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Tim Ferguson chats about co-directing Spin Out, teaching comedy and breaking barriers for people with disability in the screen industry

Tim Ferguson is a widely acclaimed comedian, writer and producer. He’s teaching a comedy master class, writing two books, he’s toured the world performing stand-up and musical comedy, he’s co-writing dozens of live stage comedy shows and light entertainment programmes and has been just been appointed to a panel of Diversity Partners to develop a Diversity Action Plan for Screen NSW.

We’ve got a few questions for you today.

They’d better be good or… “Cheque please!”

You recently co-directed Spin Out with Marc Gracie. Can you tell us some of highs and lows you had making your first feature film? 

Well, the most fun is when ‘the orchestra of moving parts’ gathers and everybody is ready to go. Cars revving, drones going up on set, actors’ at-the-ready and someone shouting ‘Action’. There is nothing like it.

The biggest challenge on set was making sure that everyone could be understood. Because Australian accents are strong and we want the world to understand what they are saying; I constantly pestered the actors to say things one more time. They were very patient with me.

One of the more important challenges was keeping the cars alive. Cars don’t like doing circle work, they don’t like doing doughnuts for six hours – it tears them to shreds. The other challenges were just the usual movie making things; ‘it’s too big’, ‘we don’t have enough money’ WHERE THE HELL ARE THE ACTORS?’

You have previously mentioned that you grew up in country NSW, and as a kid dreamt of the day you could go to your first B&S ball. Why did you think B&S balls would make good content for a film?

There were a couple of things I really liked about B&S balls. The first is that it they are an Australian tradition that goes all the way back to Federation. I also thought it was important to tell a story about people living in the bush, in a modern world, and to reveal to people who live in the urban world that people in the bush are just as smart, capable and emotionally as screwed up as they are.

The whole country now, thanks to new media, is full of young people who know everything. It doesn’t matter where they are, if they have a mobile phone and Google they can do whatever they like, read whatever they want, and be whoever they want.  Having grown up in the country I always thought it was worthwhile reminding people in the city that they have their heads up their ass.

This is your first feature film but you’ve had a long career in TV. What experience did you take from working in TV to directing Spin Out?

Mainly working with actors was the main thing I could take. It helped to have Marc Gracie co-directing, he’s made a lot of features. Marc had worked intensely with Edwina and I through the script’s development, and his command of big screen comedy transformed the script.

In creative production terms, the transition from TV to film is really just dealing with the bigger elements that are involved. Unless you’re making big-budget TV, which nobody can do in Australia. I feel it gives you more people, more crew, a bigger canvas and other moving parts. Getting my head around that was made easier by the fact that it didn’t daunt Marc at all. He just barges on to a set, guns blazing. We shared the same vision for the movie. During the shoot we’d constantly check we were both happy with the scenes as we did them – if so we would go ahead, if not, we would stop and recalibrate.

The excitement of making a movie is right up there.  I’m a stand-up comedian so my most exciting thing is being in front of a foreign audience who are trying to kill me, but next in line is definitely making a movie.

Can you tell us about co-writing the story writing with Edwina Exton?

Edwina is a narrative comedy mastermind. And she is very strong on structure and stories. We had six overlapping, three-act-narratives at work in our movie. Edwina was all over it like a rash and is just naturally funny. When you’re writing comedy its good to have someone else there to blame if it’s not funny, but also comforting to think there are two of you, and two sexes as well, to check the jokes between our characters.

RomCom is a punishing genre, the balance is terrifyingly delicate. Generating happy tears is a nightmare. You need two heads on it.

Spin Out also stared Lisa Kowalski, who is using a Screen NSW hot desk at Charlie’s in LA. Did you influence her to go into writing?

Wow! I did try to influence her to go into writing, as I’m sure many others did because she has a gifted creative mind, and I am so glad she is doing that. She said she is interested in writing so I pointed out to her the plain fact, that the ratio of skilled comedy writers to drama writers on a good day is one to a thousand in Australia. So if you don’t want to queue up, don’t write drama. I hope Lisa’s writing comedy, just a little.

I am a comedy teacher and there aren’t enough in Australia. Aristotle wrote about it but nobody teaches it here so we end up with a lot of ‘d-r-a-m-a’, which is there to educate us as opposed to entertain us.

As you mentioned, you’re also teaching comedy master classes around the country. Can you tell us a bit about it?

What I do for the two-day course is show people what they already know in their hearts, so that they can know it in their heads. Comedy is based upon very simple principles, which aren’t rules (and god I wish they were rules!) And they aren’t formulae (and I wish they were because a formula would be just brilliant) because then we would get the equation of duck, chicken and priest crossing the road and have something funny. If only…

But there are very simple overriding imperatives for a comedy. One is if you want to make people laugh then you have to surprise them with something they already know, or that accords with something they suddenly recognise as true.  So the master class weekend is about showing people the ‘magic tricks’ for distracting people from what they know, and then revealing it. The chicken wants, above all things, to get to the other side. Two days where I explain joke-types with fancy names: reinterpretations, distortions, self-referentials, character-confirmations, pathos, flawed logic and the principles for building comically flawed characters.

