Having gone through the AFC's SP*RK script development hothouse in 2004, Matthew Saville's debut feature Noise finished shooting in Melbourne earlier this month. Noise begins with a massacre on a suburban train and follows the ripples of the tragedy's aftermath across the city of Melbourne.
Prior to Noise, Matthew directed a range of television projects and his award-winning mini-feature Roy Höllsdotter Live (2002) enjoyed multiple festival and television screenings, most recently as part of SBS's Fresh series of new Australian dramas. Roy revolves around a Melbourne stand-up comedian and the breakdown of his long term relationship, displaying a rare degree of emotional sensitivity and amply demonstrating Matthew's ability to evoke an intensely atmospheric setting.
Dan Edwards spoke to Matthew about his debut feature and the SP*RK process a few days after shooting was completed on Noise.
Noise went through the AFC's SP*RK script hothouse in 2004. Can you tell me about the impact SP*RK had on the script's development?
Noise was at its eighth draft when it got to SP*ARK, and it has to be noted that those early drafts were supported by Film Victoria. But the opportunity to attend a hothouse was presented by the AFC and we latched on to it, because we felt the film was at a stage where it could really benefit from the experience. I heard about Cate Shortland's experience at Aurora [the NSW FTO's script development workshop], where she went in with Somersault and emerged with a draft that had retained something like six lines from what she went in with. My experience was the opposite of that, in that the percentage of change was small. But what we did change was incredibly precise - almost surgical - small changes that greatly affected the outcome. There were also a lot of conversations I had at SP*RK that informed me as a director when I had to engage with actors and heads of departments about the text. You get challenged by having very clever writers and directors like Michael Brindley and Ken Cameron ask you very precise questions about certain aspects of your script. It forces you to think about it, and it had a deep effect on the person the cast and crew had on set when I came to shoot the film.
What was the inspiration for the story of Noise?
Port Arthur. I actually started writing a draft the day after the massacre, and had about 60 per cent of the film's plot 24 hours later - so that was April 29, 1996. I had a complete draft early the following year.
Have you been trying to make the project since then, or has it taken this long for you to feel ready to make it?
A little bit of both. I knew it was a substantial project and a challenging one, and 10 years ago I would have been ill-advised to try and direct it. So the game plan was always to develop other projects that would get me up to speed. All the work I've done in film or television has, on some level, been working towards this project. My producer Trevor Blainey and I always felt our mini-feature Roy Höllsdotter Live was something that would help us make Noise. It wasn't that we didn't think of Roy as a project in and of itself, but we were aware of Noise as a project we had in development, and were thinking about whether Roy could help us on the journey you have to take in order to get a feature made.
Do you think the hothouse process works best when you have a script that is at a reasonably late stage of development?
All I can say is that worked best for me. I'd feel too naked and exposed if I went there with an early draft, but it's impossible to make a blanket statement.
Has SP*RK changed the way you go about writing?
I'm not one of those guys that has a set process or system. I just sit down and write until I get to the end, and then I go back and write it again and again. Nobody came in at SP*RK and said "this is the way you write a good script", which was quite a relief. It was Trevor Blainey's idea for us to go, and at first I was quite dubious, because I thought it would be one of those idiotic scriptwriting boot camps, where we'd have to sit down and define our three-act structure. But it wasn't like that at all. It was about making the project clearer in my mind and preparing me to take the script out to the market and discuss it. Everyone will describe a different experience, but for me it was a holistic one; it wasn't just a writer's experience or a director's. It was an indelible part of the ongoing experience of making this film.
One of the key criticisms being levelled at Australian cinema a few years ago was the poor quality of many scripts. Do you think SP*RK and the various other script hothouse schemes have succeeded in raising the standard of Australian screen writing?
That remains to be seen, but I think there is a complex process that needs to take place if we want to improve Australian films, and a lot of really positive stuff has already happened in the past 18 months to two years. One of them is the emergence of these hothouses. Another is the evaluation stream at the FFC. I think previously the FFC were stymied by their own charter and obliged to support films simply because the producers had managed to get the 40 per cent of the budget that triggered the 60 percent the FFC were chartered to provide. The FFC are of course obliged to support commercial projects, but in order for the industry to be vital and attract Australian audiences we need to provide something else. Americans aren't going to tell us about Australia, they aren't going to dissect our society and discuss it. So to get back to your question, there's recently been a lot of positive things done and I'm quite optimistic they will pay dividends. The film output in the next two to three years will be far more interesting that what we were seeing a few years ago.
One of the great strengths of Roy Höllsdotter Live was the strong sense of place evoked by the film, with its setting in Melbourne's smoky stand-up clubs. Is the city of Melbourne an important inspiration for your work generally?
I think it is - more than I'm consciously aware of. I don't sit down and think "I'm going to write the quintessential Melbourne film", but I end up writing scripts that people say have to be set there. I love Melbourne, and I do write specific Melbourne suburbs into my scripts. And we try to shoot there. Roy was a strange one because people felt it evoked a St Kilda of the mid- to late-90s, which was a St Kilda I knew. But I shot the film in 2002, mostly in Fitzroy. Yet there's people who swear that the café the main character hangs around is in St Kilda. But I was there at the shoots in north Melbourne… [laughs]…By the same token we also shot in the Gershwin Room at the Espy [St Kilda's Esplanade Hotel], which is a Melbourne icon, especially in the comedy scene. So it was deeply grounded in that regard.
Noise is centred around public spaces. The cataclysmic, catalytic event that occurs at the beginning and defines the rest of the film occurs on a suburban train. So we have something extraordinary happening somewhere quite ordinary and familiar. And the vast majority of the film takes place on a fairly nondescript shopping strip in the outer suburbs. So I'm interested in that notion of the familiar; if you explore the familiar it becomes unfamiliar and beautiful and you don't have to go to Kakadu to make a beautiful film. So I do get obsessed with place - and time and rhythm as well.
Do you have any plans for post-Noise projects?
None whatsoever. The past decade of my professional life has been dedicated towards making this film. All through pre-production I kept saying to Trevor Blainey; "Let's not make this our calling card in order to garner interest so we can do the big Hollywood deal or be inundated with scripts. Let's do it because we want to show the world this film." So I've worked on this as if it were my last.
Noise is due to be completed in late 2006 and distributed by Madman Cinema in 2007.