Plumbers, plans and prophesies: How to follow up a hit film

The Jacobson men (Ron, left, Shane, middle and Clayton) during the making of Kenny. Picture: supplied


Clayton Jacobson spent the first half of his life desperate to make a film.

Sitting in a rather impressive home editing suite that he constructed himself, Jacobson leans back in his chair, coffee mug precariously close to spilling.

“From age eight that’s all I wanted,” he says.

“Every New Year’s Eve was another chance to get depressed that I hadn’t made a movie.”

Finally at 42, he made one. What started as a funny impression by his brother turned into a character, which turned into a short film, which then turned into Kenny.

Released in 2006, the mockumentary about a loveable plumber was a smash hit, winning its lead — Clayton’s brother, Shane — an AFI award and screening worldwide.

But what will he do next?

He considers this for a moment.

“Everything was just all about making my film and of course when I got to make it and it was a success, I kind of felt this enormous need to kind of live a life. I climbed a mountain and I felt like I really need to live in the world and not observe it.”

He gravitates to these turns of phrase, answering questions with metaphors and witticisms. Speaking with him feels in equal parts like chatting with an old friend and being counselled by the village wise man.


Clayton Jacobson accepting his award at the AFI awards. Picture: supplied

The first thing he did after making Kenny was not one of his short films or acting roles, as one might have expected.

“Well the very next thing after Kenny was saving my marriage, because working on the film nearly killed it. My son hated the film by the time it was released. I needed to find balance again,” he says.

“I have too many friends who have broken up with their loved ones, don’t see their children, and are miserable but successful. I wanted to be happy and successful.”

But to do this Jacobson needed a plan, so he enlisted the help of experts.

“I was at a dinner with a whole lot of heavyweight directors, and I asked their advice.”

He began talking to Fred Schepisi, director of The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith.

“Fred said ‘put together a slate of seven films’, and I said ‘seven films? It’s taken me 42 years to make one!’ and he said ‘No you have to do seven, because three will die of natural causes, four will start to get traction, two will get closer and the one that you probably least expect will get up.”

So Jacobson put together his master plan. He moved to the country with his family, and spent the next 10 years there as his son Jesse grew up, all the while getting seven films ready.

Then when Jesse turned 18, Jacobson could spend the next 10 years making them with him.

However — just as the prophecy foretold — creative differences, a lack of funding, and acts of god saw Jacobson’s slate of films slowly whittle down.

Not to say that he wasn’t busy. Jacobson has directed television, advertisements, and some of Australia’s most iconic music clips, including some for INXS.

He created a web series, and has a leading role in the massively successful series Top of the Lake: China Girl alongside Elizabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman.

Clayton walks the red carpet at the Melbourne International Film festival this year with his son, after his role in Top of the Lake: China Girl. 

But, as he said, his whole life is about making films.

Asked if there is anything he would have done differently, Jacobson tenses up a fraction. 

“Look it’s always easy in retrospect. I had a hit film under my belt, I had Hollywood knocking on my door, and I was just assuming that, well, if Hollywood wants to work with me surely I can get a film up in my own country – I won’t take on one of the B-grade films that have been offered to me, I’ll try and do an A-grade Australian movie off the back of Kenny’s success. Well it just didn’t really pan out that way.”

Schepisi’s prediction soon claimed another victim. After 10 years of work, Jacobson received a call from the author of a book he was adapting into a feature. The author said he was taking the film to Hollywood and he wasn’t taking Jacobson with it.

“And I literally stood there and thought there are two things I could do here. I could just walk away from it and say to hell with it and start up my own grass-cutting business up here, or I can use this as a motivator.”

But Schepisi’s last prediction also came true, because just two days later Jacobson received a call from his collaborator and friend Jamie Browne.

“[Jamie] called me one day and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind but I’ve written a film for you and Shane’. I read it and immediately went ‘this is good’.”

“When I made Kenny it was a bit of a maverick exercise. It was me making the film on my terms, the way I want to make it, not going through the industry. Kenny becomes a big hit and I spend the next 10 years trying to repeat it by going through all the ropes that the industry demands. And it just didn’t pan out. So when I saw this script I said ‘I’m going to go back, make it how I want’.”

Jacobson has finally finished his second project 11 years after his successful first foray. Picture: supplied. 

Sibling Rivalry stars Clayton and Shane, a dark comedy about two brothers plotting a murder.

“So in the space of a year we went from nothing to having a film in the can, to the point that I’m sitting here editing it now as I’m talking to you, and we are about to try and submit it to Sundance in a couple of weeks.”

“The master plan seems to have worked, because I’ve got four more films that are ready to go. I’ve now made Sibling Rivalry and Jesse worked on it with me, which was a joy. He had his 21st birthday with me while we were filming.”

Despite his dream coming true, Jacobson hasn’t lost sight of what really matters to him.

“When I have a month to live I won’t want to be watching Kenny, I’ll want to be spending time with the people who I made it with. My friends and family. That’s what it’s about in the end.”