In Conversation with Josh Lawson: From a Precocious Little Kid to Feature Filmmaker
Titled ‘The Little Death’ internationally, A Funny Kind of Love enjoyed success at last year’s London Film Festival, The International Toronto Film Festival and was screened at SXSW in March.
The film follows five suburban couples who navigate their way through the bedroom as sexual fetishes, from the run-of-the-mill to the hilariously obscure, push their relationships to new boundaries.
For Maeve and Paul, toes are just the foothold of their desires, while next door neighbours Evie and Dan are all dressed up, but will role play expose marital flaws which they can’t pretend away? Across the road, Rowena and Rich’s intimate antics bring them close to tears, while just around the corner, Phil begins an affair with his own wife Maureen, but without her realising it…
An outrageous romantic comedy exploring the secrets, desires, qualms and kinks of sex, it really is A Funny Kind of Love.
Ahead of the release of A Funny Kind of Love, writer-director Josh Lawson sat down with The Fan Carpet to reflect on his creative journey so far that took him from a precocious little kid to feature filmmaker. In an illuminating conversation Lawson discussed the evolution of the industry in contrast to his own professional growth, his thoughts on the identity of the director and confronting structural and comedic challenges with his comedic anthology feature debut.
Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Well I got into it really young, and I had an agent if you can believe it when I was nine years old. So I was one of those precocious little kids who always wanted to do it.
Why did I want to do it? I went to an all boys school in Brisbane and I can remember that the only way to meet and hang out with girls was to do the musical with the sister school. So even at a young age I remember thinking: well if I can act then I get to hang out with girls; that’ll be fun [laughs]. But that doesn’t quite drive me today, it was just what it was to be an actor early on.
Why did I want to do it? I don’t know, it is one those things that I always wanted to do. I loved making people laugh; I was the class clown I’m sorry to say, but I just enjoyed doing it and I loved comedy. I was a real student of the classics. My dad used to show us Looney Tunes, which was just vaudeville, and I used to watch The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. This was the sort of comedy I grew up on. So I loved the classics, and yeah I was just trying to do as much of it as I could, and I never stopped. It got to a point where I was old enough that I didn’t have any other skills, and so I had to keep on going and make something of it.
You talk about starting out at a young age. How has your perception of the craft and more broadly film changed over the course of your career?
Well I think as we change as human beings, and as we get older, then you are right for certain roles at certain times in your life. There are roles that I always wanted to play, but I will never get the chance to now because I am just too old. There are roles that I can’t wait to play, but I can’t yet because I am too young. It works both ways.
But I suppose to answer your question the thing that has struck me having been in it for so long is not how I have changed, but how the industry has changed, and how fast it is now changing. It is changing exponentially very rapidly, and the advent of the Internet has changed a lot of things. It has changed how we release films; how we watch films; how we digest them, but it has also changed how we monetize film. The business of filmmaking has changed with illegal downloads being so prevalent that it makes making money out of films a lot more difficult. It also makes theatrical releases particularly for independent films very difficult because people are not going to the cinema as much as they used to. I have done so many odd jobs to make ends meat, and one of those jobs was a projectionist. This was back before they digitized things, and so I was threading film the old fashioned way like in Cinema Paradiso. So I have a great love for film… I love, love, love it. I love cinemas and I go all the time, but I am in the minority and sadly I think I am a bit of an old fashioned romantic now, which is such a shame. I used to go to my video store when I was a kid, and I used to have a collection of VHS tapes, hundreds and hundreds of my favorite movies. And then when everything went to DVD I had to get rid of them and I all but threw them in the trash because no one wanted them anymore. It is hard for the filmmaker to keep up with the trends. But I think what I have learned is that I have to try and be as adaptable as I can be, and not to hold onto the old ways, because even the new ways are going to be old in a matter of years.
