STEPHAN ELLIOTT hates weddings. In fact, he has a phobia of them. Quite surprising really, considering the Aussie director has just made a wedding film and become something of a poster boy for the current gay marriage debate back home. The 48-year-old has been with his partner Wil Bevolley for 20 years, but only came out publicly in January at the inaugural Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTA).
“I thought it was time to get involved in the debate because I could see it going backwards,” he says.
Unsurprisingly though, Elliott’s new film, A Few Best Men starring Xavier Samuel, Kris Marshall and Olivia Newton-John, is not your average feel-good rom com. Instead, it’s a wedding day disaster flick that sees three British buffoons cause havoc when they fly to Oz for their best mate’s nuptials.
“This is a bad taste, fart joke, wedding movie,” says Elliott unapologetically. He’s not wrong — the big day involves binge-drinking best men, a coke-snorting cougar mother-in-law and a sheep dressed in drag.
Given that he spent his teens shooting wedding videos, Elliott has plenty of experience to draw upon.
“The amount of bad behaviour I’ve witnessed over the years at weddings has been terrifying,” he laughs. “Part of me was like ‘I want to do a tits-up wedding film because I’ve been to millions of them’. Trust me, the film is not quite the script we started with.”
Written by Dean Craig (Death at A Funeral), the most dramatic of Elliott’s tweaks is the mother-in-law character played by his long-time friend, Olivia Newton-John. The role is a huge departure from her usual wholesome image.
“O N-J has crossed into the territory of iconic,” says Elliott. “I rewrote the character as the uptight woman who goes completely mad and she kind of embraced it. There was one day on set she looked at me and said ‘Am I ever going to work again?’ and I said ‘No, so you may as well just enjoy it while you’re here’.”
Defiling Australia’s sweetheart aside, Elliott says he was attracted to the script because he — and the world — needed a good giggle.
“I’d been living in the UK for 15 years and I could see where it was going when the Cameron government came in. They were talking about shutting down film councils, Europe was falling apart, and I’d had a very bad skiing accident in 2004 that had knocked nearly a decade out of me,” he says.
The accident in the French Alps, which saw him break his back, pelvis and legs, topped off what had been a pretty tumultuous decade. Following the global success of The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert in 1994, Elliott’s next two films – Welcome to Woop Woop (1997) and Eye of the Beholder (1999) – bombed. Disillusioned, he quit showbiz and lived in self-imposed exile abroad, before his near-death experience on the slopes gave him the perspective to enter the lion’s den again.
“I realised I was basically lucky to be alive — I shouldn’t be alive, I shouldn’t even be walking,” he says. Four years of physical rehab followed, during which Elliott wrote the stage adaptation of Priscilla that has wowed the West End, Broadway, and audiences back home. In 2007, he finally got behind the camera again to direct Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jessica Biel in the acclaimed comedy Easy Virtue.
With A Few Best Men, Elliott hasn’t so much as answered his critics, as gotten into a spat with one of them. He took umbrage when veteran film critic Jim Schembri from The Age branded the film ”a witless, brainless, gormless, senseless, tasteless and — worst of all — laughless comedy”. Ouch. Elliott retaliated publicly at the AACTA Awards and the controversy continued for several days with both sides having their say.
“For the first time in my career I said ‘that’s enough’,” says Elliott. “As far as I’m concerned your job as a reviewer is to know what the genre is. If you don’t like the movie, that’s fair enough, but you’ve got to know what the genre is.”
Elliott’s self-described “big, dumb comedy” went on to gross a respectable $5.4 million at the Aussie box office; Schembri resigned in March, after 28 years with the paper, following allegations he had intimidated people who criticised him on Twitter.
While the film may not be to everyone’s taste, you’ve got to admire Elliott’s chutzpah. Gloria Gaynor’s iconic disco anthem “I Will Survive” featured on his first hit, but it could well be the soundtrack to Elliott’s life. And whatever more life throws at him, somehow you know he’s going to do just that.
‘A Few Best Men’ is in UK cinemas now and screening at FilmFest Australia