Interview: Swinging Safari director Stephan Elliott on finding the truth in his comedy and why he will never work in America again

Primarily known for the defining Australian classic Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, writer/director Stephan Elliott is hoping his latest cinematic venture earns similar status and praise.  A labor of love, Swinging Safari is a semi-autobiographical comedy that expresses the trials and tribulations of Elliott’s own childhood through a series of wild montages that highlight the sexual freedom of Australia in the 1970’s.

Chatting with The Iris’s Peter Gray on the eve of the film’s release, Elliott discusses finding the truth in his comedy, how his impressive cast came to be, and why he will never work in the US again.

The film is a wild ride – to say the least – and amazingly a true story of sorts.  How much did you embellish the truth?

The basis was the truth.  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.

When you started writing the script, was it always intended as a comedy?

Oh yeah absolutely! Actually, no one has asked me this before but 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, I mean it was so on the nail.  To think a Taiwanese director, working in America could get that so right!  He got it so perfect BUT he didn’t have any fun.  It just ended so hideous, and there isn’t a joke in it.  He gets points for getting the cruelty right, but fuck mine was funny!  He was missing that one piece of the puzzle…is it a laughing matter? It’s only a laughing matter!  What else could you do? You either kill yourself or you laugh at it.  I mean was I trying to make a comedy…not necessarily but when you make a film about political incorrectness, how could you not?

I remember you saying (at the screening) that there were only two scenes that were cut from the finished product, was there anything you didn’t get to film? 

The two things I spoke about that I had to take out, I am regretting that now.  But I am glad that I am, but it was right up to the eleventh hour and wondering just how far can I push this.  One of them was immensely cruel, but it was true, but too cruel.  We had a test audience and I absolutely lost them, and I just thought I can’t (include this).  And the other was an alternative ending, and until the film is out there I can’t really talk about it.

You noted that the casting process for the children was actually quite a quick process, were you expecting that?

I mean you just know when you first see someone.  You know it within the first hundredth of a second if they’re going to work out.  Whether they’re good or not it actually doesn’t matter, it’s just seeing that little flicker in them…but you can work with that to refine it.  Chelsea Jamieson, who played Liz with the cricket bat, she was completely a different person (the character) in my head.  She came in with these big spectacles and she was just completely wrong, but then she opened her mouth and I thought “that’s interesting”.  She was not what I had envisioned, she was just this really odd girl but I eventually remoulded the role around this quite peculiar young girl.  And Jacob (Elordi) who played the lifesaver…what a gifted comedian that boy is!  He’s over in L.A. now, and he’s getting phone calls on how he’s not just tall and good looking and all the things you want, he’s got an impeccable sense of comic timing.

Did you feel nervous presenting the kids with some of the material?

Yeah.  They all received edited scripts.

Did they know what was going on (in the story) though?

Yeah, I mean I had to leave it to the parents.  They got an edited script, and another passed through that I had pulled all the swearing from.  And then left it to the parents to navigate their way through it.

Were you worried that if the parents didn’t like what they read that they would be pulled from the movie?

No, the kids were directed in their own kid scenes.  And the adults were directed in their own adult scenes.  So they actually didn’t have a lot of crossover in it.  With kids of a certain age we only have 6 hours to shoot, and that includes travel time and hair and make-up, so I literally had maybe 3 to 4 hours a day to shoot, and I didn’t want to fuck around with those minutes.

And the casting of Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue and Julian McMahon etc, it was really just so perfect when you see the film.  Were they the actors you had envisioned for these roles?

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 (and they read) they say who is this and who is this, and you have to say “well this character is Meryl Streep and this character is Dustin Hoffman” and thats 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.

Was it difficult to track down the costumes and the props from the era?

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.  And that dawned on us pretty quickly during pre-production that none of this exists, so then it became this marathon effort of sourcing to try and find everything.  People every now and then would come in with stuff, like the fondu set and it’s from the 80’s…Nope! What’s the age? What’s the year? And if it fit the period then we could use it.

And I know that this is quite a personal film, was there a reason it took you this long to make it?

50!  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 mid-life crisis either earlier or later…and I got to 40, waited for a mid-life 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 3-4 years of my life, and I think getting to 50 was the catalyst to putting pen to paper.

Are there any plans to release this internationally?

Everyone’s just looking to Australia for the moment.  I personally would love it if poured down right across the country, cause perfect summer’s day pouring with rain…cinemas are full!  In the old days you’d have a couple of weeks to build momentum, that’s become (opening) weekend now.  Same in the States, (your film) has 3 days to live or die.

Do you think it’ll translate well internationally?

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.  No one wanted to make it.  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 want 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 re-voice it…and that’s how films got across the line.

Have you experienced that?

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…and 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 this (Swinging Safari) he really had to push me to do just one more.

And I know that people are already discussing follow-ups to Swinging Safari, is there anything you’re considering?

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 5-6 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 cinemas today.