Chris Lilley on how he created the teen bitch queen of BBC3's Ja'mie: Private School Girl
"I'm not even bragging but me and my friends are all pretty quiche, if you couldn't tell by looking at us," riffs Ja'mie King (pronounced Ja-MAY), Hillford Girls Grammar School's Regina George, leader of her prefect posse and the magnum opus of series creator Chris Lilley. Quiche is one step above hot. And Lilley is the powerhouse director/writer/actor that took Australia out back and gave it a lap dance with his uproarious comedies We Can Be Heroes and Summer Heights High. He's done the dirty down under, and now it's our turn in the UK as his new series, Ja'mie: Private School Girl, finds a home on BBC3. Ja'mie has already found fans in LiLo (naturally), Katy Perry, Lana del Rey, and Kylie Jenner, "the Kardashian sister. Big fan," laughs Lilley.
"It’s just weird. It’s really strange," he says of the celeb response. "I work in a small world where I don’t deal with that many people, and then there is this outside world where everyone knows about what I’ve written about and done. And suddenly these people you’ve seen on television or on films for years are like on their computer chatting with you."
What celebrity wouldn't want to be quiche? Ja'mie is an insolent, disrespectful 17-year-old who denounces her 'thankless' parents and screeches "ILY! ILY so fucking much!" (ILY is an abbreviation of "I love you") at her horde of school friends when they have to part for longer than a math class. There is at least one offensive wisecrack per episode, but Ja'mie King is the girl you love to hate. Whether or not we'd like to admit it, we're all pining to be more quiche, and Chris Lilley tells us how he created his bile-factory of a character. So read on (everyone EXCEPT boarders)…
INVENT A WORD TO DESCRIBE YOUR TRUE SELF
"I thought it would be a funny idea to have a word," Lilley ponders. "It’s the idea that she’s inventing her own language. She’s come up with a word to describe herself that would be beyond hot, so yeah, I just thought it was within her character to do that." Was it always going to be quiche? "I had a page of different words and originally it was 'salad' and then I started to think American people would think I was saying 'solid' (with my accent). So I just wrote down quiche. There was a whole page of stupid words. There was couscous. I was going down the food road. But quiche just jumped out."
Ever since quiche entered the zeitgeist after leaving Ja'mie's slickly-glossed lips, it's swallowed up the public's imagination and become a soundboard for anything even remotely sexy. "It’s gone crazy here (in Australia). It’s used all the time now; people say it constantly. Lindsay Lohan is a massive fan of the show and in all her instagram shots she hashtags quiche."
FOLLOW THE SCRIPT… A BIT
As a paragon of private schoolgirls, Chris Lilley's parody is frighteningly accurate. He becomes another person (Master of Disguise style) through the pithy, cutting jokes he writes into the script. With all of Ja'mie's biting humour, does it allow for any room to go off script? "A little bit," Lilley says. "It’s totally scripted so it’s all planned out and the cast tend to follow exactly what’s in the script. So it’s much closer to the script than you’d imagine." Every so often, though, spontaneity plays its role: "It happens that I’ll expand on things when we’re shooting and I like to kind of throw extra things in just to stir up the cast and make them feel like anything could happen and that it’s a little bit live and real. But mostly, it’s planned out and all there."
Then there are those solo scenes, such as the one in episode four, where Ja'mie gives an aside to the camera about objects she might use to off herself. "I've had a few suicide attempts," she candidly offers as she gazes around the room, talking about the sharp objects her parents have hidden from her. "(Things like) my hair straighteners and stuff. Mum took that because she thought I might burn myself… to death." It's all very disturbing, and clearly feels non-scripted. "In those kind of scenes where I’m by myself I can say a whole lot of things that aren’t in the script," confides Lilley. "You can see in the DVD, there are a load of deleted scenes and you can get a sense of how we expand on the script in that way."
PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER
"Oh no, that was the worst," Lilley recalls when I ask about the filming the fart scene in episode four (blooper reel below). "I’ve never tried harder to get through a scene before. And the thing that was funny was I was scared the minute I’d written the scene. I was like, 'You are not going to get through this without laughing.' I was really nervous on the day – I didn’t tell anyone because I thought that would make me laugh even more. And then I just lost it."
The gratuitous blooper reel shows only a fraction of the takes. "I have a way of being the one that instigates the laughter but then makes it seem that everyone else is causing it. It’s scary when that happens on set because it’s so serious, you’ve got a schedule to get through and I’m watching the clock and it’s not as light and fun as you’d imagine when you see it. When you’re laughing in a scene, especially when it’s a scene that you’re directing and you’ve written, you just feel like a bit of an idiot."
