Interview: Josh Lawson

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Josh Lawson on the set of Long Story Short. Photo by Brook Rushton.

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It’s been six years since Josh Lawson directed his first feature film, The Little Death – a laugh-out-loud comedy that peeks into the secret, and often quirky, sex lives of five suburban couples living in Sydney.

Since then, the Queensland-born, LA-based writer, actor, director and producer continued to deliver the laughs in TV shows like Kinne, and starred as Australian acting icon, Paul ‘Hoges’ Hogan among other projects. Lawson even scored himself an Oscar nomination for his brilliant short film, The Eleven O’Clock (which you can watch here).

When we caught up with Lawson this week, the director was preparing to release his sophomore feature film as director, Long Story Short. Here, Lawson discusses the new film, his Oscar nomination, and inviting Bus Stop Films to be involved in the film.

“Getting the Oscar nomination has freed me from ever wanting or needing it again. Once you see it from the inside out, you really do realise how silly it all is”

Interview by
Matthew Eeles

It’s been a rough 12 months for the entire planet. How has the last year been for you personally?
Well, I got lucky really because we had shot the film in 2019, and then I went off and shot another film as an actor towards the end of 2019. And so by the time 2020 started, that was when we started our post-production really. Ao we got really, really lucky because post is something that we could continue. It’s only a few technicians that we can easily and safely work together. So yeah, I was really busy. I felt really grateful that I could stayed busy the whole time. Really it was working full time on Long Story Short. And then after that, I acted in a film called Blaze in Sydney, directed by Del Kathryn Barton with Simon Baker. So yeah, it was a great year.

Did you allocate more time to post-production due to the lockdowns?
I don’t think we put more time into post production because of COVID. I think we put more time in because it just required it. It was just a difficult film. One of the benefits perhaps was something like our composer, Chiara Costanza. She was able to spend more time on the project than she normally would have because she didn’t have any other bookings. So things like that were great. We were really able to utilize her time, and other people fall into that category as well. But yeah, I think even if you took COVID out of the situation, it would have taken the same amount of time on the editing end. It just took what it took. If we needed more time, we got more time. We just couldn’t rush that. I think it just fit perfectly into that slot. As far as post-production goes, we just found a really good window that we were able to work out of Spectrum and Fox Studios before the Marvel team came in and took over. So everything worked out perfectly, timing wise.

Josh Lawson on the set of Long Story Short. Photo by Brook Rushton.

It’s my job to keep up to date with Australian film releases, but I feel like Long Story Short came out of nowhere. Did you always have a release planned for this date?
We certainly were not keeping the film a secret, but maybe in terms of the experiences I’ve had not just as a filmmaker, but also as an actor, it does feel like a fairly quick turnaround. I don’t know if it came out of nowhere for me. Maybe we had the element of surprise on our hands. There does seem to be an amazing purple passion for Australian film at the cinemas at the moment. So it does feel like the right time, and it is a Valentine’s Day movie, so that makes sense. I think we’d always hoped that we could release it on Valentine’s Day, but we didn’t know if that was going to be possible. But it’s that kind of film. I think it’s definitely a date movie. So it feels like home, for the film to be premiering on Valentine’s Day.

It was exciting to have a new Josh Lawson film to look forward to. Can you take us back to the beginning of the development of Long Story Short?
Well, I finished The Little Death and I really just wanted to keep making movies. I loved it. I had all these stories to tell, so I’d written a few scripts, and they were bigger films. And I was just having trouble getting the money together, it was that simple, because they required a lot of financing. And so, the years disappeared, and I was looking back on those years with regret really. And a bit of disappointment, going, “Oh, I feel like I had all these plans. I was going to make all these movies. I was into all these things. I haven’t done any of them.” And so this idea was starting to percolate, I was like, “God, I want to make a movie. I really do. I just miss it.” And so I started writing this film, and the plan was, this will be a smaller film. This’ll be a little more manageable. It’ll be a small cast, and won’t be too many locations, and I’ll give them fewer reasons to say no. I’ll just give the financing people fewer reasons to turn me down. And at the same time, I’ll deal with an issue that I’ve been wrestling with, which is that I will fear that my life is going by, and I’m not making the most of it. One year turns to two, turns to three, turns to four, and I just don’t want to waste any more time. So that’s where those two things came together. I was trying to make a manageable film that I could actually get off the ground and in doing so, you’re going to deal with an issue that I’d really been wrestling with.

Zahra Newman on the set of Long Story Short. Photo by Brook Rushton.

