Interview: Rob Sitch and Josh Lawson (Any Questions for Ben)

Interview: Rob Sitch and Josh Lawson (Any Questions for Ben). By Simon Miraudo.

It’s been a long time between cinematic innings for the team at Working Dog; twelve years to be exact. It’s not like Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy and Michael Hirsch can be accused of resting on their laurels, however. The creators of The Castle, The Dish, Frontline and The Late Show have spent the past decade working on TV hits (The Panel, Thank God You’re Here, The Hollowmen) and writing best-selling travel guides to invented destinations (Molvania, Phaic Tan, San Sombrero). They return to the big screen with Any Questions for Ben, which stars Josh Lawson (TGYH, House of Lies) as a seemingly successful twenty-something who is plunged into a quarter-life crisis following a disastrous stint at his high school’s career Q&A session. Thankfully, my own Q&A session with Lawson and Sitch went much better. As they ate their lunch (Josh enjoyed a plate of tempura whiting; Rob, a salad), we discussed the inspiration for the movie, making Ben a sympathetic character, the development process at Working Dog, and the potential of a TV show called Downton Abbey 3000. The duo had a fine, jovial rapport, which I’m pleased to share with you below.

Check out our review of Any Questions for Ben here!

SM: Rob, tell me, what was the first seed of inspiration for Any Questions for Ben?

RS: Funnily enough, unconsciously, I used to go to Sydney a lot in my twenties for weekends. My observation was then that there was no better city to be in your mid-twenties than Sydney. But ten-fifteen years later, cities around the world that Melbourne has become a poster child for, reinvented themselves. Melbourne did it in a really interesting way, and promoted people to come back to the city. Melbourne has a lot of apartments and rooftops and then they got their major events rights, and they totally liberalised their cafe and drinking laws, and now everyone’s done that, but everyone thought the roof was going to fall in. I think what they thought was semi-retirees would be coming in, but what they got was spray-paint-wielding graffiti artists, and everyone. Suddenly the city of Melbourne, in the space of ten years, just transformed. And the least important part of Melbourne was these bad laneways, [and they] got taken over, and suddenly everyone went ‘Oh, I don’t want the main street, I want that vibe’. In the last ten years it’s just exploded. So, we started noticing in comedy circles a lot of people moving to Melbourne, for cultural reasons or job reasons. We’d never had that before. Then, all the major events, hit in one, like a perfect storm, and we looked around and went ‘Wow, that is a genuinely different lifestyle to what we grew up with’. We were hanging out with comics at the same age, and we started talking a lot about it. We didn’t feel any different as people, but the lifestyles were dramatically different. Talking to Josh, he’d say, ‘It comes with complications’. And from there we went, ‘Oh, that’s interesting; how could you derail one of those lives?’ It’s a real struggle, because if you’re successful and talented and well-liked you’ll get another job, especially pre Global Financial Crisis. But then we hit on school, and school is often the thing where you feel like you’re being judged when you go back, and it’s never quite the experience you think it is. You sort of walk out with a stone in your shoe thinking, ‘Oh, I thought it would go differently’. Then we’re away.

SM: Josh, I came to know you through Thank God You’re Here. I’m interested to know how you got involved on the project. Was that when you first became involved with the Working Dog team?

JL: Yeah, I met Rob and the guys doing Thank God You’re Here. At the time, I had done very little television stuff, and that was what was great about the Working Dog team. They’re so great at giving young comics and actors like me a go; discovering new talent. I use the word ‘talent’ loosely. We became friends through that. How many seasons was it? Three or four seasons?

RS: Yeah. But you would go back to L.A.

JL: Yeah, in between, and come back. That was great for me, because there was not a big commitment. I could come in and do an episode. We would hang out socially, and tell Rob what I was up to, and tell him about my lifestyle, which was, you know, pretty commitment free. Living out of suitcases; I didn’t have a mailing address; pre-paid phones. You know? I’d go where the work was.

RS: And you had what we were interested in: a friendship group that was different to the way we had friends.

JL: Yeah.

RS: It was almost like a mini family, where you all looked out for each other.

JL: It was. And we understood that there would be months at a time where we wouldn’t speak to each other, and it wouldn’t mean we weren’t friends any more. We were as close as friends could be. Rob and Jane had mentioned to me one dinner that they were thinking about something; a project about being in your twenties. Would I be interested in it if it ever happened? ‘Of course; lucky for you Rob that I’m not doing anything right now’ [laughs].

RS: Apart from travelling!

JL: ‘But that could change any second, so get in quick!’

SM: ‘Lock me down’.

RS: I just remembered an observation before. When we travelled, it was a process .’I’m going on my trip’, and you save. But airfares are so cheap now. I remember talking to you one day and you were in from L.A. I said, ‘Are you going back?’ And you said, ‘No, I thought I might go to Africa’. I went, ‘For what? With anyone?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘For how long?’ ‘Five or six weeks.’ And you just went to Africa, without a great plan. I don’t think you even had a guidebook at the time!

