Premiering at the Sydney Film Festival last month, Peter Templeman’s debut feature is a comedy grounded in real human characters. Working on TV’s Lockie Leonard and Bogan Pride, Templeman’s first film is based on the experiences of co-writer Michael Lucas’s (Offpsring) own health scare.
In Not Suitable For Children, Jonah (Ryan Kwanten) is quite literally the life of the party, hosting large-scale house parties with his companions Gus (Ryan Corr) and Stevie (Sarah Snook). When one of Jonah’s many hookups discovers a lump on his testicles, his worst fears come true as he learns it is testicular cancer. The operation is straightforward, but the news he will be left infertile shocks him into action. With frozen sperm not a viable option, he sets about trying to find ex-girlfriends willing to have a child with him before the deadline of the big snip.
We caught up with Peter just after the film’s debut. We need to thank the good people at Icon for arranging this interview for us, and of course, the lovely Peter Templeman for his generous time.
Not Suitable For Children is released in Australian cinemas on 12 July 2012 from Icon.
Congratulations on the film’s debut. You’ve been working on this for five years. Now that it is out in the public, how are you feeling about that?
Almost out in the public. That was a blessed kind of entry to the public arena, I think. There was two and a half thousand people in that theatre, and that was daunting to begin with, but they were a really generous audience as well. Same with the second screening, I thought they were really generous and they got the film. The majority of people there at least. It’s a good start, but who knows what’s going to happen out there in the real world when its trying to stand on its own two legs. Poor little guy. I’ve looked after him for so long, and now he’s on his own [Laughs].
That’s the thing: you’ve spent five years on this, but is it difficult to get a movie like this made in Australia?
It’s a hard question. It’s certainly not like for five years we’ve been banging on doors or anything, we’ve just been holed up trying to make the script good. Mike [Lucas] and I are our own worst critics. Even when Jodie [Matterson] the producer came to us and said ‘Ok, it’s been a few years and I think the script’s looking pretty good’, we’re like ‘Yeah – nah, nah, nah – it’s not yet’. She thought we should start looking at cast and getting some cast attached, and we were very skeptical and sent it off to Ryan [Kwanten] to see if he’s interested in auditioning for it. He was, and once I went over there and auditioned him and he auditioned me, I offered him a role.
Once he was on board, that sort of got some investors interested in looking at the script. They were keen and before we knew it, we were going to make this thing in a year or in six months or whatever it was. So we just went hell for leather working on the script, making the biggest changes we made in that last six months, just about. Maybe not, but certainly the last couple of years were the biggest changes. So we had a reasonable budget for a first film, for my first film, we weren’t making it for just one million dollars or anything. Even that, it’s a huge amount of money. In light of the amount of money spent on these things, it’s hard to think of it as so hard.
What’s hard is getting something really good on the page, and every stage of the process directing the film is fraught and a big challenge in getting your vision coming across and filter the input you’re getting in line with what you’re trying to say and do at any particular point of the film. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, is that alright?
I think you answered it quite comprehensively.
[quote_left]“In an early draft, he was in love with a sperm bank technician and ended up having an affair with her…”[/quote_left]Without any real ending [Laughs]. I guess what I’m saying, the hard part is getting something that you are happy with creatively, and aligning with what you think the film should be. Then just even whether your own idea of what the film should be is any good. [Laughs]. They’re the hard questions, that’s what’s elusive about the craft. Certainly after that amount of time working on the screenplay and stuff, it gets better every draft we do. It does get better, the characters get richer, and more real, and the story certainly has changed a lot over the years. From the very beginning, Michael’s idea of a young guy with his body clock ticking, getting testicular cancer and yearning to be a dad. That concept remained, but the characters themselves and the situations they were in changed continually and developed in a positive way right throughout the process. But even in an early draft, he was in love with a sperm bank technician and ended up having an affair with her, and was a completely different guy to what he ended up to be. Each time, the names would change as well, as we changed the nature of the characters in each draft. So through a couple of drafts, we’d go ‘No, Lockie was the old guy, the old Gus or whatever’. It’s an evolving process over the years, and that’s the main difficulty I think. That’s what’s fun about it as well, that’s why we do it.
I understand that you went through a number of title changes as well.
Yeah, Mike’s original draft was called “The Twenty-Somethings Survival Guide”. That’s because it was about this website. This gang of kids ran this website about being in their twenties, and gave anecdotes about what it’s like being in your twenties in a share-house…We sat with that title for a long time, and it’s really just in the last couple of years that – we kept trying to shake it, but we just couldn’t think of something better. I don’t know if we have thought of something better in this current title, but this is the one we ended up with. There’s another one we had on the table for months which was “The Final Fertile Month of Jonah”. Maybe that’s better than Not Suitable for Children.
