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