STEPHAN ELLIOTT: SWINGING SAFARI Fondue, fireworks and FellIni

Seen through the eyes of a child, the 70s were certainly a very different period in Australia, full of fondue, beaches, K-Tel, and a myriad of ways to injure yourself. Stephan Elliott’s (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) latest film is a loving ode to that period of childhood. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to the Australian director about his new film Swinging Safari, about how we grew up in that period of history, and what it was like recreating that era for the big screen.

First question that comes from seeing this film, how did kids survive the 70s?

How did we survive the 70s?! That’s the central question of the entire film. I think we survived really well. That is the interesting part. Swinging Safari is very much about a long decade of mistakes, that when you add them all up made for some really interesting kids. We did, what would be considered in this modern age, to be pretty terrible stuff. Especially as a budding filmmaker. Hey if you gave me some matches, a can of petrol, and a super 8 camera then I’d just have to burn everything.

So, there is a fair bit of you in this script?

Absolutely. I started this tour saying “it’s not autobiographical,” but who am I kidding, of course it is.

Was Jaws really that Damascus moment for you?

Jaws was, but also The Towering Inferno.

Ah, the poster in the background in the bedroom!

Yeah, that was a really big one, and I was going to make a lot more of that film, but we got into a rights problem. That was made by Universal and Warner Brothers a long time ago, and they’re still fighting over it. When we put the poster on the wall we found out that half the names on the wall would not approve as they worked for the other studio. So we’ve had to blur names and faces off the poster.

Jaws is there as well, so I gave Jaws all the credit.

You went to a lot of effort to capture the feel of the period. Did Lizzy Gardiner (Costume Designer) have fun sourcing all the fashion that forms the film’s distinctive look?

It wasn’t just Lizzy, this film is very much Colin Gibson’s (Production Designer) too. And Colin walked in straight off (Mad Max) Fury Road with his Oscar. So there’s Lizzy (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Colin, both with their Oscars. So between the two of them it was an absolute marathon effort. We thought, this will be easy we’ll just source op shops, but with so much of that stuff gone, in the last couple months leading up to shoot we had to make everything.

I believe Jeremy Sims’ flesh coloured pant suit was of particular interest?

That was an original from the period, I’ve no idea where Lizzy sourced it. Poor Jeremy turns up to wardrobe and they sprung it on him. Male camel toe is never attractive. What a trooper, he just looked it up and down, did a big sigh, and put it on. He just committed.

Is Lizzy part of the inspiration for the story as well?

Yeah, there is two kids trying to make sense of a rule-less world, where there was no politics to be incorrect about. Lizzy and I have known each other since we were about eight, and that’s very much the subplot of the film – these two kids trying to make sense of this confusing adult world, and that’s very much Lizzy and I. So it’s great to have someone that went through it with you. It was fun. A co-writer and a co-conspirator.

What did the younger cast make of the 70s?

They had no idea. The film’s skewed a little older towards people that went through the period, but what we’re getting from viewers now is them asking, “were kids raised like this?” Because we live in a world now where kids need to be picked up by a motorcade to come home from school.

I believe you allowed a fair bit of improvisation on set?

Absolutely. I had a really good rough model as to who these characters were, and when we sent this script out to the first A-list cast (Guy Pearce, Radha Mitchel, Julian McMahon, Kylie Minogue , Asher Keddie), spectacularly everyone said yes. That has never happened to me before. Once I got them on set, I said, “this is my world but you have to make it your world”. In short – come as your parents. So six of our principal leads got to play their parents. That led to a lot of shock and surprises.

You mentioned in a previous interview that you threw pencils at them if they bored you…

That is an old trick. As soon as you yell “cut” the mood dissipates, and a army of people come on set to do make up and hair. Now that we’ve got digital, you can actually keep rolling – you don’t have to save film, so a trick I’ve learned – and it’s not just me Fellini did it too – is keep rolling, and yell at them between takes. If something is happening, don’t be worried about ruining the sound, just throw things. If it gets stale, throw pencils at them. If it’s getting a bit dark, fart, or whatever. Just get everyone back into the spirit while the camera is still rolling.

It sounds like it was a vastly ambitious shoot. You had, what, about 200 scenes?

It’s the fastest film I ever made, and one of the fastest films I’ve ever seen. We actually had to slow it down after producers and test audiences said it was too fast. So for the first time ever I’ve had to add time into a film. It’s my own fault, most scripts are a scene a page. I was cramming nine or ten scenes a page, and some of them were just a shot. When we first started my line producer looked at me and said, “this is more scenes than any mini-series, and you are trying to do it in 86 minutes!”

And ambitious is the word, it nearly killed us.

Swinging Safari is in cinemas January 18.

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