25th Jun 2012 5:33am | By Tom Sturrock
Peter Templeman, the director of a new Aussie comedy, discusses black humour and the joys of filming with a homegrown actor made good.
Australian comedies can be hit and miss – there’s the odd cult classic but, for the most, part, it’s a catalogue of cringey, self-conscious bombs, films that failed to find an audience at home or anywhere else. However, there are high hopes for the new Australian film, Not Suitable For Children, which opened the Sydney Film Festival earlier this month and stars Ryan Kwanten – formerly of Home And Away but now of True Blood – as Jonah, a playboy who gets testicular cancer and becomes determined to reproduce before it’s too late.
“He becomes obsessed with becoming a father and goes on the hunt for someone to have a kid with, backtracking through his ex-girlfriends, looking for a womb that fits,” director Peter Templeman explains, confident that situating disease so centrally to the film’s plot won’t dull the laughs.
“It’s almost the best cancer you can get because they just snip it off and you get the other nut zapped,” Templeman adds. “And that’s where the infertility comes from.”
Although Jonah’s cancer is more of a plot device than a running joke – this is not, per se, a film about cancer so much as the character’s response – Templeman insists the downbeat framing of the story gives it greater resonance.
“Comedy has to come from real places and situations have to be rooted in truth – it frees you up to tell a story without worrying about inserting gags and being funny every second of what you’re doing,” Templeman says.
“I think we embrace the comedy of the situation, even though it’s a bit darker. I generally like humour that’s a bit blacker – comedy where there are lives threatened can be richer – I suppose the principle is to not play it for cheap laughs, while still running with what’s a fairly absurd premise.”
The film relies heavily on its Sydney location – Newtown, specifically – where the audience first meets Jonah, enjoying his bachelorhood. Templeman, a Western Australian, didn’t necessarily have Sydney but, after a visit to the harbour city, the details began to fall into place.
“Sydney plays a massive role – I lived there for a bit and I just love that part of the world,” he says. “My house-sharing years were in Perth so that was my reference point but we kept it open before going into production. And I found myself spending a fair bit of time in Newtown and, as I became immersed in it, I just thought it was perfect. It’s diverse and the buildings have kept some old architecture – there’s a grunginess to it and there’s also a real youth culture around there.”
As for Kwanten, the casting of the 35-year-old, who is now based in the US full-time, was one of the first dominoes to fall once the production was green-lit.
“He was the first guy I cast – I went to LA and auditioned him and had a chat to him and we got on well,” Templeman says. “I took away the tapes and had a look at them and we didn’t look at anyone else.
“His was initially more of a witty, preppy character but we made him more hapless and scattered – we thought it was funnier if it’s harder for him to pull himself together when he’s trying to convince people he’d make a great dad.”
Kwanten has come a long way since his days as lifeguard Vinnie Patterson in Summer Bay, joining the swelling ranks of young Aussie actors who have made good in the US. Admittedly, there have been a few short-lived TV shows and films that failed to move the needle but his role in vampire-themed drama True Blood, playing Jason Stackhouse, a ladies’ man who becomes a werepanther, has afforded him sex-symbol status.
There is a tradition of Australian actors who have made it abroad coming home to make films but Templeman resists the idea that Australians with a profile are obligated to return to bestow their celebrity on the local industry. In Kwanten’s case, at least, Templeman believes it was simply a case of the actor being drawn to the material.
“He got hold of the script and I thought that maybe it wouldn’t be his thing but he was keen – I don’t think it was a concerted effort on his part to come home and do a film,” Templeman says. “I think he gets a lot of scripts and he’s done a couple of US films since.”
That said, Templeman remembers more than a few night shoots where Kwanten’s presence drew the extras like moths to a flame.
“Whenever we were shooting in public he was getting recognised and he was a real drawcard for the various party scenes we filmed,” he says. “We had lots of extras and they were all keen to meet Ryan and he was really good like that – he made a real effort with people.”
As for the roll call of ill-conceived Australian comedies, Templeman is far from discouraged, insisting a film's ability to find an audience boils down to the story-telling rather than genre restrictions. Although, when pressed on his favourite Australian comedy, he picks an unlikely candidate.
“I don’t know if you can call Chopper a comedy, but I thought it was hilarious,” he says. “Whether you’re doing straight drama or comedy, for my mind, it just depends on what the story is and trying to get it to be as good as it can be, putting that time in and getting it working well. I think it’s pretty hard to judge what Australians want to see and I’m don’t know if we’re getting better at making comedies or other kinds of films. I guess film-making is pretty tough, whatever you’re doing.”
Still, Templeman concedes that Australia has perhaps produced too many films too eager to peddle their ockerness as a novelty, trading off a Crocodile Dundee-style schtick, which, unsurprisingly, is long out-of-date.
“I don’t want to be bagging other films but I think the most important thing is to be honest about what you like and what interests you,” Templeman says. "If we’re playing up to other countries’ perception of Australia or exploiting an aspect of Australia for cheap laughs – the audience is smart and can tell if you’re taking the piss.”
And, for now, Templeman is happy enough living in Australia. He’s in his early 40s – he’s cagey about the exact number – and has no desire to immerse himself in the bright lights of Los Angeles, to hang out in Hollywood trying to cut deals to get films made. For Templeman, the beaches of Western Australian are too strong a lure.
“I don’t want to live in LA – I’m a bit of a homebody and I’m back in Perth these days, which is where I grew up and where most of my mates are,” he says. “Having said that, I’d love to be able to make films with their money and get involved that way. But I’m not into going over there and doing it tough – I probably want to do more shorts and a bit more TV and a lot more writing. We’ll see where the next 12 months take me.”