Julian McMahon in ‘Swinging Safari’.
The idea behind Swinging Safari had been bouncing around Stephan Elliott’s head for “about 40 years”.
The upcoming comedy is an irreverent take on the era of the writer-director’s childhood: 1970s Australia.
A good portion of the film is pre-occupied with three adult couples in a suburban cul-de-sac, who are set on joining the sexual revolution – just a decade late. They’re played by a strong ensemble cast of Guy Pearce, Kylie Minogue (the two reunited for the first time since Neighbours), Julian McMahon, Radha Mitchell, Jeremy Sims and Asher Keddie.
However, Swinging Safari is really at its heart a coming of age story about two of their children; 14-year-old friends Jeff (Atticus Robb) and Melissa (Darcey Wilson).
While there are elements of his own teenage years in the film, Elliott resists the idea that it’s autobiographical.
“It would be an easy sell to spin around and say, look this is based on my life. Well, it just isn’t – it’s all of our lives; the lives of my friends, the lives of my family,” he tells IF.
“I talked to people from school and went back and collected great stories. Everyone’s got their great, terrible 70s childhood story. And so I was like a big hoover in the end, I was just slurping it all up.
“I’ve stolen a lot of people’s lives… there’s a part of me that knows that I will have to stand up on opening night and apologise to a lot of people in the audience for what they’re about to see.”
The producers of the film, Al Clark and Jamie Hilton, both tell IF that the film came out of Elliott fully-formed.
The director says that’s simply because he had the idea for so long. He initially tried to pitch it to the funding agencies just after the release of his breakout, 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but was shut down.
He says the film is “an exercise in political incorrectness”, even less PC than Priscilla – a film that had already been a “shitfight” to get over the line.
“So I put it to bed… which I’m glad I did because it needed that time to vintage.”
It was Clark that encouraged Elliott to start working on it again in 2012.
“It seemed to me such an integrated memoir of a phase of his childhood and adolescence that was irresistible in part because it was authentic, and I knew from having known him for such a long time that it would also be funny and remarkable,” says the producer.
As Elliott had talked about this film for long, many of his collaborators from over the years knew about it. Swinging Safari sees him reunited with much of his Priscilla team, including Clark, costume designer Lizzy Gardiner, production designer Colin Gibson, composer Guy Gross and editor Sue Blainey.
“It wasn’t like handing a raw document to a bunch of friends – they all knew it was coming. When I put my hand in air and said ‘OK, let’s put the band back together’ it wasn’t a surprise; they didn’t have to wait for the script. They all knew what it would be,” says Elliott.
Joining alongside were Hilton, co-producer Ester Harding, make up and hair designer Rick Findlater and DOP Brad Shield.
Hilton says he jumped at the opportunity to work with Elliott. “I found the script on the page extremely funny. It’s hard to place the humour. I hadn’t seen the movie before… It was a very simple yes for me.”
In terms of funding the film, Clark says like almost all financing it was “completely nightmarish”. However, distributor Becker Film Group was fundamental in getting the ball rolling.
“[Richard Becker] remarked on how rare it was to come across an Australian screenplay which he felt had the commercial potential of a major studio release. He was the first to raise a flag and to declare that commercial confidence, and everyone else came on board in the slipstream of that.”
“It’s not as if having an ANZ distributor is the answer to everything, because we all know it’s not sufficient to finance most films. But it is the starting pistol, and it was audible.”
As for the cast, Elliott’s ideas for who he wanted to star were always strong, and it helped that many of the actors also grew up in the era and knew where the director was coming from.
Pearce, whose career took off in the States in the wake of Priscilla, was among those who had known about the Swinging Safari for a long time.
Clark says after the actor came on board it felt like so many aspects of the collaboration on Priscilla could be reflected in the new film. “It gave the whole process something both historical and immediate.”
Working with the old team was “preposterous”, Elliott says.
“We’d fight, then laugh, then take shreds off of each other and then fall down on ground laughing.”
Both Clark and Elliott agree working with past collaborators allows shorthand on set.
“It certainly accelerated conclusions. Good decisions I find are often made quickly provided they’re made between people who understand each other’s working methods,” says Clark.
However, Elliott adds the familiarity wasn’t always easy for the rest of the crew.
“I had one or two newer crew members spin around and tell me ‘Look, I feel like I’m in the middle of some big private joke, would you mind letting us in?’… That was confronting. I didn’t realise that.”
But as one of the ‘new guys’ on set, producer Hilton says he was welcomed into the family.
“Stephan runs a tight ship, but a really fun ship. It was very hands on and collaborative,” he says.
“Colin, Lizzy and Steph all feel like co-conspirators or children still playing with their Super-8 camera, but with decades of experience and Academy Awards under their belt. It was a real privilege and a whole lot of fun.”
Elliott describes the seven week shoot in late 2016 on the Gold Coast as “the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” due the film’s vast canvas in terms of scenes, location and cast.
At one point within the first two days, Elliott had seven units going simultaneously.
“I work fast and hard and I always have, but this was a new level,” he says.
“There was one or so moments mid-shoot – particularly during one of the big action sequences –where I honestly thought I was going to have a heart attack. I just had too many cameras going. And I had kids and dogs and animals and there was this little moment where I could feel my heart going and I went around the corner and actually thought, oh my heart feels like it’s going to jump out of my chest.”
Hilton agrees “the brief was bigger than the budget”, praising Gibson for what he managed.
“The great thing about Australian crews and creatives is that they’re incredibly resourceful. I think what we’ve pulled off feels like a much bigger production.”
Originally Swinging Safari was titled Flammable Children. Clark explains the change was a decision of the distributor, Becker Film Group, following the tragic Grenfell Tower fire.
Elliott says he initially “kicked and screamed” about the change – it had been in his head as Flammable Children for so long. However, he found many in the industry agreed with Becker’s decision.
“The amount of people who said ‘Good, thank you, because I thought it was a horror film.”
Clark adds: “Because the film is funny, good-natured and inviting, I think rightly the distributor was perturbed that it might be misread.”
Asked who he thinks the audience for the film will be, Elliott answers bluntly: “People who grew up in the period, which is anyone who grew up from the very late 60s to very early 80s; they’ll get all of it. And the next generation underneath, the people who won’t believe it. Everybody else I don’t care about.”
“Look, it’s quite a selfish film. I make no bones about that. Every now and then you get to make a selfish film. I made a selfish film. And I take full responsibility; if it doesn’t work, it’s only one person’s fault, it’s mine and that’s okay.
“It absolutely spoke to me, so let’s see where it lands with everybody else.”
Swinging Safari will be released nationally January 18 via Becker Film Group.
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #180 (Dec – Jan).