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When Australian director Steph Elliott was asked to direct an adaptation of Noel Coward’s play, Easy Virtue, he said categorically no. Not his bag, really, is it, after all. But then he was given the green light to make it in his own image, as it were, and in tandem with co-writer Sheridan Jobbins, he went to work. It was both hellish and wonderful, he tells Andrew L. Urban in this [uncensored] interview over pots of tea in the slightly fading glory of an enormous old English-style suite (complete with grand piano for Noel Coward effect) at Sydney’s Sir Stamford Hotel.

Noel Coward didn’t want his works to be museum pieces, says Steph Elliott, and besides, Coward was an angry young 22 year old man when he wrote this play, a melodrama that he closed with a vicious demolition of the hypocrites who have been so awful to Larita (played in the film by Jessica Biel). It was too awful to finish on, Elliott explains. “A bloodbath … it’s brutal…” He and Sheridan Jobbins came up with an ending that perhaps an older Coward might have found….

Indeed, an older Coward and an older Hitchcock – who, inexplicably, made a silent black and white version of the play in 1928, just four years after Coward wrote it. Coward was 22 when he wrote it, Hitchock 23 when he filmed it. Elliott was 33 when he started on it. What would Coward have done ten years later? What would Hitch have done? Steph and Sheridan tried to imagine ….

"vulnerable to the right offer"

When producer Barnaby Thompson offered the film to Elliott, he had received a script that he and Ealing Studios didn’t want. It was time to go in another direction; enter Stephan Elliott, at a moment in his life that was just right for this, although he didn’t perhaps know it at the time. He had just recuperated from a horrendous ski-ing accident that broke his body and should have killed him. He was vulnerable to the right offer. But nothing, not even that huge mountain he smashed into, could take the Steph out of Elliott.

Once he said yes, he inherited “the Kristin Scott Thomas” war; Thompson had been unsuccessfully chasing Kristin for the role of the mother for years, but Kristin remained adamant. She didn’t want to do it. How did Steph win her over? One phrase: “More Disney witch!” That, said Kristin to Steph on the set, “is the worst piece of direction I’ve ever been give…” But she turned around and started to have a blast of a time, says Steph.

Listen to him and Sheridan talk about the tortuous adaptation process, the painful but wonderful process of making the film (including losing financially on a house in Spain when the sale was aborted in favour of making the film), and the day Steph lost it, “screaming with spit flying from my mouth” as he flung down the megaophone, yelling “I can’t work like this!” … and the amazing way the cast responded.

Young Englishman abroad in the late 1920s, John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), falls madly in love with and impetuously marries the slightly older but glamorous American, Larita (Jessica Biel). When he brings her home to the grand old, fading family home to English fox hunt country, his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes an instant dislike to her, as do his younger sisters, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and Marion (Katherine Parkinson). But his war-depressed father (Colin Frith) recognizes another outsider and a domestic war of attrition begins as British upper class mores clash with free spirited New World sensibility.

Published March 12, 2009

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Steph Elliott

Steph Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins talk to Andrew L. Urban (over pots of tea) - 16 minutes


Easy Virtue – Australian release: March 12, 2009

Steph on set with Kristin Scott Thomas

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