Here’s the second of our interviews with the cast and crew from “Any Questions for Ben?”; with director Rob Sitch. He’s previously made Aussie cinema greats “The Castle” and “The Dish”, and a whole lot of other projects with the Working Dog team, including TVs “Thank God You’re Here”. Hugh Humphreys sat down with him to nut out where the film came from, and what it’s like working alongside Josh Lawson and Rachael Taylor.
It’s been 12 years since you guys at Working Dog made “The Castle”, what made you decide to make “Any Questions For Ben?”
We do love making movies, but it’s curious because now there’s 3 of us that have to turn the key at the one time. In our minds we’re not naïve anymore. We know if we say we’re going to do it, it’s 18 months out the window.
It’s a hard slog.
Yeah you’ve got to know you’re going to be enthusiastic at 12 and 18 months time, not just for the initial. And we edit ourselves, and on this one we weren’t sure how we were going to edit it, and that was hanging over us. So when we signed up for it we knew it was going to be a non-stop 18 months. So maybe we danced around for a while – did some other projects and came back.
Because it’s not like you haven’t been busy!
No, we’ve done quite a few things. We sort of got distracted for a few years doing travel books to countries that don’t exist. Have you ever seen “Molvania”?
Yeah, and then it got translated and that sort of went like a viral book around the world and got reprinted, so then we did 2 more. And that was fun, and then we did other shows. But this one –we were doing “Thank God you’re here”, actually, which led to this. And when you’re doing comedy you’re always making observations “Isn’t that funny, isn’t that funny”, and then they seem to coalesce. We’ve made a few collections of observations and one was that modern cities -and Melbourne’s a bit of a poster child for that – have changed. Melbourne’s not what it was 20 years ago, it’s gone through a few phases, but the last 10 years were like a hyper phase. Younger people are living in the city, repopulated, and the events have exploded. The tennis has gone in 20 years from a quiet little grass tournament to the biggest grand slam in the world, and the Formula 1 had arrived. And suddenly every month, the Melbourne lifestyle became one of being constantly at events. And then it meant if you had nothing to do you had plenty to do, because you just met up in the city and there were these bars and clubs and little laneways, and had this constant 24, 365 drumbeat of activity to it. And add to that what you’re doing in your 20s – you’re travelling and people have in a sense become the cities. There was like a circuit of cities in the world and people became global. Everyone had started to work overseas, it wasn’t exotic anymore, almost a given.
And we’d dealt a lot with mid 20s comedians and got an absolute blast of their lives from the inside. And then we became good friends with Josh and his bunch of friends, and various others. And then it was just a question of when do you start worrying about the future?
When does that come in?
Yeah, what if you did? We knew of the idea of the quarter-life crisis, which is a new phenomenon, and we said it’s like when Coyote chases the Road Runner and goes off the cliff but doesn’t look down; and then all of a sudden looks down and then he goes “Woah!” - it’s that moment.
And then you can’t stop it, and then you’ve got to solve it. And that’s what a mid-life crisis was; you go into it and have to come out the other side. But we thought it was so much more interesting to have that moment in your20s. But we didn’t know how to derail it. I mean, lose a job, so what? A guy like that would get another one. You lose anything in his life and it just gets replaced. But then we thought, go back to your old school and you’re not cool – you can’t fix that easily. That’s the summary of your 10 years out of school. So then he just can’t think straight after that, can’t get it out of his head. And then one of the themes of the film is about advice. Advice is very hard to give and receive. The best advice you probably ignore the first time you hear it. And the advice that’s shoved at you is no good for you. It’s curious.
What you listen to and then ignore?
Yeah, it’s a funny one. Because you’re really hearing what you want hear first. And another thematic of it is photos. They’ve had a resurgence because of smartphones. You’ve got 2000 photos on your smartphones but unless you frame them, they’ve got no meaning.
Yeah, who looks through their smartphones for photos?
You know, Facebook is almost all photos. There’s been an explosion of cameras but yet we’re not framing as much. So that became a theme, that Ben doesn’t realise these photos of meaning are being taken, and he’s got to extract meaning from them. He’s got to dig down and say, “That means something”. So they all came togethers. We loved the idea and got it sorted out, and we said with a film like that, the lead character has to carry the film, they have to be the person.
So we thought we’d pick a person within a draft or two. And we said Josh; we pre-warned him we’d write one about a contemporary of him in his age. And we said the next time he came to Australia, to come in and read it. So he came in and read it and said “I’m in!”, and we said to let us go away and write another 10 or 12 drafts, and said in another 6 months time we’d call him again. We met up sooner than that, and yeah.