Is that fart the real reason Mitchell (her two-episode boyfriend) breaks up with her? "I actually had a choice there. I just wanted to make a moment in the series where you actually felt a little bit sad for Ja’mie and then her turn around and her comeback is more triumphant, because she’s actually knocked down in a sad teenage love way. So originally in the script it was all about the fart and she goes to confront him, saying, 'Did you dump me because of the fart,' and he goes yes. And I know that sounds really funny but I decided to make it more of a sad, tragic moment. But yeah, he probably did."
ADD A LITTLE SHOCK FACTOR
Chris Lilley has nailed the documentary format (rivalled only by Attenborough). To get the side-splitting reactions from his real, teenage costars, Lilley sometimes has to resort to surprise. "I wanted to shock the girls with an actual photo (for Mitchell's dick pic) but I can’t be on set showing penis photos to teenage girls. So we found a baby’s arm and zoomed in. So I actually just showed them the picture first and they freaked out. And then I said, 'So you know you saw that picture and thought it was a dick? It was actually this.' And then zoomed out and showed them the baby so I sort of covered myself. It’s still weird though, showing them something that looks exactly like a dick."
"I tried to capture what teenage girls are really like and I said, 'You know what it’s like, guys sending you dick pics; that’s what really happens.' And they were like, 'No. That never happens.' According to them – I got that wrong. That doesn’t happen."
BE OFFENSIVE, BUT ONLY FOR COMEDIC VALUE
There have been a landslide of Op-Eds written about whether or not Lilley's lowest-common-denominator humour is plainly offensive or offensively clever. For every bright idea there is an equally wounding bit of shade, some of it toeing the line with what's socially acceptable. While it's all done in good fun, does Lilley feel some sort of moral responsibility for what he puts out? "Oh, yeah, a little bit," he concedes. "I hope people think it’s a joke and that I’m not homophobic and racist. I don’t want girls to have body image issues at all. It’s a parody of that kind of thing"
"I do worry a little bit that girls take it a bit seriously," continues Lilley. "The whole thing with Ja’mie is she’s not really suicidal and depressed or has huge body image issues. She’s so confident and takes her top of at any chance and is constantly bragging about her situation and I don’t know if she actually – you might know from the last episode (spoiler alert) – becomes a lesbian. So yeah, I do hope girls don’t take it too seriously but I’m not responsible for that. I’m doing a parody of what’s out there in popular culture."
“There were boarders that came to my DVD signing the other day, and they were like, 'You’ve ruined our reputation, everyone thinks we’re lesbians'”
Where Lilley mostly comes under fire is in the bigoted racism and homophobia. One group in particular is the scum of Hillford – boarders (read: girls who board at private schools). Ja'mie and her friends sneer at the boarders, calling them lesbians at every run-in. "I like to make scenes real so people think, 'Oh, he’s representing us. That’s just what he thinks.' There were boarders that came to my DVD signing the other day, and they were like, 'You’ve ruined our reputation, everyone thinks we’re lesbians', so I was like, 'Oh, I’m so sorry.'"
"(The actors) always knew what they were in for, like with the Asians and the boarders we’d talk to them before and be like, 'Well, she’s this kind of a girl and she’s going to say these awful things, but it’s funny'. It’d be hard not to be offended. With the boarders, at times it went a little bit too far beyond the script, but they say it back to me too. They’d say full-on stuff back to me.”
DON'T BE CREEPY
In the ultimate episode of the series (more spoilers), Ja'mie performs a signature dance routine with her sexy group of six to get back at the school's higher-ups. The girls bare all to the entire student body of Hillford, but the routine was the product of a couple of private practices. "We had so much stuff going on and we didn’t have time to practice, so I knew the dance was going to be really simple," says Lilley. "We all knew what we were doing but the girls were really nervous about it. I thought it was going to be really fun and cool and the girls were scared because they didn't want to take their clothes off in front of other girls and I kept saying to them, 'No offence – but everyone’s going to be looking at me so you don’t have to worry,'" he laughs.
“The girls were scared because they didn't want to take their clothes off in front of other girls and I kept saying to them, 'No offence – but everyone’s going to be looking at me”
"I wanted the girls to rehearse the stripping off scene alone in a room but we were so pushed for time we didn’t have the time to, so I was like, 'Okay – I’m going to come into the room and we’re going to drop our clothes off but I won’t be looking at you guys because I’ll be standing in front of you. So you won’t have to worry about me being an old pervert because I can’t look at you. And I’m not anyway," he sidesteps. "We went into the room to do it and there was a massive wall of mirrors. So we were all walking towards these mirrors and I could see all of them so it went against exactly what I’d said. But once we’d done it, it was fine. It’s like you’re going to the beach and I’m the one taking my bra off here!"
Ja'mie: Private School Girl premieres Thursday, February 6th at 10pm on BBC3