“With Idiot Box, I just wanted to go for it. You always have limitations of time and budget, but we found inventive ways to get a bigger feel up on the screen.” Writer/director David Caesar
1996’s Idiot Box is indeed a film that goes there. Riding wildly on a rough sea of foul language, violence, casual cruelty and the salty excesses of local Aussie vernacular, it’s a film unlike most made in Australia, and was particularly different to those being turned out in the mid to late nineties. While films about the dead-end realities of Australian suburbia are more common today (with the likes of Suburban Mayhem, Ten Empty, West, The Combination, Little Fish, and so on), back in the nineties, our cinematic output was decidedly sunnier and more positive. While Idiot Box is certainly no inward-looking, doom-and-gloom navel-gazer, its depiction of an Australian under-class scratched at by alcohol, unemployment and barely repressed anger is far from flattering.
“I was conscious of the feel that I was going for,” says David Caesar. “That feel related to US films from the seventies, in particular Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, but also to some Australian films, like Chris Fitchett’s Blood Money, Michael Thornhill’s The FJ Holden, and to some extent, Bruce Beresford’s Money Movers. I also wanted to get a strong contrast between the darker and lighter elements of the story. I always like to heave a level of entertainment in my stories, but if you look harder, there are a few questions being raised, and a few things to think about.”
Played out in the dog-eared pubs, shabby lounge rooms, cracked car parks, tattered streets and wide, dull expanses of Sydney’s western suburbs, Idiot Box is the story of longtime mates Mick (Jeremy Sims) and Kev (Ben Mendelsohn), who’ve been going nowhere at a sluggish pace for years, watching crappy TV, sucking on VB, and giving each other plenty of stick. Mick is the more hopeful of the pair; while not exactly in tune with his emotions, somewhere beneath his battered outer shell is the heart of an artist. Mick likes to spout poetry, but not quite the kind pimped by the likes of Yeats, Shelley or even Bukowski. “Hey, I got a poem for ya,” he says. “It’s called Quiet. ‘When I get home, I put the telly on for the noise. I hate the quiet. I fuckin’ hate it.’”
Kev, meanwhile, is pure, distilled rage. He’s angry at everything, from living with his disapproving mother and having no job, to the neighbour’s annoying dog that barks at him every time he walks past. When Mick asks his mate why he’s so angry all the time, Kev’s answer is a simple one. “Because I like it,” he snarls. “I like being angry. That’s why…I enjoy it.”
Kev’s rage finds some kind of outlet when he and Mick develop a half-baked scheme to rob a bank after watching too much telly. First they need guns, and that swings them into the orbit of Joshua (John Polson), a violently aggressive speed dealer who works for a slightly perverse “Mr. Big” (Stephen Rae), who plies his trade in his front garage. The fact that there’s another bank robber on the scene rolling suburban financial institutions doesn’t deter Kev and Mick, who start to plan their heist, blissfully unaware that two cops (Graeme Blundell, Deborah Kennedy) are beginning to sniff around. While briefly distracted by his sexual experimentation with local bottle shop attendant Lani (Robyn Loau), Mick puts a lot of thought into the bank robbing business, while Kev is just high on its violent possibilities. “Maximum fear, minimum time,” is his catch cry. It’ll send them both on a wild, unpredictable ride…
Shot through with ribald dialogue (“I’ve taken pisses that last longer than that,” says Kev’s girlfriend Betty – played with crackling spirit by Susie Porter – after a particularly disappointing sexual tryst); the blackest of comedy (Kev and Mick robbing a charity collector dressed in a koala suit remains one of nineties Australian cinema’s most indelible moments); stark, shocking violence; a bristling rock soundtrack; and prodding comments about a disenfranchised Australian suburban youth culture dulled by the dole and too much television, Idiot Box marked a big bump up for writer/director David Caesar.
