Interview: Arj Barker and director Scott Corfield on their new Australian comedy The Nut Farm; “We wanted that heart and the environmental message to drive it home.”

The new Australian comedy The Nut Job details A failed US crypto trader who inherits a macadamia nut farm in Australia that’s under threat from some evil New Zealand frackers…so, you know, your average, relatable, Aussie battler story.  Right?

Believe it or not, amongst the heightened comedy of the script, there’s a semi-autobiographical narrative in there, one created by lead star and co-writer Arj Barker, who took inspiration from his own journeys to Australia and morphed them for a wholesome, if occasionally suggestive (you didn’t think we aren’t getting a few nut jokes?!?!), family comedy.

As the film arrives in Australian theatres, Peter Gray spoke with Barker and director Scott Corfield about the story’s origins and how it was to work with such big talent on a small budget.

I have to admit, this film was much more wholesome than I was expecting.  Yes, there were crude jokes in there, but it had this sweet family friendly mentality to it.  Arj, did this ever start out as something more adult-aimed? Or was it always intended to be an accessible blend of humour?

Arj Barker:  I think because (co-writer) Sam Bowring and I originally were working on the idea before we met Scott, it was never thought of so much as being adult, but it was probably meant to be more.  Probably extra wacky, and more just going purely for laughs from the word go.  Like, almost to the level of, what’s that show? Arrested Development!  They’re always going for gag after gag.  That’s what I feel was happening when we were making this film.  And I’m sure Scott would agree.  There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so there were a lot of forces and opinions, but it all came together.  I was a little surprised as to how nice it turned out in terms of that wholesome feeling.  But we were very happy with that.  I think it’s a really nice thing, and I think it could approach a much wider audience that way.

I feel like movies with comedians can so often just be based off their own lives or one of their comedy routines.  Was that ever something you considered doing?  Or did you always want to make a movie separate from who you are?

Arj Barker: It’s a bit autobiographical, in that I did leave my country and spend a lot of time in Australia.  I was exposed to characters throughout Australia, and I had seen this part of the country and fell in love with it.  I eventually bought a house out there.  I went through some of my own adventures in the country dealing with creatures and local characters.  It wasn’t an issue because everyone was friendly.  There were no evil Kiwis trying to attack me and steal my property (laughs), but there’s some autobiographical thread in there.

Scott, how did the script come about for you? Were you actively looking for a comedy to make after the last film you made being so heavy?

Scott Corfield: Yeah, I was actually looking for comedy.  The last thing I did was a very heavy legal drama called Don’t Tell, with Jack Thompson and Rachel Griffiths, and being in that headspace for a few years was quite challenging.  I just had my first daughter, and I reached out to Artie Lange, Arj’s manager, who I’ve known since I did a comedy thing many years ago – an adult comedy DCD special – and I asked if there were any comedians who wanted to work on a low budget comedy.  He asked if I knew Arj, and I said I did, he’s one of my favourite comics, so I flew to Melbourne and met him and they pitched this story idea.  We got to working on it, and, you know, me coming from a filmmaking background and Arj and Sam coming from the stand-up background, it was just merging those two together.  It took a bit of convincing them that there’s actually a narrative required for a film (laughs).  You need turning points and all that stuff.  You couldn’t just throw in some requests, like “Let’s have a chase down the Pacific Highway.” Like, that’s bigger than our whole budget (laughs).

Arj Barker: It was a really funny slow tractor chase.  It was like 5 kilometres an hour.  Nevermind.  That’s the sequel (laughs).

Scott Corfield: Yeah, that’s when we have some more budget.  In terms of the family vibe to it, I guess I’m bringing a fair bit of that I’ve got two young kids now, and I’m a huge fan of the quirky 80s comedy.  And I think Arj and Sam are too.  I feel like there’s no films that I can watch with my kids.  They’re always watching Disney movies, or something, and we started watching all these old comedies that I grew up with.  So that was part of the inspiration.  There was never any kind of early script that had swearing or anything.  We were always trying to keep it pretty clean.  We wanted that heart, and the environmental message to drive it home.

