Tra­jec­to­ries re­align

Two lo­cal film­mak­ers have re­turned from the cin­e­matic wilder­ness, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

THERE was a real sense that the Aus­tralian film in­dus­try had fi­nally blos­somed in Septem­ber 1994. Within a cou­ple of weeks, direc­tors Stephan El­liott and P. J. Ho­gan de­liv­ered two films that re­main im­printed on the mem­ory: The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wed­ding .

Fif­teen years later, the ca­reers of both direc­tors re­align with the si­mul­ta­ne­ous release this week of their lat­est in­ter­na­tional films, El­liott’s Easy Virtue and Ho­gan’s Con­fes­sions of a Shopa­holic .

It would be nice to say they’ve each fol­lowed an up­ward tra­jec­tory since 1994, but un­for­tu­nately that’s not the case. The direc­tors have taken dif­fer­ent paths in ca­reers that only em­pha­sise the de­spair­ing na­ture of mod­ern film­mak­ing and the fickle na­ture of life.

It was easy to be­lieve that El­liott and Ho­gan were part a resur­gence of Aus­tralian film, fol­low­ing the new wave of the 1970s.

Baz Luhrmann had ar­rived with Strictly Ball­room in 1992, Jane Cam­pion de­liv­ered The Pi­ano the fol­low­ing year, and Priscilla and Muriel in 1994 pre­ceded Chris Noo­nan’s Babe and Scott Hicks’s Shine in 1996.

All of th­ese films were em­braced by crit­ics and audiences alike, and earned in­ter­na­tional ac­claim. At the lo­cal box of­fice, both Priscilla and Muriel earned more than $ 15 mil­lion, Priscilla ’ s $ 16.4 mil­lion plac­ing it in the top 10 Aus­tralian re­leases. Th­ese are as­tound­ing fig­ures for films that rev­elled in the new gauche com­edy that fol­lowed Strictly Ball­room and opened the door for Kath & Kim.

We had al­ways been able to laugh at our­selves on screen, from the Dad and Dave films through to Barry McKen­zie, but Priscilla and Muriel were some­thing else. Rough but real.

The two films also con­firmed the tal­ents of a bounty of new ac­tors, namely Toni Col­lette, Rachel Grif­fiths, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weav­ing.

Even bet­ter for the lo­cal in­dus­try, both films were mar­keted as bona fide con­tenders by Road­show En­ter­tain­ment. It told audiences th­ese films were as good as, if not bet­ter than, any­thing Hol­ly­wood was pro­duc­ing.

But you’re only as good as your next film, and that is where El­liott’s and Ho­gan’s paths di­verged. Ho­gan was feted by Hol­ly­wood at the same time that his wife, Jo­ce­lyn Moorhouse, was mak­ing her own way af­ter di­rect­ing Proof . Steven Spiel­berg asked her to di­rect How to Make an Amer­i­can Quilt , so the cou­ple moved to LA in 1994, be­fore Muriel’s Wed­ding was re­leased there. Ho­gan was in pre-pro­duc­tion on The First Wives Club , star­ring Goldie Hawn and Bette Mi­dler, but jumped off be­cause he wasn’t al­lowed creative con­trol. He di­rected My Best Friend’s Wed­ding , with Ju­lia Roberts, then Hol­ly­wood’s most bank­able star, hav­ing cho­sen him as her pre­ferred di­rec­tor. The frothy ro­man­tic com­edy, also star­ring Cameron Diaz, earned $ US300 mil­lion world­wide. Ho­gan had de­liv­ered. Then Ho­gan’s 2002 film, Un­con­di­tional Love , be­came an un­con­di­tional flop and his next, Peter Pan , filmed on the Gold Coast, was a $ 135 mil­lion, big-bud­get bust.

