Benjamin Law discusses some of the weird moments in the strange world of developing a TV show based on your own family.
By
Benjamin Law

23 Dec 2015 - 11:30 AM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2016 - 11:13 AM

There are a tonne of weird moments in the strange, possibly psychopathic endeavour of developing a TV show based on your family. For sweat-value alone though, nothing quite beats the prospect of your family members coming face-to-face with the actors playing them. In my darker moments, I wondered whether it’d just be easier to wait until everyone was dead so it wouldn’t be so searingly awkward. Then I remembered that scenario would involve people dying (please don’t ever die, everyone I love) and I reconciled myself to the fact there was no way around it. This TV show was going ahead. We’d just have to embrace the weirdness.

I met the actors playing the Laws on the day of our first full-series read-though. Days like that are a big deal. Producers, network executives, the director and performers were flown into Queensland to meet in a semi-abandoned suburban motor mall that’d been turned into The Family Law HQ. My taxi pulled up in the carpark outside a suburban beauty salon called Bleaches and Cream, and everyone swarmed upon the car, applauding as I got out, as if I’d won a weird reality TV show where the prize was getting actors to play out your life story.

 

Trystan Go had only recently been cast in the role of "Benjamin” and was probably as overwhelmed as I was. “Hi!” I said. “You’re me!”

“And I’m you!”

“Yeah!” I said. We looked at each other. “Anyway, this is weird!”

Immediately, the flashes started going off. Without saying a word, Trystan and I almost reflexively starting posing for the publicity photographer: hugging; faux-headlocks; looking at each other skeptically; pretending to kill each other – a different pose for each frame. We were hilarious and probably nauseating to everyone around us. Clearly, this kid was going to have no problems playing me.

Their obligations weren’t to us real life people, but to the truth of their characters, as they saw fit. 

As we started the read, I told the actors that over the next few weeks, they’d probably meet the actual people – the real Laws – who’d inspired the characters they were playing. And I wanted to impress upon them that despite the potential for it to be a mind-bending, disorientating experience, their obligations weren’t to us real life people, but to the truth of their characters, on the page, as they saw fit. We weren’t making a documentary re-enactment; we were making comedy.

Still, Fiona Choi (Jenny) and Anthony Wong (Danny) – who play my parents – also had to meet up with my real parents to assist them with their Cantonese pronunciation. They wanted to hear how my parents would say certain lines in Cantonese: what slang they’d use; how they’d pronounce particular phrases. In real life, when my parents speak to me, it’s about 80% Cantonese with smatterings of English. That would be difficult for any actor to perform and tricky for an audience to follow. So early on in the writers’ room, we decided to use Cantonese judiciously. Characters would only speak Cantonese if they were gossiping; talking about other people within earshot; or fighting.

When real Danny came in to help Anthony with his lines, he hadn’t read any of the scripts I’d sent him. It’s cool: he’d been too busy with work, and he’s not a big reader outside of his Chinese newspapers.  But it meant his first exposure to the script was line after line of really intense dialogue, replicating fights he’d had with his actual ex-wife, real Jenny. I shrunk out of embarrassment for everyone in that room. Afterwards, walking with Dad across the carpark, I sheepishly asked Dad how he’d felt about the whole process. “I know it was a little intense,” I said. “It was okay,” he said, slowly. “But it’s not very funny.” I gave him a hug, but inside I was thinking, KILL ME NOW, WHAT HAVE I DONE.

Weeks later though, the mood had definitely lifted. By that stage, the cast were well into filming and had become a little family all of their own. My family – the real Laws – descended upon the Sunnybank Chinese restaurant to do a cameo appearance for episode 1, scene 1. When the actors met their real life counterparts, I realised something: they were far more freaked out than my family were. More than that: the real Laws felt protective of the actors who played them. Because the characters are several years younger than the real Laws, it felt like everyone had a little mini me.

However, the cutest moment was between the two Michelles.

“Can I ask you something?” Vivien Wei, who plays “Michelle”, asked real Michelle.

“Sure!” real Michelle said.

“When you were little, were you disgusting?”

Everyone melted. Turns out, it’s super easy to fall in love with yourself. 

 

The Family Law 8:30pm Thursdays on SBS or anytime at SBS On Demand

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