‘Three Summers’: Ben Elton tells an Aussie story

Three Summers - Photograph by David Dare Parker

‘Three Summers’ stars Magda Szubanski and Kelton Pell with writer-director Ben Elton. 

Some might be surprised to learn that Ben Elton – the scribe behind British comedies The Young Ones and Blackadder – has written and directed a comedy feature that deals with the diversity of modern Australia.

However, this country has been the comedian, screenwriter and novelist’s adopted homeland for around 30 years.

He met his wife, musician Sophie Gare, on a trip to Western Australia in 1986 and has spent a large proportion of his time in the country ever since.

Elton’s 1989 novel ‘Stark’ – his first – was set in WA and told from the perspective of an expat Englishman. However, Elton tells IF that Three Summers, a film set over three years at a fictional folk festival in WA, is no longer an outsider’s take on Australia.

“It’s 30 years later now, and my children are at the local state school, the same school their mother went to. I live in Fremantle. Of course I still have a big British life; I’m an artist, I’ll go anywhere.

“But I live here and I’ve now written a group of Australian stories. I think I’ve earned the right to take a different view.”

Three Summers is inspired by the writer-director’s visits to WA’s real Fairbridge Festival, and checks in on the romance developing between two young musicians, played by Rebecca Breeds (Molly, Pretty Little Liars) and Irish actor Robert Sheehan (Misfits, Mortal Engines) over three iterations of ‘Westival’.

Swirling around the main story are parallel tales of an Australian Morris dancer, an Indigenous dance troupe, a group of wine-loving empty nesters, a power tripping security guard and musical asylum seekers.

Elton says he was struck that a once-a-year event would be a great structure for storytelling, allowing him to tell stories of a large group of disparate people over time.

The multi-strand comedy features a range of Aussie talent including Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton, Deborah Mailman, John Waters, Kate Box and Jacqueline McKenzie, as well as Kelton Pell, Peter Rowsthorn and the Bondi Hipsters’ Christiaan Van Vuuren and Nick Boshier.

Attracting such a cast is something Elton calls “one of the great moments of my career.”

Rebecca Breeds and Robert Sheehan in ‘Three Summers’.

“When I wrote this script, I wrote Queenie with Magda in mind and wrote Henry with Michael in mind, etc. And you know you just dream, you just hope,” he says.

“And oh my goodness, the yeses came back very quickly. The first we got was Deborah Mailman, I’ll never forget Michael [Wrenn] ringing up to say ‘Deb’s read the script she said she absolutely wants to do it’. Those are big moments, because once you start to get wonderful actors like that on, the piece suddenly takes on a bigger life.”

Co-lead Breeds, who is now predominantly based in the States, tells IF she was initially attracted to her character of Keevey because it is rare to read a female character that is interesting, funny and real.

“She’s grounded and she’s actually a really rounded human being. She uses comedy in her conversations but she’s not a comedy gimmick.”

Breeds sent off her audition tape, and on a visit back home to see her family, Elton took her out for French toast and coffee and “wooed” her to take the part.

“We just hit it off straight away. It was just like a working relationship waiting to happen. In every way shape or form my whole experience with Ben Elton has just been such a pleasure and a delight. I look up to him so much creatively,” says Breeds.

Three Summers is Elton’s first feature directorial outing since 2000’s Maybe Baby, which starred Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson. However, Elton notes he’s always been “scrambling around on and off” to direct ever since.

“The greatest privilege you could possibly have is to direct a film,” says Elton.

“I find it astonishing that any director would be anything other than the most humble person on the set. you get all these other artists, technicians, inspired people lending their own artistry, their own joy, their own passion to enabling your vision. It’s an absolute privilege and I never lost sight of how lucky I am.”

Three Summers was produced by Michael Wrenn of Invisible Republic (Women He’s Undressed) and Sue Taylor of Taylor Media (Looking for Grace). Wrenn had previously started developing a Wiggles movie with Elton around five years ago. When that didn’t end up coming together, they changed tack.

“Rather than throwing our toys away, we kind of looked at trying to make something that could be done at what we felt was a more achievable level. And again, where Ben lives and breathes, which is home in WA,” Wrenn tells IF.

“Ben had already had an idea around Fairbridge that he’d looked to explore but it had never gotten past a treatment stage and was quite a few years old.

Deborah Mailman and John Waters in ‘Three Summers’.

