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Interview: Robert and Duncan Sarkies

The novel and the film of Two Little Boys are more entwined than most.

Robert and Duncan Sarkies

It’s a hard road making a New Zealand movie but the route to the big screen for the Sarkies siblings’ second cinematic collaboration has been notably circuitous. As elder brother and director Robert pithily puts it, “The film became a book that became a film that became a book again.” “It has had a strange and unusual history,” says Duncan, who is the primary writer of the pair. “The initial inspiration was a short story I wrote that involved a couple of bogans in a car and some quite raunchy sex. It almost reads a bit like, I dunno, Penthouse Forum – oh, look, Rob grimaced; he didn’t want me to say that.”

The observation prompts gales of laughter from Robert. “Anyway,” continues Duncan, “I started writing these two bogan characters who just flew onto the page. I wanted to write for them so much I got quite obsessed.” At the time, the Sarkieses were searching for an idea for a film to follow up 1999’s Scarfies. The brothers’ genre-bending comedy-thriller feature debut, set in their hometown of Dunedin, had earned critical plaudits, half a dozen screen industry awards and more than $1 million at the local box office. “For this next film, Duncan wanted a different scriptwriting process,” says Robert.

“The problem with writing a screenplay is it’s very structural, with a whole bunch of rules to follow. It can be quite difficult to produce something original when you get into that mode. “So we set Duncan loose to write anything he liked for a couple of weeks and we discovered that when he was writing prose the characters and events were just flowing out of him. You could really feel the vibrancy and the richness of this world on the page, and I was fascinated by how the characters were emotionally very tender underneath their quite gross exteriors.

We figured once we had a bunch of prose we could pretty easily convert that into a screenplay.” Before that happened, however, Robert was offered the opportunity to direct a piece about the 1990 Aramoana massacre. Although a very different film, the austere, mournful Out of the Blue enjoyed a similar reception to Scarfies, attracting accolades, awards and again over $1 million when it was released in 2006. “Making that occupied me for a couple of years,” says Robert. “Duncan, meanwhile, had a whole lot of prose sitting there, which he showed to Penguin Books …”

“At that point, I was feeling such a thrill writing from the perspectives of the two characters, and it was spewing out of me,” says Duncan. “I just got really excited about it as a novel. In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘I’d like it to be a film again,’ but …” Because the New Zealand Film Commission was funding the brothers’ script development, Duncan could only use the existing material for a novel if he got permission, which was granted on the basis that the film rights were retained. Then, once the novel’s first draft was done, the brothers recommenced the screenplay while Duncan worked on the book, “which meant the novel was informing the screenplay and the screenplay was informing the novel”, says Robert.

The book received a warm welcome when published here in 2008, and in the UK and Australia the following year: “Gem of a novel,” reckoned TNT Magazine, while the List called it “hilarious and heart-rending” and the Listener praised its “maniacal joy”. With the novel realised as “the beast it was meant to be”, as Duncan puts it, “we found we really needed to find the film within the novel,” says Robert, “which is the same process that any film-maker who is adapting a book will go through. You’re looking to capture its spirit, not make a direct conversion, because a novel’s just far too long.” Duncan actively relished that distillation process. “I’m not saying converting a novel to a movie is easy,” he says, “because it’s a whole new set of challenges, but this was certainly a lot easier than writing a film from scratch. “Well, okay, obviously it wasn’t easier, because I had to write a novel as well!” he adds, laughing. “But film is a reductionist medium, and it’s really helpful when you’re reducing if you’ve got a hell of a lot of material to begin with.”

Although details necessarily differ between book and film (the former now in a tie-in edition with the latter’s poster on its cover), the same narrative engine drives them both: when nice-but-dim Nige enlists the overly enthusiastic aid of best mate Deano to cover up a spot of vehicular manslaughter, comic carnage ensues. And although “it’s about characters who are suffering from arrested development”, says Duncan, “there’s still a lot under the hood”, including a comically toxic take on the national myth of mateship. Perhaps the biggest change resulting from the story’s final transition to the screen is the shift of Nige and Deano’s stomping ground from the Sarkieses’ hometown, where the novel is firmly set, to the country’s southernmost city.

Two Little Boys book coverThe relocation was done for purely pragmatic reasons, says Robert, including several Invercargill institutions putting money into the production, the Southern Institute of Technology providing facilities and interns, and getting consent to dig a crucial hole in the main street. “Invercargill was incredibly accommodating,” he says, “which tends to be the case when you go to a smaller place to film – you really do get embraced by the community.” And why will the New Zealand public at large embrace the film? “It stars Bret McKenzie,” Robert immediately replies, with a laugh. “That’ll create expectations, of course, and there’ll be Flight of the Conchords fans coming along to see a Bret McKenzie-Conchords-y type film, when what we’ve made is a Sarkies Brothers film with Bret McKenzie in it. But that just means they’ll get a really funny, really intense experience that showcases what else Bret is capable of.”

“Sometimes,” says Duncan, “I make up a Venn diagram in my head that consists of ‘what does middle New Zealand like?’, ‘what do I like?’ and ‘what does Rob like?’ We’re hoping those three things meet in the middle with Two Little Boys.” “Ultimately,” says Robert, “we’ve made the kind of film we enjoy and we just trust that if we’re laughing a lot of other people will be laughing, too.”

TWO LITTLE BOYS, by Duncan Sarkies (Penguin, $30); the film is released nationwide on September 20.