It’s lamingtons and Priscilla day, and little bears are beary excited! It’s going to be gorgeous, glittery and a little bit crazy 😀
It seems particularly appropriate to celebrate today by enjoying this pioneering LGBT gem created in 1994 by writer-director Stephan Elliott. A funny, smart and intensely lovable comedy, it stars Hugo Weaving as Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose, Guy Pearce as Adam Whitely/Felicia Jollygoodfellow and Terence Stamp as Ralph Waite/Bernadette in his finest hour, as a quarrelling trio who set off on a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs. They encounter all sorts of hilarious problems along the way, their only friends and allies being some amused Indigenous Australians and one straight bloke, Bob, a lovely performance from veteran Australian character actor Bill Hunter. As Tick, Adam and Bernadette surreally show off their exuberant costumes in the middle of the remote Northern Territory, the film starts to resemble a challenging piece of site-specific installation art. This being 1994, Abba are respectfully invoked 🙂 Along with The Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Alicia Bridges, and many more…
Director Stephan Elliott had been wanting to make a movie musical, but the studio said it was a dead genre and that he would need a gimmick. He was a sitting at a bar in Sydney’s Oxford Street one night when he suddenly found it – drag queens lip synching! Drag queens in amazing costumes…
Priscilla was the first film for costume designer Tim Chappel, who was hired by director Stephan Elliott because he had seen his work for Sydney drag shows. The costumes harbour many stories, including a failed experiment with a frock made of Vegemite toast (it didn’t work but the flies loved it) and pom poms produced using prison labour.
How do we get costumes like that?
When Tim Chappel was first asked to design the costumes for Stephan Elliott’s 1994 low budget indie flick, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, he thought it was going to be just a “little, cute, nothing Australian home movie.” “They were fun people,” Chappel recalls. “And I’d never worked on a film before, so why not?”
Chappel was only a few years out of his BA in fashion and textile design at the Sydney College of the Arts when he got the call. Elliott had seen the colourful and bold creations Chappel designed for drag queen friends performing at the Albury Hotel in Paddington, and thought it was the perfect fit for his road trip film about two drag queens and a trans woman.
“He liked what I did, and knew that I would be cheap, so he asked me to do the film,” Chappel says. “And that was the start.”
Not long after, Chappel was standing on stage in LA alongside his co-designer Lizzie Gardiner, accepting the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. The entire costume budget for the film was a relatively tiny $20,000 (the entire film budget was only $2 million), and still beat out some major Hollywood players.
The American Express card dress that Lizzy Gardiner wore to the Oscars was auctioned off for $12,650 to raise funds for AIDS Research. Lizzy Gardiner wanted to include in the film a dress made out of credit cards, but no company would give them permission. I bet they regret it now!
The Priscilla costumes — including the gumby costumes and the famous thong dress — are still amongst the most recognisable images in Australian film history. And the stories of Chappel and Gardiner on the road in the outback, hot-glue gun in hand, fixing costumes that’d overheated and melted in the back of a repurposed ice cream truck, are now legendary.
When director Stephan Elliott approached Tim Chappel about creating a salsa-inspired dress, he collaborated with co-designer Lizzy Gardiner to use recycled materials for the sequined corset and fluorescent green lycra skirt. At the time no one could predict that the image of Hugo Weaving as Mitzi Del Bra, with her green skirts blowing in the wind, would ultimately capture the film’s glamour and become a key visual motif.
Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) turns heads when she struts her stuff in the Thong Dress on the main street of Broken Hill in full regalia. This mod-inspired costume consists of an arrangement of thongs and clever colour choice, and features Chanel gold-linked chain detailing. Due to a tight budget, Tim called on his mother’s staff discount at Target to buy the materials for a ‘hefty’ total sum of $7.00.
The Wattle Dress decorated with pom-poms made from crystal organza is only on screen for a few seconds in the trio’s performance of Finally at Lasseters casino in Alice Springs, but it iconically represents Australian flora. Around 150 pom-poms were required for the shoot but constructing them required over an hour’s work on each one. A crew member knew the 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.
Within this scene Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce) glides smoothly down a high-heel shaped slide, but in reality the ‘ride’ proved painful and bloody for the bare-cheeked actor.
The Priscilla trio’s performance of Finally, by CeCe Peniston, 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.
The three main actors, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp, learnt that when they were in full drag absolutely nobody knew who they were. They found the power of the mask.
The entire film was shot on location, with the cast and crew basically taking the same journey as the characters. 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 crew could only afford one bus which 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.
Colin Gibson, 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. Colin Gibson also created the monstrous vehicles that tore apart the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road.
The film’s finale is the spectacular climb, in sequined gowns and peacock-feathers, to the top of King’s Canyon in the Watarrka National Park, west of Alice.
Little Puffles and Jay had a groovy night out during a trip to Melbourne with Priscilla the musical.
While the girls opted to go shopping 🙂
It’s time for the movie 😀