He then con­cen­trated on di­rect­ing Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion, and his wife de­vel­oped the adap­ta­tion of Mur­ray Bail’s Eu­ca­lyp­tus , star­ring Nicole Kid­man, Rus­sell Crowe and Weav­ing. That came to a scream­ing halt in 2005.

Ho­gan might have heeded his own warn­ing from 1997 when he told The Week­end Aus­tralian Mag­a­zine ’ s Cameron Ste­wart of his early ca­reer in Aus­tralia: ‘‘ I had a knack for writ­ing for shows that were can­celled.’’

And so it was in the US. He di­rected a pi­lot of Dark Shad­ows and was work­ing with writer Marc Cherry to di­rect the first episode of a new se­ries called Des­per­ate Housewives . As Bill Carter writes in his book Des­per­ate Net­works , Ho­gan didn’t get on with the show’s cre­ator and left the project in queru­lous cir­cum­stances af­ter their first day to­gether. The de­ci­sion to walk away from what be­came Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar drama prob­a­bly cost him mil­lions, as key cre­atives in­volved in de­vel­op­ing a TV se­ries are en­ti­tled to on­go­ing resid­ual pay­ments. As re­cently as last year, Ho­gan pro­duced and di­rected the pi­lot of a Grey’s Anatomy knock-off, Nurses ( also known as Philadel­phia Gen­eral ), al­though it wasn’t picked up.

El­liott’s jour­ney from The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla wasn’t as sto­ried, al­though he has hit his own hur­dles.

The first was the hubris that al­lowed him to make the coarse, bois­ter­ous com­edy Wel­come to Woop Woop af­ter Priscilla . He then tried a re­make of the 1983 French thriller Deadly Cir­cuit , Eye of the Be­holder , which be­came some­thing of a fi­asco, amus­ingly cap­tured in Lizzy Gar­diner’s rudi­men­tary doc­u­men­tary on the ex­pe­ri­ence, Killing Priscilla . El­liott bankrupted him­self af­ter some of the film’s fi­nanc­ing fell through dur­ing pro­duc­tion and he picked up the slack. That wasn’t as trau­matic as a ski­ing ac­ci­dent in 2004 that al­most killed him. At one point dur­ing his hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion, he was told he would never walk again. He re­cov­ered slowly.

El­liott was asked to adapt Priscilla for the stage; he didn’t care much for his movie and didn’t make any money from it. But he kept writ­ing un­til he de­liv­ered what the pro­duc­ers wanted, and the mu­si­cal has had a suc­cess­ful run here and will open this month on Lon­don’s West End. That is where El­liott stands to make mul­ti­ples of the money he should have earned from the film 15 years ago.

But it is his lat­est film, an adap­ta­tion of Noel Cow­ard’s Easy Virtue , that has El­liott back in the main game. It’s a breezy and well-re­ceived film star­ring Kristin Scott-Thomas and the un­likely Jes­sica Biel.

Ho­gan’s Con­fes­sions of a Shopa­holic is hav­ing a tougher time. A film about a con­spic­u­ous con­sumer has ar­rived amid a belt-tight­en­ing global re­ces­sion. It’s too es­capist, even for the movies.

One could ar­gue that the glacial pace of mod­ern film­mak­ing hasn’t suited ei­ther Ho­gan or El­liott. They would have ex­celled in the stu­dio sys­tems of the 1940s and ’ 50s where they could work their tal­ents on a film a year, most prob­a­bly on perky ro­man­tic come­dies and so­cial satires in the vein of Pre­ston Sturges and Dou­glas Sirk.

As it is, both direc­tors are in their 40s and their ca­reers are still young. They need not worry about what might have been, rather what still could be. Con­fes­sions of a Shopa­holic and Easy Virtue open on Thurs­day.

Un­for­tu­nate tim­ing: P. J. Ho­gan shoots a scene from Con­fes­sions of a Shopa­holic , about a con­spic­u­ous con­sumer

Suc­cess: Guy Pearce and Hugo Weav­ing in Priscilla

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