It’s not often I laugh openly in a movie but there are some very funny scenes in the latest Australian comedy, A Few Best Men. I had a chat with director Stephan Elliott (Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert) and we spoke about the film.
You can download a 2 minute extract from the interview by clicking here.
Matt: It’s been almost 20 years since Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert but it’s a film that’s only grown in stature since it was first released. Did you have any idea that it was going to be so popular when you made it?
Stephan: No. The real fun of Priscilla was that we got out there and we made it up as we went along. I went into it with zero expectations. I said to myself “this is going straight to DVD, no one is going to care so we may as well have a good time”. No one saw it coming.
We have a stage show now that has just opened in Italy and it’s about to open in Brazil. I’ve only just woken up to the idea that this thing is going to outlive me which is kind of scary.
Matt: So you’ve been involved over the past few years with the development of the musical?
Stephan: Yeah. I’ve been writing the show again and again. It’s really hard. I wrote that script 25 years ago and now here I am still writing it.
Matt: We should talk about A Few Best Men. We’ve seen plenty of movies where weddings go wrong but I don’t think I’ve seen too many that are this crazy and this outlandish. When you picked up Dean Craig’s script for the first time, what was it that stood out?
Stephan: Since Priscilla, it seems the only thing I’ve ever been offered have been wedding movies. I’ve always turned them down because my career started as a wedding videographer. At about 14 years old, I started doing video weddings and I did about 3,000 weddings over a 7 year period. Let’s just say I have a lot of wedding rage. I have seen the worst behaviour from every member of the family in every possible religion. It started to drive me mad.
Dan’s script was the first one that arrived that was looking more at the dark side and I decided to go for it. A lot of me is in that script. There are lines and scenes that actually happened to me when I was recording weddings.
Matt: Wow. So you’re obviously very experienced with this subject matter?
Stephan: I’m the expert. Trust me. There’s nothing I don’t know about bad behaviour at weddings.
Matt: Was it an easy film to get off the ground and get finance for?
Stephan: It was actually pretty easy. I’ve been offshore for a long time and a lot of people have been begging me to come home and make a film again.
I just had a moment during a showing of Priscilla the musical where a drag queen in the front row refused to take her wig off and a fight broke out with the guy sitting behind her in the theatre. That was in London and at that point, I said it’s time to go home.
I came home, the script was on the desk, I have big opinions on weddings and I said “let’s go for it”. We did it in record time – inside of a year. Most scripts usually take about 10 years to get off the ground.
Matt: I always love seeing actors in roles that we’re not quite accustomed to. Olivia Newton John is swearing, snorting cocaine, hanging off chandeliers. Was it an easy sell to Olivia?
Stephan: It was a tough one. I’ve been friends with Olivia for a couple of years and have been trying to get her involved in projects for a while. She’s one of the sweetest, kindest, most generous human beings on earth… but get two glasses of red wine into her, and there’s a naughty Australia school girl in there. She never lets it out.
I was sitting there one day and watching her cackling away at something filthy and I said to her “we’ve got to let this person out”. She then got remarried, moved out of Los Angeles, met this fantastic guy and her whole life changed. It was then I said that it’s time to do a big change. Stick your head out and take a chance.
Matt: Well I’m glad you got her on board.
Stephan: Yeah. There’s a final shot in the film where she ends up swinging off a chandelier. That was the last day of shooting. I said to her “how do you feel about it?” She said she couldn’t do it so we got a stunt double in… but at the last minute she changed her mind and agreed to do it. Bless her cotton socks, she’s 63 years old and she was 3 feet off the floor swinging off a chandelier. At that moment, I was totally in love with her.
Matt: What about Xavier Samuel? He’s one of Australia’s brightest prospects and becoming very marketable.
Stephan: Xavier is going big places very fast. At the time, he was being offered one $300m movie after another. The one thing he’d never been offered though was comedy. He’s not a natural comedian but he was surrounded by comedians and had the task of playing the “normal guy” in the film.
I think there were a lot of pissed off agents in the world who then realised they weren’t going to get their commission from the $300m movie. He took a gamble and I think he did a spectacular job. It was very hard for him. We had 5 stand up comedians in that crew. Once they go, Rebel Wilson goes, Jonathan Biggins goes, there’s no stopping them.
Some days I realised that the set was losing control. All I could do was point the camera and get them to stand back. You’ve got to give points to Xavier and Olivia for holding their own.
Matt: I was going to ask what it was like on the set. The audience was laughing hysterically at the preview I attended. What was it like for you guys? How do you keep a straight face when shooting some of these scenes?
Stephan: You don’t really. It was hard being the teacher. At the end of the day, I’m still a director and have to bring a film in on time and on budget. One or two days, the giggles set in and I think my record was about 37 takes when Kris just got the giggles and the extras started laughing. When I saw the cameraman with the wobbles while laughing hysterically, I started to scream at everyone and told them to grow up. It only made it 100 times worse.
But what a joy. It was David Niven who once said that if you have too much fun on a set, the film won’t work. I can honestly say that’s rubbish. The last time I had this much fun was with Priscilla.
Matt: Everyone has a different sense of humour and from what I've seen on Twitter, there have been some very different reactions to the film. Some have loved it but others think it’s really rude and crass. What sort of reactions have you been receiving at previews so far?
Stephan: It’s a genre that took off a few years ago with Wedding Crashers – they’re wedding movies for boys. For many years, wedding movies were just for girls and then someone came up with the opposite. With that, comes a lot of crass humour. I went into this knowing that the very serious critics were going to crucify me and I had no problem with that. The film is what it is.
The big stunner for me was when David and Margaret reviewed it before Christmas and both gave it 4 stars. Didn’t see that one coming!
Matt: It’s so hard trying to sell Australian films in this country as we’re always up against the big budget U.S. films with their marketing campaigns. What can we tell people to make sure we get their bums on seats?
Stephan: It’s cyclic. I remember when I was first doing Priscilla, we were at the end of a period where we were doing lots of costume dramas and dark, “kitchen sink” dramas. Baz Luhrmann, P.J. Hogan and myself did Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla without even knowing each other. We retaliated and did the opposite – fun, bold, interesting comedies. They all worked.
I think we’re right in the middle of the “kitchen sink” dramas again and it’s time to turn it around.
Matt: Well I think it’s a terrific film. It’s one of the best comedies I’ve seen in the past 12 months. I hope it’s great at the box-office too. Stephan, thanks for speaking with me this morning.
Stephan: Brilliant. Thank you so much.
You can read my review of the film by clicking here.
All Rights Reserved. Matthew Toomey. 2012.