The producer is in the waiting area at William Morris Endeavour, anticipating a meeting hitched with an unexpected delay. Curious. It’s been over twenty minutes now. What could be the hold-up? He approaches reception to check. ‘We’re just waiting for the gentleman from Australia,’ the receptionist replies. ‘Who?’ asks the producer, in his robust American accent. The receptionist checks the screen. ‘Mr Yancey’. The producer smiles. ‘That’s me.’
American made and spending his formative years there, Elliott fell for Australia at an early age and has called Sydney home for over 30 years, while maintaining bases in Houston, LA, New York and Hawaii. Our interview via Skype finds him in the States for groundwork on two upcoming films, as well as his next series of meetings.
Currently, much of his efforts have a New York focus, where heat and momentum are building for Saving King. All I could get out of him is that the titular ‘King’ is Martin Luther King Jr, the main location is Harlem and against all odds, the treatment that Marc Furmie has delivered is turning heads in Hollywood.
In Sydney, Elliott is assembling his dream team for Dustoff, a gun metal action movie set in Afghanistan. Hot on the trail of Hacksaw Ridge (2016), this tentpole production is being primed for an Australian shoot. Loaded with critical and box office potential, Dustoff is a welcomed platform for local talent to shine and a high voltage offering to catch the eye of distributors around the globe. ‘Think Lone Survivor (2013),’ Elliott says. ‘We have every capacity to make films like that here. That’s our mission with Dustoff.’
Elliott has an intimate knowledge of both Australian and Hollywood production systems and he seeks out projects that can score on a global level. This pro works with a heady mix of strategy and intuition and from our chat, I get a sense of his level of game and hustle. You can tell that Elliott is a salesman of serious ability who makes moves in broad confident strokes. Rather than wait for shit to happen, he’s the kind of player who arrives at Cannes with a preference of throwing a party of his own.
Back around 2014, when two films were being developed about Miles Davis, Elliott tuned in on Don Cheadle’s passion project, Miles Ahead (2015). Inspired by personal affinity – in Harlem back in the day, Elliott’s father was a jazz musician – Elliott took a punt on becoming a supporter of Mr Cheadle’s crowd-funding campaign for the film. Then a mutual connection arranged a meet, which gave Elliott exactly what he was looking for – that opportunity to meet Don Cheadle at Hinoki & The Bird to talk jazz and film.
Miles Ahead trailer:
So, what kind of screenplay excites Elliott? ‘I like to sell exhibitors on the sizzle,’ Elliott shares. The power of the story has to be clear in a couple of sentences. He elaborates that it is like Chinese whispers. Various people will need to communicate the story during creative and business meetings, so the idea has to be strong and clear. That way no one can screw up the pitch when sharing and everyone gets why it will be a hit. ‘And no one should have to explain why a story ‘pops’. It either does or it doesn’t.’
Another tip he has for aspiring producers is to check their drawers for strong stories that would appeal to the demographic of retirees, unflatteringly referred to in our local industry as ‘the grey army’. Local releases are brutal. Vying for precious few evening spots in cinemas while having to compete with a smorgasbord of Hollywood and global content, most Australian films are shown the door after the second weekend. Meanwhile, retirees have a healthy appetite for mid-week morning screenings, where exhibitors have a tendency to let films run for a few weeks longer.
One thing Elliott makes clear in our chat is his position on the idea of the auteur. Over the years, iconic film figures – Woody Allen, Amoldovar, Tarantino, Francis and Sofia Coppola – have inspired emerging artists around the world to consider writing and directing their own films. But Elliott is startled by the number of projects that are pitched to him with a ‘writer will direct’ stipulation. ‘At the end of the day, these are two different skill sets, but some individuals in the Australian industry don’t seem to get it. Which role do you serve best? Are you a stronger writer or are you a stronger director? Whichever one you’re better at, that’s what I want you to be doing. I’ll be able to tell soon enough.’
Interview with Elliott:
Elliott keeps a keen eye on talent surfacing at the premier festivals – Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, while he has a marginal preference for SXSW and Toronto. He stresses the additional value in generating heat at Toronto for a project you are putting together, as the economic capability of an Australian–Canadian co production is exciting.
And there it is again – that combination of heart and mind, passion and strategy. Elliot holds a high opinion of local talent and our potential to make world class films. But he reiterates that the economics of the production have to make sense, an obvious stipulation when you’re speaking with a man who has proven that he is prepared to back his belief with his own financial investment.
Find out more about Elliot here.