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WELCOME TO WOOP WOOP

SUBVERSION IN THE OUTBACK
Australian cinema’s enfant terrible, Stephan Elliott, has made three films, and each one has been launched at the temple of cinematic arts, the Cannes Film Festival. His latest, Welcome to Woop Woop, is his most subversive and risky to date. ANDREW L. URBAN followed Elliott and the film from the outback locations in Central Australia to its world premiere midnight screening at Cannes.

After the success of Priscilla, Stephan Elliott was wooed by Hollywood’s most powerful movers and shakers, with some highly seductive offers, the biggest being a chance to direct the blockbuster disaster movie, Twister. He said no.

"I have my own similar film which was already written. Again, it's a twisted version of Twister but it wasn’t just that. I had a real think about it and that was enough. It was effects driven, it was very, very, very, very big. (Costume designer) Lizzie (Gardiner) had been around me in Los Angeles during the time I was there and she moved into a $50 million movie and I saw the hell that she went through."

"I realised it was going to be bit of bunfight." on First Wives Club

There were other temptations: "First Wives Club, that was a huge one; now I really toyed with that one and even went as far as meeting all the actresses but I realised it was going to be bit of bunfight. Sure, I could have done it. But would I be happy doing it? Absolutely not. But it was seeing Lizzie that really made up my mind, the hell that she went through, I mean absolute hell, at that stage in her career, coming home every night bursting into tears. All she could do was cry."

For three years Stephan Elliott was in development hell, as he calls it: "Every studio, sub-studio, mini major and major was taking an interest - and then it doesn't happen; or then wants Sharon Stone in without asking you and then back we go. A couple of companies promised us absolute control and freedom - of course, then we'd find ourselves in the American system with no control, no freedom, wanting script changes and so it went."

"So he shut the door on Hollywood. At least for a while."

So he shut the door on Hollywood. At least for a while. It was neither easy nor profitable. Elliott finally realised he had to go back to work as a director for hire and started looking for other people’s scripts. "I got stuck at the BAFTAs one night, pissed as a fart with (executive producer) Nick Powell, who introduced me to (producer) Finola Dwyer. I said I just can't find a decent script here even if I did want it and Nick sort of pulled one out of the bag and said: "Have a read of this" and lo and behold it was pretty good."

But that draft - The Big Red, as it was then called - was to undergo major surgery before it came to be shot.

"...twisted it to a much more funny way rather than a cruel way of looking at it."

"I got a very dark script, it was very tough looking, quite a mean look at Australia and a lot of people thought it was very cool. On reading through, I took one look and I realised it was a black comedy and not big on the comedy, as was Douglas Kennedy's book - which I haven't read. And I just took one look at it and said: "Having been through the experience of making a black comedy [Frauds], I don't really know whether people are interested at this point in time. So I just said we have to broaden this out and I began to put the Steph stamp on it and literally twisted everything around, even the perceptions that (screenplay writer) Michael Thomas gave me and then twisted it to a much more funny way rather than a cruel way of looking at it."

Welcome to Woop Woop (Kennedy’s book is called The Dead Heart, no relation to the Nick Parsons film of the same name released in 1996) is at once a fish-out-water story, love story and a redemption fable, but disguised beneath Elliott’s bravura style which will no doubt offend many.

"The audience seemed dumbstruck by the film’s Australian iconology"

At the midnight screening at the Cannes Film festival, the audience seemed dumbstruck by the film’s Australian iconology, and clapped quietly. But the buyers came round the next morning, making offers.

It is the story of Teddy (Johnathon Schaech), a young New York hustler on the run who ends up in Woop Woop, Australia’s equivalent to Timbuktoo, a tiny desert community run by Daddy-O (Rod Taylor). Teddy’s first problem is Daddy-O’s daughter Angie (Susie Porter), a sex-crazed tomboy with big plans for Teddy. The bizarre little place is more akin to a fifedom or open prison, under the personal control of Daddy-O, whose grand vision and patriotic fervour stir the hearts of his community. Except for Teddy. And then there is the big red … ?

But producer Finola Dwyer, who nursed the project to reality, says it’s "very funny but also very frightening. It’s a story of every man’s fantasy that turns into every man’s nightmare."

A bit like the making of the film itself, in fact: just as shooting was about to start, Stephan Elliott came down with hepatitis, holding up the production, jeopardising it in fact. But everybody held on, and when Elliott came back, "looking very yellow," Rod Taylor says, but feeling very gung-ho. And off they went to Woop Woop.