Prior to this film, he’d helmed 1988’s Body Works, a fascinating documentary about the funeral industry, and 1992’s Greenkeeping, a low key comedy-drama set around the world of lawn bowls. Caesar had also worked in episodic television. Idiot Box was bigger, bolder and more striking than his previous work, and its confronting sense of widescreen style heralded Caesar as a major local talent. He’d back that up with equally fine films in the form of 2001’s Mullet, 2002’s Dirty Deeds and 2009’s Prime Mover. “When I was making Greenkeeping, I really wasn’t that confident about making a feature,” Caesar says. “I played it safe in terms of the style and the coverage. I was disappointed that I hadn’t gone out there a bit more and taken creative risks.” If anything, Idiot Box is a film that takes risks…
A ROGUE’S GALLERY: FINDING THE CAST
When casting the roles of Mick and Kev, David Caesar went first to the highly accomplished Ben Mendelsohn, a seasoned and highly charismatic actor who had given unforgettable performances in the likes of The Year My Voice Broke, The Big Steal, Return Home and Cosi. The pair were already friends, and Mendelsohn had been on board through Caesar’s various early script drafts of the film, when he’d envisioned Idiot Box as a much smaller, far more shocking film. “I did a student film for Davey,” says Mendelsohn. “I’ve known him forever. Davey and I go back…way, way, way back. I remember meeting him over a beer in Sydney back in the late eighties. I’d imagine that Davey would be the Australian director that I end up working with the most over my career, so he’s extremely important to me. There’s no one else like Davey. He’s got this interior take on Australian-ness. If you ask him how to define it, he won’t take you fuckin’ anywhere with it, but his work is really rich with it. Davey shows you an Australia which feels like exactly what it is. He can show you all of the ‘bad shit’ about it, and make you feel like, ‘Whatever…it’s us. It’s not the fuckin’ end of the world.’”
Tall, brusque, bitingly intelligent and physically imposing, David Caesar was a different proposition for Jeremy Sims. “He’s a pretty intimidating guy to meet at first, and part of that you discover is actually shyness, but at first I found it hard to read him,” says the actor. Unlike Mendelsohn, Jeremy Sims didn’t enjoy a pre-existing relationship with the director. Before Idiot Box, Sims had appeared on TV (most notably in the cheeky, sexually charged soapie Chances) and in the theatre. “It was a big thing to get that gig,” the actor explains of landing Idiot Box. “I loved the script, and loved the character even more. At that stage, making a great Australian film was a big ambition of mine. The biggest challenge was figuring out the world of film after working exclusively in theatre and TV. I’d played leading characters before, so the challenge was more about discovering the pace and tone and etiquette of filmmaking.”
For the rest of the cast, Caesar turned to a number of people that he was familiar with. “Davey’s generally got a fantastic feel for casting,” Mendelsohn explains. “He’ll use a lot of the same people. He’ll use people who he knows are going to go here and there. Davey doesn’t interfere a lot, so people tend to walk on the set feeling like it’s theirs. That’s a real strength of his. He gets these authentically voiced performances.”
One of the most dynamic performances in the film comes from John Polson, years before he became an internationally successful filmmaker and the founder of Tropfest, the world’s biggest short film festival. Wiry, tatted up and hilariously manic, he’s a bundle of torch-hot energy as the loopy drug dealer Joshua. “I knew David before Idiot Box,” Polson explains. “David was a DOP when I met him. He shot a short film that I directed, so that’s how far back we go. One of the things that I like about David is that he’s a regular guy. There’s a caricature of a director – with their scarf and their gel – and David’s the opposite of that. He’s a regular guy who loves football and drinking and whatever else. I appreciate that. I loved playing the part of Jonah…it was so bizarre. It’s one of the roles that I’m most proud of, just because it’s so out there…the tracksuit, the whole thing. I had a lot of fun with that.”
Also brilliant is a young Susie Porter, who really goes to town in her performance as Betty, a checkout chick with attitude to burn. Before RAN: Remote Area Nurse, Better Than Sex and Two Hands, the enjoyably raw Porter is a delight in Idiot Box. “She just came in and counter punched,” says Mendelsohn. “You could hit her with anything, and she’d counter punch. ‘I’ve had pisses that last longer than that’ is her line. That’s her kind of feel for the situation. If you’re going to enter into that rough-and-tumble world, then you want someone that can counter punch, and you can’t get a better one than Susie. She’s fantastic.”
