GRAEME BLUNDELL talks to ROB CARLTON IMPROVISING ENTREPRENEUR
‘ I WAS as busy as a bastard, mate,’’ producer and actor Rob Carlton says, his comical face twisted in disbelief. ‘‘ My life felt like a gallimaufry, all the bits and pieces were going well but couldn’t chuck a blanket over them to make a coherent shape.’’
Now on a roll, fielding calls from international television producers and agents, the bits and pieces have finally coalesced.
A veteran of the free- for- all that is Theatresports ( Carlton won its 2001 celebrity show), his extensive improvising experience has taught him one basic survival lesson: ‘‘ As soon as a scene is set an audience has an expectation of what will happen and you have to hit and deliver instantly or you disappoint.’’
He has certainly delivered recently. Carlton is astonished that international distributor Lionsgate has acquired the rights to his eight- part comedy series Chandon Pictures , an original production from Australia’s Movie Network Channels. Now his phone never stops ringing.
The show premiered in Australia late last year to a delighted but, it must be said, small pay- TV audience. The series follows the comedic adventures of a self- proclaimed and thoroughly deluded documentary- maker, Tom Chandon ( played by Carlton), and his struggling video production company.
Chandon believes he is a great documenteur , an artist who is reduced to filming weddings and children’s birthday parties in an unsuccessful attempt to pay the bills.
The problem is that Chandon has only one real doco to his name, something called Oh No Bonzo: The Clown That Killed a Child, and he’s always on the lookout for a way to turn one of his dull paying jobs into art.
Like Ricky Gervais of The Office and Extras , Carlton’s is the comedy of embarrassment, adroitly combining ego and desperation, and he has an acute awareness of the precise calculus of humour and social humiliation. He knows just how far to go, just where the boundaries are, and what decent sensibilities he may be trampling to death.
‘‘ The show really explores the difference between what we say and what we’re thinking,’’ he says. And much of the humour of Chandon Pictures emerges from the humiliation of the maladroit lead character who can’t stop surrendering to the impulse to say what’s in his head.
The success of Chandon Pictures is possible because Carlton and his partner, American filmmaker Alex Weinress, won Tropfest 2006 with Carmichael & Shane , a six- minute mock documentary. Written by, and starring Carlton, along with his two- year- old twin sons, it proposed a novel solution to raising at least one successful child: ‘‘ choose a favourite.’’
The success of the short film, along with a 10- minute TV pilot video allowing anyone reading their scripts to experience the characters and their kind of humour, opened doors that Carlton had knocked at without success for years. A professional actor since he was 14, Carlton is the man with the matey face in Qantas, Telstra and Mitsubishi ad campaigns and, perhaps most famously, as the blind man with the world’s smallest guide dog in the Toohey’s beer TV commercial; Carlton is the star of more than 15 TV commercials.
He had his heart removed beside the road in All Saints, was nearly trampled to death by women on horses in McLeod’s Daughters , blew himself up in Blue Heelers and was shot dead stalking Frank Holloway on Water Rats.
Carlton started his company Shadowfax Entertainment, named after the wizard Gandalf’s horse in Lord of the Rings , to produce his first play, A- Framed, a decade ago.
‘‘ I wanted to demand my actors’ complete attention,’’ he says. ‘‘ I didn’t think I could ask that of them unless I covered their bills and their rent during that time.’’
Shadowfax morphed into a successful conference and event business and, with 10 years experience organising and fronting events with audiences ranging from 40 to a thousand, Carlton reckons he now understands the fine line between energising and patronising, between being risque and crass. ‘‘ I’ve covered pretty much all areas of business; it’s given me insights into big companies and how they work,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s taught me how to be a producer.’’
These days he’s at home with the commercial jargon of TV sales ( from negative ownership to delivery assurance) and he knows how to approach international corporations without fear. ‘‘ It’s helped me get a big sale with an idea on a page, something that is highly precarious in its delivery hopefuls,’’ he says, giving his words a crazy kind of Robin Williams’s emphasis.
His years of corporate experience have enabled him to endure the anguish involved in constant rejection as a writer and producer. ‘‘ You learn not to be paranoid when things don’t go your way; it’s just business.’’
He says he spent the past 10 years figuring out how to become a successful film and TV writer and producer. ‘‘ No bastard would tell me,’’ he shouts suddenly. ‘‘ It’s about ownership,’’ he whispers, as if we are being secretly recorded. ‘‘ It’s about keeping the ownership of your own written material; everyone in the business wants to take it away from you.’’ Especially now, he adds, in this new era of internet distribution swamping conventional TV.
‘‘ So many people watch TV on DVD now or download their content from the ether, that everyone’s freaking out,’’ Carlton says. ‘‘ Soon we will get any show we want wherever we are and producers have to be across this.
‘‘ It’s why producers’ contracts all contain the phrase ‘ all mediums now known or not known in the future’,’’ he adds. ‘‘ You might as well grab 300 question marks, put them in a glass and say, ‘ drink that’, ’’ he says, of negotiating in the new world of internet media platforming. Carlton faces the changing media universe with the philosophy he uses as an actor. ‘‘ Say yes to at least two jobs a year that frighten the bejesus out of you; you have to be able to turn fear into joy.’’