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Fri 7 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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The comeback kid

Fiilm director Stephan Elliott took a break from directing after he was robbed and then broke his back.

Award-winning film director Stephan Elliott took a break from directing after he was robbed by his production cast and then broke his back in a skiing accident. Almost ten years later, he is back with the comedy Easy Virtue. Melissa Sleiman met him in Abu Dhabi.

He is busy promoting the movie that marks his comeback as a film director, Easy Virtue, but Stephan Elliott doesn't seem stressed at all. In fact, the laid-back, slightly scruffy 34-year old seems to have a permanent cheeky smile on his face and often lets out a roaring laugh as he talks about his career so far.

We're at the Middle East International Film Festival where Easy Virtue, an adaptation of a Noël Coward play set in the 1920s which tells the story of an American girl who meets her husband's English aristocratic family, is being screened, and the Australian director and screenwriter is describing his film making journey.

Elliott started out as an assistant director and worked on more than 30 movies before making his debut as a director in 1993 with the comedy Frauds, which starred singer-turned-actor Phil Collins.

His future looked promising when the film was nominated for the Palme D'Or at the 1993 Cannes International Film Festival, but it was his second feature that would prove to be his big breakthrough the following year.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a comedy about three drag queens who get a cabaret gig in the desert, blitzed international box offices after it won the Prix du Public award at Cannes in 1994.

The flamboyant theme of the film also secured a Best Costume Design accolade at the Academy Awards, and Elliott received a nomination for best screenplay at the BAFTA awards.

"No one was ready for the success of Priscilla," he recalls, laughing. "After that, I was offered an awful lot of Hollywood movies, but I only lasted a couple of weeks. I'm not built for it. I did one huge production with a lot of well-known actresses and after two weeks everyone was arguing."

He rolls his eyes. "After the third week I just excused myself and walked out. I don't really want to penetrate the golden ring of Hollywood."

He continued his film making journey without the backing of Hollywood studios. The comedy Welcome to Woop Woop in 1997 was also screened at Cannes, while he received the ‘Best Director' award for the thriller Eye of The Beholder at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film in 2000.

But neither film's success came close to that of Priscilla and both were regarded as flops in the industry.

To make things worse, misfortune struck Elliott while working on Eye of The Beholder. "It was a nightmare - I'd gotten in bed with criminals," he says frankly of the production crew, who robbed him.

"They took off with the money halfway through! I had to finish the film myself. I was in Canada for five years on my own, writing, producing, directing. I'd lost everything - my house, the shirt off my back. I ended up penniless."

He survived by ghostwriting, a less rewarding job than directing, according to Elliott. "The sad part is that you polish someone else's script, you get paid not great money, and usually the scripts never get made," he explains. "That's the Hollywood system, unfortunately."

The situation went from bad to much worse, when Elliott also almost died in a skiing accident in 2004. But the accident, which shattered his back, pelvis and legs, also got him back on track again and proved to be a turning point for him.

After having struggled financially, he became more and more angry and frustrated, and now also twice as aware that he was running out of time. "So I said to myself: ‘I need to get back on his horse."

While Elliott was ghostwriting, he cleverly recycled his jokes in scripts over and over again. Some of them even made it into Easy Virtue. "This is script number four that I got the squashed Chihuahua in," he laughs, referring to a scene in the comedy.

"That scene happened to an ex-girlfriend of mine. She accidentally killed the dog when she met her ex-boyfriend's parents for the first time."

While filming Easy Virtue, Elliott had to get used to the demands of working as a director again. The film was shot in England and he had forgotten about the weather conditions in the country. The English winter gave him a mere five hours a day of daylight to shoot.

"The first twelve hours [were awful]," he sighs, with a smile on his face. "Within a day I was reduced to screaming." Adding to that, he was promised twenty weeks, but in the end only got seven to complete the filming.

"We had no rehearsals for this movie since the actors strike was on. So the first day we got everyone together, turned the camera on and said, ‘we'll just have to wing it'."

On set, he worked together with four leading actors and actresses. Ben Barnes, also known as Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia films, and Jessica Biel star as the newlywed couple, while Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth, play Barnes' parents who try to sabotage their son's marriage.

The clever dialogue and crafty directing of the movie depict a culture clash between a stuffy English aristocrat and a bohemian American.

"I had to convince Kristin for almost two years to take on the part. I just kept coming back until it wore her down. Colin [Firth] said ‘no' probably nine times. Same thing - he wasn't ready to play a 50-year-old. I feel sorry for them. How would you feel as an actor?

They flick on the television and they see themselves as 18-year-olds. You're watching yourself die nightly on television, just getting old.

"Kristin was very unhappy in the beginning. She's an astoundingly beautiful woman and there she is in a grey wig, with a bad cardigan on. She was not happy until she crossed the line and said: ‘you know, I'm just gonna have to go with it'. At that point, that's when the film flowed."

He said casting Jessica Biel as the leading lady was a gamble. But after successfully pursuing her he soon discovered her talent. "She's outstanding," he says. "Poor Jessica, she has this large amount of weight and it's called Justin [Timberlake]. But she's a really talented girl with a beautiful singing voice.

"I wanted her in the film because I'd met her before and made the filthiest joke. I wanted to see what you can get away with and what you can't. There was this little glint in her eye after I told it. She didn't react to it, but I could just see: ‘Aha, it's in there, I thought. She's just not letting it out.'"

While visiting Abu Dhabi, Elliott found plenty of material and creative ideas for upcoming movies.

"I just saw a little gardener on his own," he says. " He took his little book out and started praying in a massive seven star hotel. That's a beautiful image. The day you stop picking up this kind of stuff, is the day you should stop [making movies]."

But witnessing current film making developments in Abu Dhabi also raised his concern. "You have to be careful of opening a film studio with American money - it's a Trojan horse," he says of Imagenation, the billion dollar film company created by the Abu Dhabi Media Company.

The company has signed three major deals with Hollywood companies so far, the latest of which ensuring it will be involved in the production of 20 feature films over seven years

"Australia's local film industry went down after after Fox Studios started there. All the Matrixes, Superman - it was fantastic. But the local industry died out, because all the technicians got paid more by the big studio.

They cannot get back to working for a smaller amount of money again because they've all bought equipment.

"Now, the dollar has gone down and the Americans moved out. There is nothing left in Australia."

Easy Virtue also has an anti-globalisation message, Elliott points out. He feels that the English culture is disappearing, because property-rich but cash-poor English are dividing up their land and selling off parts of it. "The amount of houses they're selling to Russian oligarchs - they're selling off their culture!" he exclaims.

It seems that Elliott has finally mastered the mix of comedy and serious aspects in film. Recently he has also taken on a new challenge - writing a stage musical, the musical version of Priscilla, which will star Australian singer/actor Jason Donovan. His newest production is set to be staged in March.

"The difference between stage musicals and films is incredible," he says. "With films, you just yell ‘cut' and it's done. With musicals, things can be changed every night. But the experience has triggered something. I was a complete child actually, screaming and clapping."

Meanwhile, he is working on a new script called Black Oasis, about the B-movie actress Susan Cabot. And while he is well on his way to the top of the film industry, he stresses that he also has to keep learning.

"There was an English comedian called Tommy Cooper who once said: ‘I've run out of things to be funny about'. He came from a working class background and when you are used to the lifestyle of five star hotels and Concordes, you lose touch."

Elliott is cautious of that happening to himself. "You've got to remind yourself there is a world out there."