Interview with Stephan Elliott, creator of the original ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’
Perth got its groove thing on last week when the musical Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert pulled its bus into Crown Theatre. It’s the ultimate feelgood show featuring outrageous costumes, outlandish dialogue and plenty of outré innuendo.
Based on the Oscar® award-winning film, Priscilla tells the hilarious and moving tale of three drag queens who head across Australia from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform their spectacular show.
Adam (aka: Felicia), Tick (Mitzi), and Bernadette make their own personal journeys of self-discovery as they cross the country in a battered old bus christened Priscilla.
Cream catches up with the man behind the original story, screenwriter/director Stephan Elliott, who talks about the continued success of his drag classic; how he once had to coax Olivia Newton John to take copious amounts of cocaine; and why the wedding genre is still massively popular.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Hi Stephan. Let’s talk about The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert. Do you realise what international impact you’ve had with that film?
At the time we honestly didn’t realise it. I was a kid; I was 26 years old. I wrote the script in two weeks and honestly didn’t have any expectations, or particularly care. I just said, “You know what? It’s only costing a million dollars. Let’s have a really good time making it and the honest truth is, it will probably go straight to DVD”. I went forward with that attitude, thinking let’s just have fun. But then the complete opposite happened and we’d made one of the greatest cult films of all time. It’s very hard to live down. For years I was quite angry with it because all people kept asking me was, “Where’s the next Priscilla?” and it got to the point where I realised I’m never going to live up to it and I’ve got to stop bothering and just get on with making other movies.
I liked the film’s societal impact. We were brought up in a very ‘ocker’ society in Australia – where if you didn’t talk about football or other butch topics, you were left out of the conversation. And you managed to deliver a film that helped deconstruct gender so much, we ended up having Footy Show hosts dressing in drag…
Yeah, I remember the Wallabies all came on one year, just before an international match, and the whole lot of them were in drag. It was hysterical.
You do realise you helped rip through the gender restrictions we used to have in Australia?
Well, yeah. It was a good flip and an amazing flip. And the real fun part was that I really didn’t mean to. I still get 30 letters a week from people saying ‘Thank you’. Particularly parents of gay kids who say “thank you for helping me understand”. Now, the stage show has taken off internationally; we were in Italy; we’re on Broadway; we’re in London. Now in Perth. It’s turning into Mamma Mia!
Whenever Priscilla is staged, do you get any royalties?
No. No-one pays me any royalties. A misconception about me is that I must be rolling in cash. I signed a table napkin at the start and got a flat fee of $50,000 and that’s all I got. But there’s that great conception that I obviously must be rolling in it, yet I never saw another cent. I was bitter about it at first, but you know what? I got a career out of it. But don’t ever get the idea that you get rich from filmmaking; very few people do.
Do you think critics have had too high expectations, in comedic terms at least, after the success of Priscilla; continue to use it as the litmus test?
Every single time.
You received a lot of negative feedback about its follow-up Welcome To Woop Woop.
I was crucified! No matter what I did afterwards I was going to get into trouble. Welcome To Woop Woop was picking up on some of the worst pieces of Australian [culture] back then: you know, bigotry, racism, I went after absolutely everything. In that instance it was quite a dangerous movie. I knew I was in trouble even with the cut-down version and when Pauline Hanson saw it and said she loved it – I said, “Oh no, this is all going terribly wrong”. But let me tell you, Woop Woop was never completed. The film that I actually did make was so out there, and so anti-Priscilla that when MGM Studios bought it, they recut it into something else and didn’t release it properly. So, one of my plans one day is to get back in there, reconstruct it and put it back to what it would have been. And trust me, it’s a hundred times more dangerous than what’s there now.
“Every wedding film that’s been made in the past 20 years, trust me, I’ve been offered it. What they didn’t know was that I suffer from Wedding Syndrome, having been a videographer for weddings since I was 14 years old. I was doing two or three weddings every weekend most of my life.”
