Selected as the Opening Night feature at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, Peter Templeman’s Not Suitable for Children sees twenty-something Jonah enjoying a free and easy lifestyle in his Inner West Sydney share house when he discovers a lump and is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Learning that the treatment will render him sterile, Jonah quickly decides he needs to be a father. The film features stunning performances from Ryan Kwanten and newcomer Sarah Snook, as well as strong cinematography and a grounded screenplay. Hitting Australian cinemas today, Julian Buckeridge sat down with writer Michael Lucas to talk about the film.
This was an event that occurred to you, but both you and Peter were involved in the script over a five-year period. What was the writing process like and what did you do to prepare?
Lucas: Well, it was a script that I had already done a couple of drafts of it from when I was twenty-five – kind of working on it for a couple of years on-and-off. And then Pete became attached. We already have a co-writing relationship with each other; we have been working on another project, in fact, for years. And he came on board as the director, but I always knew he was going to be enormously involved in the story.
I’m still the writer; on other projects, we completely co-write all of the dialogue and everything like that. On this one, we built it together and developed it together but, at the end of the day, it was always me heading off to nut away at the scenes. It was more the story development and the character development was a completely collaborative process.
Was your reaction much different from Jonah’s in your real life health scare?
[Laughs] For me, of course, it was just a weekend scare so I didn’t take any kind of action. I just speculated on what I might do. But I certainly was stunned at how much it weighed on me, just that notion you’re never going to get to have kids. It wasn’t something that I had really given much thought to and, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t get it off my mind. It just crashed into me. So, in that respect, it was similar – but I certainly didn’t embark on any missions or anything like that!
Was there a point in the script stage that you wrote with Ryan in mind? Or did he come on much later and mould the role in his own way?
He came on about a year before we shot, and he brought a lot to the role – he actually did have an effect on the character. But the difficulty in some ways – I mean, he was on True Blood when we cast him – the problem that we faced story-wise is that he is this international sex symbol that everyone wants to sleep with, apparently, and our movie is about someone who keeps getting rejected by girls.
And at first, it seemed like a bit of a hurdle. But, in actual fact, just him breaking that – and the irony of the fact that under normal circumstances girls just want to shag him, but in the context of to get pregnant to him, they don’t want it – it actually made the character better. So that was the biggest change post-Ryan: embracing the fact that he has this aura of being desirable and seeing how we could twist that.
Because prior to that, he was a lot more hapless – and he is still hapless, but he was a lot more everyman in the sense that he definitely wasn’t designed to be any more attractive than the average [man].
And then when Ryan, of course, came and hit the ground and started rehearsing, I was trying to capture as much of what he was bringing to it and feed it back into the script. I do a lot of TV writing and that’s the way I like to work. I like to watch the actors.
On that point, what did you find to be the major differences between writing on this film for such a long period and writing on something like Offspring?
Well, when Offspring really cranks up, it can get down to a couple of weeks to write an episode or, in some extreme cases, even a few days. Whereas this goes on and on and on and you have to keep redrafting and it takes so long to piece it all together. Also, Offspring I inherited; Deb Oswald created that show and I inherited the world and the characters, and I came on after the pilot had been shot – so it is more reacting to someone else’s creation.
But even though it might sound like that makes TV really limiting, it’s actually quite liberating in writing to have those short deadlines, and there’s something great about taking someone else’s world and creation and seeing what you can bring to it. And on Offspring there’s a team of writers, so you’re bouncing off each other. And I love that too.
One of the things I compared with Offspring is Sarah Snook’s character of Stevie. As the film progresses, the focus gradually moves from Jonah to Stevie and her emotional journey. Was that an early decision or one that arose once Sarah came onto the film and became involved?
The character of Stevie – there was always the intention that as the film went further it would start to become a dual protagonist story. But certainly once Sarah was cast and once she was workshopping, I just loved her and what she was doing so much, and tried to capture more and more and more of it and see more and more of it into the script.
And what we found is that because what the lead character is doing is a bit crazy, she occupies the perspective of the audience, and so it felt like better storytelling to give more and more of the story from her perspective. And she’s just so unbelievably good, so you just want to put as much of her in there as you can!
Sarah captures both the dramatic and comedic elements really well. She consistently bounces off of Ryan.
I feel really glad that we got her. It was a ridiculous point in time – I feel like what people must have felt like when they first cast Cate Blanchett or Toni Colette.
