It has been half a decade since Australian director Peter Templeman scored an Oscar nomination for his short film The Saviour. In the years since he’s been working hard to get his first feature up and running, and the fruit of his labour is the coming-of-age comedy Not Suitable for Children. It stars Ryan Kwanten as Jonah, a hard-partying twenty-something who learns he has testicular cancer and will soon become infertile. Rather than worrying about the potentially life-threatening disease, he fixates on the safety of his progeny, contacting ex-girlfriends in the hope they’ll carry his seed. When that fails, roommate Stevie (Sarah Snook) tries to help him organise an “arrangement” with a stranger and have his legacy live on. But, as he discovers, there’s more to a legacy; such as living your life right, perhaps even with someone you love.
Not Suitable for Children debuted at the Sydney Film Festival, and soon arrives in Australian cinemas. Ahead of its release, I spoke to Templeman about the inspiration he and writer Michael Lucas took from their own lives, the hedonism of his house-sharing days, finding breakout star Snook, and shooting sex scenes that feel like “two cousins trying to get it on.”
Not Suitable for Children arrives in Australian cinemas July 12, 2012.
SM: You’ve been working quite a bit in TV since scoring an Oscar nod back in 2007. I’d like to hear from you what the experience has been like putting together a feature film in that five year period.
PT: Michael, the co-writer, and I have co-written a couple of projects together. One of them we’ve been working on the same amount of time, since ’05; the same amount of time we’ve spent writing this one. Most of my time since then has been made up of one TV gig a year; usually about three or four months. The rest of my time has been working on these screenplays with the generous support of Screen Australia. This was one of those, and it just happened to be the one that got up quickest. A big part of that was Jodi Matterson, the producer, pushing us to get it together. When I came on board in ’05, she said, “OK, you two boys go to it and hurry up.” That was five years ago [laughs]. So, we still took the time. Ah, you know, it just takes that long to get something good enough on the page to warrant people sitting down and giving up 90 minutes of their life to watch it. I don’t know if we’ve completely achieved that with this, but we’ve done our best [laughs]. It’s nice. It’s certainly a good feeling to actually be able to make one. Once the engines of film production began, my head was in it for over a year full time. When I say “working on it for five years,” we generally spent a few months of each year on this project, and then hand in a draft and move onto the other one that we’re co-writing. We’re also working on a feature version of my short film The Saviour. I’ve sort of been developing that as well. This managed to get there, and now it’s done and nearly out.
SM: Well, congratulations for that, at the very least.
PT: Thank you mate. It was a great experience. I loved it, really. It was a privilege to be afforded the time to really spend on something compared with working on TV, which is quite a different process. It’s far more organic; you don’t really have the time to conceptualise it with the level of detail a feature film demands. In that way, it was a bit like returning to the shorts, because I hadn’t made a short since ’05. This was kind of more akin to that process, as I was afforded the time to conceive it in a more detailed way before beginning to make it; before the shooting process. Of course, it still evolves and develops over the process of making it, but I certainly came to it with a pretty vivid base line of what it was going to be beat-by-beat and shot-by-shot. That was similar to the shorts, as opposed to working on TV. You’re flying by the seat of your pants a lot of the time with TV, because you don’t have the time to caress and craft. We had three months editing, and that was a joy to have that amount of time. We needed it though. I could have kept going! It was like tearing my arm off and pulling me away from the thing at the end of each process. I definitely wanted to keep going with the music and keep going with the edit.
SM: You can release your four-hour director’s cut on the DVD.
PT: Oh, no, I never wanted it to be longer than 90 minutes [laughs]. You can always keep crafting, and it’s good to make the characters more real and more three-dimensional, and find fresher ways to do things.
SM: I understand it’s based very specifically on Michael’s personal experiences with the cancer scare. Were there any particular aspects of your life and youth that you wanted to implant in the script?
PT: Most definitely. For Mike, it’s really that concept he got the idea from. Himself getting that pimple on his testicle – or whatever that ended up being – that threw him into a panic for three days before being told “Nah, it’s nothing,” and thinking “What would I do if I couldn’t have kids?” That’s where he got the idea from, for sure. Once we both started working on that, we both become more interested in two interesting character journeys. It took us a while – a few years really – to get to a guy like Jonah. The original guy was quite different from where we ended up. We realised after some time that it needed to be a guy who was less capable and more hapless and reckless and the type of guy with no money, no sense of responsibility, and was terrible with kids. Suddenly, once we started making him more like that, it became a more interesting and funny prospect; seeing him try to convince people that he was responsible enough. On a personal level, for me, I always have felt it’s a tribute to my own years house sharing in Perth, and the parties we used to have. I just really wanted to capture the essence of that time, and the freedom we felt and the hedonism and general mischief we got up to, and how vulnerable you are, even though you feel invincible in those years. It just takes life to throw something really curly at you, like it does to Jonah, to realise how precarious it is in any stage. But also those relationships, and the strength of those relationships formed from good times in shared spaces; surrogate families that are really important. Those guys that I lived with for five years in my twenties were like my family, and still are like my family now, years later. I hope the colour and strength of those kinds of relationships come through in the film.
SM: You’ve had two kids since working on the film. Did the news of their arrival come at a time where they could inform the last few drafts of the script? Was there anything that rang false with this new information?
PT: I can’t say that it did other than it distracted me [laughs]. Nah, it was just an example of my very bad time management and planning skills. My kid, who’s one year old now, we had him just as we were about to start pre-production, so he held off the shoot. We were meant to be shooting earlier, but we were going to have this baby; we had to squeeze him out before I went to Sydney. I mean, it was always really crucial to make sure that urge, that desire to have a baby from Jonah was palpable and you could really feel that was something that he wanted. But as far as it being a real primal kind of need that you can taste on a visceral level, I’ve never really believed that exists so much for guys. It’s something that we accept, probably, for some women; that it’s more of a biological yearning that some women fit in a certain time and age, and certainly we take advantage of that general thing with Stevie when her flick starts to switch. You’ve seen the film, right?
SM: I have, absolutely.
PT: Some people haven’t seen it, so I don’t want to talk over their heads. But with Jonah, and the yearning for a kid, that is just an ideal. Kids are lovely, and it’s nice having a family and such, but is it as primal as survival or hunger or sex or yearning to connect with other people? Yearning for love? I don’t know. It’s a nurturing instinct for sure, but I don’t know that it’s a real primal kind of need to have a kid to have a better life. I hope the film, in the end, says that. That that’s not what’s important; what’s important are the relationships around you, and your life can be just as interesting without kids.
SM: Tell me about getting Ryan on board, and finding Sarah to play his foil.
PT: Ryan was the first one I cast. This is what I was referring to when I said Jodi the producer really pushed the thing into production, because we didn’t think the script was quite ready at the time. She said, “No, let’s get it out and get someone attached.” So, we sent it to Ryan, and I was kind of thinking, “He’s not going to want to audition for this. It’s not ready yet.” But he did; he liked it and wanted to audition. I flew over and went into a room with him, and jammed on one of the scenes for about an hour, and sure, he auditioned me at the same time. I was under no illusions there. But we got on really well. And a week later, after looking back at the footage and thinking about it, I offered him the gig and he said yes. So, he was on board, and then I began the much slower process of casting all the other roles. A six month job really, and a real challenge, because there are so many talented actors in Australia. Especially women of the age group of Stevie. And guys. They were hard to cast as well. So, I saw a lot of people for the role; workshopped a lot of people. But Sarah… you know? She was a standout, and perfect for the role. I auditioned her three or four times, and then offered her the gig. There were only two roles that I offered straight up. That was Susan Prior playing Marcie; Marcie is the last woman from Stevie’s work that Jonah has a crack at. And Lulu McClatchy, who I’d worked with as well, is Jennifer; one of the lesbian couple [that consider having Jonah's baby]. The one that appears to have less sex-appeal than the others. I’d worked with Lulu extensively before as well. Susan and Lulu I’d worked with before, and I knew them really well, and I knew that we worked together well. That’s important to me; knowing that I can direct them and they can collaborate well and they want to build their performance in rehearsal. I’m just rapt with the cast; I think they’re fantastic in the film, and I had a great time with them as well.
SM: Speaking to that point, was there a tough day on set? You can have a great cast and a great script, but technical aspects work against you, or you just can’t get a moment quite right. Was there a particular scene, even, that you really fought to nail?
PT: Oh yeah, plenty. I mean, I was afforded three weeks of rehearsal with the actors, which I demanded to have built into the pre-production, before we got anywhere near shooting the film. Locked that off, and Jodi was very supportive that I had that. That was a big advantage; being able to rehearse extensively before stepping on set. And when you’re on set, it’s more about tweaking the performance and building in the nuance, rather than starting from scratch, and focusing on the shots and things. But still, of course, there are plenty of obstacles in the process and compromises that you have to make. We were very lucky to have shot in winter; we only got rained out once really, and that threw the schedule out a little bit. But that’s boring stuff. Umm, I don’t know. I’m trying to think. The party week was pretty challenging. We shot all the party scenes in one week, in the house. And that was shooting at night with 100 extras. That’s probably the biggest stuff I’d ever shot, in terms of number of people. At least equal to some of the big stuff. Actually, it would have been the biggest, as we had two cameras. That was challenging to me because I’d sort of get swept up in the energy of the room. A big part of it was keeping that energy and that palpable pulse of the parties, and make it feel really authentic; but at the same time, I had to constantly be thinking of the way I was going to cut it, and each little moment I needed to get for the story, and each little beat. I’d sort of be in and out of making sure on screen it was feeling authentic and working from a shot perspective, and from the energy of the room and the wider stuff, but then also going, “Hang on, did I get that moment? I’ve got to get that moment with that camera as I’m looking at this camera.” That was challenging for me from a directorial point of view. But the most challenging thing was in the development of the story and the characters, really. To craft a relationship between two people. This is sort of spoiler stuff.
SM: If you want to talk about it, I can happily put a spoiler warning on there.
*This is that spoiler warning. Do not continue reading if you don’t want to find out what happens at the end of Not Suitable for Children.*
PT: Well, I guess the most challenging thing about the story is that I’ve never thought about it as a rom-com; it’s been marketed as that, and that’s fair enough.
SM: I wanted to ask you about that. You had some concerns?
PT: I thought of it as a coming-of-age comedy, but love is certainly the main currency that emerges at the end of the film. But it doesn’t really work on a story level as rom-coms do, where you know from the beginning who the two leads are, and they’re going to fall in love, and there’s already chemistry there. You can see more than they can. I didn’t want it to work in that sort of way. I wanted it to be a surprise when it pops up. So, it was a challenge to craft a relationship between these two people – between Jonah and Stevie – that had a chasm in it. That they had sort of lived together and partied together and had the same friends, so they had a lot in common, but they’re different enough that there’d never been any chemistry between them, and you accept wholeheartedly that they hadn’t… he sort of roots around a little bit, and is fairly liberal with himself sexually, yet he’d never thought of doing it with her, and vice versa. You had to really feel that in the first half of the film in order for it to pay off, and really work when they are in that bedroom in that standoff. I really wanted to build that gap between them, I guess. I really wanted to build that comedy from that gap in their differences, and in her benign tolerance of his unique brand of idiocy. That was key to the comedy, and it was the key to building the distance between them further and further, so that by the time they’re in the standoff in the bedroom, you genuinely thought, “This isn’t going to work. How are they going to get naked together?” Even though they’re both beautiful people; it made it even more important to craft the characters so you felt they were like sisters/brother and sister/cousins, or something, you know? I wanted to feel like when they were in bed, it was like two cousins trying to get it on. Until they kiss, and then the floodgates open. That was probably one of the most important and challenging parts of it from a storytelling perspective.
Not Suitable for Children arrives in Australian cinemas July 12, 2012.