Friday, February 6, 2015

Welcome to Woop Woop

After the critical and commercial success of his breakthrough film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Australian filmmaker Stephan Elliott followed it up three years later with the absurdist comedy Welcome to Woop Woop (1997). In comparison to the crowd-pleasing romp of his previous effort, this next film was so unabashedly odd and in-your-face about it that most fans of Priscilla were alienated. Critics trashed the film, audiences stayed away and Elliott retreated to more conventional fare with Eye of the Beholder (1999). However, those willing to immerse themselves in the strange world of Woop Woop (Australian slang for the middle of nowhere) may enjoy this wildly entertaining look at the margins of Australian culture.

The film opens with a cheeky disclaimer that while no animals were harmed or mistreated during the making of the film, neither were any humans, which makes sense when you see how much abuse its protagonist endures over the entire running time. We meet Teddy (Jonathon Schaech) on the mean streets of New York City trying to sell exotic birds to two women (one of whom is played by Tina Louise – Ginger of Gilligan’s Island fame). The transaction is interrupted by two thugs coming to collect $10,000 he owes a gangster. Teddy is saved by an exotic dancer friend (a cameo by Rachel Griffiths sporting an outrageous Southern accent and even wackier outfit) who kills them causing the birds to fly the coup. As they take to the sky suddenly every bystander in Times Square pulls guns and starts firing at them! Welcome to Woop Woop indeed.

On the run, Teddy decides to travel to the Northern Territory in Australia to get more exotic birds and also to lie low. While stopping for gas, he picks up two passengers, one of whom is an attractive woman named Angie (Susie Porter), who loves candy bars and sex. As they drive off, Elliott shows the beautiful-looking yet harsh outback—miles and miles of desert with big blue skies. After several bouts of vigorous sex, Angie cold cocks Teddy and he wakes up in Woop Woop, a ramshackle town residing within a crater-like area on Aboriginal turf populated by denizens that are Australia’s answer to the eccentrics that inhabited John Waters’ early films.


Teddy eventually wakes up and Angie tells him that they got married. He is taken to meet her father Daddy-O (Rod Taylor) who lays out the town’s rules in a nicely delivered monologue. Much to his chagrin, Teddy finds out that he’s trapped in Woop Woop and completely at the mercy of its clearly insane inhabitants. He soon finds an unlikely ally in Angie’s sister Krystal (Dee Smart) and they devise a plan for escape.

For such a hunky actor with model looks, Jonathon Schaech has no vanity, committing to the role completely and not afraid to look ridiculous (walking around in nothing but his underwear and one of Angie’s nighties) or disgusting (he wakes up in Woop Woop covered in cake and mud from lying in a pig pen) or brutalized (he’s punched in the face several times by Angie). He gives a brave performance that sees Teddy getting humiliated repeatedly, but his character has a definite arc over the course of the film. Teddy goes from crass opportunist to romantic but without completely changing his personality.

Susie Porter gives a memorable performance as the psychotically upbeat Angie. She’s fixated on Teddy and has an insatiable sexual appetite. The actress does a nice job of portraying Angie’s duality: idealistic romantic with a savage streak. She epitomizes the townsfolk of Woop Woop – a genial façade but underneath lurks a real nastiness. In this respect, she’s a chip off the old block.


Veteran actor Rod Taylor’s Daddy-O is a satire of the stereotypical macho Australian alpha male. When we first meet him the man is even wearing a rugby uniform – one of the country’s most popular sports. Taylor plays his character as the unhinged ringleader of a crazed three-ring circus of a town. It’s a juicy role that the late-great actor sinks his teeth into and has fun playing.

After the success of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Hollywood came calling and Stephan Elliott was offered big, studio movies like Twister (1996), but he wasn’t interested because he had seen what costume designer Lizzie Gardiner had gone through on a $50 million movie and it wasn’t a good experience. He said that she came home “every night bursting into tears. All she could do was cry.” He was also offered First Wives Club (1996) and even met with some actresses but realized, “would I be happy doing it? Absolutely not.”

