Stephan Elliott: Breaking the Silence
Despite directing one of the most political films of the past 20 years, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Stephan Elliott has himself remained politically silent. But as he tells Garrett Bithell, he is now ready to make some noise.
When Stephan Elliott, the revered director of watershed-film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, took to the stage at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards in January, he certainly had his moment.
‘I've been offshore for many, many years for another reason,’ Elliott told the unsuspecting crowd. ‘Basically it was because I was scared of who I was. I basically was scared that I was gay. Even after Priscilla I stayed offshore basically because I was frightened of my family. And tonight I'm coming out.’
Despite the fact the admission never made the live broadcast, Elliott’s speech was met with thunderous applause from the audience. “I’ve copped a lot of flack,” he tells SX almost a month later. “Because it’s never exactly been a secret anywhere within the industry. But I had never actually said the words anywhere, ever – I had just avoided it. The bottom line is, I’ve been politically lazy.”
According to Elliott, although he had planned to use his time on the AACTA Awards stage to call for the legalisation of gay marriage in Australia, what ended up coming out of his mouth was totally off the cuff. “I hadn’t planned to go there,” he asserts. “It was just a really weird moment, and thought, ‘you know what? Fuck it – it’s time.’ It just fell out. There was a huge roar from the crowd, and strangely, after all these years – I’ve been living with my partner Will for 18 years – to actually come out and say it, a weight lifted.
“If you look at the clip, you can see the moment when it hit me – double-barrel right between the eyes!”
However, Elliott’s code of silence wasn’t just political laziness, it was the result of a concerted decision he made after Priscilla came out to avoid the media. “I’ve never been very good at handling press,” he admits. “I have a tendency to say exactly what I think. Post-Priscilla, I shot my mouth off too many times and the media turned on me – and I fought back and in the end it just turned into a shit-fight.”
Indeed prior to Priscilla’s official premiere at Cannes in 1994, the film had a surprise, impromptu screening at the San Francisco Film Festival. “The place went absolutely bonkers, and they hauled me up on stage after the screening for a Q&A with the audience,” Elliott remembers. “Unanimously, everyone loved it, but it was a fairly militant gay crowd and there were one or two people in the audience who just kept going for my throat – why didn’t I tackle AIDS? Why wouldn’t I have men kissing?
“Eventually I spat the dummy on stage and I said, ‘You know what buddy? If you want to make that film, that film will end up in an art house and three people will see it, and that wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry I haven’t met all your aims and demands, and waved the flag for you, but this is what I chose to do, and I think it’s a better and more effective message, so fuck off.’ And of course the crowd went wild and thought it was hysterical.
“The next day in the gay press in San Francisco, I was crucified! Absolutely torn to shreds! It really got my goat up, and basically at that moment I decided to politically shut down.”
Despite the fact that Priscilla is so universally revered now it’s almost untouchable, when Elliott was shopping the script to get it made, no one wanted a bar of it. “I can’t tell you the amount of negativity we had,” he tells. “Mardi Gras knocked us back! We went to them and asked if they could help out with costumes, and they wrote back saying they didn’t want anything to do with it – that the script was homophobic and shit.
“I’m not going to, but I could list off the artists – some of them gay icons – who did not want their songs used in the film. It was extraordinary.”
After Priscilla opened, Elliott and Will – the two met at the film’s Brazilian premiere in Rio de Janeiro – moved to London. “I was still pretty closeted to a lot of the world, and at that point Will and I were trying to decide what to do with each other,” he says. “I couldn’t stay in Brazil and he couldn’t stay in Australia, so we just chose the coward’s route, which is to spend 16 years in London, where we just lived our own lives. I think a lot of people do that – it’s just easier to go somewhere else.”
Four years ago, the pair had a civil union ceremony in London on the roof of Soho House. “I have to tell you, that singular moment when I had to say that one paragraph that makes it legal... My god, it’s actually quite scary,” Elliott reveals. “It actually caught me by surprise – I’d been having fun right up until that moment and then the gravity just hit me.
