Mr. Movie

Q&A with director Stephan Elliot and writer Sheridan Jobbins

Mr. Movie & writer/director Stephan Elliott and writer Sheridan Jobbins

Gary Wolcott talked with writer/director Stephan Elliott and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins about Easy Virtue. It is the first major motion picture for Elliott who wrote and directed The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 12 years. His last was The Eye of the Beholder in 1999.

Gary Wolcott: What did you do during the long dry spell?

Stephan Elliott: Not a lot.

Wolcott: I want a job like that.

Elliott: (Laughs) Actually Sheridan [Jobbins] and I have done a lot of writing for other people. I always wanted to become a ski bum so I did that but that didn't work. I skied off a cliff in France and broke my back, pelvis and legs. That was a good four or five years gone.

That's where I started seriously writing again. People said it was a bad accident but it really a fortunate thing because it got me back to work.

Wolcott: Why did you pick this project, this play, this movie, for a return?

Elliott: It picked us. I actually said I wasn't going to do it and I wasn't going to go back to work. The producer literally caught me when I was very high on drugs, morphine I think, and said would you consider this. Ordinarily I say no. I said to myself, "You know you've done this all of your life, why don't you accept the challenge?" I told him I had to be honest that I was the wrong guy for this material. He said that's exactly why we're speaking to you.

I don't like period pictures. They bore me.

Sheridan Jobbins: He made it interesting.

Wolcott: They bore me, too. There are three or four of them produced a year and they're dreadfully long, stuffy affairs. It's the same crap over and over. This one, however, is very good. It's the actors you picked and the way you wrote them.

Jobbins: A lot of that comes from the original play. The original was a melodrama. He [Noel Coward] was trying to be youthful in 1924 and quite shocking for the time. It's quite mundane now but was very shocking then.

Elliott: The first thing we said is that it has to be a comedy. You can see a little bit of the melodrama underneath but we really had to push the comic stakes up a lot.

Wolcott: What's it like to take someone else's work, a genius playwright like Noel Coward's work, and rewrite it? The only time anyone has put this on the big screen was Alfred Hitchcock. He did it as a silent film in 1928 and made it into a murder mystery.

Jobbins: This is Noel Coward, it's a tremendous honor and a great experience. He's one of the 20th Century's master playwrights. It was daunting on one hand and absolutely exhilarating on the other.

Elliott: I found it daunting.

Jobbins: It's a melodrama so one of the first things we looked for was how to make it funny. He was 24 when he wrote it and wasn't the man he was going to become. The studio wanted the perfect Noel Coward comedy but they also wanted what he was trying to say about hypocrisy, the culture and all the rest of it. To bring that to the forefront and to polish it and to shine it was actually exciting. Really great fun.

Elliott: We spent a good three years on the script. Some of the punch lines were turned over 100 to 200 times until we got the one that fit. It was exhausting but it actually makes one think harder. I haven't thought this hard about a script before. We'd wake up in the middle of the night with our brains racing. We're always thinking about what Coward would have done. You just can't be you. You've got to be Cowardesque.

Jobbins: One of the things Stephan wanted was her [Jessica Biel's Larita Whittaker] to land like an alien in the middle of a period film. It was written in 1924 but we had the English people come from the country and had them in the middle of an economic recession and about ready to lose their house. She could come from the future, from America, from the Chrysler building, from all those shining things like that. But also the future of Preston Sturgess and slapstick comedy and My Girl Friday and all those strong female characters of the mid-30s. This gave us a license to give her a lot more physical humor and put that up against the British wit as well. Jessica executes it brilliantly. She's a tremendous comedian.

Wolcott: What did you change? I'm not that familiar with the work.

Elliott: Nobody is familiar. We couldn't find a copy anywhere in the world. Sheridan finally found one in a small Australian library.

Jobbins: Ours is very true to it; its plot, its themes, its characters. We've updated it somewhat so it's about a third of each of us [Coward, Sheridan and Elliott]. But the third that's Noel Coward is the dominant third. The Noel Coward Society, the Trust and the people who work with Noel Coward [material] all recognize it and say it's really good and praise it for being a really good adaptation.

He [Coward] said in his biography that he wanted to make a thoroughly modern play for a young audience. He wanted to do a dichotomy of generations; the older woman and young woman coming through. So he essentially wrote the first Meet the Parents. Him saying that he wanted to make it for a younger audience was a real license to keep it contemporary and to appeal to a younger audience.

Wolcott: You have a very talented cast here. Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes. Was it fun making the movie?

Elliott: It was very fun but it was very hard work, too. I haven't made a movie in 10 years and I always said if I made one again I would have to have the time, the money and the patience. They [the producers] promised me everything and they lied. The usual, the usual, the usual.

Jobbins: But we had a good cast.

Elliott: But to get the cast we had very little pre-production and no rehearsals. Everybody was working on other pictures and the [screenwriter's] strike was looming. We only got everybody together in day nine of the shoot. But I said you know guys, you're all really good at your jobs let's not even rehearse it. That's the first time I've ever done that. I just got up in the morning and turned the camera on and said, "Guys, we're off."

With a less experienced cast we could have been in trouble. And we only had four and a half hours of daylight each day because we were shooting in the dead of winter. So you shoot a scene inside in the morning then race outside when it's light and when the daylight's gone race back in again. It was tough. But the cast really does hold it together.

At this point we got into a long discussion about the film's unusual ending. And a debate ensued between Elliott and Jobbins as to exactly what happened. They don't agree. She sees the event one way. He sees it another.

Wolcott: The reason I don't like a lot of movies is the insistence of Hollywood to give me that five-minute happy ending. They often don't belong. To me your movie has a happy ending.

Elliott: That's good because a lot of people think it has a very dark ending. In one sense it's the perfect happy ending and it's a very practical ending.

At this point Elliott and Jobbins again break out in a spirited disagreement over the ending they wrote and, again, each has a different interpretation.

Elliott: When we ask audiences their interpretation of the ending in a Q&A they tend to be split down the middle.

Wolcott: In all the years I've interviewed writers and directors I've never had them disagree on what may be the most important part of the plot and to have them disagree on one of the best movie endings I've seen in a long time is even more interesting.

Jobbins: We actually didn't know we disagreed until someone asked us about the ending. I thought I'd written an ending that was romantic. He thought he'd written an ending that is one of complex human relationships.

And then there's Noel Coward's ending. Elliott and Jobbins say it is slightly different. No less interesting but a bit different. And his interpretation may be different than theirs.

Elliott: We'll have to ask Mr. Coward what he meant when we get there [the after life].

Wolcott: Is there a film you've turned down that you wish you'd done?

Elliott: Yes, My Best Friend's Wedding. They kept throwing romantic comedies at me because I'm a romantic comedy guy. And I remember reading the script and saying "Oh, God, it's a romantic comedy, another one." But you get to the end and it's an anti-romantic comedy. It has an extraordinary last 10 pages. She doesn't get the guy. In fact, she doesn't get anything. I remember thinking at the time can I wade through 90 pages to get to that 10 pages.

Wolcott: It was too commercial for me. It could have used more of an edge.

SE: You're right but I still liked the movie. I would have made a very different movie, I guarantee you that.

Wolcott: The buzz on Easy Virtue is good. So now what?

Elliott: It's really good, it's really timely. If the film works I'm going to be back where I was 10 years ago. I have to make a decision as to whether this time I can the Hollywood route. I haven't yet.

Jobbins: We've been working on a lot of ideas over the last nine years and we're looking to see what we can bring forward.

Elliott: Am I mature enough? Am I grown up enough? From Hollywood standards this is a quite a dangerous little movie.