JL: No, I didn’t have anything. I just left. I’ve always been a bit like that. At the time, in my twenties, that seemed like the right thing to do. I didn’t want to miss out on any experiences. And I was really good on my own at that age. I liked being on my own and getting away from acting. In L.A. particularly. I’d spent a bit of time in L.A.

SM: Pilot season.

JL: That is a lot of reality to deal with.

RS: [Laughs]

JL: So, going to Africa which was so far away from that was a nice way to detox from L.A. But Melbourne always felt like home. Because I’d done a bit of Thank God You’re Here, fell in love with the city through that, and moved down.

SM: Where were you based originally?

JL: I was in Sydney. From Brisbane originally, but I was in Sydney, and that’s where I met Ed Kavalee and Christian Clark. Christian who plays my best friend in the movie, and Ed who plays Jim the archer. We all moved out around the same time together, because we all loved Melbourne, and that’s when we started.

RS: That was an odd thing for us, because people usually moved to Sydney or overseas. In the film, there’s almost not a cast member that’s from Melbourne. Because of the comedy festivals, and a lot of TV production is done there. It’s really odd. Christian’s from Sydney, you’re from Brisbane, Rachael [Taylor] is from Tasmania, Ed’s from Sydney, Felicity [Ward] is from Newcastle. Someone else is from Perth, someone’s from Adelaide. We noticed things like that, because it had never been a feature of our time. It’s happening all over the world; there’s sort of this global class of people who are really comfortable with moving anywhere.

SM: I find it interesting that your life contributed so much to the story, at least as an inspiration.

JL: Well, maybe not the story.

RS: But the fact checking!

JL: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. Rob would give me tasks every night, and I’d have to report back. No, it was the vibe. The vibe of what it means to be in your twenties, and that’s what’s been captured so perfectly in the film.

RS: A sense of opportunities, too? I really notice that at 23/24, that sense of opportunities is so exciting. Then 27/28, even though you try to take them all, you’ve really got to narrow down and make some bigger decisions. It’s a really interesting change, I reckon.

SM: Look, as a twenty-something male, I absolutely identify with the whole quarter-life crisis concept.

JL: How old are you Simon?

SM: I’m 24.

JL: OK.

SM: So, I’m getting frighteningly close to the characters in the film.

RS: Sure.

SM: Something I’m curious about, and I’m wondering whether you worried about this: how do you make this handsome, affable, well-to-do guy sympathetic? In the writing and performing, how do you make the audience sympathetic of his plight (and I think he is sympathetic)? Did you have those concerns?

JL: Certainly. We were aware of that problem.

RS: But we had to be honest.

JL: Yeah.

RS: Guys that have got a bit of a tail-wind are not the most thoughtful – I’ll put my hand up. [To Josh] You might be with me…

JL: [Laughs] Yeah.

RS: As in, we have times where we’re not the most… We’re good company and fun and all that, but there’s little pockets of immaturity where we indulge ourselves. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think guys have got to be guys and whatever. But there is an age where it’s not as excusable. I think you are expected to mature in little ways.

SM: It stops being a charming affectation.

JL: [Laughs]

RS: Well worded.

JL: I think what’s great about his problem, which is, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ is it’s not just a twenty-something problem, but a human problem. And yeah it takes place in this world with these people who ostensibly have everything, but I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can’t relate to that plight. Those stakes are high. That’s being happy or being miserable. The stakes don’t get much higher, really.

RS: I also think there’s an illusion and it’s easy to fall for it. The digital world is evolving at an exponential pace, and a lot of aspects of life are exponentially different. But our DNA is not. It took us a million years to get a frontal cortex. We can’t keep up with the iPhone. Someone told me that adolescence was first recognised about the industrial revolution. It didn’t exist before. Now there’s strong thoughts that the twenties is a new age too, just as adolescence is. That’s taken 100 years to do that. We have the same brain that our grandparents have, but it’s complicated. I reckon there’s been an explosion of choice, and parts of our brain aren’t ready for it.

SM: Unchartered territory for sure.

RS: It is, it is. When I started travelling there was two Lonely Planet books. Not a hard decision. Now there’s a wall. And then you go, ‘Oh , I’d love to the Greek islands’. ‘Unhh, you should go to Laos; it’s cooler’. That’s a complication. On the surface, you think ‘more choice, more fun’, but it does come with complications.

SM: Especially now that you’ve got people writing fake travel books.

JL: I know.

RS: I don’t know who thought of that…

SM: It’s an epidemic.

RS: Isn’t that a sign of the times? We were able to write about fake countries, as if there aren’t enough countries.

SM: Speaking of that, Rob, you guys have – I daresay – conquered every medium. Tell me a little bit about the process at Working Dog; when an idea is broached, breaking a story, deciding on a medium.

RS: This is interesting, because over a period of time we’ve realised the world we pick has to be interesting enough to maintain our enthusiasm. We sort of bring it up, walk away from it, come back to it next week, and test each other’s enthusiasm. I don’t think we’ve ever done a project where even one person is like, ‘Yeahhhhh, I’m not…’. That’s a death knell. That’s not going to get up.

JL: It’s got to be unanimous?

