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Eye of the Beholder ruined him financially, and then he nearly died in a skiing accident; now, with the film out on DVD in Australia, Steph Elliott is back in business, beholden to no-one and back on the slopes, as he reveals details of a new chapter in his life to Andrew L. Urban.

Eye of the Beholder is the film that financially ruined Steph Elliott. “I lost everything,” he says with feeling. “We got into bed with criminals and they took off with the money. We never got paid and we never will get paid. The film has been financially successful and not one of us [in the creative team] ever saw a cent.” 

The hardest part was that “the film was made with such love and I put my everything into it. I put my house on the line and as people disappeared and financiers took off with the money, I was really forced to hang on bitterly right to the very end and finish the picture under any circumstance myself.” 

"an absolutely extraordinary labour of love"

The original commentary Elliott recorded for the US DVD release was “extraordinary”, even by Elliott’s own, edgy and extraordinary standards. “I was pretty wounded at the time; we’d been through hell and back and I remember it was a totally ‘gloves off’ conversation … I named names, and said this f*wit ruined my life, this f*er cost me my house …it was pretty bad. In fact Sony came back and said they have to cut a lot of it out or we’d end up in court.”

Sadly, we in Australia don’t get even the cut version of his commentary on the DVD. Just the film, in an attempt to find the audience that wasn’t paying attention when the film was (briefly) screening in cinemas. Looking at the film now, though, Elliott sees “an absolutely extraordinary labour of love … that’s how I managed to get through it and do it. And not helped by picking an incredibly difficult book…”

Elliott wrote the screenplay from the novel by Marc Behm, about British Secret Service surveillance agent The Eye (Ewan McGregor), who is assigned to monitor a suspected blackmailer, Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd), his professional decisions are clouded by a growing obsession with his target, fuelled by recurring images of his lost daughter somehow linked to this beautiful woman. As he follows Joanna across America and through some chilling encounters, he starts to detach himself from his control (k.d. lang) at headquarters as he descends into an abyss of tormented feelings he can't fathom, ending up with Joanna at a place that seems like the end of the world.

The film was released in Australia (August 2000) almost exactly five years prior to its DVD release. It was perhaps the most maligned film of the year; much of the critical venom was misplaced. 'Ugly is in The Eye Of The Beholder (Curtis Morgan, Miami Herald), 'impenetrable mess' (Stephen Holden, New York Times) and 'The single worst film David Lynch never made' (Wesley Long, San Francisco Examiner); and so it went. Elliott’s touches of homage to other filmmakers were meanly referred to as ‘rip offs’, ignoring the inclusion of the directors to whom the homage was being paid, in the end credits. 

"deep dark levels of psychological complexity"

But Urban Cinefile’s critics, at least, were positive; did we ‘get it’ while some others didn’t? “This game of hide and seek operates on deep dark levels of psychological complexity in which the film noir staple of cop/secret agent/gumshoe falling for killer is upped by an elusive and (dare I say) metaphysical connection between the two. The Eye's imaginary conversations with his missing daughter pack an emotional punch which makes his double-edged journey an intriguing one. As for Judd's wardrobe and general styling, I say well done,” wrote Richard Kuipers (who continues to review for us, as well as for Variety.)

"A potent mix of the supernatural, intrigue and breathtaking suspense, Eye of the Beholder is a mesmerizing cinematic experience. Compelling and gripping from the beginning of its dazzling opening credits, Steph Elliott's psycho-thriller is as far removed from Welcome to Woop Woop as you could possibly imagine,” wrote Louise. 

And in my own review, I said “The many strengths of Eye of the Beholder include the edgy mood and unpredictability of the action, and the internalisation of the psychological and emotional terrain through the effective soundtrack.”

On the eve of its release here on DVD, Steph Elliott finds himself at a new chapter in his life, having not only survived the financial disaster of Eye of the Beholder, but the physical disaster of a skiing accident in France two years ago that almost killed him. “I broke just about every bone in my body. I nearly died three times. I was told that I wouldn’t live; then I was told I’d never walk again; and that I’d never be able to urinate on my own. Well, now I’ve got most of those things in hand,” he says with a sense of satisfaction. What’s more, he’s talking to me from a Thredbo ski lodge, looking out on the snowfields. Not with envy, but impatience: it’s time for the morning runs; he’s back on skis for the first time since the accident, and he’s “terrified and thrilled all at once. I’m ready to go skiing.”

"I’ve discovered the joy of writing"

The forced break from filmmaking has also spawned a new window of opportunity: Elliott’s been “writing to write, not writing to direct, and I tell, you, it’s great fun. I’ve discovered the joy of writing.”

He has three or four scripts on the go, and has just sold one to Warner Bros, titled Absolutely Unforgiveable. He wrote when he couldn’t move. “I was so doped up on morphine that I actually don’t remember writing it. But the worst part is that Warner Bros think it’s one of the better scripts they’ve been given in 10 years.” The script had been originally developed in the 1980s by Sylvetser Stallone, about a MAFIA boss who takes a baby as collateral over a card game. “It was too Sopranos but Warners loved the idea and they said, what can you do with it. In my strange way, I moved it to London and set it around the European Union, with the Albanians and Croatians coming into London and getting into serious organized crime. I just took a simple concept and turned it into a real story set in London, where I’d been living for the past couple of years.”

It’s quite possible, he says, that he’ll end up writing for the rest of his life; “apparently I’m quite good at it.” After his experience with his last two films (Eye of the Beholder and Welcome to Woop Woop) Elliott feels exhausted by the stress and strain and emotional bashing he feels he’s been given. “I put everything into those films and things went strangely wrong in all sorts of directions. …from inception through writing and making and promoting, it’s three to four years of your life. It’s exhausting.”

With Eye of the Beholder coming out on DVD in Australia, Elliott’s enthusiasm for the film is rekindled. “This was a Canadian and silently Australian/English co-production. It’s an incredibly strange film; and I’m still proud of it. The final credit on it is the 10 filmmakers that have most influenced me, and there’s a little tip of my hat to every one of those somewhere in the film. And I still have that love of movies….”

Published August 25, 2005

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Steph Elliott


Steph with Eye of the Beholder Co-producer Al Clark (who produced Steph's hit, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, 1994)

Steph...on set with Ewan McGregor (above and below)




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