Letting go of a cherished project is never easy, especially if you’ve been working on it for five years. When director Peter Templeman finished production on his debut feature film Not Suitable for Children in March 2012, he found it rather wrenching to let go. “It was full on,” he recalls. “The same week that I finished the film was the week that my partner and I saw our little six-year-old daughter go off to school for the first time and sent her out into the world… off into the jungle of the primary school – the ruthless school-yard! I’m ashamed to say that it was actually easier to do that than to let the film go. I could have just kept chiselling away at it.”
Speaking on the phone from Perth just a week before Not Suitable for Children debuted as opening night film at the 2012 Sydney Film Festival, Templeman is obviously excited and “humbled to be playing in a big room like that, and to that particular audience.” But he has the laconic self-effacing manner of the West Australian surfer, musician and physiotherapist that he used to be, way back before his talents drew him into the world of acting, writing and directing.
A graduate of directing and writing degrees at AFTRS (the Australian Film, Television and Radio School), Templeman’s short films made during his student years won numerous national and international awards, most notably an Oscar nomination in 2007 for The Saviour, his thoughtful and humourous tale of a Mormon doorknocker who falls in love with one of his prospective converts. Templeman has also worked as director and writer on a number of television series, including Dead Gorgeous, Bogan Pride and Lockie Leonard, the latter for which he was nominated for a BAFTA Award in 2007, for the episode entitled ‘Ladder of Love’.
Not Suitable for Children offers a unique twist on the increasingly popular sub-genre of ‘biological clock’ comedies. Instead of a female lead racing against the clock to conceive a baby before she hits menopause, this story puts an irresponsible Sydney party-boy, Jonah (played by Ryan Kwanten), into the midst of an urgent fertility crisis, spawned by testicular cancer. When his donated sperm samples refuse to freeze, Jonah has just three weeks before ‘ball removal’ in order to impregnate a willing woman, starting off with his disgruntled ex-girlfriend, Ava (Bojana Novakovic). Assisting him in the madcap quest are Jonah’s two housemates – the hedonistic Gus (Ryan Corr), and the sensible, streetwise Stevie (Sarah Snook).
Produced by Jodi Matterson (Razzle Dazzle) and executive produced by Bruna Papandrea (Milk, Better Than Sex), Not Suitable for Children is written by Michael Lucas, a long-time writing partner of Templeman’s who has honed his script skills in recent years with top writing credits on Offspring and Tangle. Like those television dramas, Not Suitable for Children feels totally contemporary. Believable, humourous and candid Australian dialogue is combined with nimbly handled sex scenes and a confident sense of pace, rhythm and romance. In fact, you may be tempted to call the film a romantic comedy, but director Templeman would prefer that you didn’t.
“In terms of it being a ‘rom-com’, I think Screen Australia appreciated the fact that the story in some ways falls into that genre, and quite early in the development process that was an attraction for them to the project,” says Templeman. “But personally, I never like to think of it in those terms. I always thought of the story as more of a coming-of-age comedy, with love as the core theme that emerges by the end. Structurally, it’s quite different to the way rom-coms usually present. In most rom-coms, you usually know who the romantic leads are in the opening scenes. There’s some kind of chemistry or sparks, and then you watch that play out over the course of the film. I hope that the tone and the style of our film does a lot to subvert that genre. I don’t find it helpful to think in terms of genre when you’re making choices based on the story and the characters, and I think Mike (writer Michael Lucas) feels the same way. But in saying that, I’m very much in favour of pitching it however it should be pitched to attract the most people to come and see it, for sure!”
Talking with Templeman, it’s clear he loves working with story and character, nutting out the nuances of personality, motivation and chemistry. It’s evident from the way he talks that the film’s script underwent multiple drafts, with every scene interrogated for its plausibility and its contribution to the audience’s understanding and enjoyment.
So how did this Perth surfer-musician-physiotherapist turn into an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker? Templeman himself is rather surprised. “If you told me back when I was a kid that I’d end up making films I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says. “I was into movies the same way any other kid was, but actually more interested in sport. I did love drawing and music too. And creative writing. Now that I look back on it, I can see that I was interested in all the elements that make up filmmaking, but I couldn’t see it then.”
