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Don’t rush to judgement by the rushes, it’s difficult to make people laugh, The Nugget director Bill Bennett tells Andrew L. Urban, and he now has a whole new take on screen comedy.

The Nugget is the first comedic film Bill Bennett has written and directed and it’s changed his whole take on screen comedy. Even though he doesn’t strictly speaking see it as a comedy. “It’s funny but I’ve been looking at comedy a different way since doing the film,” he says as we sit face to face at a coffee table in a hospitality room at Sydney’s Westin. This hip hotel is situated in the middle of Sydney’s financial district. Perhaps the choice of venue was dictated by a subconscious reference to the value of the fictitious nugget in the film – which is all about how a lot of money, or the prospect of a lot of money, can dramatically change people. 

"It is so difficult to make people laugh"

The Nugget tells how in a New South Wales country town, under-motivated council road worker mates Lotto (Eric Bana), Sue (Dave O’Neil) and Wookie (Stephen Curry), during another lazy weekend, stumble on a giant gold nugget that they reckon will change their lives. It sure does, but not quite how they expect. 

“It is so difficult to make people laugh,” he says with a wry grin. “The most successful comedies have to establish with the audience a clear understanding of character. It’s one of the reasons why Seinfeld works so well. When a girl says to George ‘come out to dinner with me - and I’ll pay’ and George immediately says ‘yes, I’ll go’, people laugh because they know he’s a tight-arse. If you didn’t have that knowledge, you wouldn’t find that moment funny.

“With The Nugget, Sue (Dave O’Neil) is set up as an intensely lazy man, so when the others start to dig up the street and he just pulls up a chair and sits down, people laugh.”

“Both Seinfeld and The Simpsons have fascinated Bennett. “They’re the two defining American shows that have spoken with great insight with what’s happening socially, culturally and politically in the American system and been quite critical of the American system….The Simpsons more so than Seinfeld. And if you go back to the Pythons, their humour was always politically based.”

From the writing through the shooting to the editing and finally to seeing the film with an audience is “a distinctly different stage,” says Bennett. “I’m very suspicious when people come out of rushes screenings and say ‘oh, rushes were so funny tonight, this is going to be such a funny movie.’ And you look at the movie and it’s just dreadful. So I was really pleased when everyone came to the rushes and didn’t laugh,” he says laughing. 

But Bennett doesn’t quite think of it a straight out comedy. “I regard it as a fable with some funny moments in it, and I think the decisions I made at the time were all correct. So no, I wouldn’t do it differently. Maybe if I were doing it again… I’d maybe adjust some timings in editing, but the approach is right, I think.”

" comedy allows you to be quite wicked"

As he says, comedy can be an excruciating genre for a director, “because it’s so obvious if it doesn’t work. People either laugh or they don’t. If you’re making an intense drama, people will sit there and they’ll be silent … you can’t really tell if you’re having the right effect on them.”

Then there are the upsides of comedy. It can be very satisfying as a device. “I do think comedy allows you to be quite wicked and you can slip stuff in that you wouldn’t be able to do any other way. If anything it’s given me a little bit more confidence to work in that area, where you can in fact be quite searing in what you say, and yet it’s packaged in laughter.”

The Nugget also marks a quiet watershed in the nature of the collaboration between Bennett and his wife Jennifer, who (with Bennett) is the film’s producer. “Jennifer is developing as a very savvy filmmaker in her own right. It looks like she’ll be producing two movies by herself next year; one is a comedy the other is a skateboard movie. I won’t be directing, and I guess I’ll be a second rung producer helping her….so our roles will be reversed.”

"She has evolved into a pretty formidable filmmaker" on Jennifer Bennett

They first started working together as actor and director, “then she started having script input and she came to the script with a knowledge of character and what an actor needs to make a role work, which is invariably what a writer needs to make a character work. And then we co-wrote and she has such a knowledge of wardrobe, art direction and so on, so she started having influence in those areas. She has evolved into a pretty formidable filmmaker. And she’s certainly one of the few people I will listen to, and I’ve learnt from past mistakes that I need to take a really deep breath if I don’t follow her take on something. We all get it wrong sometimes, but she’s developing into one of this country’s better creative producers. And she has no desire to direct.”

Lest you deduce from this, dear reader, that the Bennetts have discovered the secret to a silken smooth working-and-marriage system, rest assured they are just like you and me. Bennett gently acknowledges with a sheepish smile that “sometimes when we’re going tooth and nail, I say to her ‘well you direct the goddam movie’ …. she then backs off …. but,” he adds with great emphasis, “I only ever say that right at the very end, when I’ve got no other ammunition to throw at her.”

Published October 24, 2002

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