You were a writer before a film-maker?
Yes, I wrote short stories when I was in my last year of law at Monash. I won three or four national awards for my short stories - at the time there was a Fellowship of Australian Writers' Short Story Award, Independent Monthly Young Writers' Award, Australia Day Short Story Award - and I got a grant from the Literature Board, Australian Council, to do some more writing. Then I made a fateful decision to move over to screenwriting.
What made you do that?
Well, I was spectacularly poor. I'd won a few awards but it wasn't making me much money. I wanted to write and I thought I'd better enter a more lucrative arena, thinking that screenwriting was - but it really wasn't! I think I will always write fiction, but I began to feel that the audience for what I had to say was wider, into films. I also had some ideas which particularly lent themselves to a visual storytelling technique, for example, Hotel de Love is certainly a very visual film, with all the funny fantasy theme rooms and all that is going on there.
So it was a combination of wanting to maximise my possible audience and having some ideas which I thought would be best expressed in the medium of film. At the same time I won't give up fiction writing, but I enjoy screenwriting and directing just as much as my fiction.
You've sold some of your screenplays in America?
Yes, I sold a few. I go back and forth a bit from LA - I usually end up spending about 10 months of the year here and a couple there. I've sold four or five scripts now to studios - one to Paramount, one to Walt Disney, one to Warners, one to Interscope and I'm writing one for 20th Century Fox. I usually go over there and make the pitch with the producer, make the deal and then hightail it back to Melbourne to do the writing. Yes, five scripts for the studios.
Are they all comedies?
All of them have some comedic aspects. Some have a bit more drama than others, but most of them are predominantly comedies.
I think it's probably because I like making jokes about relationships and `romantic comedies' is where I'm stuck in that regard. But I'm also branching out. I'm writing a thriller because I like to do interesting things with structures of movies. Which is very difficult to do in comedies because in so much of comedy, the structure is subordinated to the joke. Everything is about getting the joke out. And it's very rare, perhaps something like Groundhog Day, where they do do something interesting with the structure and keep it humorous. It is very, very hard to do.
I like doing interesting things with structure and I like trying to do original things with structure. So I'm going to do a thriller. That's one of my next projects. But at the same time I love doing comedies. I'll always do them. I like doing films which can make people laugh. I go to a film to laugh or to cry or whatever. If you can do both those things to an audience in a movie, I think that's a good contribution. I'm happy.
What about farce? Hotel de Love has a large amount of farce in it.
It does have a bit of fast-paced farce, but it's not as farcical as the traditional hotel farce where you're going to have swapping rooms and crashing doors and all that stuff. I tried in the second half of the movie to explore the more dramatic implications of what was happening, whereas the first half is certainly more comedic as the couples figure out who's who and what's what. But for what I wanted to do, I wanted to have a little bit of farce, a little bit of comedy, a little bit of romance and yet at the same time try and say something meaningful on a serious level about how we know who we're in love with and what good does it do us if we know.
It's very romantic in that sense. But you are very forceful on the idea of commitment and ultimate fidelity. Would you see yourself as a romantic?
I think so, absolutely. What's the alternative? The alternative is negativity, cynicism and despair, and what kind of a way is that to live? I mean, even if you're deluded about whether the eventual outcome of your life will be happiness, you're certainly going to be a lot happier if you believe that and probably make it more possible that it will occur if you're positive and optimistic and you believe in romance. I have to believe that that will increase your chances of finding love - you know, there's Stephen in the film, so obsessed with the percentages of love and figuring out what it is. He's so concentrated on it. You hope that he finds it, because he seems to be so single minded. So I would certainly think that I'm an optimist when it comes to love. The alternative is too horrible.
What audience did you have specifically in mind for Hotel de Love?
In terms of age? I really tried to make a movie that both people my age - and 10 years younger - and my grandmother could see. But I really tried to make a film which a broad spectrum of people could see. I hope that older people can enjoy it as much as younger people.
We have Ray Barrett and Julia Blake's story which takes up a lot of movie-time and it's just as much a sub-plot as the other two stories. They're dealing with a very different examination of what it means to love someone for a long time: can you get over when there are problems, and all th3 terrible - comedic yet terrible at the same time - implications of mortality that Ray's always dealing with.
So I tried to have not just a theme about young people wandering around a hotel wondering who they're going to make out with, but also the theme of how much these parents influence their kids and how much of the kids' ideas of love are based on what they've seen in their parents, and if that's negative, can they break out of that. Aden Young's character, Rick, talks about this a fair bit. So I really tried to make a broad film. I'm sure the marketing campaign will say it's a particular movie, but that's the movie I've tried to make.
You gave a great deal of attention to the negativity of their marriage contrasting with the love at first sight and romanticism of their son. And while the film did end happily, it seemed to be with a great regret that they hadn't made that resolution a long time earlier.
A long time earlier, yes, you're exactly right.
You could have romanticised the couple and it would have been a very light film, but you have included a darkness.
I did, certainly, and Ray's speech, where he inverts all the stuff that he's been doing comedically in the beginning of the film, he says, `Well, you know, my whole life has gone by here. I just blinked and it's over'. That's a terrible moment, I think, for him. To me it puts what the young people are going through into much stronger relief. It gives you a `seize the day' feeling. If you don't do this... `Look, you guys have chances. You say you're in love with someone, do something about it'. That's the message: do you love someone? Then do something about it. Otherwise you may end up thinking life has passed by and all I was doing was twiddling my thumbs.
