Ben Elton

Published on November 2nd, 2017

Ben Elton is a man on the move. Two days ago he flew into Australia from the UK and hit the ground running. There was a movie industry preview of his new film Three Summers to attend on the Gold Coast and, before the jet lag had time to kick in, there was a host of radio slots booked to up the film which he has both written and directed. Now he’s finally got his feet up in a Brisbane hotel room and is bemused by the image that accompanies the app on the iPad used to record this interview.

“It’s like a picture of an old-fashioned cassette recorder. Isn’t that funny? It’s like steam engines. Kids still draw trains with smoke coming out. That’s the image of a train that gets passed down, and I’ll bet that picture of a cassette recorder is the same, long after nobody knows what it means.”

Three Summers stars Michael Caton, Magda Szubanski, John Waters, Robert Sheehan and Rebecca Breeds. The ensemble piece mixes a comedic light touch based on the gathering tribes at a WA folk festival, the ‘Westival’, with an underbelly of social politics. Sean Sennett pressed ‘record’ on the iPad.

I understand you’ve become a regular at the Fairbridge Festival Western Australia. That’s where the germ for the film came from?

I think we’ve been four or five times. And it’s just a great place to go with kids. Any country festival, it’s safe, you can let them run around. Everyone has a wrist tag on and pretty much people look out for each other. When you’ve got young kids you’re always looking for something to do. That festival was terrific fun. I’d be at dad base in the beer tent. The family would give me their bags, I’d  have a couple of beers and watch the world go around.

I remember sitting there thinking gosh, I was there last year. I probably will be here next year. It all looks the same, but I wonder what’s happened to these people. It struck me that it would make a lovely structure for a story, to just drop in on a bunch of stories for one weekend each year to see where they’d all got to. That’s where the genesis came from.

How long ago was it since the story took hold for you?

It was the year that were we hosting Emma Thompson and her family. They came and stayed with us for a couple of weeks, a very old friend of mine, long before she wound up with a couple of Oscars. That was the year  I remember saying to her, “I’ve had this idea. It would make a good film, wouldn’t it?” She said, “Yeah.” So it would have been about 2013, maybe 2012, but I didn’t write it for a couple of years. I’ve been busy on novels and various bits and pieces. I really started working earnest on it after the Wiggles (film) fell down.

I was really into this Wiggles movie. I thought it was a great idea, this idea of almost like a four-headed Chauncey Gardiner, almost like Being There. The idea for the Wiggles movie, which I still think is fantastic, was to make a film that would appeal to adults as well without losing any of its preschool innocence.

Anyway, we couldn’t get it over the line. Maybe one of these days we will. But the good news was it meant I’d made a great relationship with a couple of producers. I’ve had good talks with Screen Australia and Screen West. So I kept going, and I thought I’ve got another great idea. I was able to get that funded.

I’m curious about your working practice. I think last time we spoke you said to me you make the school lunches, and do pickup and drop off.

I don’t do pick up. Sophie does almost all the driving. I do it occasionally. I think they should fucking walk personally. Sophie likes to pick them up. Finally, our nest is emptying rapidly. We had twins, so two of them went at once, and the dog died, so we went from five of us and a dog to just three of us. It was quite quick.

When you had the idea for the film … are you the kind of guy that gets out the butcher’s paper and writes down all the plot lines that run through the film? Do you begin at the beginning, end at the ending, and do you write other projects? Do you concentrate on one thing at a time? 

I try to focus on the job of writing. It’s hard to do more than one thing at once. I have done in the past, and currently I’m having to. But I tend to if I’m on something, I certainly try not to go from day to day changing projects. I spend a week or two on something and then maybe shift focus. On the whole, particularly something like a novel, you just have to keep going with it.

I tend to start at the beginning and go through the end. Then I go back to the beginning again. By that time, jump to the middle, and sometimes I go off with a pen and paper to try to sketch things out. Sometimes I’m just at the screen. I write exclusively on a computer and have done since 1985. Word processing was a great boon to me. I don’t think they even use that term anymore. It’s ubiquitous. It’s just writing.

A project like this, I had the idea ‘wouldn’t it be funny to follow a bunch of stories in parallel’. And then it was complicated. It took some thinking about it. What are these characters? Who are they? I definitely started with the core romance. I definitely thought I’ll map out a little three beats of this romance.

I definitely mapped out the core romance. Then I started thinking about the surrounding stories. Over a number of drafts, I began to build it in stages. I write linearly and also in parallel. If you’re going to do something which has got a number of plots in you’ve got to be able to think fairly three dimensionally. That is hard. Sometimes it makes your head ache and you have to go for a walk.

How hard is it for you to be a director and the writer?

Best thing ever.

It was easy?

Totally. I loved directing. I love working with actors, and of course, I’ve been so lucky over the years to work with incredible acting talent. This current project is more than ever  it’s flawless. I don’t think I’ve seen a better cast movie.

You’re right, even the VW camper vans look perfect. 

