Feature: I Love You Too
By Tim Kroenert
Peter Helliar is upbeat, and who can blame him?
Production of the new Aussie comedy I Love You Too, which Helliar wrote and stars in with acclaimed American actor Peter Dinklage and Australia’s own Brendan Cowell (and which features an outsized cameo by Megan Gale), is days from completion after a hassle-free shoot.
“I’ve just gotta write an article for Playboy magazine and I’ll have done everything I ever wanted to do!” jokes Helliar, who has built his reputation on shows such as Rove and Before the Game.
“My plan was to do some stand-up, get a gig writing for TV, and then through doing that meet someone in the film industry and make a film. It happened exactly the way it was supposed to!”
We’re in the lounge room of one of the film’s key locations, a house in suburban East Brighton, south-east of Melbourne. It’s the house where Cowell’s character, Jim, lives with his sister, Marie (played by Bridie Carter).
More accurately, Jim lives in a granny flat in the backyard of the quaintly (not fashionably) retro home.
Brendan Cowell and Peter Helliar in I Love You Too
“He works at a miniature steam train railway, which is symbolic: he’s a bit of a kid still and he’s going around and around on the tracks. He’s got a Spider-Man watch that he still wears. He’s 32. So there’s evidence he’s got late-onset coming of age.”
The film follows Jim after his girlfriend of three years, Alice (Yvonne Strahovski), abandons him, and his subsequent struggle to win her back.
Helliar plays Jim’s former wingman Blake who, having been edged out of the picture by his friend’s long-term relationship, thinks he’ll now be getting his best mate back. But it’s not to be.
“They’ve drifted apart and Jim’s gone and found someone else, a bloke who has got more understanding as to what he actually needs right now.” That someone else is Charlie (Dinklage).
“In Australian film you see a lot of blokes not talking about stuff,” says Cowell. “However in this film you see a lot of blokes trying to talk about stuff. They might not get it right, but they’re trying. I think that’s kind of new. I haven’t seen that a lot in Australian film: blokes really trying to communicate without shying away from it.
“I’ve never been in something this sweet,” Cowell adds. “That’s hard when you’re used to digging up the darker soil. The director pushed me to find this lost boy, this purity, so that even when he’s being mean it’s because he just doesn’t know.
Peter Helliar and Yvonne Strahovski in I Love You Too
“And to move away from my instinct to hit it on the head and get a bit nasty. It’s been a bloody lovely challenge.”
Director Daina Reid agrees this is an emotional and character driven comedy.
“It’s about the relationships,” says Reid, a veteran television writer, director and performer (her resume includes Full Frontal, The Micallef Program and Very Small Business), who makes her feature debut on I Love You Too.
The film may be Helliar’s baby, but Reid by no means sees this as ‘his’ film.
“Even though it’s written by someone else, a lot of your heart and soul goes into it. The vision is mine. I’ve created the vision for some of the television stuff that I’ve done, but for a lot of it that’s already been done by someone else; you just go in, you do it, and you have a great time with it. But there’s a lot of my heart and soul in this film.”
The film’s international drawcard, short-statured The Station Agent and Death at a Funeral star Peter Dinklage, was actually the first actor to be cast. Described by producer Laura Waters as “charismatic and very, very funny”, Dinklage was sent an early draft several years ago, with word that Helliar had written the part of Charlie for him.
Peter Dinklage and Brendan Cowell
“That was quite humbling,” Dinklage tells INSIDEFILM from New York. “I read the script and I loved it. I base all of my decisions on the quality of the script. Peter had written by himself a really wonderful comedy. So I said sure.”
Dinklage was on set for half of the six-week shoot. It was his first time in Australia and, apart from being chuffed to see his first kangaroo (“that was pretty exciting for a guy who grew up in New Jersey”), he was blown away by the warmth and efficiency of the Australian cast and crew.
“It’s a great community. I was sort of the outsider, but they brought me right in and made me feel like one of them.”
The $6 million comedy was produced by Princess Pictures, with funding from Screen Australia, Roadshow and Film Victoria.
It was Princess’ first foray into feature film, the company having cut its teeth on the character-driven Chris Lilley television comedies We Could Be Heroes and Summer Heights High.
“We’re very attracted to working with writers and performers who have really strong visions,” says Princess producer Laura Waters, “protecting that vision and making sure it reaches the audience as closely as possible to the way it was conceived. Obviously we have to be attracted to what those people want to say and how they want to say it.
“Comedy is a brilliant way to reach people,” says Waters. “I have always been a huge fan of Pete … he is just such a beautiful, funny writer. I was excited to be able to work on something of our own and be able to get that voice out there.”
A scene from I Love You Too
Waters’ faith in the artist’s vision paid dividends in both of the highly successful Chris Lilley series. It’s equally evident in I Love You Too. Helliar says this particular vision had been with him for the best part of a decade before the film went into production.
“Laura worked on the Rove pilot with me,” recalls Helliar. “She was very supportive. I wrote a TV pilot under her guidance, and it didn’t get up, but through that we spoke a lot about movie ideas that I had.
“She finally rang me one day and said you’ve got to choose one project, come over to my house tomorrow, pitch it to me, and we’ll make it.
Helliar’s four-month old son, Liam – who also went to the meeting – turned seven last September, marking almost a decade since that initial decision to make the script has turned into reality. “And it had been in my head a few years longer than that,” Helliar says.
Writing for film also proved to be a new discipline.
“The first draft was 140 pages,” he says. “We had to kill a lot of our babies, things that we thought were funny but we took out because we were adamant that everything had to serve the story.
“It’s not about just having a sketch idea in there. If it was a Judd Apatow film some of those things would still be in there, but we’re not making a two-and-a-half hour comedy.”
Given their considerable television pedigree, and accompanying lack of film experience, for Waters, Reid and Helliar alike, you might expect the transition to making a film had its hiccups.
“People used to tell me that when I did my movie, it would all be different,” Reid says. “Well I’m here to tell you that there ain’t no difference. It’s so fast, the pace is gruelling; it almost killed me. It was really tough, it was television pace.”
“To me,” says Waters, “an audience is an audience … the focus should be more about the storytelling. I don’t put a lot of importance on the medium. Still, with television you hand a network a tape, and you know that even if it goes badly, half a million people are going to watch it. Whereas with this it’s like, maybe no one will turn up? You just don’t know.”
“The big difference between film and television,” according to Helliar, “is that television, especially the kind I work on, is a lot more disposable.
“When I write something for Rove, I write it, perform it that week, then forget about it and move on to the next thing.
“But with film … it’s there forever. You make a good one, and it lives in the psyche. But if you stuff it up, it lives in the psyche for the wrong reasons. It becomes the punch line.”
I Love You Too is released in cinemas on May 6. This article first appeared in the April issue of INSIDEFILM magazine.