Most of the scenes in the film are two-handers. A lot of people are assuming this was shot during COVID, because most of the scenes are so isolated. But that wasn’t the case was it?
You’re right, it had nothing to do with COVID at all. I mean, most scenes in The Little Death are two-handers. Most scenes in lots of Billy Wilder movies are two-handers. Tarantino can write a 15 minute two-hander scene. There’s nothing too unique about two-hander scenes, but I just wanted to keep it intimate. That’s why it happened that way. I just wanted it to feel intimate that this struggle for Teddy is, in his world, quite epic. But if you were to look back on it, it’s actually just these little relationships that he’s got, with his wife and his daughter and his friend and his ex-girlfriend and this woman at the cemetery. And it feels more epic, but at the heart of it is just a man going through a very internal struggle. And each character that he talks to brings out a different side of that struggle. So that’s how it came to be. But yeah, I have had that question before where it’s going, “Oh, was this shot during COVID?” I go, “No, not at all.” I mean, we couldn’t have shot it during COVID, I promise you. It’s deceptively difficult. I mean, we built a studio for a lot of the apartment stuff, and the rest of it we shot on location in a really tight space with an enormous amount of crew. There’s just no way we could’ve shot it during COVID. It’s way harder than you think, believe me.

The trailer certainly doesn’t allude to it, but Long Story Short is more a romantic drama than romantic comedy. Is drama a new direction for you as a filmmaker?
For sure. I think that’s a good description of it. I mean, it definitely has light moments and funny moments, but it’s hard to categorise this film, I think. I try not to. But yeah, romcom is the easiest label to give it. But I think romantic drama is where it ends up, which is lovely. Look, I am interested in every genre, really. I don’t want to just keep doing comedy because that would be such a shame. I love all sorts of movies. I don’t just watch comedies. I watch everything. I love drama as much as I love horror, as much as I love a thriller, as much as I love a period piece. I love it all, if it’s good. And I hope that I get to explore all those worlds. Because that’s the fun of filmmaking, is that you get to travel to all these times and places and genres. God, it’d be great to make people cry as much as I can make them scared, or tense or something. To be able to take audiences on any journey would be great. That’s all I can hope for really.

Does an Oscar nomination change you as a filmmaker? Do you always have that possibility of another Oscar nomination at the back of your mind?
Oh God, no. I would say, to be honest, getting the Oscar nomination has freed me from ever wanting or needing it again. Not that it’s not nice. It was nice. It was a lovely ride and a wild time. But once you’re in it, in the thick of it, you see it from the inside out, you really do realise how silly it all is. All awards. To put art against each other is a bit crazy in a way. It’s like putting colors next to each other. “And the nominees are red, blue and green. And the winner is green.” Well, they’re all different. I mean, they’re different colors. They’re meant to do different things. Right? And so to say one actor is better than another, well that’s opinion, isn’t it? If you like broccoli and I don’t like broccoli, we’ll both survive. So you don’t notice it as much until you’re in it, and all these amazing people who “lose”. It’s like, “God, it’s so ridiculous to think about it like that.” But I was so grateful to be included in a group of people who I respected so much, and admired and looked up to. But yeah, the best way I can describe it is, when I left that experience I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad I had it, because now I never need it again.”

That’s a great answer!
If I ever get it again, that’s great. But it just doesn’t drive me the way it once did.

Rafe Spall and Josh Lawson on the set of Long Story Short. Photo by Brook Rushton.

There were verbal references to Groundhog Day in Long Story Short, but I’d probably compare it more to About Time than Groundhog Day. Can you tell us about some of your influences and inspirations for Long Story Short?
I can tell you in all honesty, I’ve never seen About Time. Never seen it, but I agree that it’s probably less like Groundhog Day and more like It’s a Wonderful Life, or Scrooged is the other film I reference, which is obviously just a retelling of Dickens’ Christmas CarolBut yeah, it’s a bit more like those two films for me. I would say Scrooged was a much bigger influence than Groundhog Day, even though Groundhog Day is one of my favorite films. But It’s a Wonderful Life as well was one of my favorites. I do love Capra and to be able to view life almost from an outsider’s point of view, because of course Teddy is not an outsider in his life, but he’s looking back on this year lived by him that he doesn’t remember. So it does feel like he’s disembodied in a way, as he steps back into his life and go, “Right, what have I missed? What have I done?” Or, “What have I not done?” So yeah, I’d say those are the two biggest references.

You’ve said that you auditioned many Australian actors for the role of Teddy, including yourself, which I found interesting. How did you end up landing on Rafe, a UK based actor?
Rafe was such a great find, but he was at the end of a long journey, a long search. We auditioned so many great actors. And it’s never about their ability. So many of these actors can do it. It was us searching for something special, something different. It wasn’t that he was a better actor, but I was looking for an actor that had a certain energy. Someone who brought a certain energy to it that was difficult to find, probably because in Australia we don’t do many magical realism films, right? So we haven’t had a lot of practice in doing that stuff. And it’s a different sort of genre. I ended up talking to my agent in the States and saying, “Hey, listen. Do you have anyone on your books who you think could do this film? And you might need to give them a heads up. We probably won’t be able to pay them very much.” But they came back with a list, and Rafe was on that list. And I think he basically said, “God, that’s a really good idea. I could see if he’d be interested in it,” sent him the script, and then I got on the phone with him and we had a big long chat. And at the end of that phone call, just from talking to him, I think we chatted for about an hour, hour and a half or something. And I remember thinking, “God, this guy’s it. This is the guy. His energy, just the way he’s talking, his rhythms. That’s what I’ve been looking for.” And, and so I got off the phone, called my producer and said, “Hey, I’ve got to make this work because I don’t think it’s anyone but him. And it’s obviously now at that point where I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, but yeah. I was really lucky that Rafe said yes, because it was a tough role. It’s almost a one man piece, you know? He’s in every moment of the film. So if Teddy was miscast, God. Everything else would have fallen apart.

