June 11, 2015
What: Between a Frock and a Hard Place
When: ABC, Thursday (June 18), 8.30pm
More than just a nostalgic look back at the making of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, your documentary is an account of the emergence of the gay community. Was that always the concept of Between a Frock and a Hard Place?
I’ve always made films about subcultures making their way to the mainstream; The Story of Australian Surfing, A Long Way to the Top, Wide Open Road. I was invited to meet Stephan (Elliott, writer and director of Priscilla…) to do this film and I wasn’t sure if I could do anything that was interesting. I started to find out about the subculture of drag. It was a completely illicit world that was illegal. The more we researched, the more we found that drag queens were spokespeople, they were kind of mascots of this underground society. A lot of LGBT people couldn’t relate to the identity of the suburbs, they went to the city to find a new life. But it was so unspoken. I looked at this as something everyone could relate to. Australia was so bigoted and horrible to that group of our society. That’s where the social history came in. But what I was fascinated with was how the film became a Trojan Horse for that movement. And the thing is, the suburbs would love Spandex and satin.
The story you tell is very positive and empowering, despite the undercurrents of homophobia and persecution.
There’s a lot of evil at the bottom of it, but I found it quite fascinating that Stephan managed to step on this moment that just lit up for the whole country. People were trying to express themselves in a different way. It was an interesting moment in time in the ’80s and ’90s of looking beyond the ’50s and ’60s.
Am I right in thinking that at one point in the documentary a former coroner names a suspect in a gay-hate murder?
There was a gang around Bondi called PTK that stood for People That Kill and to this day the Bondi locals are aware of some of the people in that gang. We were unable to name them but they’re still alive. It’s appalling to think of now. The police had all the evidence and let DNA be blown to the four winds. They were gay, so let’s just call it a suicide.
Why do you think the film’s cast, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving and especially Terence Stamp, have such lyrical and rich recollections of making it?
They’d all taken such a risk, it was this incredible ride they were on but they couldn’t believe it was happening. It was one of the most important things Terence had done. He was really frightened of it. Guy was completely confident in his talent and for him he could step off his character on Neighbours and effectively kill him. Hugo understood that this was a film about male identity in Australia. It was a breakthrough film in that respect.
Tell me about Terence Stamp’s wonderful performance in the edit room.
(Co-writer and co-director) Alex (Barry) and I spent about three months composing the email we sent to Terence. He agreed to do it and turned up on the day and did these one-minute performances to camera in one take each. It was enthralling to be in the room with a performer who’s that good. He arrived in a pair of Birkenstock sandals, a tracksuit bottom and sheep skin vest and a cap. He could have been anyone in Soho in London. All of a sudden, behind the microphone, he became Terence Stamp.
Yet his relationship with Stephan was quite prickly.
Stephan didn’t let him see the rushes. When Terence saw Priscilla he realised he’d been done over because he looked like an ugly old bag. He was furious with Stephan and then realised that suits the character. I thought how clever.
Your documentary will inevitably be viewed in the shadow of the marriage equality debate.
The interesting thing for me is a lot of the social historians, gay and lesbian people we interviewed for the show going back to the 1978ers who were part of the first Sydney Mardi Gras don’t hanker for gay marriage. They don’t see gay marriage as the ultimate in recognition. I found that interesting. This will spark discussion about the place of gay marriage and I think that’s great. But I really think Priscilla was a Trojan Horse for acceptance. There’s something special about that, when an artwork can have that much power and it really did. It was fascinating when we were filming (the Priscilla stage show) in Korea where no one is gay, but I tell you what, they had some incredible drag queens on that show. It was fascinating to watch a full house of Korean men and women clapping along.