TV screenwriter Michael Lucas mined his own experiences for his debut feature film.
IT'S a sign of just how long it takes to get these things off the ground that when Melbourne screenwriter Michael Lucas started penning his debut feature film Not Suitable for Children he had Heath Ledger in mind for the lead role.
Instead True Blood star Ryan Kwanten stepped in to play Jonah, an irresponsible young man living the party life who discovers a lump in a testicle. Suddenly facing the possibility that he may never have children and with only a short window before the operation to remove the lump, he embarks on a desperate mission to convince a girl to get pregnant.
An irreverent comedy with a bagful of quirky charm, the jokes play close to the bone, drawing on the personal experiences of Lucas, 33, a regular writer on TV series Offspring. He recalls finding a lump “where no guy wants one” and rushing to a GP on a Friday night, expecting her to tell him to calm down and stop being a hypochondriac. Instead she took it seriously and referred him to a urologist on the Monday morning, sending Lucas into a spin over the weekend.
“I diagnosed via Google, which is the worst thing you can do,” he laughs. “I convinced myself I was unlikely to die but that I would lose a testicle and probably be infertile. I was single, living in a share house and hadn’t given much thought to kids before, but suddenly facing that prospect made me realise that somewhere, deep down, I had this inbuilt hunger to be a dad.”
The scare turned out to be a false alarm but the seed of a good idea was sown and Lucas began work on the first draft of what turned out to be Not Suitable for Children. “I was incredibly relieved but that image of a 20-something suddenly becoming obsessed with fatherhood really stayed with me.”
Growing up in Eltham, Lucas lived within spitting distance of Montsalvat’s artistic community, and enrolled in art classes before working there as a teenager.
That early interest in the arts flourished while he studied media and drama at Eltham College, and then at Deakin University. It was during his final year at Deakin that the 20-year-old Lucas entered a young playwright competition run by Carlton’s La Mama Theatre, with the top prize a staged reading by professional actors.
His winning entry, Miami Melton, about a Melbourne adolescent addicted to the fictional drama series Miami Tide, mined his own teenage dreams.
“I was living in Eltham, obsessing over shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson’s Creek,” he admits. “They influenced our behaviour so much.”
Sitting in the audience at La Mama was a watershed moment for the writer. “That was the tipping point for me, the first time I heard them laughing at my work,’’ Lucas says. “I was so addicted; I knew there was no hope I would do anything else.”
Thankfully Lucas had a supportive family, even if they took a little convincing. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say my father, in particular, questioned whether I’d be better off doing a law degree. They were lucky I discovered writing so young that, even if I pursued it for half a decade only for it not to work out, I’d still only be 25. I had time on my side.”
Several plays followed at La Mama and Miami Melton enjoyed a successful afterlife doing the high school rounds before Lucas adapted it into a film script that was never made. “That was a downer but I used it to apply to the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) up in Sydney and it got me in,” he says.
Studying at AFTRS, he met people who have become important collaborators, among them Not Suitable for Children director Peter Templeman. “It’s bordering on 10 years I’ve known him. I’m godfather to his child and he’s like a brother to me,” says Lucas, who, despite his health scare, still doesn’t have children.
After graduating, Lucas formed a working relationship with successful TV producer John Edwards – the brains behind major hits The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way, Tangle and Offspring. Funnily enough, it was Lucas’ script for Not Suitable for Children that landed him the Offspring gig.
These days he divides his time between Melbourne and Sydney, though he’s here more often than not. While in town he shares a flat in Northcote with an old high school mate. “The production offices are in Fitzroy so every morning I walk through Clifton Hill and Northcote, where Offspring is set. It’s wonderful to literally walk through the landscape,” he says.
It was while looking for a home in the inner-northern suburbs that he discovered the Brunswick apartment Asher Keddie’s character Nina originally owned, before Lucas fictionally burned it to the ground.
“It’s almost exactly what I’m looking for but I feel like I can’t go there,” he chuckles. “It’s ridiculous. It would take bringing your work home to a whole new level.”
Lucas has been overwhelmed by the popularity of the series, which has struck a real chord with Melbourne women in particular, and he is only just getting used to the random compliments. “It’s an odd profession where the product of your day job is so well known by the wider community but I’ve started to enjoy it a lot more now. My mum sits in the hairdressers and they’re all gossiping about what’s happening on the show.’’
He cops a fair whack of grief from his mates because their girlfriends subject them to constant twittering about the latest plot twists but he’s happy to wear that and draws inspiration from his close-knit family.
“I’ve always been surrounded by strong women with big personalities, so very little research is required,’’ he says. “I’ve basically strip-mined their lives and poured it all into the show.”
A close cousin works in a hospital, and his mum was a nurse and a midwife, so he rings them for advice when scripting the hospital scenes and he has a strong rapport with the show’s creator and head writer, Deb Oswald. But, he says, it’s not all about the girls. “I pour a lot of myself into Nina too, all of my anxieties.”
Unlike many screenwriters who part ways with a film almost as soon as it starts filming, Lucas was on set with Templeman for most of Not Suitable for Children, only dodging the racier scenes and skipping days he had to work on Offspring.
“I was there all through pre-production, watched every casting tape with him, checked out locations together and then at least half of the shoot,” he says.
Templeman, likewise, had a strong hand in reworking the script. “In some ways the premise is quite absurd, so over the course of redrafting and rehearsals we put so much attention into making it feel natural, spontaneous and real that these characters could change so much in such a short space of time,” says Lucas.
Not Suitable for Children was shot on a relatively small budget of $5 million, roping in mates for the party scenes rather than paying for a truckload of extras, and Lucas has several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.They turned down the offer of another $1 million in funding made on the proviso that they cast a US actor as one of the three central flatmates. In a way they still managed to appeal to that demographic by casting Australian actor Kwanten, who stars as dumb jock, Jason Stackhouse, in True Blood.
Admiring that series, which is set in America’s vampire-and-demon-infested Deep South, Lucas concedes that the small screen seems to have overtaken the major film studios when it comes to creating challenging, risk-taking stories. “If I’m honest, in recent years the pieces of entertainment that I’ve become obsessed with have been things like Breaking Bad and Mad Men,’’ says Lucas. “And I loved The Slap.”
So which way does he plan to go? TV or film? “I’m forging ahead with new projects in both. I feel if I keep all those irons in the fire, one of them will come off.”
Lucas will talk about Not Suitable for Children at a screening at Cinema Nova at 6.45pm on July 5. Details: visit cinemanova.com.au. The film is released on July 12.