In 1997, Stephan Elliott was sitting pretty. After making a soft debut in 1993 with the little seen but well regarded black comedy, Frauds, the director’s second film had put him on the cinematic map with a loud, flamboyant bang. 1994’s The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert was a hit of mammoth proportions, with its picaresque tale of three loveable drag queens driving through the Australian outback hitting the type of chord with audiences rarely seen before or since. The film boasted an extraordinary vibrancy, brilliant performances from Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp and Bill Hunter, and subject matter just daring enough to provide a little edge and danger. The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert would inspire cult adoration and, much later, a highly successful stage musical. In short, it’s the kind of film that most Australian directors could only dream about making – it enjoyed widespread popularity, but sacrificed nothing in the even more coveted areas of integrity and originality.
But for the outspoken and bitingly witty Stephan Elliott, it represented the beginning of a waking nightmare. Temporarily high on the film’s success, Elliott’s prodigious gifts as a writer and director weren’t enough to keep him dry from the storms of studio interference and bad luck that would soon come rumbling his way. “Nobody was ready for the success of Priscilla,” Stephan Elliott told FilmInk in 2008. “After that, I was offered a lot of big Hollywood films. I tried to do a couple of films, and I only lasted a couple of weeks. I just wasn’t built for it. I started work on a very big film that eventually got made which starred a lot of big actresses. For the first two weeks, we were arguing over whose name goes first in the credits. After the third week of that, I just excused myself, went to the toilet, and walked out.”
Gleefully telling FilmInk that he never really wanted to “penetrate the golden ring” of Hollywood, Elliott’s walk-out on what can be safely assumed was the big budget comedy, The First Wives Club, eventually led him back to Australia. In a typically ironic twist, he was lured back by a trio of Brits: producer Finola Dwyer (who had previously worked on Backbeat), and executive producers and Scala Productions partners, Nik Powell (Backbeat, The Crying Game, Mona Lisa) and Stephen Woolley (Michael Collins, The Company Of Wolves). The three had optioned a book called The Dead Heart by Douglas Kennedy, and were keen to turn it into a movie. The debut novel by the former travel writer, The Dead Heart is a blackly comic thriller about an American journalist who heads to Australia looking for adventure and gets much more than he bargained for, landing smack bang in the middle of a country charred by stinking heat and populated by violent grotesques. Owing a debt to Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 stranger-in-a-strange-land masterpiece, Wake In Fright, producer Finola Hughes called the book “very funny. I laughed a lot,” she said in 1998, “but there was also a great underlying tension. It was a real rollercoaster of a story.”
When Douglas Kennedy left the project after submitting a first draft screenplay (leading to minor acrimony between the author and the production), the producers brought in writer Michael Thomas to complete the script. Having previously written or co-written the impressive likes of The Hunger, Ladyhawke, Burke & Wills, Scandal and Backbeat, Thomas was no fan of the original novel. “The novel’s called Dead Heart, but there was already a movie called that,” the screenwriter tells FilmInk. “I called the movie Fuck Me Dead, but I lost that argument. I tried Bloodnut, but I lost that one too. It’s a hammy book, but we liked the idea. You can read the novelist’s recycled self-serving moans and groans, but the word that he’s looking for is ‘thanks’ for putting this loser on the map. The book’s main problem was the perp modelled on the novelist, namely a soul-searching, vagrant writer type. Nothing’s more depressing. I made him a small time hustler.”
It would be the first of many, many changes. Finola Hughes’ search for a director eventually led her to Stephan Elliott. “Steph is a director with a great vision and a strong sense of how he sees the film,” the producer said in 1998. “He’s always turning ideas on their heads, and surprising us all, even himself.” Once offered the film, Elliott pretty much took over the script after initial work done with Michael Thomas. “We met in LA and we did a few drafts,” Thomas says. “We had a lot of laughs. He’s a mate of mine.” Once on his own, Elliott didn’t even bother reading Douglas Kennedy’s book. “I still haven’t read it, and I refuse to,” the director told Filmink in 1998. “You should stay clean and go forward with what you see.”
