[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
“Noise” turns the police thriller genre inside out by exploring the ripple effects of a heinous crime rather than the splash. Set in a close-nit, suburban community in Australia, a hearing-impaired constable is assigned to a police caravan near the scene of two recent, horrific acts. Writer/director Matthew Saville uses the young constable to both sharpen and mystify the POV as the cop mixes with the guilty and suspicious citizens to uncover a deeper horror. Saville is an admired Australian film and television director who began by designing titles for TV. His one-hour film, “Roy Hollsdotter Live,” won awards at the 2003 Sydney Film Festival, as well as at the Australian Writers’ Guild Awards. “Noise” screens as part Sundance’s World Dramatic competition.
Please introduce yourself…
I was born Adelaide, South Australia in 1966. When I was nineteen, I dropped out of a Bachelor of Arts degree and moved to Melbourne to study Graphic Design, but even then, my passion was for film. My plan was to cut my teeth in advertising and then move on to features – like the 80’s British directors, Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lynne did. Like most good plans, it went horribly awry, and I instead spent seven miserable years working on catalogues for a department store.
How did you learn about filmmaking?
I never got anywhere near a motion picture camera until I finally summoned the courage to quit my day job and apply for film school. I was 29 when I undertook a Postgraduate degree in Film at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Film and Television. After graduating, divided my time between writing, and shooting short, self funded films. In the late Nineties a sort of de facto collective of unemployed Melbourne cineastes emerged (sometimes in cafes, mostly in bars) and, without really noticing, I became one of them. We worked day jobs, and then, on weekends, worked on each others’ films. Most weekends I was working on a film in some capacity – assistant director, sound recordist, runner, caterer, grip, gaffer, best boy… All unpaid, of course, but I loved every minute of it. And the directors of those films returned the favour by doing grunt work on my films.
So somehow – through begging and borrowing, but mostly stealing – this small enclave of wannabes managed to produce twenty, thirty, sometimes forty films a year, for little more than the cost of stock and processing. The films were as rough as guts, but they were ours. Somehow, all this led to a gig directing sketch comedy for TV, and I’ve been in the fortunate and enviable position of being employed as director ever since. I can only hope this good fortune continues. It’s the best job on the planet.
How did the initial idea come about for “Noise”?
We describe the film as a psychological drama. It has genre elements, undeniably, but the intention of the film is that it is a character study. It is about ordinary people cast into extraordinary circumstances. It is, I hope, a film that celebrates humanity.
The script has evolved a great deal since, but I started writing the screenplay the day after the Port Arthur Massacre, a tragic morning in August 1997 when Martin Bryant, a lonely and deeply troubled young man killed thirty five people in a shooting spree at a popular tourist destination in Tasmania.
I wasn’t interested in the event itself. What fascinated me was the pall, the painful, unspeakable silence that consumed the country in the days and weeks afterward. I felt the same collective grief on September 12. What fascinates me most is our resilience, and the strength and nobility we can summon through the process of grieving.
What is your approach to filmmaking?
I saw some graffiti once that read; “life is mostly preparation and mopping up”. I think the same can be said about the process of filmmaking. As a director, you divide the vast majority of your time between concocting plans and abandoning them when they go horribly awry.
I do storyboards, but rarely refer to them afterwards. They are useful to do, I suppose, because they force you to think visually, and to immerse yourself in the detail of the script’s universe. Generally, though, I prefer to concoct shooting strategies on set, blocking the camera around what the actors generate in rehearsals. I try to remain flexible, and to minimize the encumbrances the task of filmmaking can often create for actors. I’ve seen the technical necessities of filmmaking suffocate some performances, so I try to create a working environment for the cast that is relaxed, that celebrates their craft and invites them to trust their own instincts.
Often a location, or an unexpected moment can influence the film in ways greater than any that can be prepared. The way a road can shimmer at night after an unexpected downpour, for instance, or an anecdote related by a crew member can often inform what ultimately appears on screen. I relish those happy accidents and try to be open to them, and to recognize them when they come.
What are your overall goals for the project?