It’s sounds very epic.
What do you think of the title?
I think the title’s absolutely appropriate for it.
Ok, cool. I thought it might be too much of a pun.
Ah, I love my puns though. Moving onto that subject matter of comedy, this is obviously based on Michael Lucas’s own experiences and knowing him during that time. So how do you take that potentially sombre and serious subject matter and balance it out with comedy?
[quote_right]“It was always really important to me to root it in truth all the way through”.[/quote_right] It wasn’t a very serious thing in the real world, really. He had a three-day scare. He had a little lump on his nut, and freaked out for three days. Then was told it was nothing. He got it tested. I guess it was when he went in and said ‘What’s this?’ and he was expecting them to say it’s just a pimple, but they said no we better get it checked. Then he had a couple of days of panic thinking ‘What if?’. Then the results came back and it was a benign cyst or whatever it was, but he was certainly left with the notion of maybe there’s a movie in this. But it was always such an absurd premise, as well as having that heavy subject matter, to think that someone could go around in three weeks and convince someone to have a baby with him. However, the original incantation of it was that he was after his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend specifically to have the baby with him,. So that changed a fair bit beyond that.
In terms of the comedy, it always seemed quite absurd, so it always seemed like a comic premise to us. It was always really important to me to root it in truth all the way through. Even more so because of the absurdity of the premise, it was crucial to have real people with real motives, and to make sure the humour is rooted in truth as well. It comes from the flaws in the characters, and the contrasts between the characters, not gags. Generally, when we work on something, that stuff comes easily to us, the comedy. The hard work is in getting the real soul and the message across that we’re trying to convey. That’s where you really dig deep and be honest with yourself, and with the characters to reach that core truth. That’s generally most of the work. For us, we throw away reams of gags. Mike’s very prolific as well, he just writes pages and pages of stuff. Then we’re ruthless with it, him as well, we just ditch that stuff that doesn’t feel completely true to the character or develop the character in some way. If the comedy isn’t doing that, then it’s too light and fluffy and we ditch it.
I imagine a lot of that discipline would come from your extensive television work. Firstly, did that influence the writing of this, and secondly, did you look for specific cinema influence when you were working on your first feature.
Not consciously. Certainly the television work that I’ve done – I don’t know if I’d call it extensive – but it certainly has improved me as a storyteller at least. However, for me the process of making a film was more like returning to the short films that I’d done than television, even though I hadn’t done a short film for a few years. It was more like that, because the short were always vividly conceived in my mind before I began shooting and before going on set. Of course, the film evolves during shooting, during the filmmaking process definitely. With a film, I was afforded the time to conceptualise it on that level before beginning. With TV it’s far more organic, you just don’t have the time to conceive it like that. You have a few weeks in pre-production, and if you’re doing a half-hour episode, for me anyway, I design meticulously three set-pieces in the episode, and the rest of it I’m improvising and flying by the seat of my pants. So making the film was like the former, like making the shorts.
Influences – not consciously. I’m sure if you watch the film you could tick influences at every turn and juncture, it’s not conscious because I’m just trying to make choices that appeal to me. To my own instincts. Certainly the films that I love are films that I guess have a real heart at the core of the comedy, and have a darkness to the comedy. That’s why the subject matter of the comedy appealed to me, the fact that is that stakes of cancer floating around and losing a testicle, and love at the core in the end. In terms of names, I like everybody from those big storytellers like Milos Forman and David Fincher, who just have beautiful design and shooting style, and performances. But I love the Charlie Kaufman films as well: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich. You know, that kind of bizarre world but rooted in very real situations and characters.
The reason I asked that is because I often felt as though Sarah Snook’s character occasionally stepped out of a screwball comedy. That sort of forthright Katherine Hepburn thing going for her at times. You mentioned casting with Ryan Kwanten, but did the rest of the cast fall into line fairly quickly, or were they in mind from the start?
No, not at all. Six months of casting it was for the rest of the cast. Lots of auditions. A really challenging task for me, because there’s so many great actors in Australia. Especially females of that age group. There really are. We’re spoiled for females of that age group.
