by GREG KING
“I think that years go by quicker as you get older,” tells writer and director of Any Questions For Ben? Rob Sitch, the first feature film from the Working Dog team (The Castle, The Dish) in over a decade. When asked why it has taken so long for them to create a new feature, Sitch, who co-wrote the film with his usual collaborators Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, explains that other things just seemed to take priority. All of them now have familie, but they were also working on other projects, including Thank God You’re Here and the ABC series Hollow Men.
The romantic comedy eschews the usual bland formula of most of the output from Hollywood. The film centres on Ben Knox (played by Josh Lawson, who worked with the team on Thank God You’re Here), a successful but shallow and selfish 27-year-old sales manager who has trouble committing to anything. Ben hasn’t stayed in the same job for more than six months, hasn’t lived in the same place for more than six months, and he hasn’t been in a relationship that has lasted more than three months. Despite this, Ben believes that he has a great life. But when he is invited to talk at a careers night at his former school he receives something of a rude wake up call. The film deals with Ben’s quarter-life crisis as he reassesses his life and his values.
The role was written specifically for Lawson, who Sitch describes as a poster child for that age group. “He didn’t seem to have an address, he had two suitcases, and he lived in LA and Melbourne, and worked in both places. I ask, ‘Where’s Josh?’ to his friends, and they’d go, ‘I think he’s in Africa.’ And I don’t think he was ever going out with the same girl when I met him. And he was funny, and high-spirited, and he was a great comic actor.”
The rest of the supporting cast was comprised from the easy choices – people they knew and had worked with previously – like Lachy Hulme, David James, Alan Brough and stand-up comic Felicity Ward. Then there was a wishlist of people like Rachael Taylor (Red Dog, etc), who has managed to build a career in Hollywood with big budget films like Transformers. “And then people I didn’t know, like (AACTA award winner) Daniel Henshall,” Sitch continues. “Jane Kennedy (who casts all of the team’s films) suggested him for the loving, thoughtful, and warm guy. And I said, ‘What’s he done?’ And I was told he hasn’t done anything, he’s doing his first film now and he’s playing a serial killer in Snowtown. So I met him and he looked like a neo-Nazi, but he was a lovely warm, thoughtful guy.”
Visually, the film also makes Melbourne another character in the action, and incorporates many of its iconic landmarks and events. “We’d made an observation of late that there’s no better place to be in your mid-20s than Melbourne right now,” Sitch says. “I think Melbourne has changed in a huge way in the last 20 years. I think it was called Bleak City originally, but then there was a policy of liberalising caffeine drinking laws. I mean we’re sitting in the product of that now, a rooftop bar, with people living in this building, and people drinking in the middle of the day, and I think it unleashed a kind of mini-cultural revolution. And we’re all the better for it.”
Part of the film also takes place in Yemen, and Sitch explains how that came about. “It’s hard to pick a country in the world that twentysomethings haven’t been to. And not many places sound exotic anymore. If you say, ‘I just went to Laos’ someone will go, ‘Yeah, I was there a couple of years ago’ or ‘I’m going there’ or ‘My mate went there’. But Yemen sounded, and is, exotic. And so we used it as a proxy in the script, and we kept writing it and writing it, and forgot to change it to somewhere easier to get to. And then literally we realised that we had to go. There was nothing that could substitute for it. Unfortunately there was the warning from the government: ‘Don’t travel!’ But we took a security expert with us and we had no problems, but we weren’t under any illusions that we could have problems.”
And Sitch provides an anecdote that shows that Yemen is still a dangerous place to visit. The night after they flew home, someone rolled a grenade under a car outside the restaurant where they dined.
“We were there under two days. We flew in, shot, stayed, slept, woke up, shot, shot, got out to the airport and left. I wanted that in the movie. It was at the end of the movie and you had to show the audience that you weren’t cheating. And it didn’t matter if it was only on the screen for five seconds, you knew he was really in Yemen. In a way, if we copped out of that we were a bit like the character in the film.”
And there is a great soundtrack which accompanies the film, with bands like Powderfinger and Silverchair, and even Boston’s classic power ballad More Than A Feeling, which took Tom Scholz five years to write. Nearly every song was written by a singer/songwriter/prodigy about the age of Ben’s character, adds Sitch. “There’s no science to a soundtrack. We just started laying out songs. We didn’t realise there was a theme to it, but it seemed that the only songs that suited were singer/songwriter songs, and generally guys about his age. Music adds big time (to the budget). No-one buys albums any more, so they take it out on filmmakers,” he adds with a laugh