In 2008, Australian import Summer Heights High became an underground hit for HBO. Chris Lilley, who created, wrote, and starred in the show (as multiple characters), went on to produce another HBO co-production in 2011’s Angry Boys. Now, he’s returning for a third series on American TV with Ja’mie: Private School Girl, reprising his spoiled teenage girl character Ja’mie King from Summer Heights High.
All three shows, as well as Lilley’s first Australian series We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year, are shot in a strict mockumentary format and feature Lilley playing all the main characters. I got to talk to him in New York recently about bringing back Ja’mie, doing so much himself, and why he wants to keep it that way.
I’m sure it’s the question you get the most, but why return to Ja’mie?
It’s a question I always get, and I have the dumbest answer, which is “I don’t know.” I guess I just like writing for her and I like the idea of telling her story, and just could see like an interesting story across six weeks. It was more like I wanted to bring someone back and give them their own show.
Is there no timeline as far as the real world? Summer Heights High was about six years ago now, but this show picks up where that one left off.
There isn’t a timeline. They usually just kick off from where I left them. It’s sort of funny, I actually did think it through because there is a weird crossover where the fictional documentary makers must have been making this show at the same time as Angry Boys. But yeah, they just sort of kick off from where I left them. Which, I think if you’re a fan of the character, that’s where you want to see them. You don’t want to catch up five years later, or I don’t.
And there’s not enough of a real world influence to make it feel like she should have aged?
The problem is for me, with any sort of the teen characters, there’s a lot of reference to technology and all social media stuff, so that has to shift each time. It changes so quickly, like I was saying stuff when we were shooting, like I mentioned Snapchat, and I don’t even know if that’s big now. That stuff just moves so quickly. Facebook’s probably going to be over soon. It’s hard to know.
How much of the show is improvised?
It’s all scripted. I write the scripts – you read it as a documentary. So, when all the voiceover comes in, or even if there’s overlay of something, then that will be written in. It’s structured exactly like a documentary. Because I need that bible to be able to shoot all the elements of a scene. But when we’re shooting the scenes, then they get expanded on. Like if she’s trying to tell a story, and there are certain sound bites we come back to, when we shoot the scene, I just make sure I’m getting all those sound bites and we expand on it as well. It’s more like a documentary than any sort of drama.
Especially when you’re with the rest of the girls, it’s very natural.
Yeah, it is. It’s funny, I’ve always got the scripts sitting at home, and people who come over sometimes want to read them, and people are always surprised at how exactly like the script it ends up being. In fact, when we were auditioning, a girl leaked a page of the script onto Instagram. We got it taken down, but I’ve got a screenshot of it, and I looked at it the other day, and it’s like word-for-word exactly what’s in the show. But it does feel like the actors are just saying it. We usually expand on things and what makes the cut is usually what’s in the script. But I usually say full-on things to the girls to make them laugh as well, just to make it a bit more natural.
There are so many teenagers that are major characters. Does working with actual teenagers influence the way you portray teenagers?
Maybe I’m picking up on things, I don’t really notice it that much. Sometimes I check with details. It’s usually wardrobe stuff, like, “Okay, if I wear these would I have it like this?” Or in the party scene, “What exactly would we drink and when do we start drinking and what music are we playing?” But then the other thing happens and they start to act like me. They start to be like Ja’mie, so they’ll do things that she does, so we kind of meet in the middle. And also, with all the dancing stuff, they were like “What are you doing? We don’t dance like that.” And I was like just do it, just do it! So it’s a combination.
A lot of shows have been about teenagers. Is there something in particular that is interesting to you about that time of life?
Yeah. Just that, it’s a time when you think you’re grown up and you think you’ve got it all worked out and you’re about to be launched into the world as an independent person, but you’re still bound by your family, your parents. Yeah, it is an interesting time. That kind of conflict, like in Angry Boys with Daniel. He’s the man of the house, because his dad’s died. He’s 18, he’s just about to finish school, and there’s all this sort of questionable future. He doesn’t seem like he could really survive on his own but he makes it out that he can. And then another man comes in as his step-dad. It’s a really exciting period of life, a lot of conflict. Especially in this show, Ja’mie and her crazy relationship with her dad and her mum. She behaves with her dad like she’s an eight-year-old, like she is this gigantic girl who’s falling on him and biting his shoulder and throwing herself all over him. She’s outgrown it but obviously she knows that gets a reaction, so she’s still there. And then with the mum, she’s just so violently not into her, because the mom’s a massive pushover. And I see that with girls and their moms so often, it’s interesting.
This is the first show where you only play one character. Did you approach the stories differently?
