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High School Musical: Talking with "Summer Heights High" Creator/Writer/Star Chris Lilley

It's been with much enthusiasm that I've been following the career path of Australian comedian/writer Chris Lilley, the creator of the sensational mockumentary comedy series Summer Heights High, which originally aired in Australia last year, earlier this year on BBC Three, and launched Stateside last night on HBO. (I watched the eight-episode series shortly after it aired in Australia and have been gushing about it ever since.)

I had the opportunity to speak with Lilley while he was in Los Angeles as part of his promotional tour of the US for Summer Heights High and was immediately struck by just how vastly different the real-life Lilley is from the three characters he portrays on Summer Heights High. Soft-spoken, articulate, and calm, Lilley couldn't be more at odds with the hyperactive Jonah Takalua, the bitchy Ja'mie, or the egocentric Mr. G.

It's the Mr. G character in fact who has been with Lilley the longest; Lilley first created the failed actor/arrogant drama teacher while doing stand-up comedy ten years ago and he later appeared on sketch comedy series Big Bite. Lilley, however, found the series' laugh track "restrictive" and, went on to create mockumentary comedy series We Can Be Heroes, which introduced, among others, Summer Heights High's Ja'mie King, here up for the prestigious Australian of the Year award. (The series aired in the States and in other countries under the title The Nominees.)

So where did the idea for Summer Heights High come from? "I started to hang out in schools," said Lilley, who began researching a project after the end of We Can Be Heroes. "[The project I wanted to do] was going to be about three different worlds: school boys, school girls, and the teaching staff world. I wanted there to be this interesting contrast between the school boy and the school girl, where there was this [private] school girl that everyone thought was wonderful who was visiting the school. I thought she was a great contrast with the boy that everyone thought was terrible when actually it's the girl that is the nasty mean one and the boy is just a little bit lost in the system. It just went from there. I just hung out in schools for a long, long time, meeting kids and interviewing people and it just came together from there."

How did Lilley get into character as wayward Tongan Jonah Takalua and what was the motivation behind creating his character? "I was really interested in doing something that was quite far from me, that was really different than me and what I was like when I was at school," said Lilley. "I was really excited about it. So I met Pacific Islander kids and just naughty teenage boys, those types of kids and hung around them enough to feel confident to write in the voice of the characters."

Lilley couldn't have created three more disparate characters in terms of age, background, or personality than Ja'mie, Jonah, or Mr. G, so I was curious to know which of those characters did he most enjoy performing? "Jonah was really challenging," said Lilley, "but is the most rewarding to watch, perhaps because he is the most different to me."

As for getting into the character of Jonah, Lilley didn't over-workshop the character, which is surprising given just how much he transforms himself into the Pacific Islander teen, a rare example of an actor disappearing into a character vastly different than himself.

"I don't sort of rehearse stuff, it's not like I put up a mirror and practice physical things," explained Lilley. "I guess I just study the types of people [I want to portray] and I think about the characters a long, long time in the writing process so when it comes to shooting it, it's all there and it's all instinctive rather than thought out."

Adding to this verisimilitude is the fact that Lilley creates an entire world for Jonah that assists in the ornate illusion he's created. "I had the example of the other boys that were Jonah's friends and that was intentional as I wanted to surround him with kids that were just like him in order to help the illusion and you could place him," admitted Lilley. "I knew that physically I didn't really look like a Tongan kid but if you surrounded him enough with the other kids and got the hair right, maybe people would get the illusion. But I find it really strange myself and kind of weird [just how well it worked]."

I have to say that one of the reasons the audience so quickly (and willingly) buys into the illusion that a 34-year-old comedian is playing a 13-year-old Pacific Islander or a bitchy private school girl is the fact that the rest of the cast is made up of non-professional actors. The woman playing Ms. Murray, Summer Heights High's gruff principal, is an actual high school principal and the kids that interact with Ja'mie, Mr. G, and Jonah are actual kids at the school where they filmed.

"It was really complicated to shoot what we needed in such an uncontrolled environment," explained Lilley about the decision to use actual real-life kids rather than trained actors. "A lot of times the excitement of us being there made the kids act strange," said Lilley, relating a story about how the kids began to jump up and down during a shot of Ja'mie walking across the playground.

