THREE high-spirited big-city drag queens hit the road in search of fame and fortune, encounter prejudice in a small town, but love conquers all in the end. You've heard this story before, right? But perhaps not. We're talking about Steven Spielberg's To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar - not Australia's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's odd that there are now two movies about three drag queens on the road within the space of one year. And that both have silly titles which studiously avoid the subject matter; 'Three Gay Men in a Bus/Car' would be more apt, but who would go to see that? They're standing in line to watch Ghost's Patrick Swayze, Drop Zone's Wesley Snipes and stand-up comic John Leguizamo trussed up in spangly frocks, however - Americans have spent US$30 million (HK$231 million) in three weeks on tickets to Wong Foo. 'I have a feeling,' says a chain-smoking Patrick Swayze in his New York hotel room - he of the self-admitted 'Swayze paws and Popeye forearms' - 'that this movie is going to be big. And I know that it's made me into the actor I've dreamed of becoming all my life.' Swayze, who defines a drag queen as 'a gay man with too much fashion sense for one gender', was the last actor to be cast in Wong Foo. But let's hop back to stage one, when Douglas Carter Beane saw RuPaul on television and wrote a story about three drag queens - called Vida Boheme (Swayze), Noxeema (Snipes) and Chi Chi (John Leguizamo) - who win a drag contest in New York and hit the road to Hollywood to claim their first prize of a chance to compete in the drag world's Mr/s Universe. The title comes from a picture Vida steals off the walls of a New York restaurant called Wong Foo's - autographed by Catwoman herself, Julie Newmar - and keeps as a talisman en route. And the three 'girls' need it. They are derailed by a homophobic cop (Chris Penn) and wind up in the tiny midwestern town of Snydersville, where they are mistaken for 'large career women'. Carter Beane shopped his script around Hollywood, where it came to the attention of Steven Spielberg, Hollywood's foremost purveyor of family values. 'He felt it was hilarious and brilliant,' says Wong Foo's producer Bruce Cohen. But soon after the purchase was made, and director Beeban Kidron (Used People) was hired, word surfaced that there was a rival Australian production about three drag queens on the road. 'It upset us at first - but only because we thought we had something so inventive and so original, how could there possibly be two?' says Cohen. 'I was devastated,' says Kidron. 'I decided I didn't want to hear about this movie, see it or read anything about it so I couldn't be accused of stealing even from the ethos of Priscilla. 'And I reckoned in the end that the world was big enough for two such movies; Wong Foo is different in spirit, if not in plot points.' Kidron, of course, had other things on her mind. There was casting, although 'practically everyone in Hollywood wanted the roles'; the budget was spiralling, up to an eventual US$28 million; and she was pregnant. Accidentally. Although Spielberg gave the go-ahead for her to work up to her eighth month - which should have marked the end of the production - filming over-shot by a month and Kidron ended up giving birth to a boy on the very last day of the shoot, in a taxi on her way back to the hotel. 'When I look back on it, I think it was a year-and-a-half of hell, but I didn't realise that at the time.' She's not the only one to feel that way - although her stars were initially keen to get into drag, they'd be happy never to see a mascara brush again. The role of Chi Chi was originally written for John Leguizamo, after Carter Beane saw the stand-up comic in his one-man Broadway shows Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama. 'It was painful,' he recalls. 'Wigs with pins that stuck in your head, these gender benders that were really nasty, torturous and sadistic. It's a jockstrap with a hole and you put all your masculinity in it and you pull it behind you so nothing bulges. 'And these tight, tight bras to make you look like you've got cleavage. So you're all strapped up tight. And your feet are killing you. I had corns and bunions where I didn't know you could have corns and bunions. Huge bloody blisters on all my toes.' Wesley Snipes was the next on board - the only actor approached for the role of Noxeema (which is the brand-name of a skin lightening cream black people used to apply to scars). 'Doing the location shooting in Nebraska's heat, at 105 degrees, was the absolute pits,' he says. 'The wigs, the dresses, the make-up, the moths, flies, gnats - and the other little creatures that you only find in Nebraska. Godawful. 'I mean, in two days in this little town, we must have had seven to nine costume changes,' he says. 'That's one night, two days. And that's fantasy. More fantasy than the real life of drag queens - I mean, nobody travels in drag; drag queens don't travel in drag. And where was the luggage? You don't see any in the car . . .' Swayze was the last actor to sign up - 'Nobody wanted me for this role, nobody saw me, I was the last person to get the opportunity to audition, and that was after they exhausted all possibilities,' he says. Kidron agrees: 'I was not keen on Patrick, I didn't feel he had the emotional chops. It still is a surprise to me that I cast Patrick Swayze, but he's the emotional core of this film.' And the actor admits: 'I don't think I could have pulled it off if I wasn't very sure of my masculinity; hadn't been married for 20 years and proud of it. If I had one doubt about my masculinity I would have stopped.' But he found the transition easier than Snipes or Leguizamo. 