Elliott instantly set about infusing this Australia/UK co-production – with finance provided by American company, MGM – with his own personal flourishes, though he ended up not taking a screen credit for his writing work. “It was Stephan’s idea to make the lead character a bird smuggler because he’s a twitcher,” laughs Thomas. Elliott, however, was deadly serious when it came to the film, which was then titled The Big Red. “When I was out there in the desert for Priscilla, I saw a side of Australia that I didn’t know existed, and it wasn’t pretty. I made the nice sparkly version of Priscilla, with one nasty little scene,” Elliott says, referring to the ugly sequence in which Guy Pearce’s drag queen is nearly killed by backwater bigots. “I saw another side of Australia out there. I nearly got my head bashed in about four times. I thought, ‘Okay, hang on, we don’t put these parts in Priscilla, do we?’ But that really is what I wanted this new film to be about.”
As redrafted by Stephan Elliott, the story begins in New York City where con man, Teddy – who has been selling rare Australian birds from the back of a truck – is forced to flee the US when the stripper who is working for him goes crazy and shoots two men. Flying to Australia, Teddy drives a van into the country’s blistering red centre, where he picks up a sexy hitchhiker named Angie. Teddy thinks that he’s onto a good thing, but Angie knocks him out, drugs him, and takes him home to her shit-heap of a hometown, pungently named Woop Woop. Upon waking up, Teddy discovers that while out cold, he was married to Angie in a public ceremony, and is now this backwater’s newest resident. He also has to contend with Angie’s father, Daddy-O, a towering presence who rules the town with an iron fist, but tempers it with his love for the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein, which is played non-stop on the radio, and permeates every grain of dirt in the barren and hideously ugly Woop Woop. Teddy eventually tries to escape with the help of Angie’s sister, the dowdy and decent Krystal, but what lies just outside Woop Woop is just as ugly and weird as what festers away inside the town’s confines.
“It’s a major attack on political correctness,” Stephan Elliott told FilmInk of the film in 1998. “You step back in time, and Daddy-O is a racist pig; basically he’s Pauline Hanson. It’s like a One Nation world happening back there. I played with a lot of taboos…it was great fun using the c-word, saying cunt for the first time really hard. For me, it was an exercise in political incorrectness, trying to cause trouble but with a sense of humour.”
When it came time to cast the film, Elliott’s love of causing trouble was in full effect. He desperately wanted controversial right wing politician, Pauline Hanson, to play the role of Ginger, Daddy-O’s crass, disgusting wife, who spends much of the film drinking beer, smoking ciggies, and dropping her guts. The film’s producers, however, were not quite as bold as Elliott, and ultimately talked him out of what could have been a casting masterstroke. “I thought it would be great,” the director told The Daily Telegraph. “It would have been a fantastic joke, and I was ready to make a formal approach.” Sadly, Hanson’s then-advisor, David Oldfield, said that she probably wouldn’t have taken the role anyway. “If Stefan’s casting for a remake of Joan Of Arc, we might think about it,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “We would put Pauline forward as The Maid Of Ipswich.”
The role of Ginger was ultimately played by Maggie Kirkpatrick, a figure almost as iconic as Pauline Hanson for her unforgettable portrayal of vicious “screw”, Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, on the legendary TV series, Prisoner. And while Pauline Hanson was never given a shot at big screen fame, former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, allegedly considered taking a role in the film. Elliott was so convinced that Hawke would be perfect in the cameo role of the frothing, disgusting petrol station attendant, Blind Wally, that he pursued the retired politico relentlessly. “I chased him for months,” Elliott told The Daily Telegraph. “From what I hear, he seriously considered doing it.” Once again, the role was eventually filled by an equally iconic Australian figure in the form of Barry Humphries.