I have to ask why nobody is teaching this in the film and TV schools around Australia. The scary answer is because they don’t know it! They think comedy is magic, you’re born with it or not. You can do it or you can’t.  What I point out is that you know this comedy stuff in our DNA, and it’s been around since Aristotle, you can learn the practical processes for devising comic characters, situations, conflict and stories. I teach how to construct a comedy movie, sitcom or short-film. Then you can go back and look at your script and see where you might have gone wrong.

For any writer reading this interview who is thinking of taking on comedy, stop being a baby and open up your eyes and see there is a simple fact that comedy is based around ancient principals of distraction, deception and the delivery of truth. Get your act together, writers. Stop being scaredy cats and tackle the monster – the audience is waiting for you.

On Conversations with Richard Fidler you spoke about how comedy is all about truth. Why do you think it is such an effective device in challenging people’s thinking?

The good thing about comedy is that people want to listen. If you just give a speech about the world they switch off. If you get people to laugh, they listen to you, and agree with you. Even if they don’t like what you say, if they’re laughing it’s because they recognise the truth in what you are saying. That is why politicians are told to start with a joke (which is the only truth they’ll tell you) because people think the rest of their speech is going to remain interesting. But after the joke, its over – back to sleep.

It’s why Richard adds humour to his interviews where he can – it lightens the mood and crystalises the truth for the interviewee. He’s a very funny guy. Where did he get that from?

Did MS affect the role you took in film’s production?

I was slated to direct Spin Out early on, but I reached a point when I thought, as my MS was worsening, ‘I can’t do this alone’. It was a couple of years later when I was talking to Marc Gracie that he said we could co-direct. That was the perfect solution as we’d done a lot of TV together, live shows too, and he was the original Doug Anthony All Stars tour promoter (so he’s not a goodperson, teehee!) But co-directing with Marc put me at ease straight away, because I was wondering what would happen if [during production] my wheels fell off . What would happen? With Marc co-directing, we were able to share the load, and it gave him the confidence that he was on the right track having one of the writers direct with him. It gave me confidence because he knew how to make movies.

What do you think are the challenges for people with disabilities to work in film and television and what needs to change?

People have done a great job with getting women engaged in the TV and film industries. They haven’t gone anywhere near far enough, of course, but they are off to a good start. Everybody is very mindful of that. Nobody up to now has given people with disability a moment’s thought in terms of roles behind the camera but also in positions of influence, positions of power. And this is partly because of what Graeme Innes calls ‘the soft prejudice of low expectations’.

For some reason people think that a blind man can’t work in the sound department. That a deaf person can’t do lighting, that someone in a wheelchair could never possibly direct a major motion picture. That people with conditions like Cerebral Palsy could never work on set – ‘What if they got hurt?!’

‘What if the actors turned up pissed’ should be a greater concern.

It’s exciting that the Screen NSW initiative, Screenability NSW, is opening up eyes around the country. All the funding bodies are taking a great interest in Screenability. It’s the first big step to get people working in production, working in the studios, and a decade from now people will be talking about Screenability as the beginning of this long overdue change.

Putting people with disability into production roles is about identifying the needs associated with a person’s disability and giving them appropriate training. I’m a terrible dancer, just ludicrous, like a newborn giraffe on a bouncy castle, but if you ask what else I can do the list is anything else. Train me and I can do anything. People have to get it in their heads that people with disability aren’t all fragile. If able-bodied people sit still too long, we will take their jobs, we will take over! We’re used to overcoming daunting challenges by breakfast. Imagine what we can do by lunchtime.

We made Spin Out. I’m launching a major orchestral performance piece, Billie & The Dinosaurs, around the world. I’ve just toured the UK with the Doug Anthony All Stars (God forgive me), I’m writing two new books, teaching comedy at NYU and around the planet. I’m doing it because people need to see an example that someone in a wheelchair can not only do a lot but can do a whole bunch of jobs they didn’t even consider.

It’s very exciting that Screen NSW has got behind this common sense idea to get more people with disabilities into media production roles. We work longer, harder and don’t complain about the instant coffee, because we’re happy to be included where we can make a difference in our own way.

What advice do you have for emerging practitioners?

Persistence is more important than any talent. Don’t just knock on a door once but keep coming back. New opportunities are opening up all the time so you might as well stay in people’s minds, so that when an opportunity comes up they consider you. And if you are living with a disability, people allow you to pester more because you have a wheelchair, because you have dark glasses or hearing aides, because you come in with a dog.

Between you and me, if you do have a disability, ride that pony to gold town. Nobody wants to be the person who says ‘at least I stopped those disabled people’. Be persistent and no one is allowed to stop you. Best of all, nobody wants to.