Priscilla, the Queen of the Desert was one of the highlights of the Festival do Rio, in 1994. The Australian film was the second feature directed by Stephan Elliot and became a worldwide fever. Almost 30 years later, the same Festival makes a special session for the production, which was remastered and will be shown on Saturday, 15th, at Cine Odeon, with the presence of the director.
If today the LGBTQ+ agenda is more frequent in films, series, and books, in the early 1990s it was still far from being the main theme of a film. And so, an Australian independent production, with a soundtrack full of ABBA hits (at the time no longer a popular band in nightclubs outside Australia) became a worldwide fever, winning the Oscar for Best Costume in 1995 and reviving, alongside another successful Australian film, Muriel’s Wedding, the Swedish quartet’s passion for music. No one was less surprised by the warm international reception than Stephan himself. “I’ll say this: First of all, we weren’t trying to change the world. We were seriously trying to have fun. The world was coming out of the AIDS crisis in those years. Being gay usually meant ‘death or death’, it was so dark. “Priscila” was born from the quest to celebrate a little and be honest”, he evaluated.
For those who still don’t know the movie, the story revolves around a trio of artists (two drags and a trans woman) who cross Australia to perform in a casino in a small town in the middle of the desert. Along the way, they live a series of adventures – some more fun than others – and discover the value of friendship and family. The Priscilla in the title is the name given to the bus they buy in order to make the trip. “It was only recently pointed out to me that I wrote the first trans character as the lead in a movie. She was the main one, but I didn’t do it deliberately,” he commented.
Already at the time of release, the film generated surprise by casting three straight actors, Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving (before The Matrix and Lord of the Rings), and Guy Pearce in the main roles. Even with highly praised performances, it would be unimaginable these days to have them in the main cast, as Stephan recognizes. “If I tried to do this script today, they probably wouldn’t let me. I would make another film, today they would force me to make a more political movement”, he says. “I slipped through the cracks and I’m glad I did because most people thank me personally by saying that the movie has helped families come out of the closet and understand their gay children. I’m glad “Priscila” opened a door,” Stephan says.
After “Priscilla,” Stephan made films in other genres, including thriller and drama, working with world stars like Colin Firth, Ewan McGregor, Jessica Biel, and Olivia Newton-John, to name a few. He also recounted his personal story a little in one of the short films of “Rio, I Love You”, with Marcelo Serrado and Ryan Kwanten, but none of the works achieved the same recognition as the film. He even jokes about it. “When I made Easy Virtue [based on a play by Noel Coward] it was an absolute joy. Colin [Firth] was a joy and Jessica [Biel] was too, but at the premiere, everyone wanted to talk to me about Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, he recalls jokingly annoyed, but quickly amending it. “It took me a while, but I realize how important the movie was to so many people and I started to love it all over again.”
The remastered version that returns to theaters brought surprises for the director, some that he jokes are embarrassing like being able to recognize himself in a scene with the wig doing a back shot, in place of Terence Stamp. “I know I’m looking at myself saying ‘Oh my God it’s me’, he jokes.
Currently, Stephan feels more open to considering working on a continuation of the story, although he is afraid that with the current moment he won’t be able to repeat much of what he did in 1994. One of the reasons why he rethought his initial rejection of the idea was the work done to transform Priscila, Queen of the Desert in an extremely successful musical in the theater (having been shown in Brazil as well). “The musical premiered in 28 countries and we still have 15 more to go”, he warns. “When we got to the musical on stage, I was able to evolve the story with some scenes I hadn’t thought of before that I managed to include. But “If” (reinforcing the uncertainty) there is a continuation, I would have to take current changes into account and work on them, because in fact a lot has happened from 1994 to today. It’s nice to think that something can go on living instead of most movies that get stuck in time. I think “Priscila” is a vehicle where we could continue to grow”, he comments.
One thing is for sure: any sequel will have a soundtrack as spectacular as the first. The film “Priscilla, A Rainha do Deserto” was the highlight of the Midnight Session of the Rio Festival, on Saturday, the 15th, at the Odeon cinema, at 10:45 pm.