Speaking with the High Flier from Lowdown: Adam Zwar
Posted on 06 February 2012
Adam Zwar is best known in this country for his shows Wilfred, starring a guy in a dog suit, and Lowdown, about tabloid journalism. As of June 2011 his international audience broadened, when a US version of Wilfred was launched starring Jason Gann (the original Wilfred) and Elijah Wood (Frodo in Lord of the Rings).
Adam has by no means taken the straight path to television success. He doesn’t have a film degree. He hasn’t even taken the straight path to comedy success. He hasn’t done standup comedy. Nevertheless, he has found his way to AFI awards, Logie awards, and AWGIE awards. So how did he do it?
You come from a writing background: both your parents are professional writers and you studied journalism at the University of Southern Queensland. Yet, you jumped straight into the film industry as an extra and actor. Was journalism your “safe” degree, but you always had a yearning for film and television?
Adam: Yeah, I went to an academic school. Everyone did law or medicine. When we had career days, I didn’t have the guts to say that I wanted to do acting at university. So I decided to do a journalism degree. Did it and then went to acting school after that. (No extra work!!! Where did you hear that?)
How did you get started as an actor?
Adam: After a couple of years at acting school, I was kicked out for failing movement class. So I had a rest from acting and went back to journalism. Did my cadetship at a country newspaper and then got a job at a major metropolitan newspaper in Melbourne. In 1997, I saw an ad for a play. Auditioned. Got the role. Bad play, but an agent came and saw it and I heard he might be interested in representing me. So I called him. Within a few weeks, I had guest roles on Neighbours, Blue Heelers, and then an ongoing role on SeaChange. So I left my full time job at the paper to become a freelance journalist and jobbing actor.
Was it part of the plan to use your experience as an actor to network with the appropriate industry people? How important has networking been for you?
Adam: “Networking” is an ugly word in Australia. In the US everyone wears their ambitions on their sleeve. You can’t do that in Australia. It’s not a good look to blatantly pursue people with the desire for them to employ you or produce your show or film. If you’re at a function and see someone who might be able to help your career, say hello, ask them questions about them, and see how things evolve. Don’t make any sudden moves. Beyond that, just become good at what you do and try not to piss anyone off
The original short for Wilfred was conceived and written in one night. Reportedly the short was also self-funded. In what way was it self-funded? Did you have some money saved? Did you and some of the other cast and crew pool funds? Did you get the help of friends and family?
Adam: I had the money saved. I was getting a bit of work as a freelance journalist by this stage as well as acting work. So every year I would spend around $4000 on a short film instead of putting the money into buying an apartment or car. I’d already made a number of shorts and I had a group of people I worked with. But the two new elements in Wilfred were the director and DOP. And I poached them from an ad I’d been cast in.
Once Wilfred won Best Comedy at the 2002 Tropfest, did you receive government funding to take it to the Sundance Film Festival?
Adam: We received some travel money to go over there.
Wilfred finally became a pilot and television reality after you joined with the production team at Renegade Films. How did you get connected with Renegade Films? Did they approach you after your film festival successes or did you find them? What was the process like forming a business relationship with them?
Adam: Yes, we formed a partnership with Renegade to make the pilot and then the series. They’d helped us organise a film print for the short film of Wilfred. So they were a production company who we liked, and we were obviously a bunch of creatives they thought had some potential…it was an easy fit.
My experience of young people in the film industry is that they tend to want it all instantly. They can give up on a project easily and think something is wrong with the person who doesn’t achieve straight-path success. And yet you kept at finding a broadcast home for Wilfred over three years.
Adam: It’s natural to give up. Sometimes giving up is an important part of the process. Just to give yourself some mental rest. But after you’ve had that rest, reassess and see if there’s another way you can get your project made.
What kept you going? Did you question yourself? When do you think a person should let go of a project and try something different, and when do you think a person should keep pressing in the face of long odds?
Adam: Of course I questioned myself. I’ve never thought I was exceptionally talented. But what kept me going is that every short film I made was better than the last. You improve by seeing how your work plays to an audience and being honest with yourself about it. Also, don’t just have one project on the go. Have a few. Keep making stuff. If you’ve only got one dream project, you’ll smother it with love and get depressed if it doesn’t get up. Or, worse, you’ll get depressed if it does get up and it’s not everything you wanted it to be.
Once you landed the gig with SBS you then had to face writing at least eight scripts. Had you already written a number of those scripts when SBS gave you the green light?
Adam: By the time it got into SBS’s hands the second time (the project had already been around the network block once), we’d written seven eps. That’s how SBS knew it was more than just a short film.
Writing can be such a private art, how was it for you to collaborate with Jason Gann? Did you split episodes, so that you were the lead writer on some and he was the lead writer on others? Did you have specific roles in the writing of each script: did you stay in charge of your own characters or did you write for each other’s characters?
Adam: Generally, we’d write the outlines together and then write four eps each. And then swap again. And, yes, we both wrote Wilfred and Adam characters. Comedy at its best is a collaboration. To get a high concentration of quality jokes and situations, it’s important to have input from more than one source.
