Writer-director Matthew Saville discusses his film A Month of Sundays and TV show Please Like Me at TIFF15.
In the last couple of years, Australian writer-director Matthew Saville has become known to North American audiences for his stellar work on the comedy-drama Please Like Me. Combining gorgeously composed establishing shots, stationary long takes, and his now-trademark overhead shot, Saville created a truly unique aesthetic for this little TV gem.
Saville is also an experienced film writer-director, and his new film, A Month of Sundays, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s the story of recently divorced real estate agent Frank (Anthony LaPaglia) whose world gets turned upside down when he gets a call from an elderly woman, Sarah (Julia Blake). Sarah thinks she’s talking to her son, and for a few minutes, Frank forgets that his actual mother is dead, and mistakes her for his own. Those few minutes are enough to bring Frank and Sarah into an unconventional friendship as surrogate mother and son.
Saville applies the same compassion and care with actors in A Month of Sundays as he did on Please Like Me. The material covers well-trodden territory at an often clunky pace, but Saville elicits strong performances from his lead actors who perfectly convey the light and the dark elements of Saville’s script. I sat down with Saville to talk about his work on the film and how it compared to Please Like Me.
The Seventh Row (7R): What’s the difference between directing your own material versus material written by someone else?
Matthew Saville (MS): It is quite different. The thing about directing your own stuff is that you kind of know it. When you’re doing other stuff that’s originated from someone else, there’s a bit more detective work. You have to sort of investigate what the intentions were and interpret it. It’s like being in a dark, unfamiliar room and sort of feeling your way around, occasionally bumping into the furniture. But after a while, you sort of get to know what it’s like. I’ve been very fortunate.
This film that I’m here with, it’s the first time I’ve directed — apart from a few shorts and things — something that I’ve written for about eight years. As much as I enjoy working collaboratively with other people on their stuff, I realized I was sort of itchy to get back into some of the stuff that I’ve been doing. I enjoy both but they’re very different.
7R: Because you direct so much of other people’s stuff, does that affect how you write?
MS: I don’t have a writing process, really. It’s a simple case of just a muse descending. People will say, “How did you come up with the idea for something?” I don’t know, it just popped into my head. When I do write, I just start at the beginning and hope that I can get to the end. And there’s a lot of times when you don’t, when you get to page 30, and you just run out of steam. It goes into the sock drawer and doesn’t come back out again.
7R: How did you figure out the rhythm for this film?
MS: I’m not entirely sure I did. There’s one review recently that said the film takes its sweet time. I guess it does. Please Like Me is just “snap, snap, snap.” In “Month of Sundays,” there are just a lot more pauses. The pace is different.
With framing and the editing rhythm, it is a little bit different with television and film, simply because of the size of the screen that you’re watching it on. We had a cast and crew screening of the first new episodes of the new season of Please Like Me and we had it on a big screen. We rented out a big cinema to screen it. We’d been watching it for weeks in the edit suite, but when it’s thrown up on the big screen, it’s a completely different experience. It’s actually a bit discombobulating. There are too many cuts: it went too fast. It was hard to follow.
7R: Do you find that in order to do something on the big screen, you have to slow it down?
MS: I do personally, but I guess it’s the style of the director and the style of the film. If you go see the Marvel films, they go a million miles an hour, and it works, obviously. I tend to get attracted to stuff that is a little more evenly paced. I love watching those action films, but when I watch them, I keep on imagining in my head what the pre-production meeting for that scene would’ve been like. I could just never get through that. Like, “So of these 80 cars you’re going to be blowing up, how many of them do you want to be red?”
I like it simple. Month of Sundays is about a couple of knuckleheads sitting in baggy suits in empty houses…what could go wrong? I enjoy that. If you’re not swamped with all the logistics, you can actually start investigating characterization and the drama. It’s the same with Please Like Me. It’s generally people sitting around the kitchen table saying funny stuff to each other.
7R: How do you think about framing your actors? On this film and also in Please Like Me, you often have a lot of actors in the frame. It’s great that you can see how they’re interacting with each other. How do you decide how to block that and shoot it that way?
MS: In Month of Sundays, I was holding things off in wide shots, and some things were like one shot wonders. I think, subconsciously, the reason I do it, certainly with Please Like Me and to an extent, Month of Sundays, putting as many people in the frame as you can makes sense, because they’re about family and about how people interact and react to each other, and are influenced by each other. It kind of feels like the right thing to do rather than isolate them in their own frame.
7R: What is your process on set for that? Do you do a lot of rehearsals and blocking?
MS: It changes based on the material and who you’re working with. With Please Like Me, because it’s that particular group of people, it has a fairly unique process. There’s less protocol, in a sense. There’s more amorphous division of responsibility. With Month of Sundays, it was actually a bit more linear. You also have a cast of very seasoned actors, so you fit within the protocols a little bit more. It’s more that process of do a read off the page, do a rough blocking, rehearse, set up the camera, and go.
I don’t really have a set style. It’s kind of like a dinner party. Whatever is happening on the day, you sort of just go with it, as long as you’re just keeping it light and making the cast feel safe and feel as though they can experiment and muck around — that there’s no way they can embarrass themselves. However you can make people feel comfortable to do their work, that’s sort of the job.
A Month of Sundays had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.