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MONOLITH Director Matt Vesely and Lily Sullivan Talk Low-Budget Filmmaking

Hey, friends. Barbarella here. In the sci-fi/thriller, MONOLITH, a disgraced journalist (Lily Sullivan) begins investigating a strange conspiracy theory that leads her uncomfortably close to home. The film, which is now in theaters and on demand, begins in darkness, which always makes me think there’s an issue with my set-up. It gradually adds images and camera movement as the story progresses, ensuring a level of engagement that may have otherwise been difficult to achieve with a single performer on screen. While Lily Sullivan’s performance proves alluring enough, the additional effort to keep audiences captivated makes MONOLITH even better. 

Lily Sullivan as The Interviewer in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, MONOLITH, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA. 

I had the opportunity to chat with Australian director Matt Vesely and actor Lily Sullivan about the experience. Check it out! 

Barbara: Matt, how did this project find you or you find it?

Matt: It was born out of a filmmaker’s lab here in South Australia called the Film Lab: New Voices program that one of our state-funded film bodies and a local film festival put together. The idea is you apply as a team, so I applied with Bettina [Hamilton], the producer, and Lucy [Campbell], the writer. If you got selected, you would develop the film for a year from scratch. We had a few half-page ideas which we went in with. You develop it for a year, and then if you’re successful, you knew you would get this low budget to make it, so the three of us developed this idea together to kind of fit that program and budget. From the very jump, you’re thinking about how you’re gonna make it as well as what it’s gonna be. We had this idea early on, can we do an alien invasion story with one actor and one location? That is partly and hopefully an exciting thing for the film that makes it stand out and makes it more interesting, but it’s also something that makes it practical in that budget. If it’s about one actor, then who is that person, and why do they get to tell the story? We had some really great experiences working to develop that arc and make sure that it was not a gimmick film. 

Barbara: Lily, what was it like for you essentially carrying an entire movie?

Lily: It was a very wild, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime, terrifying experience. There wasn’t much time to think because it was 15 days, shot in chronological order, hit the ground running, learn it like theater, script front to back. Matt is such a brilliant director. Not having anyone else in my department, it was just so wonderful when a director lives in the edit and can do this dance with you. You’re not alone, so it just feels like there’s a deep collaboration, and that you’re not just isolated and on the other side of the camera.

 Lily Sullivan as The Interviewer in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, MONOLITH, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.  Matt: In an ideal world, you’d have all the voice cast there live to read off [the lines]. We didn’t have that flexibility [within] our meager means, so we had one actor, [Ansuya Nathan] literally down the hall, hooked up with a microphone and literally pumped into Lily’s headphones. She’s a great actor and writer in her own right, so I could just trust and leave her to her own devices. You’re not getting a first AD just reading the lines off, but you’ve got someone that you can work against. No one could replace that. You could ask Ansuya to do things that we’d never use either like, “Could you just yell at me in this line so I’ve got something to kind of build off?” 

Lily: Totally. Once you’re on how many hours of being filmed, I’m like, “I can’t.” My eyes aren’t even working. When you take away the visual feast of another person and being able to bounce off of someone else, even just reacting to their body language, just different things to absorb, the object is to try little tactics to keep yourself alert. Keep yourself engaged.

Matt: I think the moment where we realized how lucky we were to have Lily was about three days in. We did one of the big conversations of the film. We’re doing a really close-up shot. I was sitting behind the split with Lucy, the writer. There’s quite a long section in that that Lily’s is not speaking; she’s just listening, and she was so captivating. Watching her listen was so interesting that we were like “Okay, the film’s gonna work.”  There’s so much storytelling going on in her eyes, you have to engage with her. That was the moment, yeah.

Lily Sullivan as The Interviewer in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, MONOLITH, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.  Lily: Listening is hard.

Matt: Especially when you’re being watched while you’re listening.

Lily: Totally. 

Barbara: What is the challenge with directing vocal performances? Did you approach that differently than you do on-screen performers? 

Matt: I think so, because of the way our set-up kind of worked. A lot of them were remote - I was doing them on Zoom. You can’t get into it as much. We were very lucky. I mean that voice cast that we had within Australia, it’s an incredibly experienced cast, lots of great TV and film actors, so they were all so professional, much more experienced than I, and really could just hit the ground running. They do ADR, they’re so used to that, and so they’re really good. It was funny because we’re doing them in post-production, and we had a kind of tight post. Some of them, we’d already edited the scene, and they’re kind of having to fit Lily‘s performance and just kind of match, and I had to give horrible direction like, “Okay, that was great. Can you do it three seconds faster?” because it didn’t quite fit in the gap, but I can’t change it now. Normally, that’s never how I’d like to work, but that’s the whole philosophy of this project. You’re just trying to make things work and make things happen, but all those actors are actually really up for that. You feel terrible directing these really experienced, beautiful actors, and just telling them to go quicker, “just spread it out,” and I was like “I’m so sorry to give you that terrible note,” but they were really good about it. They were like, “No,no, no, that’s great. It’s great to know what we’re doing.” It was a very different experience. I so lived in the edit by that point that I kind of knew the story in a way that you don’t when you’re on set. On set, you’re kind of finding it. There I was; I know what it is. I just need you to get there.

Barbara: I think one of the challenges with this type of movie is keeping it engaging visually for the audience members. How did you go about choosing what you wanted to show on screen? 

