June 17, 2015
Pom-pom making prisoners, melting costumes and a cross-dressing Tony Curtis: the behind-the-scenes tales from the watershed movie on its 21st birthday
n 1993, a low-budget feature film crew drove from Sydney to Alice Springs with a truck full of sensational costumes and a pink and lavender bus now considered a fixture of Australian cinema. The film they returned with would become a worldwide smash-hit and a watershed production for the LGBT movement.
Writer-director Stephan Elliott’s inimitable The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a story about (as one character famously puts it) “a cock in a frock on a rock”. The film led to Academy award recognition for costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won Oscars in 1995 after budget restrictions turned them into the wardrobe world’s equivalent of MacGyver-like problem solvers. For example, Hugo Weaving’s famous thong dress cost $7, using materials purchased from Target. The film also inspired the long-running international hit stage show.
There are many colourful stories about the making of Priscilla, some of which appear in the documentary, Between a Frock and a Hard Place, which ABC TV is airing on 18 June to mark its 21st anniversary. But there are many more, too. Here are five things you didn’t know about the film.
One of Hollywood legend Tony Curtis’s career-defining roles was his classic performance as a cross-dressing, on-the-run criminal opposite Jack Lemon and Marilyn Monroe in director Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot. Curtis agreed to return to women’s clothes more than three decades later to play Bernadette Bassenger, the zinger-delivering grump (“You sound like two fat slags at a pie bake off”) Elliott says Curtis put it to him this way: “I started my career in a dress so I might as well end it in a dress.” But, according to the director, the star was talked out of the role by his wife. Instead, Bernadette’s high-heeled shoes were filled by macho British actor, Terence Stamp, cast way against type. Other actors the film-makers pursued before casting Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving included Colin Firth, Tim Curry, Rupert Everett, Michael Hutchence and Jason Donovan.
The monstrous vehicles that tore apart the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road aren’t exactly available at your local car-yard – nor, of course, are fabulous rides such as the lavender-coloured gas guzzler in Priscilla. Both were the work of production designer and uber grease monkey, Colin Gibson, who along with colleague Owen Paterson, was responsible for creating the recycled school bus’ iconic look. Paterson is credited as Priscilla’s production designer and Gibson its art director, but duties were very much shared. So much so that after Paterson won an AFI Award in 1994, he literally sawed it in half and gave one chunk to Gibson. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot Gibson in the film: he plays a drunken lout who throws a beer can at Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) in the opening scene.
The Priscilla trio’s performance of Finally at Lasseters casino in Alice Springs is one of the film’s show-stopping moments. In this sequence, the costumes were designed to follow the evolutionary scale: from plants to birds, lizards then people. Guy Pearce is dressed as a yellow wattle and decorated with pom-poms made from crystal organza. Around 150 pom-poms were required for the shoot but constructing them required over an hour’s work on each one. A crew member knewthe craft teacher at Long Bay prison in Malabar, New South Wales, and the painstaking role of pom-pom construction was fortuitously outsourced to inmates. The jail had one proviso: prisoners were not to be supplied with scissors.
Like most feature films, Priscilla was shot out of sequence, which meant the order of the camera shoot did not follow the chronology of the story. This posed problems, given the bus (and they could only afford one) is painted pink about 35 minutes into the running time, so it had to be one colour in some scenes and another in others. Colin Gibson solved the problem cost-effectively by painting one side pink and the other lavender. So while the bus had two colours in real life, for continuity reasons, the crew alternated which side it was filmed from.
THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT [AUSTRALIA 1994] GUY PEARCE Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Guy Pearce as Felicia Jollygoodfellow in, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Photograph: RONALD GRANT
The costumes melted while being transported in a vehicle that used to be an ice cream truck
On a low budget production, the challenge for producers is to be as fiscally conservative as possible (read: cut costs whenever you can). Thus, the Priscilla crew used the cheapest wardrobe trailer they could find, which happened to be an ex-ice cream truck (with an engine underneath the storage area). During production, the truck broke down near Coober Pedy in northern South Australia. It overheated and, because the costumes were constructed with hot glue, most of the outfits melted and stuck together. Tim Chappel rebuilt them again, on the fly, in a parking lot outside the Alice Springs casino.
• Between a Frock and a Hard Place: the story behind The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert airs on 18 June at 8.30pm on ABC1.