I, Caesar – SMH

Author: Ruth Hessey
Date: 14/02/1997
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald

Giving the finger to the usual, wanky pretensions of arrivistes, one breakthrough film-maker took a brave turn: west. And no-one’s gonna call David Caesar an idiot. RUTH HESSEY exits the inner-city with the director of the G-force film, Idiot Box.
I’m heading west in a wet taxi. Ben Mendelsohn gave me the directions: straight out along Parramatta Road, turn right at Liverpool and left at Cabramatta, keep driving. “You can’t miss it”. Yea, right.

We pick up film director David Caesar in Leichhardt. Two feral terriers yap the street down; as he folds out of the rain into the cab, Caesar admits he has fantasies about topping them. Considering he’s a large man of bearish build and bald pate, used to intimidating without meaning to (“people always think I’m going to mug them”, he shrugs), it’s a wonder the dogs make a squeak. They must know he’s a softie inside.

We slither through the cramped back streets of the inner west. We’re going out to Green Valley, the suburb where Caesar shot his latest feature, Idiot Box,E starring Mendelsohn, Jeremy Sims and Robin Loau.

The trip takes about an hour. The cab exudes the rich vinyl stink peculiar to wet taxis. We have hangovers. The night before, Idiot BoxE premiered to a packed house of industry notables including Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward, rock stars including You Am I’s Tim Rogers, and the small contingent of Green Valley locals involved in the film – whom we’re on our way to meet.

It was a big night for the director, brought into sudden relief when he saw his film up in lights on George Street with a red carpet waiting. But someone had spelt it “Idoit Box”.

Producer Glenys Rowe (whose consistent support for Caesar’s vision stretches back over several documentaries and a previous feature, Greenkeeping) described the film as “my ugly baby” to the crowd. Ben Mendelsohn started to bark, loudly, as the credits roll up.

The real thing for Caesar, however, happened when the Green Valley contingent saw their street on the big screen for the first time: they cheered.

“In Australia we tend to think that life is always happening somewhere else,” he says. “In London or LA. And that’s why it’s important to see stories set in your own world. It somehow means your life has meaning. Mount Druitt in Sydney and Sunshine in Melbourne are just as valid as Melrose Place or Beverly Hills 90210.”

This ballad of suburban boys (“and girls”, he adds), was first conceived as a two-hander set in a suburban living room. Even as Caesar’s ambitions for it grew, it stayed rooted in suburban sprawl, rather than the inner city angst which fascinated film-makers in the ’70s and ’80s.

It all goes back to the days before being a Westie was glamorised by actors like Bryan Brown. Caesar was, in fact, a “coastie” – a teenager on the South Coast, where public servants take their holidays. Friends at the beach, the local boys wrere still “scum” at Canberra parties where “toffee-nosed” private school girls played The Police (“we were into Cold Chisel,” he recalls).

Then when a bunch of private school boys broke into the Pakistani Embassy at one of the parties, it was the coasties who got the blame. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Australia is supposed to be an egalitarian society”.

Caesar stayed mad. At the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, which he says “basically recruits from the upper middle classes”, he earned a reputation as a working class boy with a monster chip on his shoulder.

“It’s all very well to say I had a chip,” he says now, “but I had good cause.”

And he still does. Talking about the recent Daily TelegraphE front page on the Mount Druitt class of ’96 – virtually writing the kids off as losers because they failed to get high marks in the HSC – Caesar is outraged.

“I failed the film component of three unit Art when I did the HSC,” says Caesar, who is also fond of saying that he learnt how to make Idiot BoxE by directing episodes of Bananas in Pyjamas.

Now his second feature is about to hit the street – up against the likes of Evita, Romeo + JulietE and The People Versus Larry Flynt.

“I don’t care about the inner city,” he notes. “Everyone wanted to shoot Idiot BoxE closer to the city. Especially the crew. It seemed easier. And I did a lot of scouting around Maroubra.” But the older suburbs just weren’t right.

Caesar armed himself with a street directory and went looking for locations as far west as the maps would take him. In fact he drove to suburbs which were marked out in the direc-tory, but found they didn’t exist. They hadn’t been built yet.

This is just what excited him. The smooth mounds flocked with polite beige brick bunga-lows arranged in mile after mile of residential cul de sac, feel and look like they were just born yesterday. “It’s very cinematic,” says Caesar. There’s a frontier feeling to the landscape as it carves virgin city from the scrub, which the coastal suburbs just don’t have.

Even since the film was shot last year in Green Valley, the area has suddenly sprouted a 12-cinema multiplex. You know you’ve got a suburb when McDonalds moves in.

DROP CAP Thus it was that nearly two years ago a letter was circulated in the Green Valley area, explaining that a new Australian film needed a location (it was actually one of three features shot in the same area last year). Steven Clayton, 23, a printer, and Brett Manton, 19, a factory worker, thought they’d give it a go.

