Chris Lilley: interview
'Angry Boys' and 'Summer Heights High' creator Chris Lilley talks to Gabriel Tate
‘The next thing you do is always a response to how the previous one’s gone,’ says Chris Lilley. So how has the Australian writer-director-character comedian followed a breakout smash like ‘Summer Heights High’? A mockumentary that – much like its predecessor, ‘We Can Be Heroes’ – was attacked for being crude, racist, profane and insulting, while being lauded for its characterisation, sensitivity, insight and social commentary? The answer: take it further, deeper and darker. The result: ‘Angry Boys’.
‘Challenging’, ‘surprising’ and ‘confronting’ are the three words Lilley returns to as he tells us about his goals for the new series; the spectacular audience response in his homeland (‘Angry Boys’ was the most popular global trending topic on Twitter after it aired) suggests a job well done. ‘It’s a bit overwhelming,’ he sighs. ‘There were definitely moments after “Summer Heights High” where I thought: Never again. It’s pretty awful being told you’re a racist. But I must have got over it, because this one’s pretty shocking.’
How shocking? Well, episode one brings us Gran, a lovable racist from a parochial Aussie backwater; Lilley blacks up to play a rapper for episode two; and episode four introduces a Japanese mother (Lilley, naturally) who outs her straight skateboarding son as a marketing gimmick. But these are characters drawn with a guiding wit and intelligence that far transcends stereotype; anyone who remembers Lilley’s most touching creation from ‘SHH’, Tongan delinquent and original angry boy Jonah Takalua, knows better than to judge his creations at face value.
While the action reaches out to a global audience, with HBO’s support making filming possible in LA and Tokyo, Lilley’s familiar preoccupations from his smaller-scale shows – role models, heroes, male adolescence in crisis – are thrust to the forefront. ‘I’m interested in youth culture – when your parents are running your life but you think you’re the big man – but I’m not trying to make a statement,’ protests Lilley. But one character literally has no balls. A metaphor too far? ‘Okay, there is a bit of a balls motif in there,’ he concedes, laughing, ‘and I’ve been invited to go to kids’ parties and had that hero thing thrust on to me a little bit, which has been weird.’
There’s also an underlying seriousness to the show; the comedy becomes increasingly uncomfortable and the drama darker. Even some of his fans were worried that it wasn’t funny enough. ‘It gets more sad as it goes along,’ Lilley confirms. ‘I did some pretty heavy scenes as Gran with this young aboriginal boy which I thought were really interesting: this young guy from a country town, who’d never normally be on TV, talking about guinea pigs with this big drag queen. People were telling me they were crying and laughing by the end of the first episode, which is a pretty cool range of responses to get within 28 minutes.’