English writer and director Ben Elton came to prominence in the 1980s for his political stand-up comedy and for co-writing British sitcoms THE YOUNG ONES and BLACKADDER. Since then, he has gained international recognition and numerous awards for his screenwriting, playwriting and novel writing. His link to Australia is through his marriage and raising a family here. His Aussie connections have led to the making of THREE SUMMERS. The movie is a comic romance set in a musical festival over the course of three Summers. Phil Jeng Kane spoke to Ben Elton in the week of the film’s Australian premiere.
The Ben Elton Interview
Below is a partial transcript of the Ben Elton Interview. If you want to hear the entire interview, hit the play button above.
ACCESSREEL: Why did you choose a love story for the spine of THREE SUMMERS?
BEN ELTON: Because I think i’m naturally romantic. I like writing love stories. Love, the desire for it, the yearning for it, the celebration of it and the pain it can cause is at the heart of the human experience. And so, mostly, I’ll put a love story into my work. As I say, I love a love story.
ACCESSREEL: How do you find the different thing in a love story given they’re pretty popular?
BEN ELTON: You don’t want to find too much that’s different because what you’re actually doing is finding common experience. You know everybody is. I’ve done routines about love since I first started. I was a stand-up comedian (and) everybody thought I was a sweary lefty and in a way, I was. But I did an early routine about how Mother Nature has put the emotions right in the gut. It’s not the heart that aches, it’s the stomach. When you fall in love, you feel sick with it. In the routine I said, “but it wouldn’t look so good on a Valentine’s card, eight feet of small intestine with an arrow through it”. I think some of the strongest emotions of all are caused by love because the pain of bereavement is all about love. The fear for your children is all about love. I think there’s a lot of ways to look at it, but you should never try to reinvent it, because it’s sufficiently multifaceted not to need that.
ACCESSREEL: (Roland, played by Robert Sheehan) is quite a pure character.
BEN ELTON: Yeah, he won’t back down. He has his beliefs and even when he’s talking to this beautiful girl he’s smitten with, he can’t stop himself being honest. She’s very honest, too, she’s just a much more pleasant person, in a way. One of the breakthroughs in the casting is that I originally had him as a Pom. And Robert auditioned as a Pom and did very well. He got the role and did a very good English accent. But when I was talking to him there was a hugely charming vibe. Of course, the Southern Irish accent is hugely charming. It’s lilting, it’s very pleasant to listen to—I’m not the first person to notice what a lovely accent it is. And I thought that would be great to mitigate against the pedantry in the character. And I think it was a very good move.
ACCESSREEL: You had a good go at (using) Indigenous material here. Who did you consult with?
BEN ELTON: I did a great deal of due diligence, obviously because you don’t think yourself into other people’s shoes lightly and the further away from my own experience, the more carefully I have to tread. I don’t believe I am disbarred from inhabiting anybody’s imagination. I don’t believe all cultural appropriation is wrong and I should only write about balding, middle-aged, white men born in London, half-Jewish. I don’t believe that because all art is an act of the imagination, so it’s ridiculous to suggest we can only be journalists of our own experience. But having said that, you do have to have due diligence when you are moving into other areas. As a novelist, I’ve written a character, a female, who was the victim of sexual violence. Fortunately, I’ve never been a victim of sexual violence and it’s much more common for women. So I’m stepping into a big territory and I have to be very fucking careful to do some proper research and think about this properly. That’s what I do. That’s what I like about being a writer. I knew I wanted to do a Noongar story. I don’t think you can do a collection of Australian stories without having an Aboriginal story as part of it, because it’s the original story and everyone’s attitude towards the great “open wound” that is the nightmare of the Indigenous experience in this country, informs us all, at all times. It’s never gone away. Of course, I wanted it to be fun and light, I didn’t want it to be yet another “bleeding liberal heart” or whatever.
There was due diligence in that both ScreenWest and Screen Australia have Aboriginal Affairs officers who looked at the script and I talked to them and they had some great thoughts. But the real pleasure and the real passion came when I met Koodah (Cornwall) who’s a senior figure out at Pinjarra, the Fairbridge village. He introduced me to the dance guys, all the mob doing the dancing and then we started yarning and talking. Koodah read the script and he loved it and he gave me real hope. He said, I feel you got us. I think the thing that really sold him is the film opens with a Welcome to Country which he really loved. What a lovely way to start the film, paying respect to the very land we’re taking a beautiful aerial drone shot of, as we speak.
ACCESSREEL: You set it in a Fairbridge (Festival) like environment . What was there that captured your attention?
BEN ELTON: It occurred to me that it was a great meeting of stories. The reason I thought of it was I was sat in the bar looking at all these people and I thought, this looks exactly the same as last year and the year before. Talk about deja vu it’s like nothing’s happened, nothing’s changed. But everything must have changed, because everybody here has had a year’s worth of experience since they last mingled with each other. And the obvious one was this year’s cute busking kids will be next year’s sweary, aggressive goth teenagers. That’s an obvious one, but you know the subtler changes that happen to adults and things. And maybe it would be great story-telling to see how the encounters they have at this fictitious festival affect their lives and change their attitudes.
ACCESSREEL:What did you learn new about your home (Western Australia) because you were here, filming?
BEN ELTON: I don’t know, it’s hard to come up with a Chinese cookie on that. By the time you’re my age, one sentence lessons are a long way back. When you’re young, you learn not to touch a hot kettle and not to tread in dogshit, but by the time you’re 58, things are subtler and the changes that happen to me are subtler. I’ve been around W.A. on-and-off for thirty years. All I can say is looking at not only the script of THREE SUMMERS, but what I produced with the movie, I agree with my dear friend Jennifer Saunders. I showed her the film in London. Just saying, “look what I’m up to”. I showed her the film on the computer. At the end of it, she said, “Gosh, Ben, you really have become an Aussie, haven’t you?” And I was very touched and surprised. I knew she enjoyed it and thought it was funny and all of that, but she spotted that. And I thought, I really haven’t put that into words myself. But actually this is a distinctly Australian film and I don’t think I could have done it ten years ago or twenty years ago or maybe even five years ago.
The AccessReel review of THREE SUMMERS can be found here.