Find the truth in comedy, always trust your gut instinct, and never get into bed with the Americans. These were some of the nuggets of industry wisdom director Stephan Elliott (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) imparted to Peter Gray as he discussed his latest venture, Swinging Safari. It’s set in 1970s Australia and follows a group of adolescents and their parents as they all navigate the era’s sexual revolution.
Peter Gray: The film is a wild ride – to say the least – and amazingly a true story of sorts. How much did you embellish the truth?
Stephan Elliot: We started out absolutely with the truth. And that really helped us design-wise. If it happened, we can have it. If it was there, we can have it. Then with that base, and specifically with the [adult] actors, I just let them run. Ultimately I said, “Come as your own parents. When in doubt, go back to your own childhoods and look at what your parents did. Don’t make shit up, but borrow from them.”
PG: When you started writing the script, was it intended as a comedy?
SE: Actually, one of the triggers for me was Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm . I saw that film in New York City and walked outside afterwards and threw up on the pavement. [Lee] gets points for getting the cruelty right, but he was missing that one piece of the puzzle: is it a laughing matter? It’s only a laughing matter! What else can you do? You either kill yourself or you laugh at it. Was I trying to make a comedy? When you make a film about political incorrectness, how could you not?
PG: The casting of Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue and Julian McMahon etcetera, was so perfect. Were they the actors you had envisioned for these roles?
SE: No. I’ve been writing for 30 years and I’ve learnt to never fall into that trap, which is: don’t envision people, ’cause they never say yes. But when you go to America you have to say, “Well this character is Meryl Streep and this character is Dustin Hoffman,” and that’s the only way Americans can see it. You have to attach a name to it. And then you send it out to those actors and they’re not available, and the disappointment sinks in. So I’ve just learnt not to play that game. I write the characters, I get them absolutely great, and when I feel comfortable, then we send it out to the people we think best fit. And luckily we sent it out and everyone said yes.
PG: Was it difficult to track down the costumes and the props from the era?
SE: Oh it was a shit fight, cause none of it exists anymore! At first we just thought we could go through Op Shops and it would all just be there, or costume hire places, but it just wasn’t. It became this marathon effort of sourcing to try and find everything.
PG: I know that this is quite a personal film, was there a reason it took you this long to make it?
SE: Fifty! Simple as that. Got to hit a milestone. I didn’t have one at 40. And times are changing now where men are having their midlife crisis either earlier or later. I got to 40, waited for a midlife crisis to happen and it just didn’t. I had a skiing accident in my 40’s, and there are years there that are pretty much gone in a morphine haze. I literally lost three to four years of my life, and I think getting to 50 was the catalyst to putting pen to paper.
PG: Do you think it’ll translate well internationally?
SE: Don’t care. Just being honest. It was the same with Priscilla. No one wanted to touch that with a 50 foot pole. The script went right around the world. And then the compromising starts and you’re asked, “What if you sold it to the Americans?” And I wrote it and sent it off and my agent set it up and everyone liked it, but then you get, “Ok, can we change it to Santa Barbara and replace all the Australians?” It happens, but I wanted to get this made and I went through the process of trying but I just thought, “Make one for yourself just once in a while.” And I’m really just being pure. It’ll work or it won’t. I think we made a great film and people will see it if they want to. But I can guarantee you, and this was classic Harvey Weinstein, which is kind of a thing of the past now, but Harvey would take your film and say how much he loved it but then would want to recut it and revoice it. And that’s how films got across the line.
PG: Have you experienced that?
SE: Fuck yeah. My first film, pre-Priscilla, was a movie called Frauds, and it was just horrible. There’s a reason I don’t work in America, cause I got into bed with them and I was completely destroyed. I was forced into American accents, and they treated me like fucking shit, they took the film away from me. I never wanted to make Priscilla after that. I was done! I moved back [to Australia] and never wanted to make another movie again. And my producer Al [Clark] who did Swinging Safari, he really had to push me to do just one more.
PG: I know that people are already discussing followups to Swinging Safari. Is there anything you’re considering?
SE: We just want to get it out the gate first. Everyone wants another Priscilla, and I know Muriel’s Wedding is now on stage, but we just want to focus on the film first. I have already have five or six calls regarding a television format for this, but we want to get the film out to everyone before we talk about what’s next.
Swinging Safari is in Australian cinemas now. Watch the trailer below: