The romantic comedy is not popular in the Australian film industry, yet Not Suitable for Children hopes to change attitudes with director Peter Templeman creating a hip entry in the much maligned genre, building on the promise of his Oscar nomination for short film The Saviour.
Not Suitable for Children stars Ryan Kwanten as Jonah a hard partying bachelor who gets the shock of his life when diagnosed with testicular cancer. With little time until he is left infertile, the clucky Jonah looks for a suitor to take his seed.
Matt’s Movie Reviews spoke to Peter Templeman hours before the films premiere at the Sydney Film Festival about making Not Suitable for Children, the bonds of a great friendship and why he believes he has not made a romantic comedy.
Enjoy! (Mild Spoilers)
Not Suitable for Children will open the Sydney Film Festival tonight. How does it feel to have that distinction?
It’s great to have the world premiere here in Sydney where we made the film and where I’ve spent a lot of time over the years, and it’s exciting man! It’s sort of daunting as well to be releasing the film to the world finally after all this time working on it, and also people keep telling me it’s a tough crowd which is not what I want to hear really (laughs). So I’m a bit daunted by that as well, whether they will be arms folded, looking down discerned on the work. But nah, it’ll be good.
This is your debut feature film. Having come from such an acclaimed career in short films and TV, was there pressure in choosing which feature film project you wanted to make you debut with?
No pressure other than I’ve been working on it for ages, and when I started working on this I had the short films, of course. I sort of had three features on my slate for a number of years that I’ve been working on. So back then it wasn’t so much a decision of “Will this be my first feature film?” It was more like will this be a story that I can connect with and go into the long haul with Mike (Lucas, screenwriter).
Mike and I already had a pretty tight partnership by that time co-writing a couple of projects together, one which we’ve been working on longer than on this. So that was a big motivation with me, sticking with Mike and keeping our partnership going. As far as this one goes it was really the core of that concept. It’s changed over so many years, the story and the characters…but still the core of the concept is the thing that excited me and excited Mike I think at the start, just that idea of a young guy with his body clock ticking felt fresh.
The film was inspired by screenwriter Michael Lewis’ own health scare. Did you know about that before receiving the script?
Well we were great mates then anyway, so I knew about that. In fact we were working on a short film together at the time that it happened to him, and I found out later. He didn’t mention it to me at the time. It was a short film which he was directing and I was acting in, and that’s when it happened to him. I’m pretty sure that was the time, if my memory serves me correctly.
So I was surprised that he didn’t tell me at the time, but apparently he flew into a panic for three days thinking “Oh, wow! I could be a one nut!”
And being the true artist that he is he funnelled into a screenplay.
He thought “There’s gonna be a movie in this!” once the relief set in, yeah. (laughs) For sure when he was given the all clear, I should make that clear.
"Ryan’s the type of actor who likes to talk about character and detail of the character, and the nuance and build a scene from one point to another where it’s richer." - Peter Templeman
How essential was Ryan Kwanten’s casting in getting the film being made?
It was pretty important for us, because of the budget we wanted to do it at. So that was the first stage of the casting process, and it was really Jodi Materson the producer who felt like the script was at a stage after we’ve been working on it for a number of years, and she was getting impatient I think as well (laughs), she thought it was a the stage where we could attract someone like that to the lead role.
Michael and I didn’t. We thought “Nah, it was not ready. Give us another round of drafting”. And she said “Let’s give it a go.” So we said ok and Ryan was really the only one that fit the bill I guess, in regards to helping bring some funding to the project. So we sent it to him and he liked it, so we went over and auditioned him and I’m sure he auditioned me.
We worked for an hour on a scene in a room and found we could work together really well. He’s the type of actor who likes to talk about character and detail of the character, and the nuance and build a scene from one point to another where it’s richer. I love to work like that as well so we thought this partnership could work and I offered him the role. A week later and he accepted.
Fortunately I was protected from all of that funding like stuff from Jodi, who worked really hard to get the money together for the film. She did a great job with the money. We had hoped for more initially but due to the GFC and stuff like that, we got trimmed back.
It was going to be a bigger budget film with these other investors we had on board early at a time Ryan was coming on board, but they wanted to have too much of a say in the casting. They wanted Gus (Ryan Carr) and Stevie (Sarah Snook) to be American and English, and I could never see that working for the story so we had some big blues about that, and then eventually Jodi suggested we should cut our ties with them to her credit and I’m glad. Because that would have been… for the story of the Australian, the American and the Englishman living in a house together in Sydney, and the one of them get testicular cancer is sort of a story on a story in a way.
Maybe that’s more of a TV series? I don’t know. I just could not see it working. For me it was important that it felt like these guys almost went to school together. They’ve been mates for years and years, and the easier way to do that is that they’re all from the same part of town.
The stand out to me was Sarah Snook. Was she an actress you know about before casting this film? When did you first know about her?
In the audition! I hadn’t seen her work before. She was only a couple of years out of NIDA, and I saw a lot of people for that role over a long period of time, because there’s so many brilliant female actors in Australia. We’re really spoiled for that, at that age.
But from the very first audition of Sarah I was struck by her ability. Principally by how much she not only embodied the character in real detail, and in a way was very close to what Mike and I had imagined the character to be, but also how much within her performance she reflected who Jonah was without us seeing Jonah… you know, in an audition it’s just her on camera and someone reading Jonah’s lines offstage. But through her reaction and everything you really got a sense that she was conveying who Jonah was, the type of guy he was and so there was a really wide sort of projection I guess of her immersion in the moment and in that relationship.
It’s kind of like that thing where you learn a lot about someone through their friends, through how their friends act around them and say about them, and watching her you learn a lot about Jonah. That to me shows a really talent and ability and naturally instinct to immerse yourself that deeply in the scene and in the situation and in these two people.
Because that is what acting really is. The most important thing about it is that you’re really clear on how you feel about who you’re talking to and who’s in this room and who the other characters are, and that you have complex feelings about them. What do you love about them? What do you hate about that person?
She always had that sweet benign tolerance of him. You know he’s a pretty frustrating guy to be around with that sort of unique tunnel vision that he has.
It seemed very much that their relationship was kind of a sibling relationship.
Yeah, good. That was the idea to make sure it was purely platonic so that…anyway, I don’t want to go into that stuff (laughs). But certainly they are like brother and sister.
"For me I hope the film in the end says that it’s the strengths and the bonds of the people around you that’s the important thing in life." - Peter Templeman
It seems with every generation the decision to sustain from having a baby increases. The last census had the average age for first time mums at 29 years and first time dad’s at 33. So can Not Suitable for Children be seen as a cautionary tale that time is never on our side when it comes to procreation?
You mean, better to have it earlier?
Not necessarily earlier. But in regards to Jonah I’m sure when he found out that he had such a short window, maybe…
He should have done it years ago? No. Not in my mind. I hope the film in no way is pro-baby propaganda, because for me…that’s a really interesting subject to talk about. For me I hope the film in the end says that it’s the strengths and the bonds of the people around you that’s the important thing in life. The people you spend your time with every day, be it your family, lovers, friends, colleagues even…it’s the people that make up your day that are the most important things in life, not the ideals you have for what you want out of life.
Fatherhood is an ideal for Jonah, really. I think for most people it isn’t a primal…maybe it’s different for women, and I’m on tricky territory defining the gender, but certainly I will try to suggest in this film that Stevie’s maternal switch is flicked and she does think “Maybe I do want a kid.” She feels the nurturing kind of urges and thinks this is a good deal. If I ever want to do it now this is the time to do it. She doesn’t believe in love, really.
Whereas for Jonah he certainly wants to do it, but I don’t believe that is a primal…it’s not like survival, or hunger, or sex even, or the yearning for love. That’s probably the closest thing that I can draw the connection with to the yearning to be a dad.
Certainly from my perspective, I’ve got two kids and prior to them I never really thought “I can’t wait to be a dad! I really want to be a dad.” I think for guys who do feel that way it’s more, and I know it’s a big call, but I think rather than being a primal, instinctive urge to have a baby…that’s not the thing you’re thinking about when you’re having sex, hopefully (laughs). That’s the instinct, the physicality of that. But wanting to have a baby I think comes from conditioning, more so. You come from a family. You know that structure. Society breeds it. That’s what you’re meant to do and it’s nice! You see families and they all love each other and there is a deep love there, so you want that.
But you can achieve relationships that are just as deep in a different way from your other relationships in life. You don’t have to have a kid to do that. It was important to me to somehow convey that “No, he’s not going to get a kid, and he’s gonna be fine.” Because I certainly feel that way. I love my kids to death and I’ll never turn back the clock, but if I never had them my life wouldn’t be any worse, you know? In some ways it would be better. I probably would have made another film by now. Probably have more friends I would see more often (laughs). I would have more time.
But look…it’s certainly a rich experience having that level of unconditional love for someone and being completely responsible, but it’s not better. It shouldn’t be put on a pedestal, I think…procreation.
The film was shot in Redfern and Eveleigh. What was is about those suburbs that you thought lent itself well to this story and these characters?
I just love that part of the world. I mean…the inner west of Sydney is unique, and vibrant, and diverse. There is just a real energy there and a sense of community as well. We lived there for a year during the making of the film in Erskineville and just loved it! It’s just a special part of the world.
Cinematically as well it’s brilliant. A lot the buildings retain their old architecture, even though it’s been gentrified. There is street art everywhere, it’s sort of deeply urban and built up and bustling, but leafy and green as well and that makes it quite cinematic, so that is a huge character in the film and it was very important to me to try and convey that part of the world with as much authenticity as possible, and with as much texture as I could.
It almost reminds me of the Brooklyn that you see 30 years ago on screen, you know? I love Newtown and Erskenville. We used to live in the Eastern suburbs when we lived in Sydney years ago, and used to go there and hang out and always loved it. But only after living there did I really fall in love with it.
Once I knew we were shooting in Sydney there was no option, really. I really thought it should be in that area and I hoped we would find a house that was in that area, and luckily we did that. It’s amazing that house…it’s called The Nunnery that house which we use. It’s an iconic Newtown share house. For 20 years people have lived in it and had big parties in it and now they are renovating. We were the last ones I think to get in there and smash it up.
Romantic comedies are not a fixture in Australian cinema. Why do you think Australian filmmakers tend to stay away from them?
I don’t know. I never thought of this film as a romantic comedy, I have to say. Right from the start if I had to label it, I would have said it was a coming of age comedy, with love as the core currency that emerges by the end of the film.
But for my mind the style and the tone of the film goes a long way to subverting those comparisons, and structurally as a story it’s done differently than most rom-coms in that most rom-coms you have two leads that you can feel the chemistry sizzling from the moment the film begins, really. Whether it is a positive chemistry or an antagonism of some sort, you know where it’s going.
I hoped you wouldn’t get that from this film. It’s about relationships for sure, but I’m not a fan of the genre myself. I mean there are a lot of great films that have a romantic comedy structure to them underneath through the relationships, like buddy movies even have a rom-com structure in a way.
But for me those cookie cutter sort of sterile Hollywood rom-coms that come out all shiny and new and naturally adorned with amazing looking people and full of fun and hijinks, they don’t feel real to me and it was always an incentive to me to try and make something that felt had a real and raw spirit to it.
Although there are hijinks, I can’t deny that now in the film (laughs). But hopefully it comes from a real place. And our actors are not ugly (laughs). But it’s a cross we bear…more than anything they are good looking people.