“I’m glad I had that feeling, because if I didn’t it may have been a pretty empty experience.”
As Elliott states, one of the major reasons he and Will decided to formalise their partnership – and why he is now an outspoken proponent of marriage equality – was the horrific skiing accident he had in 2004, which saw him hospitalised for several months.
“That ski accident really triggered it for me, because they did keep Will at bay,” he says. “It was pretty bad – I was told I was going to die at the scene, and it’s a very scary moment being told that you’re going to die. I remember asking them how long I had, and they said 15 minutes. But they wouldn’t let Will in the ambulance – those 15 minutes I spent with a nurse. And I did shut my eyes and let go, and woke up 2 or 3 day later completely covered in tubes, and there were bolts sticking out of me everywhere.”
When he regained consciousness, Elliott was paralysed from the waist down. “I remember saying to Will, ‘I’m going to be really honest here, but if my legs aren’t going to work, I want out’,” he recalls. “He was horrified, but I just said, ‘sorry, that’s my decision. If it’s bad I want out, and I know how to do it’.
“Luckily he’s the calm one, and said ‘why don’t we wait a week or two and see how you go?’ A week later, I was able to move my toes.”
Elliott’s recovery was long and hard. “After a couple of months, when I still couldn’t walk, still couldn’t move, still couldn’t do anything, I tried to pick up a tea towel one day, and I had one of those extendable claws, and I couldn’t pick it up,” he says. “I was covered in drool, I was on my own, and I couldn’t pick it up. I went absolutely fucking ape – the frustration and the anger. Eventually they had to get me to a psychologist.
“I remember saying, ‘why am I not a better person?’, because you expect to come out the other side this incredibly giving, caring person who helps little old ladies across the road and buys puppies for people. But the psychologist said, ‘what you are is the same person but incredibly damaged – you’re going to find yourself getting incredibly angry and intolerant and impatient’, which is what happened.”
As Elliott attests, it’s not until we are confronted by our own mortality – when the line between life and death is so fine – that issues of equality become critical. “If I’m in hospital dying of cancer, and my partner of 30 years is not allowed in the room if my family so stipulates, where’s the justice in that?
“I also have a mate in the UK who lost his partner, and his partner left him everything in his will. But the family sued and won, and he got nothing. He was completely ostracised and basically got scrubbed out of his partner’s life.”
Ironically Elliott’s latest film, A Few Best Men, is a very heterosexual take on the wedding comedy. Starring Xavier Samuel and Olivia Newton-John, it follows a groom and his three best men as they travel to the Australian outback for a wedding. “Xavier was fantastic,” Elliott raves. “It was a big challenge for him because he’s not a natural comedian – and he knew that. He had the most difficult role in the film – I remember telling him, ‘this is ‘Die Hard: The Wedding’, and you’re Bruce Willis.’ The outtakes are just him, one after the other, not being able to keep a straight face. The film is so stupid, but I’m really proud of it.”
Elliott heaps praise on high-profile personalities like Newton-John, Hugh Jackman and Magda Szubanski for coming out in support of marriage equality, but acknowledges the difficulties inherent in making such a public pledge. “It’s all about career-saving,” he says. “If you look back, the first one to famously stick his head out was Rupert Everett, and he got really badly burned. His tongue didn’t help either, but his career kind of ended at that point. I think that smarted a lot of people.
“But I think it’s beginning to not be such an issue – I mean who’d have thought Doogie Howser [Neil Patrick Harris] – was gay, and he’s now playing a straight guy in one of the most-watched shows in America.”
Nevertheless, Elliott is ready to put his protest gloves on for the first time. “The whole world is embracing gay marriage,” he states. “Even Brazil has gone there for Christ’s sake! What are we doing? People better get used to this, because I’m going to start making some noise now.”