'Being a ballet dancer, I could learn the feminine mannerisms and how to walk and be a supermodel on the runway and that kind of stuff, but once I got it down, that's what it looked like - choreography, not a real human being. 'I had to find out then, once I learned all the technical stuff, how to throw it out the window and live and breathe inside of her,' he says. The others didn't find the 'technical stuff' too easy. Snipes got his make-up sessions down to 45 minutes; Swayze took about an hour; Leguizamo, with pale skin and dark hair, took up to four hours in the make-up chair. 'I had to shave between takes, all day long. And it was summer, it just kept coming out. It was tough; my face was so raw,' says the Columbian-born actor. Swayze's make-up artist went away to do Meryl Streep on The Bridges of Madison County. 'While he was gone, my skin died, my make-up looked like wax,' he says. 'But he came back, and we were still filming. Wong Foo was the movie that wouldn't die.' None of the actors went to see Priscilla. Neither did they fret about the effect a drag queen movie might have on their careers - although Wong Foo studiously ignores the subject of homosexuality. Snipes, who perhaps has the most to lose, says: 'Wong Foo is an attempt to break that image I've built up - the macho image, the Passenger 57, the Drop Zone image - and plunge me back into being an actor, being considered an actor. 'I think my fans will like it - find it very funny, surprising. I mean, there'll probably be a few out there who go, oh, man, Wes, what happened? I can't believe he's doing that! What's up with the brother? 'He gets to Hollywood, they changed him . . . But there are people who will probably see the art of it all. I'm looking at the big picture.' Yet Snipes and Swayze say they'll be looking for an 'extremely macho' role next. Leguizamo is worried about other things: 'This could make me a big name . . . the actress John Leguizamo,' he laughs. 'What I'm afraid of is if I ever do anything wrong and I go to jail, I'm going to be in too much demand. 'You know, all these guys are going to grab me - and I don't want them. I'm going to have to fight to the death. 'So I'm not going to do any drugs or anything, medication, alcohol, 'cos I'm terrified of that.' Which brings up a subject that Wong Foo glosses over; not everything to do with drag queens is over-the-top frocks, wigs and snappy one-liners. Leguizamo's character, Chi Chi, is a hustler. And that brought the actor into contact with the reality of it all. 'I had to do some interviews in the Meat Market district of New York, where the transvestites who work as prostitutes are. And their pimps tried to scare me; said I couldn't talk to them unless I paid, so I paid, interviewed them - they told me everything,' he says. 'Like, they wear flat shoes when they hustle so they can run from the cops and people who try to beat them up. But they were so warm and generous and so sexy, it was amazing. 'That's what I remembered and took with me - a child-like quality. I thought they would be catty and mean, but they weren't. 'It's only afterwards, when you think about it, that you realise they lose in every way - people beat them up 'cos they're not women, yet if they go in a car with a man who wants a drag queen and they've had the surgery, then they get beaten up too. Life is more twisted than we think.' Swayze sticks with the glamorous side. 'The most interesting thing I got from my drag queen research - and of course, I was asking these idiotic actory questions about why are you the way you are, etcera - and each time I got close to getting a drag queen to open up about her past, every one of them said, we don't go there. 'Denial. It's a lie by choice - a hope for happiness in the future if you can make your present beautiful now. I think it's actually a healthy thing, given the place this person is in.' But the biggest problem on the set was one of control. As Swayze puts it, 'You have Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo in dresses, you're telling them to act like drag queens and then trying to control them! 'We were out there! Beeban was a strong woman and true to her vision, because we were a handful.' Complains Leguizamo: 'They took my dog hostage, I had to pay US$500 to get him back.' Adds Snipes: 'I went wild. Certain things that I could say as Noxeema that if I said as Wes - well, we'd have to have a fight. There'd be a fight.' Three gay drag queens, high spirits and low frocks - yet Wong Foo ends up being a family film? Says producer Cohen: 'It's funny now how it's worked out. It's a fantasy, it's about being yourself and spreading your message of love and joy, and it does have a Spielbergian glow to it. 'I laugh, because it's ended up being a cross between a three gay men-drag movie and some sort of Steven Spielberg family film.' Kidron puts it down to her life-long desire for a happy ending. And as to the cultural drawbacks which might impede its worldwide release? 'Why shouldn't it play all over? It's a bloody wholesome film. It's about bringing worlds together,' she snaps.