For the role of American con man Teddy, Elliott once again took the road less travelled. Though big names Patrick Swayze and Matthew Broderick were in contention for the lead, Elliot eventually went with handsome young actor Johnathon Schaech, who was then starting to generate heat from his captivating performances in Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s How To Make An American Quilt, Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, and Gregg Araki’s sexually confronting indie, The Doom Generation. “John was a complete knockout in that film,” Elliott told FilmInk in 1998. “The scene where he’s eating his own sperm has to be one of the cinema’s toughest. I thought, ‘This boy’s got balls!’”
Despite his growing heat, Schaech was more than happy to gamble on making the long haul to Australia to star in this highly unusual film. “I was in a place in my career where everyone was coming to me,” the actor tells FilmInk. “I was on the cover of Vanity Fair, and I was supposedly the next big thing. The intrigue was all about Stephan Elliott though. Why wouldn’t I wanna work with one of the hottest new directors around? I wanted to do a comedy, and it was so unique and different. It was a no-brainer at the time. Australians have always played a big, positive part in my life. Jocelyn Morehouse had given me my big Hollywood break in How To Make An American Quilt; my skydive instructor was Australian, God bless his soul. I also worked with the gorgeous and talented Nicky Whelan on Flight 7500. They’re all very Australian Australians, and they all mark big accomplishments or adventures in my life. I love Australians!”
The rest of the cast was filled with faces and names familiar to many Australians, including Richard Moir, Strictly Ballroom’s Paul Mercurio, Rachel Griffiths, and one-time A Current Affair media “sensations”, Shane and Bindi Paxton. Elliott tapped Susie Porter and Dee Smart to play the major roles of Angie and Krystal, respectively, but the big casting coup came when Rod Taylor – the legendary Australian actor who had found fame internationally in the sixties with The Time Machine and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – signed on to play their father, the brutal, boorish Daddy-O. “He was dying to play an Australian,” screenwriter Michael Thomas told author Stephen Vagg for his book, Rod Taylor: An Aussie In Hollywood. “He was great; he really ate it up.”
It was only Taylor’s third Australian role in a career of over forty films. “He was amazed that he’d spent most of his life playing Americans,” said Thomas. Though the part was originally offered to Jack Thompson (“He took one look at the script and never spoke to me again,” says Thomas), Taylor made it his own. “He wasn’t up himself,” says Thomas in Rod Taylor: An Aussie In Hollywood. “He didn’t give off any Hollywood vibes, and didn’t insist on any special treatment. He really entered into the spirit of the thing.”
With his cast and locations in place, the start of production came to a grinding halt when Stephan Elliott was struck with jaundice. “Shooting didn’t start when it was supposed to,” says Johnathon Schaech. “Stephan got sick, and I had to wait for around two months. I stayed in Bondi Beach and explored Sydney. When we finally started filming, we took a small crew out first and went to some outback towns that frankly felt like something out of Star Wars. Remote isn’t even a word to describe them. I loved when we went into the desert and filmed. Seeing the big red kangaroos up close was absolutely amazing. They looked like people when they stood up, and honestly, they looked like, well, Star Wars creatures. There was a certain freedom sleeping in huts and trailers for that first week. It made the filming process truly special.”
The shoot went for eight weeks, with six spent at Mount Ooramina (forty kilometres from Alice Springs), along with two weeks in Sydney, and a three-day shoot in New York. At the blistering Mount Ooramina, temperatures rose on some days to fifty degrees. Though constantly batting away flies and wiping the sweat off his face, Johnathon Schaech was surprisingly in his element. “Having spent so much time in Australia prior to filming, I was very well rehearsed and roaring to go,” he says. “I’m an acting geek, so I soak it all in. Dee Smart and Susie Porter were just a hoot to work with. My parents came out to visit me, and my father said, ‘I’ve never been around such pretty young ladies with such foul mouths! They speak like angry sailors!’ But Rod Taylor was the one that I learned the most from. Here’s an old school movie star who just couldn’t have been a better mate. He did a dance sequence in the movie as if he was twenty-years-old again. He nearly collapsed when it was over, and I know that he was in a great deal of pain. Rod’s a man’s man, and a true superstar.”