That’s part of Fairbridge. I took that idea from reality. The West Australian VW Club. They have to find places to go with their VWs, so they use the Fairbridge Fair. They have their own place. They have a corral arranged with the festival. It’s called “VW Village” and they all drive in. It’s fantastic. So there’s 20 or 30vans and a few Beetles, all different  some classic, some souped-up. I said, “Wonder if any of them listen to the music or they just look at each other’s VWs.” That was my joke. These kind of empty-nesters. They have their little thing. One year they think should we go and see some music? No. In the film they wife swap instead.

I love working with actors. I love directing comedy. I wouldn’t want to direct Blade Runner. I’m more happy to go and see that. It’s not my thing. I love to direct comedy, and I wouldn’t want to hand it over. To me, I’m the best person to make Three Summers.

You could argue if I ever did a script adaptation of Time and Time Again, my last novel which was an adventure novel, sci-fi, alternative history, you’d probably argue I might not be the best person to direct it. I’m certainly not experienced in directing action-adventure. But when it comes to a multi-character, quirky comedy, I think I’m best placed to interpret my own work. I loved doing it. It’s much more fun directing it than writing it. It was very, very hard work, on a tiny budget.

Was the budget 3.5 million?

Yeah, which looks like then times that. I think it’s a shame that It’s quite hard to get people to see a small-budget movie. It’s why I’m doing all this press. I just want to say to people just once every now and then don’t go and the Marvel Universe. Go and see a different film.

Katie Milwright, she’s the cinematographer. She’s wonderful. Tiny budget, hardworking, she’s a workhorse, and her and her team. That’s what is such a delight about being a director. I always say that I think it’s funny how so many directors are a bit arrogant and throw their weight around. To me, the director should be the most humble person on any set. Basically, you get to have the vision, and then hundreds of people use every ounce of their own talent and artistry to interpret that vision.

I’ve got Katie creating these beautiful pictures. Obviously, I talked to her about what I wanted to see, but she makes sure we see it. And in so doing, makes it her film as well. To me, if ever there was  and it takes a village, it takes a village to make a movie.

With respect to other directors, I have chosen not to put “a Ben Elton film” at the front of my movie. I think it’s ridiculous. Written by, directed by, yeah, that’s what I did. I didn’t shoot it. I didn’t act it. I wasn’t a third runner bringing cups of tea in the middle of the night, and trying not to spill it while negotiating a trench and a puddle.

I think personally the cult of the director is indicative of a modern world where the individual is lorded over the community. I think that’s a political and social development that began in the ’80s with Thatcher and Reagan’s deregulation of capitalism. At that point, people stopped thinking that the thing that everybody should be  basically the individual took over from the community as the central social and political focus of life. Instead of lording the achievements of a community, it always had to be some genius, some brilliant hedge fund manager, or some billionaire, or some director. Suddenly, to me  a novel, you can say an Elton novel. That’s me, but a movie, then you should look at the credits at the end and say, “a someone film” at the end, even a small movie.

What’s next? Time and Time Again has to be a film at some point.

Be lovely, wouldn’t it? I’ll try. The BBC didn’t want it. I reckon that’s quite a literate spy novel. I’d love to make Time and Time Again. I loved writing it. It was right up my street. Like many boys and perhaps some girls, [but] I’ve read an awful lot about the 20th century, particularly the two wars.The First World War is very fascinating. The idea of even in a book trying to stop it happening, that cosmic disaster happening, yeah, I’d love to. But currently, no one’s picked it up – that would cost five million pounds. To adapt that, it’s a big budget.

I’ve got this sitcom in Britain, which has proved quite a success. My first television hit since the 20th century. I’m very pleased about that. It’s called Upstart Crow, about Shakespeare. It stars David Mitchell, the English comic actor. You heard of The Peep Show? You see him on Would I Lie to You. It’s second series is screening on the BBC just now. It’s going terribly well.

I recently was invited by the BBC to deliver the first Ronnie Barker memorial lecture. It’s nothing to do with Ronnie Barker. It’s just named in his honour. They’re doing an annual lecture on an aspect of the comic arts. They asked me to do the first one, which was a great honour. It was televised. And it was a big hit. It got two million viewers. Who knew? Just goes to show a middle-aged man talking for 40 minutes, two million views. So the public don’t just want the Marvel Universe.

Ronnie Corbett was a mate of yours, wasn’t he? 

Yeah, I was good friends with Ronnie Corbett. I knew Ronnie Barker as well, but Ronnie and I were particularly good friends because he was on my show in the ’90s.

What’s the best joke he ever told you?

I wrote him bloody jokes. He didn’t tell me jokes. I had the honour of writing some of his final gags. Back in the mid-nineties, I wrote the very first Viagra jokes. I had Ronnie say, “Viagra’s been wonderful for me because it means when I do the washing up I’ve got something to hang the tea towel on.”

Three Summers is in cinemas around Australia now.