CLAYTON JACOBSON in conversation at the AWG.
Clayton Jacobson remains an enigmatic figure. Emerging out of the blue with Kenny in 2006, he pointedly refused to discuss the making of the film during its release. You could talk to brother Shane in role as Kenny, or his Dad – in role – or nothing. The reason was that Clayton was wary of giving out the vibe that Kenny was a low budget film and therefore turning off the potential audience.
So in the current audience-focussed era, Kenny – and the Jacobson brothers – is an absolute role model of how it’s done, as the film turned out to be an incredible success. On a shoestring budget the film managed an impressive $7.6 million take at the domestic box office, and some overseas sales. DVDs went well as well, through local distributor Madman.
Yet despite the success Kenny’s story hasn’t really been completely told. Jacobson provided some insights at the recent National Screenwriters’ Conference in Adelaide in conversation with Andrew Knight, but the Victorian Branch of the Australian Writers’ Guild felt it would be useful to hear more of the tale from Clayton particularly about how he developed the screenplay and the film itself.
It’s an engaging tale, and one he generously retold for us at the prompting of Peter Moon at the AWG Victoria meeting at the Wine House.
It’s immediately clear that the Jacobsons come from storytelling stock – it’s in their genes, which is another reason why the making of their film deserves serious scrutiny. And the development of Kenny was clearly very much in tune with its potential audience way before the film had its first screening, in part because it grew out of a shorter version, screened at the St Kilda Film Festival in 2004.
“It always sounds so engineered when you break it down,” said Clayton, “but the fact is when we started, our only goal was to get it out on DVD.” He cited the advice apparently given to people walking the Kokoda Trail – don’t look too far ahead, and never look back, but just take things a bit at a time. That’s how they made Kenny.
Like most people who are an overnight success, Clayton in fact has a vast depth of experience eked out over many years, beginning even before film school when he made super 8 films with longtime buddy and filmmaker Ray Boseley. “I put myself through film school cleaning toilets,” said Clayton, “and the attitude in the film to people who clean toilets is exactly what I received personally.”
In a nutshell, Jacobson graduated from Swinburne Film School and felt that he had to learn his craft by working with other directors, working as an editor with such directors as Richard Lowenstein and Paul Goldman, doing music video and TVCs. ”In the end I got to the point where I felt I had to make my own mistakes. So I went to work for the devil in advertising.”
Meanwhile, brother Shane became the national manager for Premier Lighting. “He was used to turning up to these big gigs like U2. Inevitably Glen from Splashdown would rock up with his gear, that is the toilets. Shane is a great entertainer and one day he did a fantastic representation of an employee from Splashdown who is a bitter and twisted soul.”
“There was something about this impersonation that stayed with me. I thought God I’d like to use that character somewhere. I wanted him to come over and put it on tape and eventually I persuaded him to.”
Originally the character was pretty abrasive and not very lovable, but there was something about the language that he used that reminded Clayton of his father. “I had a friend who viewed the footage and I wondered if anyone would believe where it would come from, so I decided to have Dad in the film.”
This is typical of Clayton’s approach – to embrace a problem and solve it. Embrace the negatives and throw yourself into the problems because that creates something that is infinitely better. As well, he is an intricate observer of detail, and those details of characer are what makes the film so great.
Deciding to make a short film on very little budget in time for the St Kilda Film Festival, the looming deadline got the Jacobson creative juices flowing. They knew the owner of Splashdown, so they approached him to see if he’d let them plant Shane amongst his employees. He jumped at the chance. For him it was something interesting, beyond his career.
“We put together this 47 minute film. I was convinced that half the audience would walk out. Glen phoned up and said everyone at the St Kilda Film Festival loved it.”
They won a $3000 prize and used it to put on a screening for cast and crew. Present in the audience were some of Glen’s friends, people of influence and affluence. “This guy came up after the screening and said I represent a family who have a little bit of money and I’ve spoken to Glen and let’s talk in the morning,” said Clayton. He felt terrible about it, as they were Glen’s friends and Clayton thought they were highly likely to lose their money.
The next day Glen’s wife took a phone call from an American colleague about a toilet expo in Nashville. Immediately Clayton saw the possibilities of extending the scenario into a feature length film.
“I can have him lose faith in himself and send him to toilet Disneyland where he’s respected and toilets are king.” The idea quickly snowballed. “What if he fell in love and did a fantastic business deal? Then I can have him crash back to earth and reamp it all back up again in the final act.”