ONLY FLIES KNOW WHERE
We’re 35 kms out of Alice Springs but only the 45,000 flies (who are all quite small, but acrobatically trained to balance on a single human eyelid without a safety net) know where Woop Woop is - or was. Was because it’s no longer there. It never was. It was created by the production design and art direction team from the film, in the crook of an L-shaped formation of rising sand hills, which later were turned into a circle, thanks to digital effects at Photon Stockman. Just before I melt in the desert heat, the flies are sucking me dry. But can’t complain: I’m only here for an hour. They were here for three weeks, to shoot some of the key scenes in Welcome to Woop Woop.

Co-producer Antonia Barnard is my guide, as we drag ourselves around the abandoned village, made of corrugated iron and timber, same colour as the red dirt that passes for earth around here.

"There are 400 Cherry Ripes melting in a basket"

There are 400 Cherry Ripes melting in a basket, countless tins of pineapple chunks, some of the props that range from regular kitsch to the surreal. All the interiors are dressed with bric a brac from hell in magnificent mess, and some of the costumes at the Christmas party includes a dress made from the silvery innards of wine casks.

A can mountain looms a dozen metres into the air: the cans are empty XXX beer cans. I wonder to myself who drank it all. I’m told they were donated by the brewery. Empty. Gee, thanks. Inside the beer can hillock is 500 metres of copper piping. Film sets are bizarre places, really.

Later that evening, the unit has moved to a barn for some interior shots. The barn was rechristened a ‘studio’. During a short break from filming, actress Dee Smart shared a coffee with me. She plays Krystal, Angie’s sister. "I read it and thought it was vile," she says of the script. "I told him, how could this be funny? Then, after talking it through with him, I realised."

"This is like working on a Coen brothers film…" Jonathan Schaech

Schaech, a good looking American who is taking this comic role very seriously, has nothing but praise for Elliott’s sensibilities. "He’s got tenacity to get good work and he listens. He can turn a scene into comedy and he’s a great story teller. This is like working on a Coen brothers film…"

Susie Porter, who was "a really naughty kid . . . the class clown …" plays a sex-driven young woman with a devilish plan, loved every bit of the location work, and found Elliott "the best ever. He works on surprise and is incredibly energetic."

A LAST KISS GOODBYE
Elliott has not only twisted the black story into a romp and given Barry Humphries a whacky cameo role, he added music so inappropriate that it all tumbles from the derailed to the surreal.

"It's not a musical comedy, it's a comedy with music. Best way to describe it," he says. There is Rodgers and Hammerstein II everywhere, and while getting the rights was a feat in itself, the use of the music, as Elliott readily admits, is risky: "It’s incredibly subversive - much more than anything I've done before…"

"This is my homage, my goodbye to a great piece of Australian culture that I think is just terrific." Steph Elliott

But on another level, the film is a showcase for some almost fossilised Australiana: "It's blowing one last big kiss goodbye to the mass of old Australian culture which is disappearing; 50's, 40's, 60's culture which is just about to go and we’ve been out there in Alice Springs and we've been travelling - there is beer guzzling, there is sexism. . . you name it, it still exists out there, but slowly the city is trying to pretend that it doesn't. It will eventually disappear; it is disappearing. This is my homage, my goodbye to a great piece of Australian culture that I think is just terrific."

The mantra on set has been ‘Go for it!’ Nothing is too outrageous, nothing is too risky, no invention too fantastic, no line too vulgar. But Elliott is ready to defend it all.

"Who cares: fuck it, it's funny."

"People will look at this film and say: "Oh, he's pressing the old buttons again" but they're fun buttons. People will just roll their eyes and go: "Here we go again" but you know, who cares: fuck it, it's funny."

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"The film is a showcase for some almost fossilised Australiana"

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"Film sets are bizarre places, really."

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"It’s a story of every man’s fantasy that turns into every man’s nightmare."

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"I got stuck at the BAFTAs one night, pissed as a fart with (executive producer) Nick Powell, who introduced me to (producer) Finola Dwyer."

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"It was seeing Lizzie that really made up my mind, the hell that she went through, I mean absolute hell, at that stage in her career, coming home every night bursting into tears."

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See our REVIEWS

See Andrew L. Urban's interview with
ROD TAYLOR

See Paul Fischer's interview with
SUSIE PORTER

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