it's rark

Jamie Demetriou Will Jump Into a Canal for Art

Jamie Demetriou as Stath. Photo: Courtesy of BBC Studios

Jamie Demetriou makes this look easy, even when it’s anything but. The third season of his BAFTA-winning comedy Stath Lets Flats arrived on HBO Max on December 3 and is as funny and polished as ever, with Stath becoming a father for the first time as he struggles to save (or even just contribute meaningfully to) his father’s property-management business. The pure silliness of the show belies how difficult it was to create. Demetriou wrote this season through what one hopes will be known going forward as his adversity era: a pandemic, his father — already struggling with dementia — contracting COVID, and a serious case of writer’s block that lockdown did nothing to alleviate.

Demetriou recently joined me over Zoom from his parents’ home in England, where he was caring for his mother as she recovered from a fall. He was hesitant to complain about anything — he is extremely British in that way — but there’s passion behind the way he spoke about his work that those of us who love our comedies as hard as our dramas appreciate.

I’ve read the interviews where you talk about your writer’s block that you suffered while you were writing season three. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit. What did you do to move on from that?
I find it hard to talk about, because there’s something about it that seems inherently a “woe is me” kind of thing. Like, [whiny voice] “Oh, I’ve got to write a series of my television show!” It’s not the worst tragedy in the world, but I went completely bonkers. I think a big part of the issue, which I’ve probably spoken about before, was lockdown affected people in a billion different ways. I’m not out on the street with a notepad being like, “Give me some gags, world!” but I do think that the rhythms of people’s daily conversational flaws, my own conversational flaws with people, all subconsciously creep their way into my writing, and the only conversation I was hearing for however many months was the one in my own head. That didn’t really feel like a great jump-off point, which didn’t occur to me until there was a day where I just had to go to the store to buy some stuff. And I don’t know if you remember, in episode one, me looking for a sketchbook and a bottle of water …

Oh yeah, a textbook bottle of water.
Yeah. So that was like a breakthrough for me. Because I went to the store, and a guy ran into the store like his life depended on it. He pushed his way in front of me in the queue like someone had said, “Give me a sketchbook or I’ll kill you.” He was like, “I need a sketchbook right now please.” And I was like, Oh, that’s so funny. That’s what I’ve been missing — just something to spark something to kind of set me off. And I think I had a real absence of that.

Then I was off shooting a TV show in L.A., and I had to do an American accent. In England it’s such an easy thing to pick on, because I think there’s a repressed feeling from our childhoods of watching TV and stuff and just being like, America is cool. America is sunglasses and Coca-Cola. England is like, “I’m cold.” I think that there’s a part of you that wants to let people know that you don’t think you’re cool — like, “Don’t worry, I don’t think I’m as cool as American people by doing this accent.”

I was shitting myself about that during the show, which was taking up a lot of my head space that should have been feeding into the writing mode. There were all sorts of things getting in the way, and then my dad got COVID, and it exacerbated his dementia. I do think that something in my connection to him is part of my ability to write the show, and I think that that frayed connection just made it very difficult to think about. Then before I knew it, I was very panicked all the time, which led to no sleep, which led to no ability to write. And to answer your question about pushing through it, I sort of didn’t. The real respite I got was unfortunate, very unfortunate — a couple of our cast members got COVID on the show [Stath], and we shut down for a week.

Oh no!
Yeah. I mean, it was horrendous, but I think it put things in perspective a little bit. It was like, Okay, you need to stop thinking about yourself right now. Ultimately I think I’ve just fallen into the trap over the years of putting too much pressure on something that really ultimately doesn’t matter a huge amount in the grand scheme of things. But that’s a very long answer to your question.