During the hot, often draining shoot, Elliott applied more of his own sensibilities to the film, with his regular and utterly brilliant costume designer, Lizzy Gardiner (who had won an Oscar for Priscilla), and gifted production designer, Owen Paterson, turning the town of Woop Woop into a surreal meld of Mad Max, Wake In Fright and Skippy. Says Schaech: “I remember thinking while making the movie, ‘I am just like my character! I’m trapped in the middle of nowhere as these people do whatever they want with me! When Lizzy Gardiner dressed me in Dolce & Gabbana panties and put them on my head, I realised that I wasn’t in America anymore!”
Elliott pushed his actors right over the top, twisting the material into a campy cacophony of screeching and bellowing unseen since the likes of The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie and the Ocker comedies of the seventies. “I make movies to keep myself entertained,” Elliott told FilmInk in 1998. “I don’t mind being quite selfish about this. Once you start getting into the business of giving everybody what they want, you’re effectively making American movies.”
Was Maryland-born Schaech alarmed by the litany of Aussie dialogue and broad-as-batshit colloquialism that was being fired off around him? “I found it hilarious,” the actor replies. “My goal was to appear in unique films made from the passion of a visionary’s heart. Stephan owns that. I just didn’t realise that we were purposely offending Australians when we were making it. I just thought, ‘I’m going to introduce America to a whole world that they’ve never seen before.’” Schaech had initially hoped to be more involved with the film’s weirdness and ribaldry. “Playing the straight character in this unique world was a choice put upon me,” he explains. “I really wanted to have bigger elements to my character. I wanted really big hair, for instance. Once I saw where the story was going, I wanted to be a more active participant. Growing up in Baltimore, I wanted to make big and bold character choices like [director] John Waters would. I wanted Teddy to be more abrasive in the beginning, so he’d change more by the end. But I came to realise early on that I was to be the subject of the jokes. To be funny was for me to be made fun of. And honestly, I was cool with that. Looking back, I would have had a stronger Brooklyn accent and an attitude like Marisa Tomei did when she won the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny. But it was clear that I was to be the fish out of water character, and I was cool with that.”
Things with Welcome To Woop Woop, however, were about to get far from cool. In early 1998, Stephan Elliott showed a rough cut of the film to Gilles Jacob, director of The Cannes Film Festival. Jacob wanted it shown at Cannes, where Priscilla had done so well. Although still a “work in progress”, Elliott went ahead, and the film had a midnight screening as an official selection out of competition. “I stupidly got talked by the head of Cannes into screening an unfinished film,” Elliott tells FilmInk today. “That was my mistake. The version of the film that screened was almost three hours long [most reports list the Cannes running time at 107 minutes], and it had temp music. We’d only been cutting for three weeks, and I let them do it. That’s what killed the movie.”
The Cannes Film Festival was indeed the beginning of the end for Welcome To Woop Woop. The European audience was abjectly confused and horrified by the garish, profane creation that was put in front of them, and they started to leave, one by one. Screenwriter Michael Thomas remembers the screening vividly. “I spent the day with Serge Gainsbourg,” he tells FilmInk. “The screening was in the Palais, and you started hearing the slap of the chairs springing up as people got up and left. Priscilla had a big night in Cannes, and Steph’s a local hero, but it was not what they came to see. The harm was done. And somebody who shall remain nameless dropped the coke in a puddle of Coke!”