But often times, the cameras would be far away, more than 50 meters in distance from Lilley, and that created an environment that was "so real" and often confused the difference between reality and fantasy as the cameras were rolling all the time and the crew was surrounded with the teens all the time. In fact, Lilley ended up actually teaching drama classes so they could get enough material for the Mr. G character. And, as for the aforementioned Ms. Murray, "casting" her role was extremely difficult as Lilley wanted someone with a "natural authority" but found that they had to often cut around her as she proved "quite unique" in her true-to-life performance.

So does the end of Summer Heights High signal the end of Ja'mie and Jonah? "I really loved these characters," said Lilley, speaking about his trio of creations for Summer Heights High. "Mr. G
[from Big Bite] came back, Ja'mie [from We Can Be Heroes] came back. I'd love to bring back these characters, so who knows."

As for what Lilley will do next, anything is possible, except maybe an extraneous cameo appearance in a Hollywood blockbuster film. "I love to control people's lives, I love the whole aspect of being a performer/creator/writer/producer. (I should just say everything.) I definitely would like to do something along those lines. I am not going to do a cameo in an Adam Sandler movie or something. I've got about five diferent ideas of things I'd like to do and it's just sort of narrowing it down. But I like the idea of playing new characters and bringing back old ones."

Whatever Lilley does next, however, it won't be selling the format rights for Summer Heights High so that foreign networks can remake the local versions of the series. "It felt completely wrong to do," said Lilley. "It was a hard decision to make because there were lots of people around me saying that there's lots of money if you do sell the rights."

"I got flown over here [to the States] to meet all these people and everyone is saying, 'No one in America is going to buy this show. They're never going to watch it,'" said Lilley. "The first thing they said was, 'You need to come here and redo it in an American accent,' which to me was just so wrong. And just the thought of someone else playing these characters, I couldn't handle watching it or living through it, it felt so wrong. Because I'm not just playing them, they've been with me for ages and I think about them constantly, and they're me. I'm the reason they came to life. So someone copying that just makes no sense."

Still, admits Lilley, "I am probably going to be less rich and famous because of it but I just don't want to have to live seeing someone else copy it."

If Summer Heights High is any indication of Lilley's skill and range, I don't think he'll have to worry about not being rich or famous.

Summer Heights High airs Sunday evenings at 10:30 pm ET/PT on HBO. Missed this week's episode? Head over to HBO2 each Friday evening at 8 pm ET/PT for another chance to see Summer Heights High's latest installment.


Chris Lilley has an enormous amount of talent and I think Summer Heights High is a truly original project. Which is why I'm so happy to hear that Lilley has not sold the rights.

I'm continually frustrated by the need of American networks to remake brilliant shows and to Americanize them...especially when they are shows that are already in English (so it's not like there's a language barrier). Remaking a show as original and unique as Summer Heights High would defeat the whole purpose! So, I commend Lilley not only for creating such a brilliant show but for keeping ownership of it as well. And I commend HBO for recognizing such a fantastic program and not messing with it!
Unknown said…
What an amazing talent Lilley is! thanks for this fab interview. loved it!
Anonymous said…
Great interview. I loved the show last night but didn't realize that the kids weren't pro actors. It definitely seemed very naturalistic but I didn't think that they were untrained at all. I already love Jonah and can see why Chris Lilley had so much fun creating him. Plus, I think I am in love with Ja'mie.
eAi said…
I really enjoyed the series, but I have to say that Ja'mie was perhaps the least realistic character, at least from my point of view (as someone from the UK). Her 'entourage' never seemed to argue with her, never disagreed with her and was generally unrealistically passive. Girls at school spend their whole time ganging up against each other in petty rivalries, breaking away from groups and joining them etc. This wasn't really portrayed here at all... That's not to say I didn't enjoy her character, I just think there could have been more depth there.
Anonymous said…
To eAi. It's disappointing you formed that point of view, re Ja'mie. I think you "missed it". The character is pure-New girl-in-school-Protagonist, which happens sometimes in school grounds. The irony is (as a new girl in school), she seized the leadership role and they followed willingly, everything she said & did. I guess, they found her 'different'. That's Entertainment! Lilley is a Genius. And it's not easy being a Writer. I think it's a Credit to him.

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