“When we got to wanting to do it together, it was clear that what was all-embracing about the story was the inclusiveness of it; people coming together, the construct of the three summers and how that built. And so with that in mind he re-wrote the script, or he went from treatment to draft.  He went into that very quickly.”

“And so for all of the fact that we’ve been working together for close to five years, it probably only took two years to make this one because it went so rapid fire.”

Taylor also both note how fast-working Elton is. “When he sends you through a script, you just don’t think ‘okay, well I’ll get to that next week, because if you do, he’s already moved onto something else,” she tells IF.

Three Summers was shot over five weeks on the Fairbridge Festival’s site near Pinjarra last September. Preliminary footage was also captured during the actual festival in April 2016 – before the film was greenlit. Making sure footage from both shoots integrated smoothly was the biggest challenge of the film, particularly in terms of production design, says Taylor.

“The other big challenge was the fact that we had pretty terrible weather – a film called Three Summers you are asking for trouble (laughs),” she says.

Shooting regionally allowed Three Summers to be the first recipient of Screenwest’s Western Australian Regional Film Fund – and Wrenn says without the agency, the film wouldn’t have happened. It was also backed by Screen Australia, and private investment from within the Peel region.

“We had close to half a million or more out of the private sector, and all from within the region,” says Wrenn. “The benefits they can see are incredibly tangible… when you have something like a thousand extras, it really does permeate the community.”

Elton describes the shoot itself as difficult. “All shoots are hard. I suppose if you’ve got $100 million you have different problems. But all Australian films are shot on very small budgets, far small than the ambitions of the filmmakers. Our film unquestionably looks like it cost about $15-20 million, partly because of the wonderful Fairbridge footage, but we did it for $3.5 [million].

However, he counters that the struggle is worth it. “You spend your every day in a shit fight with money, weather and time, and yet you’re surrounded by the most dedicated and passionate professionals that every moment is a joy.”

Wrenn says Elton has mettle as a director. “No matter how hard you try, he’s always the first on set. He’s there and he’s there to work and very conscientious of everyone.”

Breeds agrees that Elton was the “Energiser Bunny of directors”, helping to build a collaborative and fun mood, and hopes to be able to work with him again on another project.

“He just would not falter. His energy was consistent,” she says. “He’s directed before but it’s been a long time between drinks so I think he was so excited to be so actively involved in the creative process again.”

Despite the film’s focus on Australian issues, Elton is hopeful it will travel – particularly in his native UK.

“But first and foremost is for Australians to enjoy it. They paid for it; no Australian film is made without Australian public investment. The taxpayer funds the industry, and they have to, because without it there will be no Australian stories told,” says Elton.

“And they have to go and see it as well; they’ve got to support it at both ends… because if they don’t go to the cinema, [Australian films] will stop getting made, and distributors and exhibitors won’t show these little films. They’ll just take the easy route and put Batman 12 on for another week.”

Elton adds: “Clearly the piece is deeply Australian. I showed it to some friends in England. Jennifer Saunders was very funny. She turned to me and she said, ‘Wow Ben, you really have become an Aussie, haven’t you.’ I took that as a great compliment. She knows Oz pretty well, she’s toured it often – but she doesn’t know it like I know it.”

Wrenn says as domestic comedy, he expects international pick-up to hang on the results of the domestic release. In that respect he says he was heartened by the film’s world premiere at MIFF’s Centrepiece Gala, but also expects Sheehan will boost the film’s profile in Ireland and Elton’s in the UK.

“You imagine we could probably play on the digital platforms that exist now for rest of world. Getting films out theatrically is harder and harder. Particularly for a comedy that relies in some cases on some rather Australian vernacular. How that would work dubbed I have no idea,” he says.

As for for the lead up to the film’s theatrical release, Elton is forthright about his marketing plan: “I’ll be flogging the shit out of it, obviously.”

“We don’t have a lot of money to spend on promotion budget. I love our trailer; I wish we could stick in every cinema between every movie but obviously we don’t have that kind of money.

“There is some money, and hopefully that will be wisely spent. But basically I’ll be out there, hawking my Pommy arse from one end of the country to the other end of the country trying to get people to see this film.”

This article was originally published in IF Magazine #179 (October-November). 

Three Summers is in cinemas from today via Transmission. International sales are being handled by Arclight.