When the press started to voice their opinions on the film off the Cannes screening, the writing was well and truly on the wall. “It got bad reviews,” says Johnathon Schaech. “It wasn’t fair to the film; it wasn’t ready for reviews. It hurt its chances of bigger distribution. The excitement fizzled before anyone even saw it in Hollywood. My agents were trying to get me to do TV before it came out. I knew that we were in trouble. The biggest highlight that I had with the finished product was when they had a private screening for me at MGM. I sat in a room all by myself and watched it for the first time. I loved it. I thought it was hilarious, and I saw Stephan’s genius all over it. When the film ended, the projectionist called out to me, ‘Hey, that’s a great film and you were great in it!’ It was by far the best review that I heard.”
From there, it got worse. “The film was pulled off me by MGM,” Elliott says. “It got hacked down to ninety minutes, slapped together, and basically never really released. It was never really completed.” In its shortened, MGM-axe-wielding configuration, Welcome to Woop Woop had its world premiere in Sydney on August 12, 1998. The film had considerable publicity prior to release: Adelaide City Council banned one of the film’s posters, which had Susie Porter’s legs sticking up in the air around Schaech’s waist. Then The Federation Of Australian Commercial Television Stations refused the first trailer on the grounds of offensive dialogue, taking particular umbrage to Susie Porter saying, “Part my beef curtains.”
The critics hated it, and the film failed to make any real impact at the box office, despite the big names attached and the minor controversy that fluttered around it. “Clearly to me, Australia doesn’t go to Australian movies,” says Michael Thomas. “They are up there with the dumbest consumers on the planet. The bright young things in the local press spend all their time talking about the movie that they think you should be making, like they know more about it than you do.”
In short, Welcome to Woop Woop was way ahead of its time. In a telling note, it was released one month before There’s Something About Mary made gross-out comedy acceptable, and over a decade before Mark Hartley’s documentary, Not Quite Hollywood, pushed Australia’s artistic community toward a re-evaluation of raucous local comedies from the seventies like Stork, Dimboola and Alvin Purple. In 1998, Australia’s history of gravel-harsh larrikin humour was probably not distant enough to be looked back on with fondness, and film audiences weren’t ready to laugh at themselves yet. Basically, it wasn’t time for an Ocker homage. When Susie Porter’s sexed up Angie screeched, “Root me stupid! Fuck me dry!”, it was just too much. “It was perceived as an insult to the nation,” says Michael Thomas. “What it is, is retro. These people have defected into the fifties. It’s a swansong for Ocker Chic. I like the film. It was Steph and Lizzy Gardiner and Owen Paterson who turned it into a camp extravaganza, and that’s why Steph’s inbox is overflowing with latecomers. That’s why [fashion designer and director of Nocturnal Animals and A Single Man] Tom Ford gives Welcome To Woop Woop parties to this day. The Big Red could’ve been bigger and redder.”
Johnathon Schaech – who has since starred in dozens of films, and directed himself – has a particularly soft spot for Welcome To Woop Woop. “Still, to this day, my father – who’s a retired badass Baltimore City cop – says, ‘That Woop Woop movie is still the funniest film I’ve ever seen!’ The distributors were short sighted on who the movie would appeal too. Now when someone tells me how much fun they had watching it, a big smile comes across my face. Somewhere along the line, someone missed the boat, because now it’s a cult classic. I sure hope that this article gets people to watch the movie. Grab some popcorn and some XXXX Beer…and enjoy the ride! And afterward, go get a Cherry Ripe for me!”
For Stephan Elliott, Welcome To Woop Woop was the top of a cinematic slide that sent him hurtling right down to rock bottom. His next film, the thriller, Eye Of The Beholder, was an even more unpleasant experience. “That was a nightmare,” Elliott told FilmInk in 2008. “That stopped me from working for a decade. I got into bed with criminals. They took off with the money half way through. I had to finish the film myself, and I was in Canada for five years on my own, writing, producing, and directing. I lost everything. Lost my house. Lost the shirt on my back. Ended up broke and penniless. I said, ‘That’s it! Life’s too short!’ Then I broke my back.”