Well, I was going to say, it was lucky – for the film, at least – that she didn’t get The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
I know! Bad for her but an absolute blessing for us.
Stevie is a very rational and pragmatic person – a female that is independent and able to balance the job and social life, but is also pretty set in her ideals. And I was interested in the difficulties you faced developing that transition where she rethinks what she wants, particularly with children.
Particularly in the last year of developing the script, that was where all the energy was going. Her arc – from the perspective of not really wanting children to deciding to enter into this arrangement with Jonah – really only came in once Sarah was cast and from when I was watching her.
And in the initial draft – the first time Sarah read the script – her character was in a relationship with someone and was expecting to have kids with quite a conservative guy, so it really became a different character once I saw what Sarah was doing. She did this little improv in one of her auditions, where she said something like “Babies look like aliens,” and it just lit up for me and so we started building it up.
But it was really difficult to take this character from this position of not wanting kids to, in a matter of weeks, deciding to embark on it with her best friend. So we would constantly debate all the reasons that might convince her to do it, and we just tried to pile on more so that in every new sequence there seems to be another reason – there’s that physical connection she starts having with children, but then there’s also financial incentives and there’s lifestyles incentives. And we just thought: the best way to solve it is to build up more and more and more reasons.
We hope the audience also wants to make that leap, and that helps them go along for the ride.
It’s also the personal connection between her and Jonah. Because you also see Jonah and Eva having a similar discussion, so he’s been able to have that connection with both women in that they are very willing to help him.
Yeah, and the rapport and the kind of history between them that goes with it. I think my favourite bit in the film is when he confirms that she really wants to do it. And they just sit there in silence opposite each other, looking at each other, and there’s just great history and connection and possibility between them. Which is all credit to the actors!
The premise itself initially seems relatively straightforward but then the film seems to jump on and subvert the clichés of this type of narrative. Did you ever discuss which genre and the genre tropes you wanted to focus on?
There was a lot of concentration on the genre. In most of the marketing it’s been sold as a romantic comedy, and that’s fair enough – it is. But actually, in most of our script writing, we ended up defining it as a coming of age story with a love story at its heart. Which is a terribly wordy way of saying it but it doesn’t actually fall into a completely traditional romantic comedy model.
Ideally, we think it would probably be best if the audience came in not even knowing that Sarah Snook was going to become the one. I mean, that’s been completely blown by every trailer and all the reviews and all of the pictures and everything like that. So it was trying to honour the kind of thing you want from an on-screen love story but then to also avoid just ticking off the boxes so you can see everything coming – you know, where you can see exactly what the actors are going to say before they say it and all of that sort of stuff.
Pete is particularly allergic to the tropes of romantic comedies, so his instinct was to always push away from that.
Was the city of Sydney very important in the screenplay or was the location a lower priority until later on?
It was always set in Sydney but I was always open to changing it to whatever city we could get the film up in. And at one point, we did put together a US draft, as well…At one strange juncture of the financing process. [Laughs] We changed all of the names and changed a bit of the dialogue, and all of a sudden, it was like a non-descript US city. Which I was never comfortable with.
So I was so glad that in the end it reverted back to Sydney. And then not only did it revert back to Sydney, it felt like we were trying to capture as much as we possibly could of Newtown.
How long did it take during the process for Screen Australia to come on board the project?
It was always linked to Screen Australia. They started funding early script drafts before anyone else was attached. So it kind of grew within the Screen Australia ranks. And we would do more drafts and go away and attach more people and get more financing and come back to them, and they kept supporting it over the years. It was certainly – every single time it had to be thoroughly vetted and there were constantly different Screen Australia people who were making calls on it at any given time.
It was a seven year process from the time Screen Australia funded the first draft all the way to when they finally put money into the production. At every stage, it always had to go through a long and nerve-wracking approval process. And every time the staff changed, we were always very nervously thinking ‘What if the staff doesn’t like this project?’
Do you personally have any more projects on the horizon?
Yeah! I have another one with Pete that we’ve been writing for an equally torturous and long period of time. And hopefully – fingers crossed – we hear soon but I’m heading back down to Melbourne for another season of Offspring and I’ve also got a couple of TV show pitches that I want to try and get going. So a few things, but I’m quite keen to absorb and take stock. You learn so much going through this whole process and now that I’m starting to become objective about it, I just want to take a bit of a moment to take it all in and see how I’m going to apply some of the things I’ve learnt through this.
Thank you so much for talking to us.