Did you visit any farms to garner a sense of authenticity as to what would be required of the role that your character takes on, Arj?

Arj Barker: Yeah, I learned a little bit about it.  It was sort of learning as I went on the ground (though).  Before certain scenes I would have a tour of the processing facility and be given a solid explanation as to how it worked.  Again, we didn’t have the budget to fly around and spend a weekend, you know, studying macadamia farming.  But I know Scott did a lot of scouting and stuff, and probably learned more about it than I did.  But we had a lovely host farmer that was letting us use an actual macadamia farm.  They were incredible.  I even lived there for two weeks.  The crew would leave at the end of the day, but I would stay there and live in the old farmhouse.  It was pretty wild.  Lots of creeks in the night.  It’s been an adventure.

Did any of those experiences for you end up being peppered into the script?

Arj Barker:  I think what it did is help me feel like, “Wow, I really genuinely live here.” So it helps you slip into that character a little easier when you know that you’re home and you’re trying to feel some connection to the place.  I feel like after years of travelling, I have this motto.  People ask me where I live, and I say “I live where I am.”  Are you asking me where the majority of my stuff is? Or are you asking me where I live? Because I live here.  Most of my stuff is in California, but where do I get my mail? These are all different questions.  But I live where I am.  So, when I’m living at that farm, I’m absorbing that.  That reality was easier.

One of the things I loved about the film was the character of Zoron.  His quirks and all the little things he said…was that stuff scripted?  How is it navigating Jonno Roberts’s performance?

Arj Barker:  Well, he’s superb.  I actually said, “This guy is too good.  He’s going to steal the whole movie.”  But then, if that contributes to the film, we’re all the better for it.  That was just my competitive nature as a comedian feeling a little insecure.  But I think he’s a classic.  And as far as scripted, I think a lot of it was just having a feeling on the day.  What was scripted was that he was a weird guy who was definitely addicted to dairy (laughs).  That was always in the earliest versions of the script.  We had a villain who was always eating some form of dairy in every scene.  We thought, when you think of New Zealand, you might think of milk bars? So it just sort of fit that he loved dairy, and it was silly, but there’s a cartoonish quality to a lot of the characters, whereas I’m more of the straight guy to these wacky people.

Scott Corfield: Yeah, Jonno Roberts is an incredible actor.  He spent so much time on Broadway, so he’s a big theatre actor, so he had a big performance.  He’s got his technique down, and he’s incredibly well polished.  He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with.  We would just work little moments together on set, and we just had a lot of play time.  He’s someone who’ll go, “Well, what about this?” There’s so much of his stuff on the cutting room floor that was way too crazy and big.  His character makes such deliberate choices.  We wanted him to be a bit out of date.  It was a tough role to play, but he revelled in it.  It’s a good balance between himself and Arj.

As you were going from something like Don’t Tell to this, was comedy something you felt comfortable stepping into?  When you have someone like Arj or Jonno, who could both just run wild, was there an ease in stepping as their director?

Scott Corfield: I was fairly confident, yeah. Only because I’m such a huge fan of Arj’s.  And I know the quality of performances I have in there from him, and actors like Steph Tisdell, and people like that.  But you still have to navigate that medium.  As a filmmaker you don’t get to always pick your films.  I sort of got asked to do Don’t Tell.  I love comedies, and that’s where my interest lies,  You know, as a kid I’d constantly watch something like Beverly Hills Cop to the point I knew the dialogue.  I could turn the sound off and I could recite the whole film.  Those 80s comedies, like Caddyshack and all that, that’s what I grew up with.  So, as a filmmaker, if you can bring a nice mix and get a good soundtrack in there, and have great performances…it certainly helps.

The Nut Farm is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.