Most auteur directors have a signature trademark flowing through their filmography: Kurosawa with the colour red; Tarantino with his kitsch soundtracks. What would you say was the Stephan Elliott trademark?
It actually took a reviewer in Denver to point this out to me but he said, “All your films are about people who don’t fit in; they’re all fish-out-of-water comedies”. And he’s right. There’s a storyline through each of my films that’s pretty much about someone who doesn’t fit in. And there’s certainly a sense of mischief in all of them. Even in Easy Virtue, which is an English period piece, the sense of mischief was really naughty.
You also directed the comedy A Few Best Men. It’s a clever title for a film.
When we got to talking about the title, I said, “Do you know how many people are going to think they’re going to see a Tom Cruise movie?” At the last moment I was really pushing for a title change. But ultimately, I think it works. Except a lot of people were going online and searching ‘Good’ instead of ‘Best’.
The wedding genre is still popular in cinema. Obviously you realised that when going into making A Few Best Men?
The wedding genre has always been offered to me. Post-Priscilla [The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert] they took me to Hollywood and didn’t know what to do with me after a busload of drag queens. So, the only genre they could find for me was the wedding genre. Every wedding film that’s been made in the past 20 years, trust me, I’ve been offered it. What they didn’t know was that I suffer from Wedding Syndrome, having been a videographer for weddings since I was 14 years old. I was doing two or three weddings every weekend most of my life.
I can certainly relate to that, having DJ-ed at weddings in the past. It’s kind of a silent torture you’ve got to go through; while the guests are enjoying themselves, you’ve seen and heard it all before a hundred times.
Well, as a DJ so you’d understand; you’d have had to play those same tracks over and over again and it would have been hell for you. But on the videography side, in those early days, the invention of videotape really changed things. People just couldn’t believe that you could shoot for longer than four minutes. I’d actually be asked to shoot rehearsals a week before the wedding so I got to see stuff that I really shouldn’t have. Having so much access to the bridal party it got to the point where I could tell whether a marriage would work and how long it would last.
“When it came to Olivia racking up [cocaine] for the film, she said, “This is just so not me” and I said, “Well it’s time to play a character outside of yourself…”
Olivia Newton John starred as the bride’s mother in your wedding movie…
Yes. We decided to create the absolute mother-of-the-bride-from-hell. Or from heaven, depending on how you look at it.
I’d say Olivia was from heaven. Or indeed, Xanadu.
Did you need to coax Olivia into the scenes where she’s racking up cocaine, or was she a good sport?
She needed a lot of coaxing. Everything you think Olivia is, she actually is. She is one of the most lovely, kind, caring, gentle human beings on earth. And she’s blissfully and wonderfully naïve, too. She was a big star when those Robert Stigwood films like Saturday Night Fever were going off. That’s when cocaine really came into being. But back then she really had no idea why people were spending so much time in the bathrooms. She said it took her about a decade to work it out, and that was only because she started seeing the train-wrecks around her of people completely destroyed by coke. She said that by the time she’d worked it out she realised it was not a good thing. So when it came to her racking up for the film, she said, “This is just so not me” and I said, “Well it’s time to play a character outside of yourself”. In the end, she said, “You know what? I got to act for once”. And she loved it.
On a serious note, you had a major skiing accident a few years ago…
I had a corker, and I broke pretty much everything. It was pretty horrible. Thank God for morphine because it did help wipe out four or five very bad years. They told me I shouldn’t have lived. Then they told me I wasn’t going to walk. They had to teach me to re-walk again. What I learned after the accident was that life is very, very short and that you’ve got to get on with it. There’s too much fear in the world and my fear levels kind of disappeared. Once you’ve faced death, there’s not a lot worse in the world. The world’s a pretty fun place if you want to make it that.
‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical’ is on at Crown Theatre in Burswood until Sunday 30 May, 2021.
Tickets can be purchased at www.crownperth.com.au.
Feel free to leave a comment!