Has an Australian filmmaker finally cracked the rarely attempted romantic comedy genre? Colin Delaney visits the set of Not Suitable for Children to find out if Oscar nominated, first time feature director Peter Templeman’s flick about testicular cancer has the balls to make it big at the box office.
A mismatched collection of twenty somethings loiter in front of a large old house in Eveleigh, south of Sydney’s CBD. Goths, surfers, hipsters and stoners make up the group. Inside it’s shoulder-to-shoulder with revellers filling hallways and stairwells. The event is not just thrown together either – flashing lights and disco balls suggest the members of this household take their parties seriously. And the amount of drugs and alcohol circulating certainly deem the environment unsuitable for children.
Encore is on the set of Oscar-nominated Peter Templeman’s feature film debut Not Suitable For Children, starring Ryan Kwanten (True Blood, Griff the Invisible) as the lazy playboy, Jonah. Never struggling to find a bed-mate, but never settling for just one, Jonah feels his biological clock speed up when he discovers a lump on one of his testicles.
The film follows his quest to find someone to mother his child while there is still time. Helping Jonah with the cause are his flatmates, Gus and Stevie who acts as his ‘womb agent’, setting him up with girls she thinks will be a suitable ‘host’ for his unborn offspring. Producer Jodi Matterson says, “It’s a traditional romantic comedy, but in reverse as Jonah crashes through his ex-girlfriends. We think he is going to end up with the ex who is the love of his life yet we see this friendship with Stevie simmering into a relationship.”
Writer Michael Lucas began working on the script while studying at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and the story is based loosely on his personal experience. After discovering a suspicious lump, Lucas made a Friday afternoon visit to the doctor.
“Over the weekend he became incredibly anxious thinking ‘what if I have testicular cancer?’ and ‘what would happen if I couldn’t have a baby?’ and he was flicking through his phone book thinking ‘who of my girlfriends would join this pact with me?’” Matterson explains. “Fortunately he found out on Monday that he was fine but the idea stuck with him.” The concept of a lead male character desperate to have a baby also struck a cord with Matterson who was interested in the role reversal within the romantic comedy formula.
While Australian filmmakers have long demonstrated a solid grasp of dramas, the rom-com is a genre yet to be cracked – with a few notable exceptions. The 90s saw the highly successful Muriel’s Wedding and more recently, Peter Helliar’s I Love You Too showed box office promise in 2010 but few other directors have attempted the format since. Matterson believes that while local filmmakers are often wary of the style, it falls well within their capabilities. “It’s very hard to make a romantic comedy in Australia because we don’t have the $40-50m budget and romantic comedy stable of stars. It comes down to script and requires real passion for the genre.” A passion Matterson says “romantic comedy junkie” Lucas has in spades.
Cast and crew
When Michel Lucas’s agent approached Matterson with the script, the plan was for Darren Ashton to direct as Matterson and Ashton had previously worked together on feature films Razzle Dazzle and Thunderstruck. Upon reading the script, they felt another director would be more suited and Ashton took on the role of executive producer instead. Matterson interviewed numerous directors before selecting up and coming Peter Templeman who cut his teeth on the set of acclaimed children’s series Lockie Leonard. Having won 38 major festival slots with a number of well-received short films and an Oscar nomination for the 2007 short The Saviour, Templeman was ready to tackle his first feature.
“The way Peter looks at the world and the sensibility he brings to it has an edge,” Matterson explains. “Matched with Michael’s script, which is quite a traditional romantic comedy, it makes for an interesting combination.” The creative team locked in, casting was the next major consideration. With established TV actors taking on their first feature roles – Ryan Corrs (Packed to the Rafters) who plays Gus, and Sarah Snook (Spirited) in the part of Stevie – securing Kwanten was a major coup.
“We were very keen to get Ryan purely on a creative level,” Matterson says. “Often the realities of film financing mean thinking about names first and then asking if they are right for the role second. We were incredibly blessed that in this situation we had someone we really wanted that also ticked all the right boxes.”
The original working title of the film was The Twentysomething Survival Guide and in the earliest drafts of the script the main characters Jonah, Gus and Stevie ran a self-help website of the same name.
“A couple of drafts in, we got rid of the website but kept the title,” says Matterson. In the website’s place, layabouts Jonah and Gus turned to throwing parties at the share house charging guests an entry fee to keep them in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. While the basic premise remained the same, the evolution of the script called for a new name.
“We had been looking for a title for about six months when halfway through pre-production Michael came up with Not Suitable For Children. It was the first title we could all agree on,” Matterson says. With a working list comprising hundreds of titles, she admits they considered some interesting options.
The worst, Matterson says, “probably had something to do with testicles. There was a lot of Get The Ball Rolling and Balls Out”.
Similar to the idea behind the film, the plot device of the household parties comes from Lucas’ life. Costume designer Gypsy Taylor, who has previously worked on projects including Australia, is Lucas’ real life flatmate and together they are known for throwing lavish Halloween bashes. Alongside extras dressed as punks, skaters and rockabillies, Taylor’s penchant for fancy dress is evident in the party scenes. “When I called on the extras I gave them a couple of different looks in the genres that I thought they could cover,” Taylor says. “One guy arrived with two outfits, a suit or a Trojan outfit, so we said, alright, go with the Trojan.”
Today we’re on set for one of the infamous parties. During the day the crew shoot indoors, where the colourfully attired extras crowd the hallways and over-spilling stairs. In the evening Templeman’s crew move outside to film in the backyard.
Like the partygoers, the house has plenty of character. From the outside, it could be mistaken for The Addams Family mansion, as peeling paint cracks and sheds from the clapboard exterior. Elizabeth Mary Moore, production designer says the property was perfectly dishevelled when they found it. “It was really important the house worked in every way, interior and exterior,” Moore explains. “I’ve really just had to modify the garage and paint the doors. I haven’t had to do much at all.” She describes the character’s world as more “Thai take away than two-minute noodles” suggesting a step up from university life and as Templeman rushes between rooms, crew watch monitors set amid ragged old bench tops and crockery piles that suggest years of ex-flatmates.
With a budget of $4.5m, the film is produced by Matterson’s production company Wild Eddie. Exit Films, home to Matterson’s day job, also take credit as a partner on the film. Screen Australia and Screen NSW have come to the party, while Icon handle local distribution and Arclight the film’s international sales.
Cinematographer Lachlan Milne shot with the Arri Alexa camera and post-production is being handled by Frame Set and Match who have also invested in the project. The shoot was seven weeks long and Matterson estimates the entire production from script to screen will take four years.
Once complete, the film will face rigorous audience testing with four major screenings before several smaller sessions. After being in an edit suite for so long, Matterson says it’s easy to lose perspective on what’s funny and what’s not. “If you’re in an auditorium with an audience, you can feel where the energy dips, where they react and what they laugh at. It’s important to be in that room with people who know nothing about the film.”
The project is currently in the final stages of post and while a release date is yet to be set, the picture is due to be locked off by the end of February. With the wait to see if they have nailed it almost over, Matterson is realistic about the film’s chances.
“You can make a really great film and for whatever reason it doesn’t find an audience or you can make an average film and it’s in the right place in the right time,” she says. “We’ve had a very definite audience in mind the whole time and we’re doing everything we can to give that core demographic a film they would enjoy. We can only hope it reaches that audience, makes its money back, and beyond.”