Also in supporting roles are excellent stalwarts such as Graeme Blundell, Deborah Kennedy and Andrew S. Gilbert, while David Wenham is hilarious in an early role (he’d also appeared in Caesar’s Greenkeeping) as a hilariously uptight bank teller. Robyn Loau, one-time member of the pop group Girlfriend, makes an impressive debut as the sweet-hearted Lani. “They’re all brilliant,” says Caesar proudly of his actors. “I cast people to be real, but also people who I knew to be brave, and who would be up for going out there a bit. I also feel that one of my skills as a director is to try and make the set as actor-friendly as possible. I want the actors to feel comfortable and confident. I’ve gone on to work with almost all of these actors again, and I see them as friends. In the case of Ben, Andrew and Susie, I’ve worked with them repeatedly in films and TV, and will again in the future.”
ROCKIN’ THE SUBURBS: THE SHOOT
“The shoot was a lot of fun,” says David Caesar. “I love being on set, and I feel really comfortable being there. There were minor ups and downs, but in general it was pretty smooth and it was on schedule. I’d storyboarded most of it, and at that point in my career, I’d done a fair bit of television drama, so I felt on top of working out how to shoot what I had in my head. The main problem was shooting in summer; we struggled to get enough hours of darkness for the bigger night scenes because the nights were so short.”
As pretty much all Australian films are, Idiot Box was shot on a low budget, with few if any luxuries available to the cast and crew. David Caesar and most of the cast and crew may have had a fairly good time shooting Idiot Box, but every film shoot runs through the proverbial peaks and valleys. Ben Mendelsohn has particularly vivid memories of the experience. “It was a nightmare,” he laughs. “It was a fuckin’ nightmare. It was really hard. We had a really good time, but it was stinking hot, and we were shooting deep in the west. We were shooting around Bonnyrigg, and it was filthy hot. Some of it was a laugh, but there were lots of things that were really painful. Just a pain in the arse, like we had to travel forever. We had stuff that didn’t work half the time, and we had dogs that wouldn’t fuckin’ fire up. We had a great crew, but it was a fuckin’ pain in the arse to shoot. Most films are…”
“What was the vibe like on set? Jesus, what year was it!?” laughs John Polson. “Ummm, I remember that it was a lot of fun. We all had a good giggle with it. We thought that we were making something pretty exciting. There was a great feeling of it being an ensemble. Ben and Jeremy were obviously playing the two leads, but we all got together a lot, and it had a very democratic vibe to it. It never had the feeling that there was a captain in charge, if you like. David is a bit lower-key than that, and we all got in together and made this film. Obviously he directed it, but the acting group felt like a real ensemble.”
That’s not to say, however, that there wasn’t a little friction on set. Most of it, in fact, emanated from the film’s lead actors. “Jeremy and I had a love/hate thing going on the whole way through the shoot,” says Ben Mendelsohn, “which is probably exactly what we needed to have.” As Mick and Kev rankle and jab at each other through the film – getting in to arguments at the drop of a hat, and constantly challenging each other on everything from their sexual escapades through to what type of beer they should buy – so Ben Mendelsohn and Jeremy Sims experienced their own quietly sizzling back-and-forth. Both younger men back then, tempers occasionally ran a little hot.
“A lot of the time, it felt pretty competitive,” Jeremy Sims explains. “Ben was the guy with a dozen feature films under his belt, and I don’t think he was that interested in making things easy for me. I was fine with that, as it was pretty clear that Mick and Kev had fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. As things went on, I found him pretty unpredictable at times, and that competitive thing never really grew into anything constructive, so that was probably the most boring part of the shoot for me. That said, I think he’s a terrific actor, and we were all pretty difficult people to get along with back then.”
It certainly wasn’t enough, however, to sour the experience for Sims. “The shoot was generally pretty cruisy,” the actor offers. “[Cinematographer] Joe Pickering is a very relaxing man to be around. We had some issues in the AD department, and that wasn’t sorted out for a few weeks, so that was a pain in the arse. David was pretty cool though, and the work felt centred, so I was happy. I loved working with Lani [Robyn Loau]. I had a bit of a crush on her, and that always helps those scenes where you’re meant to be falling in love. I think I actually was!”
THE RELEASE: GOING LARGE
With its battering tale of suburban angst and Western Suburbs dole culture, an interesting release strategy was knocked up for Idiot Box. The film would be aimed directly at the people who it was about. As well as the usual inner-city arthouses that play host to Australian films, Idiot Box was pushed into suburban multiplexes on a large number of screens. Advertising and marketing was pitched at young males in the suburbs, and high hopes were pinned on the fact that the film might just be able to tap into an audience rarely if ever directly catered to by Australian filmmakers. “It was always my intention that Idiot Box would go after that suburban multiplex audience, and I fought for a release in those cinemas,” says David Caesar. “We were trying to make a film that was entertaining, and we thought that it could get through to that mainstream audience.”
