“I don’t think I plan anything I write. It’s always an improvisation. I always quote Woody Allen’s brilliant observation on comic writing: ‘When I write a joke, I’m hearing it for the first time.’ It sort of comes to you, you can’t really plan what you’re going to do.”
Writer and comedian Ben Elton is talking about his new film, Three Summers; part love story, part ensemble comedy, it tells multiple narratives of several music festival attendees over the course of three years.
“It was at the Fairbridge festival – the festival I attend with my family each year – that it struck me,” he explains. “It would be a great way to tell a whole bunch of Australian stories; people from very different backgrounds. People from different politics, different ethnic backgrounds, whatever, all together for just a weekend.”
The film focuses on the relationship between two musicians, Keavy (Rebecca Breeds) and Roland (Robert Sheehan), who go through a journey of ‘will they? Won’t they?’ over the course of the film’s narrative.
“I thought, what a great take on a rom-com to have two musos from different schools,” he says. “I know a lot of musicians who are passionate about their music to the point where they’re not passionate about other people. Hell hath no fury like two slightly differently inclined jazz musicians.”
From his days as The Man From Auntie through to this feature film, the motormouth Ben Elton has been known for his political bite and forthright opinions. Now residing in Western Australia, we put it to him that perhaps audiences will be surprised by Three Summers’ heart-warming nature. It’s not an idea he can get on board with.
“I can see what you mean,” Elton shrugs. “But I actually don’t think, on reflection, people would be surprised that I’ve written an upbeat tale. I mean, even the love story is a little bit jagged. It does compare folk music fans to Hitler fans!”
Three Summers also juggles several narratives that cover cornerstones of political discourse in Australia, including indigenous rights, racism, refugees and immigration.
“I wanted to tell contemporary Australian stories. And in my view, inevitably, that’s going to touch on the refugee issue, because we seem to talk about nothing else for the last five years.
“Even though I don’t think many people have met a refugee, the whole issue appears to be shaping our very national character. It seems to have shaped the Liberal Party. I’m the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, so I’ve got some personal knowledge of being a refugee by default; by birth. Isn’t it incredible that such a central part of our debate is one no one really understands?”
Ben Elton covered the Australian identity, amongst other topics, in his 1989 novel, Stark, which was later made into the miniseries of the same name directed by Nadia Tass (Malcolm). Elton points to how Stark presented a ‘real outsider’s point of view’ of Australia, and by contrast Three Summers is a different way of looking at the country he now calls home.
“Now, it’s 30 years later and I’m not an outsider looking in,” he explains. “I’ve been around a lot longer than a lot of Australians. I am an Australian, I’m a citizen. So, these stories are told as a part of the community rather than outside of it. But I’ll always be the son of a refugee of Nazis and I’ll always be the person who first stepped into Australia when he was 28. I’ll always be informed by my past, as everyone is. But that’s partly what the film’s about.”
Three Summers boasts an impressive list of Australian talent including Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton and Kelton Pell, who plays the leader of an indigenous dance troupe. (“Sometimes you can’t get who you want, but on this occasion every god smiled on me.”) And while he talks about the great response from the actors towards his script, Ben Elton brings up his good friend and elder, Koodah Cornwall.
“Koodah had been all over the script from the start, because I’m not going to write an indigenous storyline without taking great care,” he admits. “I don’t believe that as a white male, I can only write white male parts. I think you have to culturally appropriate if you’re an artist, you can’t do anything else. But, you should do so with great respect and great care.”
It’s Koodah who led to what would become one of the director’s favourite nights on set. On the eve of filming, Koodah organised a fire lighting ceremony to welcome the cast and crew to the region and “light a spark that would hopefully warm and light up the whole shoot.
“It took over an hour, it was exhausting, but it was fantastically satisfying when it happened,” Ben Elton beams. “To listen to a didgeridoo, in the open air, under this vast sky in this ancient land is a very special thing. And, of course, I was on the eve of my shoot, so you can imagine how emotional and excited, but also humbled I was by the whole experience.”
As we wrap up, we throw the same question to Ben Elton that we did to his leads Rebecca Breeds and Robert Sheehan: how he feels that he’s changed over the last three years. Admitting that he’s perhaps too old to start changing, Elton does admit that he has great change ahead of him with his children leaving to go to university.
“The absolute life patterns we’ve had around the kids for two decades are going to change absolutely,” he says. “Maybe we’re going to rediscover our rock and roll selves! Mind you, we didn’t completely lose sight of that over the last twenty years, but I think we’re hopefully going to make the most of it.”
Three Summers is in cinemas November 2, 2017