In standup a comedian usually takes around five years to find their voice and develop their sense of comic timing. How did you develop these skills? Was it through the collaboration? Perhaps you went the Quentin Tarrantino route. How much time did you spend watching other people’s comedies and dissecting them in your head?
Adam: I look at more television comedy now than I ever did when I started out. Back then, I just wanted to be a filmmaker. And the films I was influenced by were the Woody Allen catalogue, Withnail and I, and Spinal Tap. It was never about dissecting. It was just about watching and rewatching. Earlier than that, I guess when I was about 10, my dad got me onto the LPs of Barry Humphries, Bob Newhart and Shelly Berman. And I’d learn their routines off by heart and, embarrassing as it sounds, perform them for my parents’ friends at dinner parties. So I guess comedy was inevitable.
In 2010 the American rights for Wilfred were purchased and cable channel FX produced a US version. These sorts of deals can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand the possibility for more money, more visibility, and more opportunities glimmers in the distance. On the other hand your idea can be twisted out of recognition, the resulting product can be anywhere from mundane to awful, or it can simply be lost in cable overload, competing with the National Geographic channel, Nick at Night, and the like. Did you approach FX or did they approach you? What were your feelings at the time?
Adam: In 2009, ICM agreed to represent the Australian version of Wilfred so it could be formatted for the US. They gave us some writer-producer options who were interested in the format. We decided to go with a production company called Prospect Park and writer David Zuckerman (Family Guy).
Once you agreed to go forward with the US project, how was it working with their writers and producers?
Adam: Jason’s there and in the thick of it. And Zuckerman is the new me. I think Jason’s only stipulation was that he work with someone whose surname started with Z and if they didn’t provide that he was going to walk. So, nice that it worked out.
Are you satisfied with the results? Do you think they pulled back too much on the Australian humour? Do you feel they understood your concept sufficiently to properly represent it? Were they able to bring sufficient comedy to their version?
Adam: Zuckerman has made the show his own. And that’s what needs to happen for a format to be successful. Our version was a battle between two men for the attention of a beautiful woman, and one of the men just happens to be a dog. It was a balls-out hate comedy. Whereas Zuckerman’s is more a buddy comedy and a journey through Ryan’s (Elijah Wood) mind. I think this is a great idea for several reasons, particularly as it gets to show Jason’s range as an actor.
My favourite comedy you created is Lowdown. The humour is distinct from Wilfred. Wilfred‘s complexity derives from its human insights, but the jokes are kept (rightfully) basic. Lowdown has that human insight and beautifully layered comic situations. I love that I can watch an episode more than once and find something different each time.
Adam: Well, for the layers, you can thank Lowdown‘s co-creator Amanda Brotchie. She’s smart (she’s a doctor, etc) and it’s been her desire all along that people should be able to get just as much if not more out of an episode on second viewing. Because there’s no one in a dog suit, there is more work to be done on the scripts. So we work and rework those scripts. And then Amanda’s direction really brings the most out of every story, and always maintains that subtle yet energetic Lowdown tone.
Your success with Wilfred must have made it easier to get the ABC’s interest and production money. Were you able to simply pitch Lowdown or did you need to create a taster or pilot?
Adam: We made a 21 minute pilot with the help of Film Victoria’s now defunct Pilot Scheme. To get the money for that, Amanda and I wrote a full pilot episode and a production bible. We teamed up with producer Nicole Minchin and we left no stone unturned to give ourselves the best possible chance, including approaching a future Australian of the Year to narrate.
How was it wrapping your head around such a different style of comedy when you were writing?
Adam: Good question. I had to shake off the Wilfred style, which was very blokey and rude and then Amanda and I needed to establish the house style that would become Lowdown. It can take a while to work out what you both find funny. The pilot really established that. And by the time we started writing Series 1, it came to us easily.
Is there any interest in overseas rights for Lowdown?
Adam: BBC4 is about to play the Australian series. And we’ve been approached by a few US producers, but we want to make sure it’s the right fit before we sign anything.
You have a new season of Lowdown coming up on ABC in the new year. Do we have anything special to look forward to? When will it be shown?
Adam: Mid year. And yes, lots to look forward to. Pornographic politicians, angry actors, philandering sportsmen and chefs. Alex Burchill interviews them all and often they manage to disrupt his already ruffled life. The guest cast include Matt Preston, Matt Day, Colin Hay, Brett Tucker, Craig McLachlan, Kimberley Davies, Steve Bastoni and many others.
I heard you speak about having to fail a number of times before finally making it in television. What insights into yourself and the process did this bring?
Adam: Yeah, watching yourself and what you’ve made on television is the greatest school. In your living room, you can’t hear anyone laugh so you’re pretty harsh on your product. Maybe a little too harsh. But being harsh makes you reassess and reassessing and honing is important for making good comedy. Soon as you sit back and marinate in your own success you cease to be funny.
Thank you so much for your time and interest! This should be of great help to the comedians and comedy writers who read In Search of LOLitanium.
Peace and kindness,