There were only two roles that I offered straight up. The first was Susan Prior, who plays Marcie, from Stevie’s work…and Lulu McClatchy who plays one of the lesbian couple, the less attractive of the lesbian couple [laughs]. Those two I offered, I’d worked with those two people before and love working with them. Everybody else, there were lots of auditions, especially for Sarah Snook’s role. However, Sarah was the standout from the beginning of the process and I did screen-test her a number of times. I spent hours with her in fact before she was cast [laughs]. But right from the beginning, she really was exceptional. I was saying to someone the other day, one of the things that really sold me on her, it was in the second audition I think, when she was playing a particular scene with Jonah – which was just a reader off-screen – was not just how much she embodied the character of Steve, which was very close to how Mike and I had imagined the character, with all the nuance and detail of that person – but also how much you could tell the type of guy Jonah was from her reactions to him.
She understood the character and the relationship with Jonah just as well as she understood herself. That was clear. It like that thing where you get to know someone through their friends, or how their friends talk about them or how their friends act around them tells you more about who that other person is. That’s just a testament to how immersed she gets herself into the role and into the reality of the fantasy.
From that, talking about the surrounds of people, this is a very Sydney film, particular Newtown and its surrounds. Was it written that way, or was it ever envisaged to be in another city?
[quote_left]“Once we knew we were going to shoot it in Sydney, there was no choice. I definitely wanted to make it in Newtown and Erskineville”.[/quote_left]Yeah, definitely was written that way. When we were writing it, Mike and I had very different reference points. He being the main writer, writing the first couple of drafts, was always referencing his own house-sharing experiences which were, he’s from Melbourne so he was also thinking around Fitzroy, but his house-sharing experiences were in Epping and Ryde, and for a short time in Glebe. Mine were in Perth, in the coastal suburbs of Perth, but that certainly didn’t make a difference. There was no conflict in writing a story together in that way, having those different reference points, because they were very similar. However, the parties I used to have in my 20s with my mates I hoped to really try and capture the essence of those parties in the film, and certainly Newtown… Once we knew we were going to shoot it in Sydney, there was no choice. I definitely wanted to make it in Newtown and Erskineville. That’s where I lived for a year of making the film, just because it’s a treasure. That area is fantastic, and should be on film more. It’s got that uniquely Sydney thing where its urban, but it’s got trees and green, and street art and a lot of the architecture is still retained, even in the gentrified areas. It’s just got a great image.
And sense of community as well, I discovered. We used to hang out there when I lived in Sydney, but I used to live in the Eastern Suburbs. I used to go to Newtown and hang out a bit. I wanted to capture it as authentically as possible, and it certainly is a main character in the film.
Just a couple of other things. This is a very male-centric film, and a lot of rom-coms have been trending that way the last few years. Now this isn’t necessarily a rom-com…
Oh, I like the way you say that. Everybody’s been saying its a rom-com, but I’ve never really thought of it as a rom-com, I’ve thought of it as a coming of age comedy. But with love. Love emerges as the main currency at the end, for sure.
Yeah, there’s elements of ‘bromantic’ comedy in there as well. Do you think that there’s something in that we’ve been craving for years? We don’t often do it a lot here either.
I don’t know. For me, I just don’t like chick flicks. So with me making it, it was never going to be that. I just wanted to make something I would want to go and see. Every choice I make is based on that, so it’s going to end up being for the blokes as well, I would hope. Either in its tone and style or subject matter. I don’t know about the wider vibe, or if people are leaning that way. I think it could go any way at any time, it depends on who is making the film. When you start a project, it’s hard to think ‘what does the world need right now?’. That’s kind of the last thing on my mind. Does this really get me going, could I live with this story for a few years [laughs] and develop it into something that I like.
Have you got anything lined up for your next project at this point?
Mike and I are back writing on a project about the same amount of time we’ve been working on this one, that we started together called Karma. We’re in the process of writing another draft of that now, we’ve done about four drafts of that over the years. It’s a black comedy. We’ve got two other feature scripts after that to attend to, so for the next year I’ll just be writing.
Sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you then.
Yeah, but it’s nice to be back to that actually after the mayhem of filmmaking. Even though it was years of development prior getting to make a film, and it was a brilliant experience for sure, but it is nice now to not have my time scheduled by other people. Although it may not be conducive to being productive either. We are moving fairly slowly into it, just easing into it, but once it gets going and the deadline looms, we work pretty hard on getting that draft in. It’s going to be good just having a year back to the page.
Hopefully we can chat again as that develops along. Thank you so much for your time. It was really good to chat. And good luck with the proper release of the film next month.
Thank you. Cheers.