After indeed nearly dying in a horrific skiing accident (“I’d skied off a cliff,” the director told FilmInk), Stephan Elliott recuperated, rehabbed, recovered and returned to filmmaking, garnering acclaim for his Oscar Wilde adaptation, Easy Virtue, and big box office numbers for his wildly entertaining and wonderfully broad comedy, A Few Best Men, his first Australian film in years. In 2018, he corralled a brilliant cast (including Kylie Minogue and Guy Pearce) for the very funny retro comedy, Swinging Safari. Despite these recent successes, however, Welcome To Woop Woop is like a wound that still burns. “We made the greatest mistake on earth with Welcome To Woop Woop,” the director says today. “It’s a political black comedy. It was an attack on Pauline Hanson and One Nation. It was a bleak, black nasty comedy. It’s all political. Woop Woop was the metaphor for Australia: a little place stuck in the middle of nowhere. My timing was just incredibly bad. I’m going back to it, but MGM have been in turmoil, so every time that I’ve attempted to get in there, I can’t, because they’re bankrupt. The thing about Welcome To Woop Woop is that I’m not afraid of going back there. I’m not finished with it, and it never got completed. The reaction that it got was absolutely right. But it’s funny what an underground cult it’s becoming now. I had Tom Ford walk up to me at the Oscars and say that it’s one of his favourite films. The people coming out of the woodwork who have discovered it and get the joke many years down the line even in its unbalanced, unfinished form is amazing. It was not under any circumstances a broad comedy. I’ve gotta get in there and take it back. My finished version is even more in your face. It’s about bigotry, homophobia, and backwards thinking. Trust me…it’s 100 times worse!”
Though Welcome To Woop Woop did get a first-time DVD and Blu-ray release in 2015, it did not feature Elliott’s dreamed of finished version of the film. “It just died and went into the vaults,” Elliott told FilmInk in 2015 upon the release. “It’s been sitting in the MGM vaults, but [Australian distributor] Umbrella has dug it up. The good news is that the MGM rights to the film expire in about four years. At that point, I will attempt to put it back together again, or at least to a point where it should have been. I can’t touch it until the rights expire.”
As previously mentioned, however, the film is now a lurid, bona fide underground cult darling. Many quietly love this bizarre curio, including the makers of the garish new Aussie horror comedy, Two Heads Creek. “It’s an overlooked oddball gem that gave us incredible costume inspiration, and it gave us permission to be as weird as we needed to be,” says the film’s director Jesse O’Brien. “It’s phenomenal,” Elliott told FilmInk in 2015. “It’s just grown and grown and grown. It’s mostly filmmakers that have come out of the woodwork saying that they love it. But when I eventually met RuPaul, he/she said, ‘Priscilla is a pile of shit. Welcome To Woop Woop is the greatest movie ever made!’ When there was a competition here to name the ten greatest Australian films ever made, which they were going to put on postage stamps, they put twenty films up for people to vote for the best ten. Priscilla came second, and The Castle came first, which I still scratch my head about…I still don’t get it. But anyway, there was this massive online wave of people asking why Welcome To Woop Woop wasn’t on the list! That was about ten years ago, and that’s when I realised that there were bootleg copies of the film floating around. This cult has grown around it.”
It’s now 2019, so hopefully MGM’s rights to the film have now expired, meaning that one day soon, we might actually get to see Stephan Elliott’s true vision of the film, in all its guaranteed demented, widescreen glory. For the director, however, the pain still remains around the making and release of the film. “I’ve got nothing but bad memories,” Elliott sighs of the film’s tortured journey. “It was nothing but a shit fight from start to finish.”
Thanks to Johnathon Schaech (follow him on twitter: @johnschaech), Michael Thomas and Stephan Elliott for taking the time to be interviewed for this feature. Special thanks to Stephen Vagg for use of material from his book, Rod Taylor: An Aussie In Hollywood (available now at amazon.com), as well as additional research material.