Templeman’s trajectory after high school was no more direct. “After I finished school I had a year off, surfed, played guitar and lived in a caravan,” he says. “Then I went and played music full-time for a couple of years, then became a physiotherapist, and went overseas for a bit. When I came back I was into my late twenties, and that was when I fell into writing and acting. I wrote a couple of little one-act plays that got produced, and then a couple of films for other directors. I started shooting and editing for other people, and directed a bit of theatre. Eventually I directed a little short film and got selected for AFTRS. That was the turning point when I thought, ‘Hang on, this might be more than a hobby,’ because at that time, I think I was doing one day a week as a physio and I was getting bits of work, writing copy for corporate videos and things like that. I’d composed for a set of commercials. I was just doing bits of everything, you know, and never really consolidating anything – just having fun, I guess. Going to AFTRS, I thought: ‘Okay now, focus on directing and maybe I can make a career of it.’”
While he was studying at AFTRS and making short films, Templeman became the only filmmaker to win the prestigious independent US Slamdance Grand Jury Award for Best Short Film two years in a row – first with the devastating drama Splintered in 2005 and then with The Savior in 2006. These awards, combined with the Oscar nomination in 2007, surely must have convinced him he’d taken the right path?
“I was lucky. Yeah I was lucky,” he says diffidently. “It’s nice, that’s for sure. And a great encouragement. If those three short films I’d made at AFTRS had been comprehensively unsuccessful would I have been able to keep going? I used to think when I won the awards, ‘Oh well, that’s just what a panel of judges think, and not necessarily a good indication of what the rest of the people will think.’ But now I realise that awards are the best praise I can get because they come from my peers, and you can only ever make stuff for your own tastes and the people that share those tastes with you, rather than pitching to a broader market.” He pauses and adds with a laugh, “I’m not sure if that makes any sense!” It does.
The casting of Ryan Kwanten in the lead role occurred about six months before the start of the shoot. Templeman, along with writer Lucas and producer Jodi Matterson, traveled to LA to discuss the part with Kwanten. “We got in a room with him for an hour and worked on one of the scenes and chatted about the role,” recalls Templeman. “It was great and I offered the part to him. Between then and the start of the shoot we skyped a few times, talking through the character and the script development. We also had three weeks of full-time rehearsal in the lead-up to shooting.”
The casting of the AACTA Award-winning but still emerging Sarah Snook in the key role of Jonah’s friend and flatmate was a longer and more difficult process.
“It was a long process, casting for that role and a challenging one for me,” says Templeman, “because there are so many brilliant Australian actresses in that age bracket and we auditioned lots of people. Ultimately it came down to a couple of people. We took Sarah to LA and then got her in a room with Ryan working for about three hours, and we filmed it all. Then I went away and watched it, and that was when I was completely sold.”
Templeman continues. “Apart from being an extraordinary actor with superb comic timing and a natural detail and nuance to her work, it was about the different and opposite energy Sarah brought to working with Ryan. There he was, still in his True Blood gear, all buff and tanned with his hair tipped. And there she was, just in her casual gear looking like the girl next door standing next to the Hollywood guy, and I loved that. But that was the least of it really. It was her ability to convey not only her own character, the Stevie character, but the character of Jonah through her reactions to him – or even to the person reading his part in the initial auditions. It was sort of like how your learn a lot about someone through their friends, and how their friends treat them.”
Templeman is grateful to producer Jodi Matterson for shielding him from the business side of production. When asked if it was difficult to raise finance for the project (an estimated budget of $4.5 million), Templeman says, “I’m sure it was, but I was lucky I was protected from that stuff because [producer] Jodi [Matterson] was so brilliant at it. I know she did have some different investors on board at one stage who wanted to weigh in more heavily with the casting, and that was really tough for her, managing them and managing me and what I wanted. In the end, she suggested we should part ways with them, and I thought that was a great move. I felt really good about that. She really supported my vision for the film and wanted to have people around who support that as well. I think it’s really hard to raise money for a film in this current climate, so I think she really had her work cut out for her.”
As for what’s next for Templeman, he’s busy working with writer Michael Lucas on their next collaboration. “We’ve forged a pretty tight writing partnership since AFTRS, Mike and I. I’ve been living in Perth for the last three years so we now do a fair bit of travelling to catch up and work. He comes over here and sleeps on the blow-up mattress in the back room, which is stinking hot in summer and Antarctic in winter and has my kid waking him up at 6am, jumping all over him. And then I go to Melbourne and stay in his family’s stunning log cabin on the Yarra and have my own five-star bedroom and his mum cooks amazing meals for us. It’s broken up between those two! We’re working on a feature project called KARMA - which stands for the ‘Kashmir Association of Revenge Management’ – it’s a black comedy. I’m also working on a feature version of The Saviour and another feature as well.” Sounds busy and industrious – but in a laid-back kind of way. “I hope to just write for the next year,” says Templeman, “and we’ll see what happens after that.”
Not Suitable for Children is in national release from 12 July.