I Love You Too: all you need is rom-com

I Love You TooRomantic comedies make money. Lots of it. So why isn’t Australia making more? Miguel Gonzalez spoke with the creators of I Love You Too, a comedy that will help fill that gap in the film market.

I Love You Too is comedian Peter Helliar’s big screen debut, produced by Princess Pictures’ Laura Waters (We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High) and Yael Bergman (Love and Other Catastrophes).

Helliar had worked with Waters in the pilot episode for Rove in 1999 and kept in touch with the producer.

Knowing he had a number of ideas for features, in 2002 Waters asked Helliar to choose one and start working on it. Due to other commitments, it took a while before that idea became a treatment and, finally, a film script.

According to Waters, the message that drove Helliar to write the story and guided every draft was “tell people that you love them”, and from that premise, most of their efforts were spent on character and story development.

The film tells the story of Jim (Brendan Cowell), a man who can’t get himself to tell his girlfriend (Yvonne Strahovski) that he loves her even if it means losing her. His immature best mate Blake (Helliar) is clueless about matters of the heart, but a fortuitous encounter with a widowed dwarf (Peter Dinklage) might be just what he needs to find the courage to say ‘I love you too’.

“The actual premise in no way was funny,” explained Helliar. “Laura asked me, ‘When is the funny going to come in?’ and I said ‘Trust me, it will, through the dialogue and the situations’.”

With a writing/acting background, Daina Reid had previously directed Helliar on the TV comedy sketch show Skithouse. She joined the project shortly after he had finished the first draft and, together with Helliar, Waters and Bergman, spent six years working on the script.

“I quite like the rom-com genre, but I didn’t necessarily have a blue print,” said Helliar of his script.

“It’s a traditional rom-com, but it’s one that doesn’t just focus on the romance. It’s an ensemble piece, and there’s even a ‘bromantic’ love triangle.”

Fellow writer and co-star Cowell says it’s a good sign for him when he looks at a script and wishes he had written it, which was the case with I Love You Too.

“I tried to write a romantic comedy and failed, so I guess I was jealous. The writer in me said ‘this is a bloody good genre piece and people are going to like it because it’s funny as hell all the way through’,” he said.

“The things that audiences seem to complain about with Australian films don’t exist in this movie. It’s a great Friday night out, a great date movie, and a great film to go and see with your mother or your best mate. Or all four,” added Cowell.

Once development reached the final stages, it was time to find the money necessary to go into production. The film was financed by Screen Australia, Film Victoria and Roadshow Films, but the credits of the talent involved didn’t necessarily make the process any easier.

“Everything is always difficult to finance and you always just have to close your eyes and keep going until somebody is finally yelling ‘Action!’ We looked at different models for financing, and there were people we approached who didn’t want to be involved. Your financial partners are as important as any other part of the creative team, because where the money comes influences the kind of market that you go into and the support that you have,” explained Waters.

This part of the process is something that took Helliar by surprise, and made him learn that “movies are really hard to make”.

“I’ve got some profile in this country; Roadshow was on board at a reasonably early point; we had the team that created We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, and we still had to go through tough financial meetings and casting decisions,” he said.

“I’m amazed that movies even get made.”

But this one did get made, shot in Melbourne last year with DOP Ellery Ryan, production designer Jennifer Davis, art director Tim Lyall and sound designer Emma Bortignon among other heads of department.


American and British romantic comedies have invaded our screens for decades and their formulas define the expectations for the genre, so an Australian variation must somehow find its own voice. This, says Reid, has to do with the ‘bullshit meter’ of the local audience and its perception of itself.

“We have a real sense of truth in Australia, so setting out to do a romantic comedy here is different to how the English or the Americans would do it.  You can’t just say ‘that formula works well, let’s just do that’ because we have a good bullshit meter as an audience.

“In our minds Americans are extreme, they can do that stuff. We’re happy to see them and the British do their comedies and be broad, but it comes back to that bullshit meter,” explained Reid.

Brendan Cowell agrees: “A lot of romantic comedies are about Jennifer Lopez getting a boyfriend and you go, ‘Really?’ She probably just has to walk one block and there’d be five guys wanting to have a crack at her. But the great thing about a good rom-com is that it packs a punch; there’s a bit of darkness in there, a real family history and some grieving. Every character could have its own movie. It’s got substance.”