Clayton explained that the story arc in Kenny is the audience’s arc, not the character’s arc. The audience comes in with a set of assumptions about toilet cleaners and meanwhile Kenny has a solid view of what he thinks of the world. “The aim of the film was to spin them all on their head. I wanted to get to the end of the movie and have Kenny say I might give all this up, and have the audience think you can’t give this up it’s beautiful the work you do up there.”
The film’s production values were immeasurably enhanced by the association with Splashdown. For example they wanted to film the infamous toilets on fire sequence at Bathhurst but were refused permission, so a friend of Glen’s, Bob Jane, offered them the use of his Thunderdome track.
As the film began development Jacobson asked Splashdown for a list of all their forthcoming events and worked them into the screenplay. He set the events along a character arc, complete with a romance. As well, Clayton told people the story at parties and discovered they would retell the story with modifications the next time they met.
“It’s the old technique of verbal storytelling. I remember telling a friend about Kenny and he loved it and a few weeks later he told me the story but it was completely differently to how I’d told him. He’d clearly edited out the stuff that I liked that he didn’t, and invented a whole lot of things as well. I went home and typed it all into the computer.”
Clayton confessed that he tries to avoid writing at all costs. He hates sitting by himself in a room with a computer, and he has a shocking memory as well. “But I remember the things I like about my ideas.” And there is something about delaying the moment of actually writing that can be extremely creative, Peter Moon observed, saying that it was a theme of the recent National Screenwriters’ Conference in a way – the idea of putting off the writing until you’ve mulled over the theme and developed the characters. Writing it all down, as it turns out, is actually the easy part.
Jacobson had six months to develop the script, so he kept telling the story and asking people for feedback. He explained that storytelling is a tradition in his family, who come from a line of circus performers. “I know all of my father’s stories. I can literally retell them in synch with him as he tells them. What’s interesting is that I know the rhythm of his storytelling. He knows which parts get the best reaction.”
Clayton said he knew the audience would come in with a set of expectations. “I knew they would expect poo jokes so I delivered them in the first 15 minutes.” Hit them with a barrage and got them used to it. It kind of failed in a way because a lot of people walked out. However the people who left were told by their friends that it got better later, so they returned, apparently.
On the set Jacobson told the actors to be true to the moment. “Don’t show me, think it. Say it to me as if you’re talking to your mother.”
That was the big thing – why mock? Why do you have to mock? “The game for me with making the short films was wouldn’t it be wonderful if people thought this was real? But for the feature I thought people will know it is a drama so I’ll let people into it.”
In the end the film did spectacularly well in Australia, okay in the US and bombed in the UK. Clayton learnt what a monster it is to distribute a film.
And the investors? “Glen did really well but I’ve gotta say he never wanted to do that. He even offered to create a bogus logo just for the film, if I wanted to avoid the reality of Splashdown.” But typically Clayton opted for reality over artifice, and as a consequence the fame of Splashdown knows no bounds. “Everyone asks ‘where’s Kenny?’”
The film is in the same territory as Blair Witch Project in projecting itself to the audience as ‘reality,’ and Clayton’s meticulous eye for detail is an obvious source for this success. Another is the way the film was released in Australia, which as mentioned earlier focused publicity on Shane Jacobson being interviewed in role as Kenny. At an AFI session in 2007, director Paul Goldman described how he’d attended a session about the film during which Shane Jacobson on the stage got into a shouting match with his father who had been carefully placed at the very back. It was a clever technique that enhanced the viewer’s experience of the film as being entirely real, even as they knew it was a fiction of sorts.
Clayton has a take on how to release an Australian film successfully in the domestic market. “You can’t rely on the first weekend to do well. It takes five weeks. You need five friends to tell you an Australian film is good, to do well. That for me is the equation of why Australian films often don’t work.”
So what of the future for Clayton Jacobson? Kenny has opened a lot of doors, and introduced him to a lot of really bad scripts. It’s allowed him to be taken seriously in the local industry. Currently he’s working a film in the science fiction genre, in which George Miller is taking an interest. And there’s another project he wants to do that is similar to Kenny.
Finally he’s working on a hybrid of games technology and film, designed for small screens, because ‘the younger generation don’t see cinema as the temple.” It’s called Mordy Koots and it’s a breakthrough in storytelling and technology. More on that soon.
Good on you Clayton. We wish you well.