The strategy, however, didn’t pay off. After playing in suburban multiplexes for a week or two, the only place that you could catch a screening of Idiot Box deep into its release was in inner city arthouses. These were the audiences that embraced the film, with its ragged sensibilities and jutting social commentary appealing to what could perhaps be described as a more “cinema literate” crowd. The young suburban males that it was made for and about just didn’t seem too enthused about seeing their own grungy lives writ large on a cinema screen. “You can market all you like to those guys, but the film didn’t have enough car chases and visual effects to get them to the cinema,” says Jeremy Sims. “It’s a touchy subject, but how working class, really, are you, once you’ve been to uni and film school and have read a lot of books?”
In the end, Idiot Box didn’t achieve the box office results that many thought it was capable of. The suburban release experiment hadn’t paid off, and though the film had some measure of success, it wasn’t deemed a hit. “I was on stage at The Sydney Theatre Company for the opening night launch of the film, so I missed the screening,” Sims explains. “I remember getting to the ‘video arcade’ for the after party and realising in that moment that the film was not going to be a hit. The party was cheaply and badly organised, most people had left, and the vibe wasn’t what it should have been. I was just disappointed on the whole that the film didn’t spark. Films take off or they don’t. I thought the subject matter, the humour, and the performances warranted a better response. I wanted it to go global – it was my first lead in a feature – so I was always going to be disappointed!”
The film was, however, extremely well liked, with strong reviews and much positive feedback. “I was surprised at how positive it was,” David Caesar replies when asked about the critical response. “I was expecting people to either love or hate the film, but most reviews were pretty good, and the people that didn’t like it just dismissed it without hating it, which was disappointing. I’d really wanted to get up some people’s noses. But some people really loved it, which was great. I had a lot of positive feedback from other filmmakers and actors who I respect, which I really appreciated.”
Idiot Box is now a fondly remembered artefact from the nineties, and has quietly built up a minor cult of fans. “Yeah, I’m still occasionally asked for a ‘pome’ at the servo or whatever,” laughs Sims. “‘You are an idiot, you are a bitch, you shit me to tears, I’m going down the pub’ is my usual reply,” he says, dropping Mick’s most famous grubby haiku.
Mendelsohn has also found that the film has developed a surprising longevity. “I love that Idiot Box has attained this cultish status,” the actor says. “There are guys of a certain age who just fuckin’ love that film. They just fuckin’ love it!”
Ben Mendelsohn perhaps remains Idiot Box’s most vocal proponent. Discussing the film with the actor on the phone, his energy practically bursts forth from the receiver like a thunderbolt. He loves the film, and he also loves David Caesar, who he would work again with on the brilliant and grittily poetic 2001 drama Mullet and the 2009 trucking fable Prime Mover. “Davey is, in a lot of ways, our most consistently underrated and under acknowledged filmmaker,” Mendelsohn says with obvious respect and affection. “Davey’s a fuckin’ gem. The films that I’ve done with Davey are going to have a very long life. You’ll be able to watch them in fifty years’ time, and they’ll still have a real immediacy about them. Davey’s films are very human and very idiosyncratic, and he’s not like anyone else. That’s why I love working for him. I’ve never had an easy shoot with the guy though; we’re never drinking champagne and eating caviar. I love our thing.”
He may have made bigger, more expensive, and more widely acknowledged films since, but Idiot Box – a tough, viciously funny, vibrantly energetic and richly entertaining film – will always quietly resonate with its writer/director. “My memory of making Idiot Box is really positive,” says David Caesar. “It was just a lot of fun. I guess that’s what I wanted audiences to take away from it – I wanted them to have fun watching it. Occasionally I meet someone – usually from outside the film industry – who tells me that it’s one of their favourite films. It’s always a good feeling when people remember your film fondly. One guy told me that he had a copy on video, and that it was the only thing that got him through the last years of high school. As a storyteller, you want to know that the stories that you are putting out there offer something to people.”
Thanks to all who gave so generously of their time to be interviewed for this story.