 1928, as a silent film, which was a disaster, to try and do Noël Coward as a silent film. When I eventually saw the Hitchcock film I was just kind of disappointed, because he wasn’t ‘Hitchcock’ yet. Kind of like Coward wasn’t ‘Coward’ yet when he wrote it. So a part of me, from a visual point of view, all the way through, thought ‘OK, Hitchcock is only on his second film, what would the older Hitchcock have done?’ And the reflective work is pure Hitchcock. Its me doing a nod to the future Hitchcock, if he would have had a chance to re-direct it again, how he would have handled it.”
Were there any other elements you borrowed from the original?
Elliot: “No, it’s a kid with a camera.”
Jobbins: “He took the denouement of the courtroom, when things get a bit more complicated, he basically did half of the film as the courtroom drama with Larita, in court, talking about it…”
Elliot: “In the play, they talk about ‘my husband was in court, I told you I was acquitted, murder trial’. It’s three lines in the play, Hitchcock made that pretty much the film.”
I wasn’t familiar with Coward, or the play, going into the film, and I was expecting a broad comedy, I think. Then, by the end of it, it takes a really dark turn and this is a bit shocking…How do you think audiences will react to this?
Elliot: When we had our first actual screening for financiers, when we actually got to Colin’s war speech, which is where the film flips, flips, and does a complete back somersault, the tension was actually too much. I had to get up and leave the room. I actually couldn’t stand watching it with an audience because I would think ‘I don’t know if you can ever get them back’. Finally, it was in Toronto when that moment came and I thought ‘fuck it I have to sit this out’, and I sat there, and it’s mad, literally like nails in a coffin, thinking ‘are we going to get through this?’ It was pretty bold, but we get through it. And more than that, again, that classic ‘Hitch’ at the end of it where you’ve got John and Larita making love and Ben holds the dog up over himself. The explosion of laughter that happens then is so big and that is simple stress relief. What Hitch would learn to do brilliantly is let them off the hook. We didn’t know until a couple of screenings, if we were going to get away with it, but now I know that we can get away with it.
Jobbins: It stops them being caricatures, too; otherwise, Mrs. Whittaker would just be a harridan trying to undermine her son’s heart, which is bad. But in fact, she’s fighting for something that means something to her, which is her position in her society and her position in the family, and the heritage and the connectedness. And what she sees as being the head of the household and her responsibility, that’s really compassionate, I think you can feel for her.”
Elliot: “I feel for her! In the play I didn’t feel for her. Everyone really feels for Kristin’s character in this one…”
Jobbins: “She was a bit of a hysteric in the play, so…”
The Whittakers are going through a financial crisis, which mirrors what is going on now and we’re also in a war now, so how do these modern elements make their way into your script?
Jobbins: “The times are very similar and a lot of that is implicit in the play, written in 24, first performed in 26, that it wasn’t a recession heading towards the world, it was a Great Depression, and winding up, there’s a real sense of hysteria coming. Coming out of a war with new technology, the first chemical warfare, people really damaged by the shocking changes of it, the resultant unpopular government, a world that’s still arguing with the United Nations, people leaving the country…the situation is so similar. What he wants you to do is compare the two generations of women, one who, technically, just by the way she is born is losing everything, and the other coming into the future was going to haveeverything. That’s what he wanted to do. It was just very timely for us. It felt a bit peculiar at the beginning, because we didn’t know how it was going to air out, but I think people actually really relate to that stress.” [Jobbins pauses to further inspect my maroon mirrored-patent leather Dior oxfords, gleaming wickedly in the afternoon sunlight] “Those shoes are brilliant. Look! They’ve got red in them! And green!”
Elliot: “They match Marius’ pants!”
If I had children I would probably love these shoes more than my children.
Jobbins: (laughing) “I have children and I love your shoes more than my children!”
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Elliot cracked he was looking forward to being “unemployed after today” and he still skies three months a year, according to his bio. Easy Virtue opens in limited release on May 22.