Reid points out the mockumentary style of TV comedy hits like the acclaimed Princess Pictures/Chris Lilley shows and Kath & Kim, and their ‘sense of truth’ as part of their success. That is why she focused on creating protagonists that audiences could relate to and feel like they’ve met in real life, and the actors chosen to portray them had to combine, she explained, an emotional truth and a lightness

of touch that would make the jokes work.

The casting process was extensive, with many actors reading for the role of Jim. It was Helliar who ‘had an epiphany’ one night at the cinema – watching Kevin Smith’s Zack & Miri Make a Porno – and realised Brendan Cowell was the perfect choice.

While Cowell’s most recognisable work as an actor doesn’t necessarily scream ‘comedy!’ he did write for and act on the SBS series Life Support. He admits that, after doing “very dark and disturbing roles” (Love My Way, Noise, Ten Empty), he was ready to do something lighter. He read two scenes for Reid.

“We knew he was a great dramatic actor, and we re-watched his comedic timing and his body language, his reactions, and they were perfect. We suddenly realised ‘he’s the guy’. And we were right,” recalled Waters.

Both director and actor agree that there is a delicate balance creating a male lead in a romantic comedy. According to Cowell, being mean to a girlfriend in this genre doesn’t come from a malicious place, but from the character’s fear of growing up.

“All the Hugh Grant characters are mean because they are emotional children,” said Cowell.

It is precisely Grant who would serve as the mold for Jim; Reid sent her star to watch his films.

“He is a genius at this stuff and that’s why he keeps getting cast over and over again. There are not that many people out there who can do this. It’s so underestimated! It’s a very difficult place to be, and if there were more people who could do it, they’d be superstars,” said Reid.


In the last decade, TV has become fertile ground for home-grown comedy. And while Australia has a long tradition of successful film comedies with Crocodile Dundee, The Dish, Priscilla, Muriel’s Wedding, Young Einstein, The Wog Boy and The Castle in the top 20 highest grossing Australian titles of all time, the list of hits has few entries post-2000 – Kenny, Crackerjack, The Man Who Sued God and Strange Bedfellows among them.

There are even fewer examples of Australian romantic comedies, which doesn’t seem to make much sense considering the ongoing success of the genre with local audiences. The Australian Writers’ Guild identified this incongruous situation and launched a rom-com script competition, where the winner will participate in a master class with Hollywood consultants Michael Hauge and Steven Kaplan. Slowly, the pieces are coming together.

“Romantic comedies have a massive potential. They make money, and it’s all about having the right elements and not thinking that a joke will take care of itself. We must treat comedies with as much gravity as we do our other genres,” argued Reid.

But humour is a highly personal thing, so identifying what comedies will connect with audiences is a pretty difficult task, even for the most experienced practitioners.

With a résumé boasting credits like the internationally acclaimed Chris Lilley projects – with a third one, the ABC/BBC/HBO co-production Angry Boys in post – it might seem that Laura Waters has a good nose for comedy, but the producer says she tries to avoid having a philosophy about what works and what doesn’t.

“I react to things I find funny and go on gut instinct. When we were making this film, I tried to make sure that we never compared ourselves to anybody or anything, and just tried to make the film that we all thought was funny and would mean something,” she explained.

“It’s important to stay true to what it is you really want to make, and ignore any industry pressure and formulas and ideas about what makes something successful.”

Only time – and audiences – will tell if Waters’ gut instinct with I Love You Too was right. In the meantime, she’s busy with Angry Boys, getting ready for a 2011 launch, and Reid will go back to directing the TV drama Rush (“I need to exercise my action muscles and shoot some people”). But the director has other comedy projects in development; she is certain that a series of successful comedy features will make the industry and the audience confident about this genre.

I Love You Too now needs to make audiences here and around the world fall in love with its story. It is represented by New York-based agent Film Nation; there were no pre-sales, and agents and producers are still working on their international strategy.

Roadshow Films will release I Love You Too with 229 prints on May 6.


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