Interview: Rebel Penfold-Russell

BY MIGUEL GONZALEZ

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the classic Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s hard to imagine how its success took everyone by surprise, even the creative team behind the project. We spoke with executive producer Rebel Penfold-Russell about the reasons why the pink bus is still going strong and shows no signs of ever stopping.

Rebel Penfold-Russell looking at Priscilla documents at the NFSA on 28 February 2014.

Why do you think the film remains so popular?

It’s a wonderful comedy and the themes are universal; it’s about love and embracing others, and it’s got fabulous lines. At its core it’s got a family, the love of a father and his child. It’s both a fish-out-of-water story, and a road movie, which people tend to love.

It has something to say to each generation that discovers it, and each country also brings its own flavour to the characters.

 

Priscilla was enormously successful around the world because we went through a lot of trouble to get the right translations for it, so that each country could bring its own idiosyncrasy to it.

 

When did you know your film was going to be bigger than you originally thought?

Nobody realised it would be a great success when we were making it, but that’s the beauty of making those small Australian films. It was all about imagination; an exciting adventure.

The American would-be distributor, Gramercy, decided that an LGBTI festival in San Francisco would be the most appropriate place to launch Priscilla in the US. People were laughing all the way through the film and at the end, just as the curtain came down, they started stamping their feet and clapping. Twenty minutes and they just wouldn’t stop! It was just brilliant, an extraordinary surprise.

One more autograph for the NFSA’s Priscilla collection.

How do you feel about seeing these costumes, 20 years later?

It’s the most quintessential example of how to preserve culture. History is just one thing after another, but it’s important to know what went before to get to where we’re going.

Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner were given a free rein. Tim’s background in the drag queen world allowed him to combine humour and style, and add an enormous level of theatricality. It’s fabulous that we have these costumes, and that they have been preserved so lovingly. Most costumes just get sold off or discarded, and these are very special costumes – they won the Oscar! It’s essential that the NFSA keeps them.

 

Would you recommend other producers get in touch with the NFSA?

Working with the NFSA is a very rewarding experience. You get to be archived forever. You never die! The NFSA does such an essential job; imagine what would’ve happened to our films if we didn’t store them in the right conditions. It costs money, so people should be donating!

 

View the NFSA online exhibition Undressing Priscilla.

Watch costume designer Tim Chappel talking about the production of Priscilla at the NFSA earlier this year:

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on-set photography by Elise Lockwood.