Yeah, definitely. The pace of it’s really different and you kind of really settle into the scenes a lot more. I just had to expand on her world a lot more, because normally I have the device of “meanwhile,” and we go to another whole situation, and they’re all bound by the same theme. At first, I thought this was going to be easier. You don’t have to worry about all the different worlds. But you still have to fill every single minute of an episode with something, and usually I’m in every single minute of those scenes, and talking the most. So it was harder than I thought. The other thing is, usually I have to really condense the stories down to fit in, but this time I had the luxury of going, “We’re going to go home with her, we’re going to meet the family.” I got to put in all things I wanted to put in. But yeah, it was just getting the pace of it right. I wanted to package it more to feel like a reality MTV show, where she was the star. And she gets to narrate the opening of every episode and the closing bit, and it had references to those kinds of shows.
And why do you like to do everything yourself? You’re writing, and starring, and producing every show?
I don’t know. Why not? I think it’s just a control thing. I have a vision for it, so being able to see it through. And relying on other people to interpret you is sometimes harder. It’s better to just do it all. I do collaborate with other people, there’s a lot of people that work on the crew and stuff. But I like to be the final say on everything. And I’ll be across every tiny little detail to ridiculous levels. Like, I’ll be choosing the shoes that one of the girls is going to be wearing at the party scene. It’s ridiculous. It’s just, everyone gets me involved I’m not crazy, but I’ll have a meeting and the shoes will be out on the table, and I’m like, “She wears those.” But all the details count and make it seem real and interesting and not like other shows. And I think I just enjoy it. Like the music, I could have got someone else to do it all, but I like doing that stuff. You know what it is? It’s having a vision and being concerned that I won’t be able to communicate that, so I just like to do it and then it’s done.
And isn’t it exhausting?
Yeah, it’s full-on. You know what’s annoying? Everyone says to me, “Aw, so you’re doing the new TV show, but what else are you doing at the moment?” People are always like, “Why don’t you do someone else’s movie?” Or like, “What do you do on the weekends?” I’m like, “I’m doing this.” People always think I should have some other big life going on.
But you’re doing four jobs on every project, at least.
Yeah! It’s had, but it’s fun. And like even now, there’s not a cast of actors who are all doing the promotion and stuff. It’s me. There’s a million things. We’ve got the DVD coming out in Australia and I’m fixing up the artwork and stuff. It’s crazy.
It’s not a route most people take. There are people that write and act, but it’s rare that you see somebody who does everything.
I always think, well, “Why don’t you just collaborate with someone on the next one?” But then I just don’t want to have to deal with that.
You’ve had three shows now in the US that have aired. Has success in the US had an impact on the stories you tell?
The first series I did, We Can Be Heroes, HBO called and said, “We love it. We want you to do something else for us.” And then a lot of people were saying, “Well, why don’t we do an American version of We Can Be Heroes? Maybe you can play all the characters but they’re all American.” And that has never appealed to me. That was the early days, but it came a bit of a theme for Australian TV shows to be reinterpreted here with American actors. For my shows, that was just such a weird idea and it didn’t appeal to me. So I’ve always thought, just keep doing what you want to do, and if HBO are into it, cool. Just make what you want and see if people like it. That’s been the policy the whole time. And with this show that was the same case. I mean, I don’t know HBO likes Ja’mie or not, but I just told them that’s what they were getting. And they might have said no and then I would have had to go somewhere else, but luckily they were really excited. And I think that’s what they’re buying into, that they like this sort of crazy, creative, driven theme that’s a bit weird. Like, I could’ve come to America and got all the cool comedy actors at the moment, gotten them all involved in some sort of ensemble cast mockumentary or something, but that doesn’t appeal to me as much.
And that’s part of what I find so interesting. I’m sure that’s what a lot of people told you to do.
Yeah, and the shows would probably be more a lot more well known, because all the cast would bring their audience with them, but then I would lose the vision for it, because there’d be too much [outside] involvement. And I really like working with real people in the cast. I don’t like to have to deal with actors’ issues. I prefer just bossing real people around.
So most of the people on the show aren’t professional actors?
They’ve never acted on television before, though I guess they are acting on the show, so they are actors. But none of them have done anything before, apart from the woman who plays my mum, who’s done two shows with me before. She’s just a lady working in a shop that we just found one day. We just find them all over the place. It’s cool. They’re also the sort of people you don’t find them in acting agencies. Like even the guy who plays my dad, that’s just a South African man who lives in Melbourne. He wouldn’t be an actor; he wouldn’t be in an agency.
And you’ve done pretty much all mockumentary stuff. Do you ever feel constrained by the documentary format?
Well yeah, because it is quite bound by the rules of that, but I think I like that. The audience probably feels a bit of security with that structure, and it allows me to do crazy things. But yeah, you can’t do a dream sequence or see things from perspectives that the documentary wouldn’t see, but it also adds another layer of the documentary storytellers. Like, Ja’mie thinks she’s telling her story, but the documentary are actually indicating certain things she doesn’t realize. And there’s fly-on-the-wall stuff where Ja’mie’s kind of unaware she’s being filmed, so that it allows you to see all aspects of her. Yeah I do feel bound by it, but I think it’s worth it for the end result.