The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott recalls his youthful obsession with making gory Super 8 movies, a gruesome passion he shares with The Lord of the Rings helmer Peter Jackson.
As he sees it, the schlocky bloody baths, replete with dubious acting ability and low-rent special effects, are something of a right of passage for young filmmakers, particularly for young lads on the cusp of sexual maturity and pumped full of discombobulating testosterone.
“Thankfully I got it out of my system,” he chuckles, as we sit down in a cinema bar in Melbourne to discuss his latest movie, the riotously funny, seriously un-PC Swinging Safari, starring Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, Asher Keddie, Radha Mitchell, Jeremy Sims and Julian McMahon.
Drawn loosely from his loose unit childhood in suburban beachside Sydney and set against the backdrop of Gough Whitlam’s "It’s time" election campaign, it’s an irreverent commentary on '70s Australia. Simultaneously loving and cutting, it depicts the aftermath of a parental key party, which leads to all-out war, while the kids run riot.
“A decade with too much time, too much money and too much cask wine,” goes Richard Roxburgh’s narration.
Newcomer Atticus Rob plays Jeff, the Elliott analogue, a 14-year-old with an overactive imagination who choreographs the stunt-driven homemade movies that gave the film its original title, Flammable Children. That was dropped last-minute, binning expensive publicity material, because it was deemed "too horror movie".
What would Elliott say to that young Super 8-wielding lad if he could step back in time?
“I would say no regrets,” the filmmaker offers. But much like the melancholy heart just under the snort-laughs of Swinging Safari, there is a caveat. “I was so focused and so determined that when people asked me back then what I wanted to do for a living, I was already saying I wanted to be a film director. It’s only recently I realised I lost a large section of my life to ambition.”
That includes coming out far too late, he says. “Because I was far too interested in getting ahead, there was no personal life. I’ve heard from people recently who said, ‘You don’t realise how cute you were. Everybody tried it on and you had no idea.'”
Far from seeking sympathy, Elliott, in the process of moving overseas with long-term partner Wil Bevolley, says he made up for lost time. “It’s been 24 years, with breaks, but he kept coming back, so I look at that wait now and realise I found the right person.”
He admits being perplexed by gay men who often tell him Priscilla was the film that helped them come out, and even more so by parents who say it helped them accept their gay kids. Keddie, joining us, isn’t surprised at all.
“You know why? Because there was so much heart in that film,” she offers. “It was so moving, the father-son relationship, that’s how.”
There’s a similar emotional tug to Swinging Safari buried just beneath the sexually adventurous antics of the distracted parents, all of whom reveal sadness at a better life perceived but never quite grasped. “There’s a pain underneath it all,” Elliott agrees.
The same is true of Jeff and his unfurling friendship with neighbour Melly (Darcey Wilson). Misread by their parents as romantic, they are promptly forced into a bedroom with a pack of condoms. A beached whale that at first becomes a tourist attraction, then horrifies as it slowly rots, strangely mirrors this awkwardness.
“That relationship is still going strong,” Elliott notes of the real-life inspiration for Jeff and Melly. “That’s my costume designer Lizzy Gardiner. We’ve been playing together ever since, and we still fight like cat and dogs, but we’ve got through this incredible test of time and it gave us so much.”
Swinging Safari’s costumes are magnificent, as is the technicoloured production design by fellow Elliot regular Colin Gibson. It’s a film of many manic moving parts whose apparent chaos belies a military precision, all corralled by editor Sue Blainey. “It was a motherf***er to get right,” Elliott laughs. “We were drowning in detail… people even started bringing props in from home.”
Keddie interjects: “I think it’s the kind of film that will benefit from seeing more than once.”
When I sat down with Keddie earlier the same day, she told me there was a great on-set camaraderie. Elliot later backs that’s up – apparently Minogue ruled at schoolyard game Elastics.
“Everyone was very gracious,” Keddie says. “There was no one who wanted to be the centre of attention and Steph just wouldn’t tolerate that behaviour anyway. We’d all turn up, spend half a day in hair and costume, and we were in constant conversation with each other about the '70s.”
Recalling remnants of her parents' dinner parties, she doesn’t think they were quite as raucous, but there was definitely fondue.
Keddie admires Elliott’s all-in style. “I really like that it’s unapologetic. Stephan will never put anything in his films that isn't true, so it either has to be factually truthful or emotionally truthful. Some of it is ‘oh, my god’, but it happened. Some of it feels a little painful, too, and I think that’s cool as well. It’s a tragi-comedy, this life, isn’t it?”
That’s certainly true of Keddie's character, Gale, with the actress's favourite line being, “I was almost Miss Wallaroo." She adds, “Gale’s ambitious, but she’s starting to feel defeated, which I find really sad, and that’s really interesting, that conflict, and in a large ensemble film, those are the kind of things that you have to hang onto to anchor yourself.”
Elliot was amazed all six adult leads said yes – a career-first, apparently – and that he got to recreate a little slice of the Super 8-aided life that made him who he is. “It’s the story of a little boy who grows up to make Priscilla. It’s the building blocks of who I am as a human being. It all happened in this period.”
Swinging Safari is in cinemas now.