I don’t want to take anything away from what you’ve just said about Rafe, but if you auditioned yourself, there must have been a moment where you did imagine yourself in the role, though, right?
Yeah, for sure. I entertained the idea. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea because I was well aware of the gargantuan task ahead of me as a director. I knew that it would be very difficult and I didn’t want to compromise directing. I didn’t want to take away from my energy from directing if I was in front of the camera. And I knew that we had a tight budget and a tight schedule and all that sort of stuff. But I thought, “Maybe I could do it. Maybe…” And then when I auditioned for it and I saw it back, I genuinely, dispassionately thought, “I’m not the guy. I’m not right for this.” I am right for some stuff, but not right for other stuff. And I just don’t think this is my movie. I think it would be wrong to do that. Wrong for the film and wrong for me, and so I was glad I auditioned myself because it actually really clearly removed that as an option for me.

Rafe Spall on the set of Long Story Short. Photo by Brook Rushton.

One of the most excited thing I I learned about the production of this film is that you involved Bus Stop Films. They’re an incredible organisation. Can you tell us about Bus Stop’s involvement in the film?
Well, they invited me a little while ago to come and have a talk to their students. And I jumped at the opportunity, and I really got quite affected by that experience. I was like, “God, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about this world, about disability.” And I basically said, “Guys, I would love to work with you more in any capacity. Let’s stay in touch. I think this is important work, and I think this is actually the future of the industry.” I think people would be more into it if they knew more about it. So I think the awareness is really important. So when we were talking about attachments on the film, I said, “Guys, I’ve got to go to Bus Stop. I’m telling you. The students are so passionate and they’re hardworking and the teachers are brilliant. And the people who run the place are just awesome.” So we went to them. They were excellent, and it was just such a joy to ask Ben, who was the student that came on board on set. Ben really was such a value to the film. And I think the crew really appreciated it, and learned something from it. And obviously, I hope Ben got something out of it as well. It’s something I would forever do, I think. I think it’s safe to say, I’m not sure I would do another production without involvement, inclusion in some way in the film. It just feels too vital.

That is so great. I’m sure they really appreciated that. So what were some of the roles Ben performed?
Well, he would bounce around. He pulled around to every department and that was what was great. In a way the best job on set, because he got to experience everything. He’d go to the gaffer department, he’d look at how we were rigging lights. He’d help out with the studio stuff. We’d have to get temperature control and smoke machines and stuff. And he’d go to the prop department, and hair and makeup. He was able to get a real sense, a cross section of the enormity of a film crew, and how specific and important each of those jobs are. So he really got a chance to do it all.

Zahra Newman and Rafe Spall on the set of Long Story Short. Photo by Brook Rushton.

You spoke earlier about Blaze. This is a film that deals with some very heavy themes, and I guess it plays into you moving into drama a bit more. What can you tell us about your role in Blaze?
What I can say at this point is that it’s definitely something I’ve never done before. I’m so, so grateful for Del Kathryn Barton to have thought of me for it and to take a chance with me in a type of film that I don’t often get to do and that I would very much love to do more of because it’s challenging and important. And I just think she is such an incredible visionary. I mean, obviously her fine art is where she began, but she’s just got such a colossal imagination and sweet energy, and the crew and cast just adore her. I feel really lucky to have done her first feature, because I don’t think it will be her last feature. I think she’s going to be doing a lot. If she wants to, of course. She may not want to. But if she wants to, I think she’s got a huge career ahead of her in filmmaking. So yeah, I feel like I’ve gone in on the ground floor, on her rise to success in that world.  it’s a great film. I mean, I haven’t obviously seen it, but I really enjoyed shooting it. I mean, “enjoyed” is a tough word because it was really hard material and challenging and confronting stuff, but I think it will be important, and I’m grateful to be a part or it.

Do you keep up to date with Australian films? Have you seen anything recently that stood out for you?
Look, I’ve been so busy doing the publicity on this, I’m sorry to say I’ve had my head in the sand with work. But I’ve tried to keep up with all films, especially Australian films. But in the last couple of months I’ve just been swamped. I know that it’s an incredible time for Australian movies. I’ve got five that are out at the moment that I have to catch up with. But yeah, nice to be on the back of that ride, the weight of their incredible success. Truthfully, the answer is I’ve got a lot of homework I need to be doing. But I’ll get my life back once this film releases on Thursday, and then I finally get time to myself.

Long Story Short is in cinemas February 11.


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