This season was hard for you to write, but it also seemed like it was very difficult to film, because you really put your body through a lot. Can you talk about the fight scene between you and Live Love Lets when you’re literally falling into a table so much, you push it down a hallway? And also, are you okay physically?
Yeah, I was so bashed up from that. You just sort of switch your head off for those things. I got in my trailer and took my suit off afterwards, and my body was just purple everywhere, ‘cause we had to do those takes over and over again. But the birth of that scene was like … I’m obsessed with modes, and making sure you’re seeing the character in different modes. So I’m like, Okay, what haven’t we seen him do? We haven’t seen him tired. We haven’t seen him drunk. This is like Sitcom 101; obviously I’m not reinventing the wheel, but it’s a thing that I really cling on to, and going through those lists, I was like, Wouldn’t it be great to see him fight? What does he look like when he’s fighting? And he’s I guess a subconscious pacifist, because he’s a wimp. It’s not born out of any kind of morals, he just doesn’t have any courage as a person. So it’s like, Oh, maybe he has a fight where he gets insanely hurt, but no one ever touches each other. And that’s kind of like a sketch premise.

This season I think became way more about spectacles and set pieces. I watch it back and I’m like, Whoa, there’s a lot of montage in this show, but it was sort of a choice as well. I think through fear of it lagging at any point, I just was constantly trying to make up for low energy. I like to think of it as having spikes throughout, like totem poles to keep the thing up. It’s like a tent that you can’t even fit inside by the end because there’s so many poles inside it.

Yeah, you jump in a canal twice. That looked terrible.
Yeah, I know. That was wild. It’s one of those things where you write it, and you’re really adamant that it has to be that thing, and it completely eludes you that it’s you that has to do it. You’re thinking about it as a script — you’re like He has to jump in the canal, and then you get there and you’re like Oh God, I’m jumping in there. It was disgusting in there. I opened my eyes underwater, and it was like luminous piss yellow.

I do want to talk to you about the montages, because I’ve seen the Channel 4 cut and the HBO Max cut. So I got to see that there were a lot of needle drops in the Channel 4 cut the Americans are being denied. I’m assuming it’s a licensing thing, but how do you feel about that?
Well, I’d be interested to talk to you about what you think of that, because it keeps me up at night. It’s a licensing thing. We spend a lot of time agonizing over the right music choices, and the placement of the music, and the way that we edit down the tracks, and how they sit on the comedy, and then you find out what you can afford to license globally. And it turns out, nothing. And you’re like, Oh, so we have like two days to slap some library music on this thing. I understand if there’s no money, there’s no money, but it is a very unsatisfying reality. Maybe I care too much about this stuff, but I am like, That feels like it’s really hurting the show.

It’s only something I noticed because I saw both.

Yeah. Everyone I talked to in America who’s seen it did not seem to care. But I was wondering about the scene where Katia gets hit by the car, and it feels like a Cruel Intentions reference with the Counting Crows song a little bit. Is that what it is, or was that accidental?
We just found the idea of it — it’s such an overused song, we were like, “We have to overuse it even more.” There’s something so funny to us about that understanding of how the characters in the show don’t know anything about culture, and I liked the idea that they would have been like, “We’re going to be the first people to use ‘Colorblind’ by Counting Crows over a sad montage.” I think that the Cruel Intentions thing conjures something that tells you this is us taking ourselves “seriously,” because it’s obviously the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen.

It’s actually one of the earliest jokes, maybe even before the original short, from like eight years ago when I was brainstorming ideas. One I came up with is “Stath gently touches a love interest — Katia — on the side with his car, and she rolls for ages and ages, and really sad music plays when they stare at each other.” I’m so glad that we’ve managed to use it. But yeah, Counting Crows’s “Colorblind” has always been the thing. The audacity to use that song again, it feels funny to me.

It definitely felt like it was a peek into Stath’s mind in a way with some of the song choices, because they are all things that if you’re an elder millennial like us, you know immediately, but it’s not a song you would have thought to put on a playlist. It’s kind of like an adjacent hit where you’re like, Oh this song, but I can imagine Stath being really into those particular songs.
That’s right on the money. Yeah.