Elliott spent three years in development hell: “Every studio, sub-studio, mini-major and major was taking an interest – and then it doesn’t happen; or then wants Sharon Stone in without asking you.” A couple of companies promised creative control but he realized that he had “no control, no freedom, wanting script changes and so it went.” Elliott became so frustrated that he decided to become a director for hire and met producer Nick Powell who gave him a “very dark script” to read and found it to “very tough looking, quite a mean look at Australia.”


Producer Fiona Dwyer had optioned Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Dead Heat and hired him to write the first two drafts. According to him, she didn’t like what he wrote and fired him. Dwyer hired Michael Thomas (Backbeat) to rewrite it. At the time Elliott read the script it was called The Big Red and he felt that it needed a major rewrite in order for it to fit his sensibilities, “then twisted it a much more funny way rather than a cruel way of looking at it.” He saw the film as a homage and farewell to Australian culture from the 1940s to the 1960s that was disappearing.

While making Priscilla, Elliott approached the estate for Rodgers and Hammerstein to get access to their library and was flatly rejected. After the soundtrack album sold very well he approached them again for Woop Woop and they were much more receptive. Just before filming was to start, Elliott came down with hepatitis and the production was delayed until he got better.

In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Welcome to Woop Woop operates on the principle that indiscriminate camp silliness can carry a movie. Maybe it can, for about a half-hour at most.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “But in Welcome to Woop Woop, unrelentingly heavy whimsy makes for royal tedium, and Elliott’s broad caricature of outback eccentricities comes across as more crude (even cruel) than charming.” The Los Angeles Times’ Jack Mathews wrote, “Schaech, one of the stars of Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, has an amiable presence, but seems as lost in his role as his role is lost in Woop Woop. You know you’re in trouble when the hero of your story is the least interesting one in it.” Finally, in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote, “One gets the impression that Elliott, having scored so grandly with Priscilla, was determined to outdo himself – ‘I want more! more!’ You can hear him saying – but forgot to weave the parts together or create characters we could care about.”


Woop Woop features a community that is primitive and ugly, populated by inbred grotesques that love listening to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It resembles a landfill site masquerading as a frontier town. Their major export appears to be dog food made from kangaroo meat and called Woof Woof. It’s a town stuck in the past, frozen in time as epitomized by their nightly screenings of Classic Hollywood musicals and old popular culture relics that litter the town.

Much like Brewster McCloud (1970) or Breakfast of Champions (1999), Welcome to Woop Woop features a stylized, hermetically sealed world populated with eccentric characters governed by their own set of rules. What makes these absurdist comedies so difficult to follow is that they don’t offer an easy way into them and so they come across as impenetrable films. Stephan Elliott’s film tries to present Teddy as the audience surrogate, the most “normal” of the oddball cast of characters, but he starts off as a rather odd fellow – a not-so smart hustler that sells exotic birds. It’s only when he meets Angie and then wakes up in Woop Woop that he seems relatable in comparison.

As I watched Woop Woop again, I kept asking myself, what is Elliott trying to say? What is his end game? Is there any point to all of this? The film isn’t all non-sensical comedy as it attempts to examine the darker, uglier aspects of Australian culture, which thankfully saves it from being simply a chaotic mess. This is evident in Daddy-O’s dramatic speech where he tells Teddy about the town’s tragic past. With the numerous exaggerated caricatures and its wacky sense of humor, Elliott appears to be skewering all kinds of Australian stereotypes but in a way that only those familiar with them will understand, which explains its limited appeal and its marginalized status even in its native country. In this respect, Welcome to Woop Woop is the unholy union of Luis Bunuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky.



SOURCES

Hays, Matthew. “Stephan Elliott.” The Advocate. March 17, 1988.

Kennedy, Douglas. “It’s like selling your baby to highwaymen.” The Guardian. October 5, 2006.


Urban, Andrew L. “Subversion in the Outback.” Urban Cinefile.

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