RS: Oh, and unanimous as in, still excited by it. ‘Wow, that is a great thing’. We talk about things that bug us, like some films just don’t have a sense of place. There are generic cities. We said, ‘Let’s not make it generic’. Our observations are at their most acute when they’re about Melbourne. So don’t apologise for it; to people who don’t live here, it might look fresh. They might go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. I was saying, too many films are made in lower Manhattan. We get it. We know what Manhattan looks like. There’s not a cafe you haven’t shot in. So when we combined all those things together, I think you can predict that we’ll be enthusiastic in 12 months time. I suspect that’s the biggest factor with us. Like the travel books. Santo had the idea. We all went to Portugal with friends. He was mucking about with the Michelin guide, and they were about to become a UNESCO world city and everything had scaffolding. He was pretending to read from the Michelin guide, and said, ‘That’s the church of San Crotchet; some of the scaffolding dates back to the 14th century’.

JL: [Laughs]

RS: It started a game. He mentioned it to Tom at the time the idea of a fake travel guide. And then ten years later Tom said to me, ‘What about Santo’s fake travel guide?’ I went, ‘What Santo idea?’ ‘You know? The fake travel guide about the country that doesn’t exist’. And that was then the three of us, and I said ‘That’s a great idea; we should do it’. Sometimes you need one person to lead the charge. I remember suggesting Thank God You’re Here, and they loved the idea. And I sort of let it go by. Then a year later, they said, ‘What about that idea?’. It had taken me ten years to mention it to them. They kept at me.

SM: Relating to the script, Josh I understand you’re quite well versed in improv, and you’ve studied it here and in L.A. Was there any room for improv on the set?

JL: It was pretty tightly scripted. And we had, believe it or not, a rare thing when you make a film: a week of rehearsal. For some weird reason, it never happens, and it’s the best thing you can do. And I think in that week, Rob and Tom and Santo said ‘Try different things; if it doesn’t feel right, let us know and we can change it’. But after that week, the script was locked down, and Rob was really clear that there was a cadence and a symphony to the whole movie, and when it slows down, that was important. We had to earn that speed when we got to it. With comedy, I think we’re in agreement that it needs to be precise. And improv can be great, but it’s imprecise. It’s a bit disparate.

RS: The only thing we said was once you’ve done the pure script, you throw whatever you want in the end.

JL: That’s right.

RS: And I reckon a dozen little moments like that made it in.

JL: Absolutely; there’s a handful throughout where it was just tops and tails. Where’d we go, ‘Well, we’ve done the script and the scene; let’s have a bit of fun and if it stays, great, and if not, we had a laugh’. So yeah, occasionally they would sneak in.

RS: There is something lovely about having a young cast, in that the set was fun. In a way, the tail wagged the dog. You look at that lifestyle; we really were in the city, we really were shooting in those places, we really were having lunch there. One day, it was just a bunch of guys – Melbourne Cup day in the city – and we were depressed. The next day we shot with all the girls, and we were all happy. [Laughs]

SM: An easy cure for any malaise.

RS: Exactly. Spring racing carnival outfits.

JL: But there’s nothing quite as magnetic as watching actual fun on screen. You get swept up in that. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and each time I’ll say, ‘I’ll just watch the first or second scene’, and you see the fun the characters are having and it’s hard to walk away from that. ‘Oh, I’ll stick around for one more scene.’ It’s infectious, that kind of fun and chemistry.

SM: Josh, House of Lies is doing well in the U.S. and I believe you just wrapped Dog Fight with Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell. Can you tell us a little bit about the difference working in L.A. and working on Any Questions for Ben?

JL: I will say that it was a very fast, economical shoot on Any Questions for Ben.

SM: How many days?

RS: We did 35, but you got to count Yemen and Queenstown. Maybe 40.

JL: Yeah, maybe 40 days, ok. Well, Dog Fight is around a four month, five month shoot.

RS: God almighty.

JL: Now, I didn’t shoot for all that time of course, because they couldn’t afford me.

SM: [Laughs] Ferrell wanted you, but…

JL: But yeah, with that much money, they can take their time. They can afford to. I find Australian crews are a bit more expeditious.

SM: They’re used to working with a tighter leash.

JL: I think so. And there’s lots of little weird things, like the unions are very strong in America, and everything’s departmentalised. In Australia, everyone mucks in and we get the job done a bit faster. But, what makes all those jobs unique – Any Questions for Ben, House of Lies, Dog Fight – are the people that I worked with on all of them were great, and talented, and hard working, and respectful. In that way, they were all a joy in every way.

RS: But in House of Lies, you walk onto that set and that’s a huge set.

JL: Huge set. We shot on the Sony studios for the most part – in Culver City – and we had three huge sound stages. They’re enormous, I can’t even begin to tell you how big they are.

RS: And there are extras running around the whole thing. It’s the sort of place where you walk past the cafe and you’ll see an Elizabethan Lord having lunch with a robot.

SM: I love that show.

JL: [Laughs] Yeah. By the way, CBS will make that sitcom.

SM: Downton Abbey 3000.

JL: So in a lot of ways, it’s a world away from Any Questions for Ben, but when you work on something you love it feels kind of similar.

Any Questions for Ben is now showing in Australian cinemas. Check out our review!

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