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THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

Stephan Elliott takes on Noel Coward

His work on 'Easy Virtue,' with Jessica Biel, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas, follows painful setbacks.

May 17, 2009|Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

NEW YORK — When it comes to dramatic, life-defining moments, it's hard to best lying atop the French Alps with a shattered pelvis, fractured legs and a broken back while a doctor announces you have 10 minutes left to live.

That experience goes far in explaining how Stephan Elliott -- best known for writing and directing the 1994 Australian drag romp "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" -- agreed to direct "Easy Virtue," an adaptation of Noel Coward's oh-so-English comedy of manners opening Friday and starring Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel. That, and generous doses of morphine.

Now, five years after the accident, on a sunny spring day in New York, it's difficult to believe that Elliott, nattily dressed in a rainbow-striped Versace jacket and jeans and suntanned from another ski trip in the Alps, was still relearning to walk when producer Barnaby Thompson approached him about "Virtue."

"I said, 'Are you kidding me? Period films make me want to go have a lie-down,' " the 44-year-old director remembers, hiding a cigarette under the table as a waiter walks by. "But then Barnaby said, 'That's why we're bringing this to you -- because you're probably the wrong guy.' " Elliott, who admits he was ingesting heavy doses of painkillers at the time, surprised himself by agreeing to take a stab at the screenplay along with his writing partner, Sheridan Jobbins. "I said yes," Elliott recalls, "because it was time to change my life."

Elliott thought he had changed his life before that when, in 1999, on the heels of two disastrous movies, he had sworn off directing and left London to live indefinitely as a ski bum. "I had lost everything," he says. "I'd lost everything fiscally, but I'd also lost the will to do this job."

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Soul-killing events

The problem, says the Australian-raised director, is that the surprise success of "Priscilla" had made him both "arrogant and defiant." The result: taking on two projects he now sees as destined to fail. The first, 1997's "Welcome to Woop Woop," which the director intended to be a "bad-taste John Waters film," screened unfinished at Cannes and was met with boos. "People were throwing things at the screen," Elliott remembers. "I felt like a pile of guts, and it killed the film. We never even finished it. If ever a film could go fabulously wrong, this was it."

The next project went no better: 1999's "Eye of the Beholder," starring Ewan McGregor, was, says Elliott, "a complete fiasco. It was the first time I had dealt with Hollywood sharks, and I had been warned, but I thought I could handle it. They took off with the money halfway through, and I ended up sinking every penny I had into finishing the film."

The movie opened to excoriating reviews and Elliott lost his house and life savings.

"Those two experiences back to back were absolutely soul destroying," he says. "So I gave in. I packed my bags and wandered, and I had an absolute blast. And then I broke my back, pelvis and legs, and that was my wake-up call. I had had people in Hollywood say, 'You'll never work in this town again,' " he remembers. "But after the accident, it was, 'Is that the best threat you can come up with?' I just stopped being scared."

Says Thompson, "I think being moments away from death will make you grow up pretty quickly. I think it made him mature." Adds writing partner Jobbins, who first met Elliott when he was making "Priscilla," "It definitely made him grow up, and it reignited his sense of humor. He has a very playful character and he's quick to put a pin in pomposity, which is his most charming capacity. But it also gets him into trouble because he's very quick with that pin."

And that, says Thompson, is exactly what he was hoping Elliott would bring to "Virtue," leveling Coward's highhanded, lord-of-the-manor comedy about a sparring couple (Firth and Scott Thomas) whose son, played by Barnes, brings home an American temptress (Biel).

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Behind the camera

After three years of working on the screenplay and finding himself invested, Elliott agreed to direct. Getting back behind the camera was a mixed bag. "You see in the movies how people are after an accident and you think you're going to be kissing puppies and walking old ladies across the street, but it's not like that," he says. "There was a huge amount of rage in me. By the second day on the film, I was saying, 'What have I done?' Here I was again, screaming. But by the end of the shoot," he continues, "I'd found my mojo again and I realized, 'This is just what it is.' What a great job. I really tried to pretend I was having a bad time, but I look at the film and I see how happy I was." He then adds quickly, "No one should think it's an easy job. It's not. It's a miserable job. But it's never dull."

It was pleasant enough that Elliott, whose musical version of "Priscilla" recently opened in London's West End, is entertaining the thought of a return to Hollywood. "I think I'm old enough and wise enough to try a big film," he says. "I just would like the ability once in my life to be given the time and money to shoot something properly." Does that mean he wouldn't yell as much? "Nah, I'd still yell," he says with a laugh. "I think that just comes with the territory."

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