It might seem tempting fate to make a film of a play by Noel Coward that has once been directed on film—though in the silent era—by Alfred Hitchcock. But that’s what writer-director Stephan Elliott (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) and his co-writer, Sheridan Jobbins, have done with “Easy Virtue,” an adaptation of Coward’s 1926 play starring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas in a tale of British upper-class snobbery in the era between the wars. The collaborators spoke about the project during a visit to Dallas.
“We didn’t choose it—it chose us,” Elliott explained. “It’s really that simple. I was in a hospital at the time. I’d had a terrible ski accident, which cost me about five weeks of my life. That was kind of a wake-up call, it was like ‘I’ve got to get back to work.’ And also start challenging myself. I usually say no to everything, I usually write my own stuff and develop it. And this just came up. My gut reaction was right away, ‘No, no.’ And then, lying in a hospital bed, I said, take the challenge. I said, I don’t think I’m the right guy for this job, and the producer said, ‘That’s why we’re coming to you, because we don’t want the “right guy’” for the job.’ And when I heard that, I said, ‘Give it a go.’
“And then when we got a little further into it, we realized, God, we’re rewriting Noel Coward. It hadn’t quite dawned on me until a fair way into the typing that we’re rewriting one of the great masters of twentieth-century literature.”
And originally, Elliott wasn’t at all certain he’d choose to direct. “Honestly, it was just we thought we’d write it together, and then I thought I’d see how I felt. And I fell more and more in love with it.”
The Hitchcock connection added a further element. “Absolutely,” Elliott said. “You have the master—Coward was known as the master—and then you’ve got the master of suspense. So we were answerable to two masters. But the thing about them both was that, first, for Coward, it was a melodrama initially and he was very young—it was one of the early plays, and he was quite bitter and angry, a very smart twenty-four-year old attacking the English. The great point for Coward came later in his career. Same with Hitchcock. So you look back, and it was almost like first play and first film. You look at the Hitchcock version, and it’s not Hitchcock yet.
“So for us, as writers, we kept thinking about how would have that much lighter Coward, later in his career, re-addressed it of he took it on, and how would Hitchcock in his absolute prime have taken it on? That became the two arrows that came to a single starting-point for us.”
And, Jobbins added, it helped that neither the Coward play nor the Hitchcock film is very well known. “I think it came out between ‘The Vortex’ and ‘Hay Fever,’ he wrote the three of them in the same summer. It was a very prolific time for him, and I think he was…looking for where he wanted to go.
“I think it wasn’t as cogent a melodrama as ‘The Vortex,’ and it wasn’t as funny as ‘Hay Fever,’ so it just sort of fell between the two.”
“We went to look for it,” Elliott interjected,” and we couldn’t find it. And literally Sheridan found it in a library in Australia. So it’s really funny now to get people criticizing us because of what we’ve done with the text.”
Jobbins noted that what they were given by the producers wasn’t the Coward play, but a screenplay draft by Peter Barnes, “who won an Oscar for ‘The Ruling Class,’” Elliott said. “That’s what they gave us. I think that for them, it was exactly what a very solid English writer had done, and it was exactly what shouldn’t be done. It was stilted, dry, terribly old-fashioned. I think that said to them, you know, that’s exactly what we don’t want to do. Which is where I came in.”
Jobbins explained, “I think one of the problems with the play that you can see Hitchcock trying to address is how these two met [the young British man and the older woman he married to his mother’s distress]. Which is not in the play—the play opens with them about to arrive. Half the film is about the back-story. And so he had struggled with the same thing—who are these people, why do they like each other, and how do I get them out of the house so that we all like them?
“Also, one of the things Coward was doing was a scathing attack on the gentry. He’d gotten into the idea that the ruling class needed to move—they were land-rich, cash-poor, stuck in the past. So [Hitchcock] had shaken that around a bit, but he hadn’t got it out either—which was why we went back to the play.”
Elliott added, “And we took it the next step on, to actually look at where Coward was in 1924-25, when he wrote this—which is where we are now, in recession, an unpopular war still going on. And even when we were out looking for houses, we found at every house we went to, that people have these big houses that were National Trust, that cannot afford to keep them. They’re struggling to keep up appearances. Every second or third house, the people were in exactly the same situation as the family in the film.”
The biggest change from play to script is a change from melodrama to comedy. “We said, alright, where can we have some fun?” Elliott explained. “What level can we go up to? There’s ways you can ramp it up a little. But it’s been twelve years off for me, and after the accident I had an operation and they put the funny man back in—I’d seriously forgotten to have fun. Life-threatening accidents can wake you up a bit. That again was coming back to comedy, which—I’m not going to lie—isn’t hard work for me. That was very much a key—going back and looking at Coward, the fun Coward, and swing it around.
“But also, in 1924 he wrote this for a young audience. This was a very young piece. So we took that and said, what do we do to this to bring in a young audience? And there’s nothing more wonderful than dragging a seventeen-year old to see this film, determined to hate it. And having a blast, and to walk out and say that’s the first one of these olden films I’ve ever seen, and it was really cool.
“Some people are going to be pissed off because it’s not straight, by-the-numbers Coward. To watch a young audience just erupt, and the purists get absolutely furious…I said, ‘I’m going to take some classic screwball and put it into this genre.’ It’s dumb screwball, but the kids adore it, because it’s so stupid.”
“We’re never going to please everybody. That’s the gamble. But if we’d made it absolutely by the numbers, all that would have been said is, none of this is relevant, it’s too old-fashioned, and why do it? It’s an interesting balance, and though we’re never going to please everybody, we’ve given it out best shot.”