Aussie director rewrites playwright Noel Cowardby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Not a lot of people would have the guts, or perhaps the gall, to rewrite Noel Coward - but Stephan Elliott did. The Australian director just co-wrote and directed a film adaptation of "Easy Virtue." It's an early Coward play, starring Minnesota native Jessica Biel.
St. Paul, Minn. — Stephan Elliot looks fine now, but in 2004 he almost died in a skiing accident in the French Alps. He claims he was high on morphine when someone gave him a contract to write and direct "Easy Virtue."
"It was only when I woke up a year and a half later and I realized that we were deeply involved in it that we were rewriting Noel Coward," he said.
Elliott admits this is dangerous stuff, especially for him as an Australian who now lives in England. Noel Coward is still held in high regard in the U.K. Elliott said he discovered the idea of a colonial such as himself tampering with the master's famed wit and words did not sit well with some.
"We did upset quite a few people in the U.K. by doing it," he said. "So it was fun just for that alone."
"Easy Virtue" tells the story of an American woman called Larita, played by Jessica Biel. She marries John Whittaker, the eldest son of an aristocratic English family. When he takes her back to live in the ancestral home, things go quite badly. The family doesn't approve of her, and she chafes at a life bound by tradition and etiquette.
Sheridan Jobbins co-wrote the adaptation of the play with Elliott. She said it's clear Coward's sympathies lie with Larita.
"He's the master of subversion," Jobbins said. "I mean his ability to be the outsider looking in is extraordinary. I mean he is almost like a doctor. He is surgical in the way he analyzes character and all the rest of it, and then he is funny to boot."
But Jobbins and Elliot wanted to bring the film into the 21st century, and so they did some analysis of their own. Coward wrote "Easy Virtue" as a young man, shortly after the end of World War I. He did not fight in the conflict, although he was to serve as an allied spy during the Second World War.
They began imagining how an older, more experienced, Coward would handle the material. As a result some of the characters changed a great deal. For example Mr. Whittaker, Larita's new father-in-law was a background character in the play who didn't say much. Elliott went looking for a reason for his reticence.
"So we went back and looked at that character," he said. "And we said we are going to look at a man who, and we did the research, was the only man of his entire village that came back alive, and that man had to come back and live in a village entirely of widows."
The final script was Coward mixed with some Elliott and Jobbins. Elliott said his approach to direction was a mixture too. "Easy Virtue" had been made into a film before - as a silent movie with a young Alfred Hitchcock directing. Again Elliott imagined how an older Hitchcock would have made the film and went with that.
That being said, Sheridan Jobbins said this is very much Elliott's film.
"Stephan is very much the Jessica Biel character in the film, in that he doesn't like period films, he is the outsider, he's an Australian who lives in Britain," Jobbins said. "I think he was very sympathetic to somebody as beautiful and creative as she is."
Elliott had another issue to deal with: his actors. While American Jessica Biel has a great deal of experience on camera, she was going to be working with people Elliott calls British acting royalty, including Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth.
Elliott sensed there was tension between his two leading ladies. Given they were playing new bride and new mother-in-law, he decided to up the ante by having wardrobe make Biel even more stunning, and Scott Thomas more dowdy. He said it got very frosty some days.
"And they dealt with it," he said. "They dealt with a lot of their issues on camera. It was very human, and it gives the film a real freshness because there are one or two moments there that are so real, that I am not doing any direction and they are not acting, and it's great."
Before making "Easy Virtue," Stephan Elliott had actually given up show business after a couple of flops. But he's back now with a vengeance. In addition to "Easy Virtue," his stage adaptation of his film "Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert" is headed to Broadway.
- Morning Edition, 06/05/2009, 8:45 a.m.