I suppose if I had a goal for the film, it was that it would be honest. I’m wary of honing a film to appeal to a perceived audience, because I believe audiences, universally, respond to stories told passionately, unapologetically and truthfully.
How did the financing for the film come together?
After a long development process supported by Film Victoria and the Australian Film Commission, “Noise” was given production funding by Film Victoria and the Film Finance Corporation of Australia, after a distribution sale to Madman Entertainment, and a licensing sale to television broadcaster, SBS Independent.
Madman’s support for the film is really what activated the other funds. It is a first for them to be involved in a film from script stage, and it was a bold move on their part to support it. I’m also incredibly grateful to SBS Independent for their support of the film.
“Noise” also represents one of the first fruits of a change in policy at the Film Finance Corporation. It was among the first projects to be “green lit” under what is known as an “evaluation stream”. Previously, the body’s policy was to support films that had raised 40% of their budgets, regardless of the quality or nature of the film. The “evaluation stream” allowed them to give higher levels of support to projects that had merit but would be, for whatever reason” difficult to finance.
The wonderful thing about the film’s selection for Sundance is that it vindicates their support.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
We didn’t want to make a film that was easy to categorize. Even after completing the film, I find it difficult to describe. The script was often criticized for “subverting genre norms” and “undermining audience expectations”. By the same token, some readers enjoyed the script for exactly the same reasons. “Noise” wasn’t a film we could pitch as a commercial exercise. The fact that we intended to cast relative unknowns exacerbated this. Very few Australian films have turned a profit, because there is only a population of 20 million people, so there is often pressure to create work that will “travel” well. This can sometimes mean that films are honed to appeal to a broad audience. Some films suffer as a result. We were keen for the film would find an audience outside of Australia, but we were not prepared to lose the film’s particular, Antipodean voice in order to do so. We wanted to create a portrait of the Australians, our national character. We wanted to make an international film with an Australian voice, and this was often a difficult proposition to make.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
Since being invited to Sundance, I’ve been regaled with stories about “the Sundance experience”. It sounds exciting and intimidating. I’m looking forward to meeting filmmakers from around the globe, seeing their films. As the Sundance screening will be the World Premiere I’m looking forward to watching my film with an audience.
Describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
I got an SMS from the Producer, Trevor Blainey, saying we were in. I still have that message on my phone. I will never delete it. My first instinct was to nearly burst into tears, but I’m an Australian male, so I suppressed it and went with my second instinct, which was a growing suspicion that we were exploiting some typographical or administrative error. To this day, I wonder whether there’s a really great film called “Nose”.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
I guess there are two answers to this question. The straight answer is, “anything produced outside of the studio system”. But if that was the case, every film made outside the United States and Bollywood would, by definition, be independent. I feel there is another definition though, which postures an argument about an “independent spirit”. But this isn’t easy to define. I believe there are studio pictures with an independent spirit, just as there are “indie” films without it. For me, an independent film has a voice. And this voice speaks with honesty.
What are some of your favorite films, and why?
“It’s a Wonderful Life” will always be my favourite film, mostly for sentimental reasons. It is exquisite. Otherwise there is an ever changing list, the vast majority of which were made in America during the ’70s. The work of Altman, Lumet, Coppola, Scorsese, Ashby, George Roy Hill et al, remain as luminous and modern as the day they were photographed.
I also enjoy British films of the 80’s. “Withnail and I“, and “Local Hero” from Handmade Films, or anything produced by David Puttnam.
This might sound parochial, but Peter Weir is yet to make a film that isn’t a masterpiece.
Of contemporary filmmakers, I admire the work of Michael Winterbottom, PT Anderson, Michel Gondry, Michael Mann and Spike Jonze.
In general, though, I share the sentiment expressed by John Cassavetes. I just love films, and am grateful there are people who create them.
What is your top ten list for 2006?
I have a son who will be two in February. In 2006 I made a feature, a telemovie and a short film, so I only managed to see one film this year. I say this to my shame. There’s a long list of films I want to catch next year. The one film I did manage to see was Paul Greengrass’ “United 93“, which I thought was an extraordinary achievement.
What are your New Years resolutions?
Buy thermal underwear. See more films.
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