Aussie feature film Sucker has its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August. It’s the screen adaptation of comedian Lawrence Leung’s first ever solo comedy show, which he started performing in 2001. Leung and Ben Chessell co-wrote the film, which Chessell also directs.
It’s the story of 18-year-old Lawrence, played by John Luc of YouTube channel Mychonny fame, who’s sent to his uncle’s house after he fails his exams, where he meets ‘the Professor’, played by celebrated British actor Timothy Spall, and his daughter, Sarah, played by the AACTA-nominated Lily Sullivan. The Professor is an ageing conman who teaches Lawrence the tricks of the trade. Lawrence learns a thing or two from Sarah as well.
A coming-of-age story that may or may not be based on true events, we chat to Lawrence Leung about waiting for his first film’s premiere, and what it’s like to turn live comedy into a feature film.
Screen Australia: How are you feeling now that we’re a few weeks out from Sucker’s world premiere?
Lawrence Leung: Relieved, excited, grateful and anxious! … I’ll be the guy sitting at the back of the audience, watching through gaps in my fingers.
SA: Had you always wanted to make Sucker into a film?
LL: Deep down I know the answer is ‘yes’, because I’ve always wanted to make films. But back then I was doing a lot of stand-up, so it was natural to tell the story as a one-man show. Getting on stage is faster and cheaper than making a movie!
The original version of Sucker was a gig at uni before I took it to the Melbourne Fringe. It went really well and got an award and great press. Then things really snowballed and the show took me to comedy festivals in Australia and the UK. Around the time Sucker had its 100th performance at the Sydney Opera House, I’d been approached by a lot of producers who wanted to option the story as a film or TV series. I ended up teaming up with Ben Chessell, a filmmaker buddy from uni, who’d seen an early incarnation of the show.
SA: In terms of writing, what was it like to turn a one-man show into a feature film?
LL: Feature films have a different language to theatre [but] Ben and I knew we had a good foundation and if we already had a good story, our focus was going to be experimenting with how it’s told. … One of the unique challenges was translating the ambiguity and deception in the live show to cinema. We decided that the film had to play tricks and con viewers visually. There are some moments and scene transitions that look like they’re CGI but they’re all practical in-camera effects and careful staging. Like a magician’s illusion. Ben and I loved interpreting these ideas into the script to make sure that they weren’t just eye candy, but emotionally motivated by story too. We hope audiences like the film’s cheeky gameplay that’s both narrative and visual.
SA: You’ve written for TV before too, (Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure, Lawrence Leung’s Unbelievable and Maximum Choppage) which medium is your favourite: stage, TV or film?
LL: Stand-up is my first love. It’s risky and thrilling to jump on stage with new material, having the audience right in front of you, and not knowing how it will go. It’s personal and intimate. TV and film takes so long … [But] TV has allowed me to take my stories and comedy to audiences in a different way … My live shows are often told in hindsight, where I’m talking about what I’ve seen or done. And by contrast film and TV is present tense, so I can take audiences on a journey with the characters or me.
Also TV and film have a collaborative spirit which I love. On location I’m a sponge: Marvelling at the work of production designers and DOPs, and learning from directors and other actors. Some of the biggest laughs I’ve had have been during brainstorming sessions in writer’s rooms.
Sucker premieres at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 15 August. A second screening has been added on the 16th: Find out more and secure your tickets at MIFF’s website.