Looking at your career when you were acting you were writing, and then prior to your first feature film you directed a short film, and even A Funny Kind of Love is an anthology of shorts. I was contemplating how it is almost as if you have been methodically working with a destination in mind; gathering together all of this experience together step by step. Would I be wrong in formulating this impression of you career to date?
I think that is about right. I certainly love telling stories, and so in many ways it makes sense that my first feature film is a lot of stories. The short story writer Raymond Carver is one of my favourite writers of all time. I just adore him, and I love that you can pick up a Raymond Carver book and get twenty different stories in the one book. I just love that.
I have always created, and I hope that I get better, but more importantly than say better or worse because art is such an immeasurable thing. What one person likes the other person doesn’t like, and they are both right. Somebody said to me the other day that movies are like food, and if you like broccoli and I don’t like broccoli then we are both right. It is the same with movies, and so to say something is good or bad; right or wrong doesn’t really work. I liked it and you didn’t and that’s cool; we are allowed to like and dislike the same thing.
So I just hope that I keep doing things that challenge me, and I hope that I do things that are original because that’s important to me. I don’t want to be derivative even though there is no way of denying that I have had so many influences in my life. You can see my influences in my work: Woody Allen and Neil Simon; even Raymond Carver to a certain extent. I think you can see how they have influenced my writing, but I hope that I never copy them because that would be heartbreaking if people accused me of that.
A filmmaker once told me that writing is like composing a piece of music and directing is like standing on the podium and conducting the orchestra. Do you agree with this choice of metaphor and how do you perceive the way the two processes inform one another?
Absolutely, and composing a piece of music is a wonderful way of putting it. It is very rhythmic and melodic for me. It needs to build and fall and to have those dramatic moments, which is very difficult. I think in many ways the writing is the most difficult part, because it is such a house of cards.
Everyone looks to the director in the hope that the director’s vision is going to steer them all to the right place. I have read many scripts over the years as an actor, and I have thought: this is one of the best scripts I have ever read, but then when I see the film it is dreadful (in my opinion), because the director didn’t take the vision or the potential of what it could be and it didn’t live up to that. On the flip side I have read scripts where I think: well that’s not much, and then I see the film and I think: well that is an amazing film, because the director was able to elevate what was mediocre material. The director really does have a lot of power, and they are the captain of the ship. They can either steer away from or into the rocks. There is a lot of pressure on the director’s shoulders, but as a writer-director that is an altogether different thing. The vision is so singular and so laser focused as a writer-director that I often find that on the page to what the product ends up being on the screen is so clear. The director always has it in their minds to direct it a certain way, and I think that comes through on the page.
One of the challenges you set yourself here is to make a comedy in which you cannot predict the reaction of the audience, and on top this the film requires you to also control the finely balanced tempo that comes with the construction of an anthology. How do you reflect on dealing with the structural and comedic challenges that A Funny Kind of Love presented you with?
Yeah the house of cards nature of an anthology is extremely challenging, because it is just one thing and everything follows. So part of what was very important for me was doing a number of test screenings, and if I could give any advice to any comedy director out there it would be to do as many test screenings as you can. It is the only way to gauge what the audience are and are not responding to. As you say, and you just nailed it in your question, you cannot predict what an audience is going to respond to; you can’t. It is completely mysterious and some of the biggest laughs in my film I never wrote as a joke. Every time it gets a laugh I am like: oh my God, I really didn’t intend that to be a laugh line. Then there are lines that I thought would bring the house down, and they never got a laugh – I can’t believe that was one of my proudest jokes and it never got a laugh, and now I have to cut it from the film. The only way I knew that and I could learn it was through test screenings. It really helped in how we placed things, and it helped to keep the tone in the same place throughout the film. If ever we felt that it was getting too broad or esoteric the audience would just tell us – we could hear it in the room. We could feel the energy drop and feel when it lifted. Through a series of eight to ten different test screenings over the course of our edit, we were able to universally find a place as best we could for the material that we had. We all live in the same world and they can feel unified.
A FUNNY KIND OF LOVE HITS CINEMAS ON MAY 8