As the metre clocks 70 bucks, we pull into their street, which I’ve seen only once before – as Kev’s place in Idiot Box.E The house is the same small, neat new design as all the others, but the grass is a bit overgrown and the dogs are not barking.

Steve answers the door in his trackies. The media in all its splendid myopia seems to have convinced everyone that the western suburbs are full of yobbish Anita Cobby murderers. “Working class men are usually portrayed as stupid rapists in films.” Caesar agrees. “That’s why I made Mick a poet. To mock that stereotype.”

Nothing could be further from the stereotype. Steve and Brett are sweet, and to tell you the truth, not much like the oafish Mick and Kev. They probably live just down the street.

“So what did you think of the film?” Caesar asks bravely, sinking into a couch in front of the big telly, with surround-sound speakers and a cache of remote controls on the coffee table.

Steve, aka “Trash” (“don’t ask”, he says, “it’s a long story”), had to work the night before. “I was spewing,” he assures us as he heads to the kitchen to make tea. “You should have been there, Trash,” everyone kept saying when they woke him at 2Eam with a blow-by-blow account. “Yea, right!” he nods.

Did they think the film was realistic? Brett dives into the other couch, rubbing his forehead shyly. Maybe he’s not used to having people from newspapers ask him what he thinks. “It was just like a regular Sunday round here,” he says. “Except we’d be playing video games.” We all laugh. “Mick and Kev are such losers they don’t even have any games,” Caesar says.

The phone rings, too. It’s someone else who saw Idiot BoxE last night. “Their favourite bit was after they had sex and Mick gets up with all that stuff on his face,” says Brett. We all agree the sex scenes were good. “Well, I wanted them to be ordinary,” says Caesar. “You never see that stuff in films.”

“It was a lot better than I thought it would be,” admits Brett. “For an Australian film.” Steve agrees, although he quite liked Metal SkinE too – for an Australian film. Was the reality of film-making as fascinating as they thought it would be? Well, there was the day the film crew spent five hours on one shot outside the garage. Not exactly Schwarzenegger.

A loud crash in the garage signals that Steve’s two rottweilers want out. Caesar confesses that the dog they used in the film was a terrible actor. After he gets shot he’s supposed to crawl away in agony. “Couldn’t do it,” says Caesar. The boys laugh. It’s never the dog’s fault. “It’s all in the owner”, says Steve. His rottweilers behave beautifully.

Given that the soundtrack is so crucial to Idiot BoxE (“loud”, says Caesar, and full of extraneous noise like dogs barking, radios and the telly’s left on), the bands had to be right. Caesar admits he’d never heard of Snout, which is why You Am I’s Tim Rogers chose the music for Idiot Box.E But he has seen The Waggles, a band who do heavy metal covers of toddler rockers The Wiggles. Brett and Steve decide they’ll stick with Snout and Magic Dirt.

As the boys head off to work we leave, gliding back to our own turf through successive generations of suburbia. Caesar is relaxed and pleased, ready for a meeting about his next project, with Bryan Brown. Green Valley has given Idiot BoxE the thumbs up, and this is exactly where he wants his film to go down. In a sense, it’s what he’s been aiming at for the last 20 years.

Class act

For well-trained actors, playing the Aussie bloke is like doing drag. They have to bung it on a bit.

Not Ben Mendelsohn. After a couple of years on and off the road, “the greatest laconic actor of his generation” (according to actress Rachel Griffiths) is back.

Perhaps he’s not quite the Bryan Brown of the ’90s, but he can play an ordinary bloke without one iota of condescension (see everything he’s done from The Year My Voice BrokeE to The Big StealE to Metal Skin). And his latest role, as Kev in David Caesar’s Idiot BoxE is another masterly balancing act – between respect and taking the piss.

“It’s not fake or ingratiating,” he says, leaning forward like a hound trying to communicate with a goldfish, “to speak to people in their own lingo or vernacular.”

But when he’s not playing the wild-eyed clowns for which he has become famous, Mendelsohn is actually something of a wordsmith himself.

“You want to sound like you’re homogenous with your environment,” he says of easing himself into a character like Kev. “I don’t think anyone at the pub where we filmed the pool sequence thought I was a tourist. Even though that’s the way you feel sometimes, rolling round the countryside with a film crew. But I did find myself saying ‘mate’ a bit more often.”

Mendelsohn says he got the look, and more to the point, the pigeon-chested rolling gait of Kev, from guys he remembers frequenting the shopping malls of Greensborough in Melbourne in the ’80s. “The dress code has changed, but we’re in the same territory: lower middle class, unemployed, undereducated, white WASP males.”

The son of an eminent Melbourne professor of sciences and medicine, Mendelsohn says he didn’t experience the frustrations of your Micks and Kevs as a teenager himself.

“Actually the thought of my future scares me more now,” he admits. “Now that I’ve become this completely broke, socially useless actor, I fit the mould. I feel just as redundant as Kev or Mick.”

He leans back on one leg of his chair and puffs out his chest. “Now that’s ironic, isn’t it?” he grins.