When “Party Rock” plays, I was like, This is the song Stath would play over and over again at a party because it’s the “Party Rock” song!
Yes, he’d talk about it like it was like “Bohemian Rhapsody” or something, like it was a fine wine. Like [in a Stath voice] “It’s a fantastic — it really has everything you need to get going.” But yeah, exactly what you’re saying; it’s just like: “What is the shittest song we could put over this montage?” But also, like the running montage in episode one, the song “Keep on Movin’” by Five was a huge thing when I was like ten or something, and we were speaking about how that would still be one of his favorite songs because he’s barely grown up since that time.

We get to see Sophie succeed at the open mic, and at the wedding people really love her. In the world of this show, is she talented now?
No. Absolutely not, no. In fact, that’s a really useful question. It took us five years to get the show commissioned, and in the process of doing that, we did a lot of character development and stuff. For about two years, the joke of Sophie was like: “Everyone thinks she’s dumb, but she’s actually really smart. Isn’t it funny that all these people are really dumb, and the one person that everyone calls dumb is actually smart?” I guess that’s a snappy top-line, but poor Tash [Natasha Demetriou], how boring is that to play? No. Let her be dumb. I think that it’s very important to clarify that no, Sophie is not good at things in the world.

Can you tell us about who Brendan Ewen is? I was Googling it like a dumb-dumb.
I wasn’t ever expecting that to come up. So we got given the DVDs on the day that the brilliant art department had mocked up. The scene was feeling a bit dull, so I was just vamping and trying to find little sight gags and stuff, and I just noticed that they’d written the name “Brendan Ewen” on the DVD. This is in a rehearsal, and then we were like, “Oh, we should make that into a thing.”

So we wrote that into the script, and then the art department was like, “You know, Brendan Ewen is a guy that’s working temporarily in the art department,” and I was like, “Oh shit.” And they’re like, “No, he’s so happy with it. We just want to make a hundred percent sure that you’re gonna use his name because we want to tell him.” So that’s who Brendan Ewen is. Thank you, Brendan, for letting us use your name. I’m so thrilled you brought that up. That’s such a lovely moment in that.

We all know Stath’s an idiot, but it feels like this season he gets so close to succeeding a couple of times. I’m starting to wonder how much of Stath is oblivious and how much of it is just what he says: “English people don’t enjoy me.” How much of what’s going on with him, do you think, is being this fish out of water, and how much of it is just him being a dumb-dumb?
I think it’s somewhere between the two. I just think that he’s so lost in a cycle of trying to be something that he doesn’t have time to think. He’s so neurotic and panicked about a million different things that may or may not contribute to him coming across as “good” that he at no point ever takes a second to think about the logic behind something.

The dumb thing is fair. He’s definitely dumb. But it’s like: What is “dumb”? It’s just someone who doesn’t do things rationally, I suppose. And he’s irrational because he’s all emotion; he’s just a pure extension of his immediate emotions.

A lot of people ask me whether the dad, Vasos — played by Christos Stergioglou, who’s incredible — is based on my dad, and he’s so different than my dad. Stath is more like my dad; my dad’s all kind of I’m gonna do the thing that comes to me here and now and not worry about the consequences, or not use any experience to inform whether or not I should do the thing I’m going to do. It’s like a lot of the stuff Stath does. A lot of people refer to it as surreal, which it is of course occasionally it is, and it’s occasionally heightened. But more often than not, the stories that I can’t use because they’re too surreal are the true stories from my life.

Genuinely, the amount of times I’ve pitched something to my producer or director, and they’ve been like, “I think that jumps the shark,” I’m like, “Unfortunately that happened in our house.” My mom and dad took my sister to this farm that had emus when she was like three, and she was waving at the emu and my dad was like, “Oh!” and just picked her up and put her in the cage — lifted her over the thing, and my mom had to drag her out. We went to Disneyland and I was watching a parade and enjoying it, and he put me over the barriers into the parade, and I got carried away. And so it’s like that: Both of those things are like pure Stath gold, but if you were to put them in the show, it might be like, “Ah, it’s maybe getting a bit too much.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jamie Demetriou Will Jump Into a Canal for Art