If the greatest creators are defined by their ability to tell stories, Simon Lee has earned his place at the head of that group. The ECD & creative partner of The Hallway tells remarkable stories – even in his on-the-side passion, film. In fact, there may be no film genre in which Simon Lee can’t triumph. So far, he has written, produced and directed a documentary, Dream Racer, about a bloke trying to realise his dream of racing in the Dakkar rally. It made a lot of audiences cry, and a lot of awards judges applaud it. He has written and directed Australia’s first film to use the different perspectives of the Barco Escape multi-screen panoramic movie format, Touching Heaven, to tell its story. That was rewarded at international film festivals too.
Now he has written, directed and stars in a Courvoisier comedy, Perfect Specimen, which he made with long-tine collaborator, Alex Weinress, who also has an impressive list of productions to his name.
Their newest work together has perfect timing, perfect parody and perfect restraint. It’s subtly layered and incredibly intelligent. And yet it also makes its audience laugh out loud. I can attest to that. I was at the cast and crew screening.
Even the story Lee tells of its making is so offbeat and inspiring for creators that it’s a shame most of the film’s viewers will never hear it. Here it is.
The making of story begins like almost every creative’s life story – with a stash of ideas, put away “in the hope that one rainy day they’ll be of some use and they may actually become something,” Lee recounts. In Lee’s case, those ideas are one-line film premises that he stores in his phone.
He and Alex Weinress were developing a documentary and had blocked off a day, complete with booked camera and other trappings, to interview a young tech entrepreneur. On the morning of the shoot, the tech-y bloke woke up sick.
“That sucks,” Lee thought. As you would. He’d been hugely excited to shoot something. But rather than console himself with a day surfing or resign himself to ten hours at the office, he decided, “Fuck it, let’s make something”.
Because he had said these words out loud to Weinress, the latter answered – logically, “What?”
Lee scrolled through his notes and reeled off a few that he liked. He came to one about a narcissist who is convinced that the world would be a better place if he spread his sperm around. Weinress’ enthusiasm began to match Lee’s. “What if it was a business,” Weinress offered? So they riffed for a while about a bloke who sells his sperm online.
Of course, if they were going to shoot it that day, they’d need an actor. There were two choices. Weinress doesn’t act and Lee had just finished a series of course at NIDA, which he’d undertaken to be a better director from a talent direction point of view.
“So I drove to Alex’ house and he interviewed me in character. As the mockumentary interview progressed, we gradually developed this character of Edward James. Weinress asked me questions about my business and my life and I just improvised how Edward James would respond,” Lee explains.
“Gradually, we crafted the parameters of this character and accumulated a good hour’s worth of footage of this interview – some of that footage actually appears in the film.”
Weinress did a rough cut of the interview footage. They were hoping for funny with a side dish of interesting. They thought they might have achieved it. So they played it to a few different people whose opinions they value. Now they knew they had. So they built a film around it, approached a few actors showing them the interview footage and sat down to block out some scenes.
“That was the interesting part about making it. We didn’t formally script anything,” Lee notes. We described each scene and just outlined the beats we wanted. When we came to shoot, we briefed the actors on those parameters and literally just played.”
It was the first time that Lee had acted in front of a camera. You wouldn’t know.
“What I’m really pleased about the end result is that it could have been littered with slightly crass sex jokes,” Lee notes. The protagonist is a professional wanker – according to his business title. But the film doesn’t use that as a springboard for smutty laughs. Instead, as Lee explains, “I wanted to take this slightly absurd and potentially crass subject matter and, through the eloquence of the main character, find a different register for the humour.” As Edward James, Lee plays it straight throughout the film. “A super straight treatment and performance of an absurd premise is a potent comedic platform, and that’s one of the most satisfying things about where we got to.”
“The other thing that I hope comes off is that you do ultimately care for Edward James,” Lee adds, “because he actually has this sense of purpose. There is a depth to him even though he is narcissistic. He genuinely believes in making the world better. And when he’s faced with a venture capitalist who wants to set up sperm farms, sure there could be a lot of money in that, but Edward stands his ground against it. There’ s an absurd integrity to him which I think an audience warms to.”
Credits (aka, Lee’s tributes):
Perfect Specimen: a film by Simon Lee & Alex Weinress
Written by Simon Lee
Directed by Alex Weinress & Simon Lee
Produced by Alex Weinress & Catherine Weinress
Starring: Simon Lee, Alan Dukes, Eliza Logan, Genevieve Hegney &Matthew Moore
DOP: Judd Overton
Editors: Brad Hurt & Adrian Barac
Music & Sound by Uncanny Valley
Composer: Justin Shave