I can imagine that at some point in their life they must have been madly in love, this couple. And even when they're comedically working off each other, you can still see they kind of enjoy it. It's based a bit on my father's parents, my grandparents, who were always bickering like that, always bickering. It didn't have quite the happy ending. I gave this couple a nicer ending than they had in life. And the messagee has got to me, seize the day.
When authors write that kind of satire with high expectations, they become moralists. Would you see yourself as - not in a moralising sense - a moralist through comedy?
It's a tricky word. Yes, I think I would in a specific sense in that I personally have very clear ideas of how I think people should live, and I may try and sneak that past them through a movie which tells jokes. But, at the same time, if someone said to me, `You're a moralist, aren't you?' I'd say, `Not me'.
You were very clear by the end where you expected people to be: romantic love, yes, but ultimately fidelity (and work it out) and that really is the ideal.
Absolutely, and if that has come across, then I've done my job exactly. I hope that's what will come out.
The `Australianness' of Hotel de Love? Do you see it as a specifically Australian comedy?
In some regards, certainly, the Aussie Rules football room, the language, the slang that creeps in occasionally is certainly Australian. But it's a story about love and love can be as specific as you want, but it's something which traverses the globe. The question of how do you know who the right person for you is has to be the world's biggest question, doesn't it? So I hope the theme is universal, and yet the characters and the setting are identifiably Australian. The only character who's clearly not Australian is Melissa, which is justified by storylines, where they have this romance, off she goes back to England and then she comes back.
If you were writing it for Warners Brothers or a Hollywood studio and for an American audience more specifically, would you have to change it much?
From a production point of view, if you were making this as a studio movie, well one, they don't make ensemble movies any more in America. They're star-driven movies. So no star actor in America would have taken on those roles because they would have said, `Well, hang on, that other brother is getting more screen time than me', or `he's getting the laughs', and they don't like that. So it really would have become one of the brother's story. My idea of the movie was that it's about both of them and it's about how they both find love by having these ideas about what love is and then bouncing off each other. So that would have been a problem.
Two, I think Americans don't do these stories very well. It's a small-budget movie where the characters drive the plot. I'm sure they would have made me introduce - you know, I'm always going through this with the scripts I write in Hollywood; some what I call artificial plot devices which they say are things that audiences like. But I disagree with them. I'm sure they would have given me some kind of artificial plot thing to keep it moving, whereas what interested me was the relationships. So I don't mind having 90 minutes about relationships. I enjoy that. I enjoy the way the story moves like that.
The jokes and the types of characters.
Yes, the comedy. It's difficult because there's a little bit of a Woody Allen movie in it somewhere, you know, the Ray Barrett jokes about the final banana sort of thing. Woody Allen does that really well, but he doesn't make American studio movies any more. He makes independent movies now. The comedy is Australian in its sense of humour, but I think that will translate. I could be wrong. I hope I'm not.
And the ironies that we enjoy that, somehow or other, Americans don't get? The Canadian response was favourable.
The funny thing is they loved the movie enormously. They had no idea what was going on when the piano player was singing `How's that?', the Sherbet song. But, I think they enjoy going to these movies, partly because it's another world and they learn a bit about a different language and a different culture. I notice myself when I'm watching movies from Ireland or somewhere where I don't quite understand every word but I enjoy it because I'm learning new words, I'm learning a new language and I'm learning a different culture. I get the big picture, even though I may not get the specifics. And I think that's what Americans who respond to these Australian movies do. They may not get the whole shebang but they'll understand that the goal umpire doing something when someone sits on the bed is a football joke, and they'll laugh at that. Some of the ironies slide through them a bit. They're not used to that in their movies.
The strength of your kind of movie is in the idiosyncratic characters and whatever the Australian sense of humour is.
That's true, and yet the interesting thing is that it can play well in Australia but Americans seem to find something - maybe it is its otherness that they find interesting, because so much of the American movies are conventionally structured and conventionally done. Then something comes along here and it's new and different from Australia. Even if they may not completely understand it, they enjoy its uniqueness.
Are you happy with the word `quirky' comedy?
Well, yes, but all the Aussie movies, they call them quirky. I'm not quite sure what it means. I suppose if it means an offbeat sense of humour, a little bit different... but there's more to the movie than calling it a quirky movie. I try to put other elements into the movie. I don't think `quirky' has become a put-down quite yet. It probably will in a few years. I've tried to broaden the thematic range of what the movie explores, so it's not just a quirky comedy.
Filming in Australia?
I had a dream run here. The crew was fantastic, the cast was fantastic, we all had a great time. I'm writing another script now. I'm writing one for the studios but I'm also writing an Australian one, which I would love to do next. So it's really a dream place to make movies here.
Working with David Parker was an absolute joy. He's so experienced; he has written, produced and shot feature movies. To have him as producer on my first feature was a remarkable luxury for me because, if I had a writing problem, I could throw it to him and say, `What do you think about this? Read this page for me'. If I had some shooting problem I would say, `What do you think about this?' as well as having him do his normal production responsibilities. So he was a real godsend. He was a dream and he's a lovely person and I think we've formed a long friendship out of the experience.
Interview: 25th November 1996