And the stars all aligned.
Yeah, we all turned the keys – like when you’re launching the nuclear device, you’ve got to turn 3 keys. And then it’s a runaway train. If it’s a bad idea, it’s a bad idea on a big scale!
And when did Rachael come in to the picture?
Pretty early. She was the first person on a list to contact. And she’d just finished “Red Dog” and was on her way to Russia and dropped in. Something like that. We don’t really audition, but they feel it’s a sort of rite of passage, so she wanted to run through a few scenes.
Even thought you already know?
Yeah, that’s the LA – they have to earn parts! But she’s smart, and intelligent, and she’s real. And she had to be that person that would give the idea to Ben. She could have other people and do other things, but she’s smart enough to go, “I know if we got together”, it could work. But the timing’s out, he’s not even 30! He freaks out when his friends get engaged! You know, what, that’s not the plan! And since then I’ve spoken to a lot of people who get engaged in their mid-20s, and I ask if they freak out their friends. And everyone says it freaks ALL their friends out! They go, “Should I be doing that?” In everyone’s minds, nothing big these days is decided until their 30s.
Yeah, well for me personally – I was watching it and I thought, he’s got this great life and is almost at his 30s. I’m 23, and now I’ve got a goal of all the things I need to get done by then. My quarter life crisis is sparked by this movie!
Yeah! [laughs]. It’s interesting isn’t it – because you’re so aware of how much activity people your own age is going on around you, even if you don’t have a bucket list, one gets shoved down your throat.
Just like the “best friend” character, Andy! I’ve got friends exactly like that.
Funny you should say that, I went to Pamplona when the running of the bulls wasn’t on and I went “I’m not going to do running with the bulls. I’m not coming back here to do it”. I’m out! And I think there comes a period when you stop saying “I’ve done Machu Picchu, or I’ve done Kilimanjaro”.
As if you’re checking it off the list?
Yeah – what do you mean you’ve “done” it? You were there, you climbed the mountain, how do you “do” it?? But that’s the fun- you keep doing it, you’re on a carousel. With the horse going up and down in the air, you think it’s movement, but it’s not. And you know, I don’t knock it, because that’s fun. There was a time in Australia when being in your 20s was pretty dull. I don’t think we should go back there!
What was the atmosphere like on set?
I must admit, it was a really great atmosphere. I do think there’s something civilising having the girls and boys all the time. Really great girls and boys who we all knew, a lot of us were friends, had been friends for years.
It gets like that a bit in Australian cinema.
Yeah, you know each other. And working in the city, it was all shot in the city. So we were shutting city streets, and taking over a city church. And it was fun! You’d go to lunch wherever you want, or coffee, it’s not like you’re in mud or freezing or anything. So that was great. And also to that, Josh was in every scene. That’s pretty difficult. That’s as close to the director as you get, because the director’s there for everything, and so was Josh. But he had to learn lines and be there for everything. And I’ve noticed I really enjoy working with Aussies who’ve spent some time in LA.
They don’t come back with big heads at all; they come back and are workers.
Like that small fish thing?
Yeah, but they come back here and you expect them to be big fish in a small pond again, but they’re not like that. They get to it, they honour the work, and they’re not afraid to do 20 hours. I fade at 15. But they go “Oh no, this happens to us all the time”. They don’t complain and they don’t whinge. There’s something invigorating to be around a really handsome, beautiful, attractive group of people who aren’t complaining! And doing what I want! It was funny, one day we shot and it was all guys. And there was just something wrong. Everyone felt a bit cranky. And the next day we shot some of the racing scenes with all the girls in beautiful dresses, and the guys were all like “hey!” and I thought, “Life is imitating art, boys!”
That’s how you get them to work!
So it was a very glamorous shoot too! I found myself dressing up! Usually crew dress like poor plumbers, but everyone had to lift their game a little.
And lastly, what do you want people to take from this film?
I think comedies have to be entertaining first. That’s my thing – it’s a comedy. It’s mischief – he dates a Russian tennis player, there’s not much of a message there! And then if you touch on something eternal, since Greek philosophers pointed out the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s interesting to examine. When people come up to you and say it actually made them think; you don’ have to do that, but it’s interesting when it happens. Because I genuinely think life is more complicated for everyone these days, choosing is harder. There’s a lot to choose from. So I look around and I go “I wouldn’t give any of it back”. I reckon there’s no better time to be I your 20s than now, but it’s complicated.
“Any Questions For Ben”? opens in cinemas February 9.