 Lily Sullivan as The Interviewer in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, MONOLITH, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.  Matt: As a first-time director, I think one of the blessings of that is that there’s a narrower focus in terms of creative. It was like every idea from the cinematography to the sound design to the production design, all of the departments, there’s only one thing that we’re trying to do, and that’s make this interesting with one actor. That’s the whole point of every scene. There were just a lot of discussions with the whole team. I worked really closely with Mike, the cinematographer, to build this chapter document. We broke up the film into these sequences. We knew where the major turning points of the film were and made sure that each of those chapters had really clear visual rules and that they were constantly changing, in essence. The opening of the film is no picture, then you can’t see Lily’s face, then you can see Lily’s face, but the camera doesn’t move, then the camera starts to move, then she’s off frame as things start to get weird. It just gradually escalates. It’s stuff that I don’t think an audience is thinking about. They’re not sitting there going “Ah, look at these different changes,” but I do think they feel it. It just keeps a sense of a sort of psychological journey of that character. Because we shot chronologically, if you put the beginning of the film next to the end of the film, Lily looks like a different person. She’s really kind of shifting and changing over that, which is also testament to K. Gower, our makeup artist, to find those shifts. Luckily, you’re just finding ways to kind of keep it alive. A lot of these one-actor films have a real time component. [In] something like LOCKE or THE GUILTY, there’s a mystery happening right now, someone’s getting kidnapped. You gotta deal with it. Ours is all about stories being told from the past, so we really needed that visual thread to kind of build and change.

Barbara: Yeah, I liked it because it kind of kept the momentum alive. 

Matt: Exactly. 

Barbara: Lily, what did you find most daunting and/or exciting about this project?

Lily Sullivan as The Interviewer in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, MONOLITH, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.  Lily: Definitely being alone was the most daunting. Exciting was the ultimate challenge through this program, not trying to fit this high conceptual piece into a low budget. It’s like building up from the roots. It was just so evident in Lucy‘s writing and then also once talking to Matt and seeing the treatment, it was so exciting to see this total acknowledgment of what this is and how we’re going to execute it and make it this high-level beautiful cinematic piece from Michael Tessari, who’s amazing. It was just really exciting to get down and actually execute something that feels really terrifying to do and also so exposing. Yeah, it was daunting to be alone but also just amazing to see. It’s like this is creating suspense and creating the world and making people sort of sit in an unhinged position.

Barbara: What is your take on unexplained phenomena? 

Lily: I’m about it. I’m about it. In a sense, to think that it doesn’t exist or to think that everything is already understood would just be so boring, so boring. 

Matt: I’m pretty pragmatic. I sort of just deal with what’s in front of me. I do think that, of course, humanity has a certain hubris when we think we know everything, and of course, we don’t. I think in terms of this film, I think I was more interested in the idea of when there is something that we can’t explain, how do we respond to it? That was what I was kind of interested in. How do we manipulate the truth to kind of fit our own vision of the world or what we want from the world or what we want from other people? To me, that is what’s really fascinating. I think, in terms of stories, I love stories that are tough to explain and are tough to rationalize, because I feel so pragmatic in the real world. That’s what I look for stories for, things that I can’t quite wrap my head around. I love that feeling, that meaning just outside my grasp.  I think when you overexplain a story, it’s never satisfying, even if it’s the best version you could come up with of what’s actually happening. It feels demystifying, and ultimately you just get a bit let down. That feeling of being unsure on your feet is something I’m really interested in in stories.

Lily Sullivan as The Interviewer in the Sci-Fi Thriller film, MONOLITH, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.   Barbara: Where do you stand on podcasters - diabolical or good for the world? 

Matt: What I think is so interesting – and this is all kinds of social media and the way we propagate information now, YouTube, TikTok, and podcasts – is the breadth of it. Some of it is really fantastic. There are incredible journalists making amazing podcasts. Democratization of news is really helpful in many ways. It lets new perspectives and voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard be heard. These things are so positive about it, but because anyone can do it, and the way that the algorithm kind of chooses to push controversial topics or reinforce your beliefs or whatever, it’s also really terrible at the same time. That’s why I’m fascinated by it, not because it’s a medium that has no value – of course, it has value. That’s why it’s so dangerous, right? It’s really interesting. We can’t get rid of it. It’s part of us now.

Lily: It’s so funny. I was doing an interview the other day, and this woman was telling me how her seven-year-old wants to start a podcast, and they’ve been doing it the last couple weeks. A seven-year old knows what a podcast is and is asking questions. It’s just so funny that that’s now in the sphere of a seven-year-old. But also it’s just so much noise in this world. Some part of me I love, I love, I love it, and then other parts [find it] quite nauseating. You know, playing the interviewer in this, just the narcissistic and sort of self-loathing and desire to be something and say something noteworthy, it’s like we kind of ruminate in that world a little bit more, trying to make a meal out of something that’s just a pile of dust, in a sense.

Matt: The noise is the thing. That’s the whole issue. In order to be heard, you really have to find a way to cut through, and it’s completely understandable. That’s the same in filmmaking, but to cut through this huge noise, maybe you have to make an unethical choice or make things sound a bit more salacious than they are, do something that’s going to get people to listen. [The fact] that that’s suddenly becoming the purpose of what you’re making is dangerous.

MONOLITH is now in theaters and on digital. Here’s a link to order. Also, check out the trailer below!             



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