Matthew Saville is the director of the new Australian film A MONTH OF SUNDAYS. It combines drama and comedy to tell the story of Frank, a down-on-his-luck real estate agent. His mother died a year ago. He and his wife have been split for eight months. His son isn’t talking to him. And he is having difficulty selling houses.
Frank (Anthony LaPaglia) gets a call from a voice that sounds like his mother. It turns out to be a wrong number from Sarah (Julia Blake). Something about the incident intrigues him and he visits the caller of the wrong number. Sarah turns out to be a retired librarian in her 70s. There is something about her that he finds inspiring. Her adult son does not necessarily understand what Frank is up to and neither does Frank.
This is the unusual territory that Saville has claimed for his film. There’s something low-key and possibly spiritual going on, but neither of these practical characters would describe their meeting in such a way. Frank needs to work his life out. Will meeting Sarah help him along his path?
Mathew Saville is a filmmaker well versed in Australian television and movies. On TV, his directorial work includes CLOUDSTREET, PLEASE LIKE ME, Chris Lilley’s WE CAN BE HEROES and Stephen Curry’s Graham Kennedy biopic THE KING. His other feature films are NOISE (2007) and FELONY (2013).
Although Saville’s feature has a serious side, his sense of humour was clear during the interview. He laughs even more than is indicated and suggests at one point that he is working on a sequel where the Frank character receives another phone call, this time from his late father. Family is a subject that runs deeply through the film.
A/REEL: Who do you see as the film’s audience?
SAVILLE: My mum and dad. I have these great parents. My dad was a real estate agent and my mum was a teacher, so the two lead characters are in a strange way based on them. Spiritually anyway. My dad sold houses and my mum taught kids to read back in the 1970s. She taught English as a second language. In hindsight, I knew how noble that profession was. And although my dad sold houses, he thought of it as finding places for families to grow up. That was his attitude, which I didn’t realise at the time, but I did later in life.
A/REEL: You worked your parents out eventually.
SAVILLE: Well you have your own kids and you go, “I get it.”
A/REEL: Frank is middle aged and working out what that means.
SAVILLE: Exactly. My dad said to me that he remembers walking down the street and he was younger than most people, and then one day he was older. And he remembered the first day he was on public transport when someone offered their seat up to him, and he was like, “Really? I’m here now?” And that’s Frank, he’s at that juncture in his life. He’s more than half way through.
A/REEL: It seems like he’s feeling what he’s achieved isn’t all that great.
SAVILLE: He’s got some catching up to do. He’s spent more than 50% of his life and now he’s got to where he is. That’s where we land the audience at the beginning of the film; in an empty house with Frank. He’s in his early 50s. He’s in a bad suit, sitting in a horrible house, that he has to sell. (laughs)
A/REEL: Frank seems to fear being completely abandoned by others.
SAVILLE: He screwed up his own life and the only way he can think to make amends is by helping Sarah and her son. I hope the audience sees how his experience with Sarah will help him with his own family. I think men at this juncture in their life have a lot of bruises and disappointments and the initial response is usually anger. Frank is a lucky guy because he is shown that anger isn’t the only way. He sees that beyond those bruises is love. And life.
A/REEL: Frank often responds with humour, but beneath would you say he’s angry?
SAVILLE: At the beginning of the film, he’s furious, but he gets this wrong number that turns out to be a lifeline. This sort of thing has happened to me. You get redirected and see things in a new way.
A/REEL: The film shows us family at every level.
SAVILLE: When you’re middle aged, you’re responsible for a child and you’re also responsible for a parent who was responsible for you, when you were a child. And you have this obligation. The central theme of the film is being “middle guy”. You’ve got two problems, your kids and your parents. (laughs) But you can’t complain about it because your kids are going to have this problem and your parents once had it.
A/REEL: You’ve directed a lot of television comedy. Is comedy a touchstone for you?
SAVILLE: I like mixing it up. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. A show like THE SLAP was pure drama, but for me there was plenty of funny stuff in there. PLEASE LIKE ME is a comedy, but there’s a lot that is dramatic and very intense. When I read those scripts, they were just “there” already, even in the first season and Josh (Thomas) has really developed as a storyteller. It’s all based in truth and that’s a great place to start as a director because I don’t have to invent reasons for the scene to be.
A/REEL: Has PLEASE LIKE ME been understood better outside of Australia than within in it?
SAVILLE: It’s probably better understood outside of the production! (laughs). Josh and Todd (Abbott), who’s a producer, and I, share these links from the Interwebs, there are all these people commenting on the show and quite often we say (to each other), “Gosh I wish we’d thought of that.” (laughs) There’s all this meaning that has been ascribed to it. I had that experience with CLOUDSTREET as well. The response for that went beyond our understanding and Winton admitted to me that it’s beyond his as well.
A/REEL: In A MONTH OF SUNDAYS the Wendy character is acting in a medical drama. Is it something of a tribute to your old show THE SURGEON?
SAVILLE: Oh! You got that! (laughs) That is such an in-joke between me and Justine (Clarke). She read the script and said, “Yeah, I know what you’re doing,” And I said, “Yeah of course that’s what I’m doing.” (laughs) We got her back in scrubs. It was a good show, I don’t know why it didn’t get a second series. That was a big break for me. John Edwards (producer) gave me the opportunity to set that show up. It was my first time as the set-up director on a drama series.
A/REEL: Both THE SURGEON and your film NOISE show you like taking risks with form.
SAVILLE: In some ways it’s very easy to take risks with a feature film compared with a TV show. In television, they want you to “bed the show down” and for it to exist for years. They have to decide what the show is.
A/REEL: You seem to take a very simple approach to A MONTH OF SUNDAYS?
SAVILLE: We knew what we wanted to do before we even got the cameras out of the box. It was about finding the simplest way to do it. I don’t have to do a dolly shot or a crane shot. I don’t have to have soaring violins. Let’s see if we can do it without any of that stuff.
A/REEL: It seems to be a film where you let the audience find the story. You’re not spoon-feeding us.
SAVILLE: Thank you, that’s music to my ears. That’s the film I wanted to make. We all wanted to make that film. People see it and do half the work themselves.
A/REEL: Anthony LaPaglia’s performance really keeps us watching.
SAVILLE: Anthony flew all the way from LA to support the film. It’s a tiny little film. What little we paid him, he spent on the wrap party and the crew gifts. His commitment is totally emotional. I feel very grateful that an actor of his calibre and experience committed his time. Two weeks after we wrapped, he sent me an email saying, “I miss being Frank.” (laughs) So I think he got something out of it.