National Screenwriters’ Conference 2009: Kenny – Plumbing the depths
by: David Tiley
Thursday 26 February, 2009
Before opening a completely charming discussion with Andrew Knight about the writing of ‘Kenny’, Clayton Jacobson produced some very sobering numbers.
Kenny cost $500,000. By the time the film returned $5m, he was still $250,000 in debt. When it made $8m, his investors started to get a return. He has still not seen a dollar. As he said later, if he had cleaned toilets for all those hours he put into the film, he would have doubled his income.
However, he was determined to follow a film through the entire process, from idea to audience, and experience all the details in the middle. He is glad he did this, and learnt a lot, but he wants a fee for service in the future.
Andrew is an experienced comic writer and producer himself, and he brought a knowledgeable eye to the clips, the Jacobson touch, and the craft of comedy. Again and again he reiterated the same point – that the comedy works because it carries an exquisite sense of detail.
Indeed, Clayton acknowledged that the film is a mass of details driven by an underlying theme.
Here are the stages in the development of the project:
1. The Jacobson family assembles a gallery of fabulous characters with a fine sense of the vernacular. (His grandfather, for instance, ran a carnival, and the family lived for years in the big tent after it became unfinancial.) In a film mad family, the children are named after characters and actors. Raised on Jerry Lewis, Clayton sees Midnight Cowboy when he is fifteen and the skies open up.
2. Clayton goes to Swinburne, cleans toilets to pay for the course, graduates in 1984, ends up in high end commercials, develops many friends, writes extravagant features that have nothing to do with life.
3. Younger brother Shane runs a business doing lights for big shows. One day he imitates Ray, an old toilet plumber, and Clayton is fascinated. It sticks in his mind, and liberates in him the ability to write (O cliché! O wisdom!) what he knows about.
4. For months he collects lists of assets – dozens of connections, insights, lines, quirks and resources. Mates who can act, gear that is available, stuff that can go in the film, places that inspire him. Stories he is told. All to take him further than the limited world of his imagination.
5. Inspired by Paul Harris at the St Kilda Film Festival, they use a bunch of experimental rushes as a the basis of a 47 minute mockumentary.
6. They show this to the poo people, who supplied trucks, equipment and support, along with material from Shane. They are enchanted and want a feature film. They even want to put the money up. Clayton can’t see an extended version. Then they tell him about the toilet cleaning convention in the US, and it opens up for him.
At this point, Clayton made many decisions about the script. The first fifteen minutes is all about cramming scatology into the film, so the audience gets tired of it and happy to move on. We, the audience, see Kenny in his disregarded role, plodding on optimistically and decently doing a job we all need, and look down on. We are the antagonists in the film, it is our journey too.
He is driven by the desire “make the audience secretly love every character in the film” which means he gives space and emotional journeys to small sidebar stories and people. This is about an overwhelming ethic. He takes something crucial from Jerry Lewis – his ability to undercut humour with sudden tragedy, and then move on quickly.
He deals with the underlying melancholy of the characters and their crappy social tragedy by giving them an almost unshakeable sense of optimism. Bad things happen but they stay positive.
The film is built around a dual journey – we learn to respect and love Kenny, while he doubts himself. Moves into a crisis, goes to America, resolves the crisis – but it comes back. We want him to respect himself, but that is becoming less and less possible. The crisis is resolved because his father gives him some acknowledgement, and because he decides to reject the desk job which takes him away from his fundamental identity.
He plotted the film around the various events which the real company had, up to and including the trip to America. He invited ideas and talked incessantly about the projecte and its story, refining it as he saw how others responded, sometimes having them tell the story back to him. He recruited actors, mostly in his family – even his pestiferous brother in law who wanted to be in the movies, and developed a simple philosophy of performance: get people to exagerrate themselves, and use their own memories.
He plotted the emotional development in detail, and how the audience responded. He is an editor, and was keenly aware of set ups, and the way the audience can be placed on its feeling journey. This is very important – he managed the viewer’s knowledge of the characters very carefully.
He knew the script thoroughly, and would tell the actors what they were doing on the same day. He mined their knowledge of dialogue, and capacity to improvise. But he always knew the crucial lines and moments that had to be delivered exactly. Again and again, the right details.
Over six months, they shot the basic story, and over the next year they went back to the same events, for additional shots, to put in particular characters, to create atmosphere or simply reshoot.
Then Clayton went into the editing room until he just about went insane. With money, risk and family chaos layered on top.
He is now working on a web series called Mordy Koots: Blazing Angels, Clouds of Fear. Google as the project develops.
David Tiley is the editor of Screenhub, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. or 03 9690 6893.
http://www.screenhub.com.au/ | For Australian screen professionals
Republished with permission