Clayton Jacobson is one of the most relaxed and friendly guys I’ve ever met, which makes him all the more interesting given he’s just directed Australia’s darkest and twisted comedy in recent years. Having been in toiled away on his own projects since his hit toilet-plumber-done-good Kenny in 2006, Jacobson’s back behind the camera for Brothers Nest, a tragicomedy which follows Terry and Jeff (played by Clayton and Kenny himself, Shane) as they plot to kill their step-dad in the middle of country Victoria. I sat down with Clayton to talk crowd-pleasing pizzas, perfectionism and working in a fake police station.
Finn: Australian movies have a rough trot when competing with big studio films. What would you say about Brothers Nest stands out compared to, say, Jurassic World?
Clayton: (laughs) That’s a hard competition. It’s like we have two arenas. They go, in this arena are the monster trucks, fresh out of Hollywood and it’s going to cost you X amount of dollars. And in this arena, we’ve got the Australian tricycles. But that’s going to cost you the same amount. And you go, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Sure, we ride a great tricycle, we do some things you’re never going to see on a monster truck, but that’s the problem. We can’t compete with those types of budgets. Having said that, in the last few years, Hollywood has greatly changed and whereas once there was this middle ground, that’s all moved to television. The theory now in Hollywood is you can either do a big tentpole movie which is 100 million, or you’re doing a 5, 6 million dollar film. But yes, it is hard to compete.
But for Brothers Nest, what would you say about it that stands out?
I’m just hoping at the end of the day it comes down to story. And we went to a lot of trouble to make sure the film had production value. That nothing on screen would give you a sense of its budget. And I’m hoping we pull that off. I think it looks great. The location we made absolutely sure that it was as big a character as any other character in the film. And they’re the sort of things I think we as Australians do quite well.
What you say about story is like what you did with Kenny. That film had a tiny budget, relied on story and an iPhone now would have better quality than whatever you shot it on then.
Yes. What you asked is one of the biggest questions we’ve got in this country and that’s because of the nature of how we get films made. There are so many cooks that get brought in, so what I think makes a film unique is the vision of whoever’s helming the film. Their own personal take on the script and the elements that they’ve brought to the story….y’know, our favourite films are usually directed by fairly unique directors that we can all talk about. Scorsese is a pretty interesting sort of fella. Their films haven’t necessarily been made by a committee. What I always say is, if you wanna to order food to please twenty people, you’re eating pizza. And we make great pizzas, a lot of the time. But I often feel we shave off the rough edges, and the things that make a film personable and unique are what could make someone upset or throw someone off. The nature of how we develop films in this country is that we’re all trying to adhere to norms that will bring about a successful film, but the truth is that it’s such a mystery. What will make a film successful or not….the question at the end of the day for me, is what will I like? I can’t answer what you will like. I just know what I like. But what I trust is that if I like it, I’m not that unique, there’s gonna be someone out there that likes it too. And we have trouble with that here, because we don’t just have the numbers. In America, there’s 300 million people, there’s going to be an audience for the most obscure films. But here, that’s not always the case. We can’t afford to take as big a risks and we’re always looking for government support. So along with that comes the mandates, the ticking of boxes. I’ve spent so long having to convince people that the instincts I’m having towards a story feel right to me. And I clearly have not been very good of convincing them of that, because the only time I’ve got to make another movie is when I’ve stepped out of the industry and gone back to how I did Kenny .
And that was eleven years ago.
I even had a Hollywood producer ask me, after South By Southwest (the indie film festival where Brothers Nest premiered), something really interesting. He said, “I don’t mean to offend you, but why are so many Australian films so comfortable”? He used the word comfortable. I thought that was really interesting, because it implies a safe bet. So I think we just have to encourage greater risks. And just because one film did really well one year, it doesn’t mean every film should follow that path. That was a particular set of ingredients and circumstances that made that particular film unique. We’ve got to encourage the film-maker that’s working on their own concoction.
So you went to film school in the 80’s, and used editing as a way to get into the film industry. Where you’re at now, with Brothers Nest, what advice would you give to yourself looking back?
I’m very hard on myself. I am a perfectionist and I push myself to the brink, every time. The negativity about that is you can set the bar too high for yourself. As a result, I hung back in the shadows for a good ten years. I was afraid of directing because I didn’t want to reveal myself I wouldn’t be good at it. It’s that thing, “I’m assuming I’m going to be good at it, so I don’t want to shatter that illusion”. But with editing I got to watch how directors work, and I’d try and recognise myself in other directors behaviours. I said to myself “I’m never going to make those mistakes that other directors make, but I’m certainly going to borrow from their successes”. And what happened was I went out and invented 400 hundred other mistakes I’d never seen them do. You’ve just gotta be on the floor doing it to know whether you’re doing it well or not. I don’t necessarily regret that, because the films I’m making now come from the fact I’ve lived a bit of a life. And between Kenny and now, I’ve worked on a lot of scripts with writers an producers and I’ve got to see what works in development and what doesn’t.
You acted in last years series of Top of the Lake (starring Elisabeth Moss), which is directed by auteur Jane Campion (director of The Piano). What was the most memorable part of that experience?
It was really interesting to be a player in her world. Human beings are kind of pathetic and funny creatures, and a lot of what we do is very silly and comic, but can also be incredibly tragic and alarming and tragic. What I loved about her work, and it’s a thing I like to do as well, is when you have those two things collide. She’ll go from a scene that’s quite funny and frivolous to one thats dark and foreboding, and it creates this whole other energy. You’re not being taken by the end and walked through this tonal shifts. They’ll just hit you hard in the face. So a lot of the lessons I learnt were more structure and story. But the biggest lesson I learnt would be the joy of how you prep a set for actors to express themselves and give them the freedom to show off. Jane went to a lot of trouble for this and we spent an entire day with the cast in a police station roleplaying with actual constables. She was sending in different constables to bitch and bemoan about the other characters and to talk to me about their personable problems. It was so interesting to me, giving me all this back story and juice about the role of running a police station. I loved it. It was a great experience.
Brothers Nest is in cinemas now.
Interview by Finnian Williamson | @finnianwills
Finn went to ECU. Read into that what you will.