By Jenny Paola Ortega Castillo.

When you’ve only got one actor, you’re constantly thinking about how to make it cinematic…. Our film is about people telling stories from their past; it’s a slower burn and about piecing together a mystery.”

Matt Vesely’s ‘Monolith’ is a remarkable eerie sci-fi mystery that will send shivers down your spine. Even though it brilliantly pays homage to Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’, it manages to carve out its own unique identity; specially, for its claustrophobic environment based upon its outstanding single on-screen performance, its disturbing visuals, unsettling sound practical effects and an ideal filming location that turns a modern house on a spooky mansion enveloped in misty gray landscapes. We feel captive just as Lily, with an escalating fear that allows suspense in its greater form, just as if we were also being watched. 

It delves into as many unhinged options as possible to keep us unsettled and at the edge of our seats, it is a story of mental illness and paranoia, of the ghosts of the past as they linger in our present and the high likelihood of being taken by extraterrestrial beings.

I talked to Matt Vesely about this and many other questions burning in my mind. 

Could you provide us with some insights on how you think about a story that is based on media, on a podcast, particularly on sound, and how to create horror out of it, because I think it’s pretty interesting.

Monolith was born out of a lab called the Film Lab: New Voices program, which was a workshop that the writer, Lucy, the producer, Bettina and myself applied for and we got into and you would develop a script for a year and if you got through that year, you would be given production funding, basically. The production funding was small. It was going to be a micro budget film. And so for us, it was about coming up with an idea that we knew we could make for that budget, but also that would also be more interesting because of it. We wouldn’t be squeezing the film into this budget. It would be like that would define it. That would make it exciting or unique. And so we very early on came up with this idea of: could we do this kind of alien invasion thriller story X-Files episode, if you will, with one actor? That was the mission statement from really early on. And it was our producer who pitched the idea of it being a podcast, a podcaster. She talked about that it was, you know, there was something in the air. This is 2021. There’s a lot of QAnon going around and this kind of conspiracy theory, you know, people bowing down at the altar of Joe Rogan and listening to everything he says as if it’s the truth. And, it was just interesting to explore. 

And I guess because you’re going to do a film with one actor in it, thematically there’s going to be a question about: why is it this person? Like, why are we listening to this one actor? Why is it this character that’s so embedded in the meaning of the film? And so for it to be a podcaster too. I think people have an interesting relationship with podcasts, this kind of parasocial thing where it feels like they’re speaking to you. It feels like you know them when really you don’t know them at all. And really, you don’t know what their motives for telling their stories are. That felt really rich. And then we came up with this story about, essentially an unreliable narrator, a woman who’s driven by her ego, desperately trying to find a story. She’s not sure whether she can trust the people she’s speaking with and the story she’s hearing. She doesn’t know whether it’s true or whether they can be believed. But equally, we as the viewer don’t know whether we can believe her. And the podcast, her podcast listeners, should they be believing her? She’s editing things out of context and she’s making all these questionable decisions. So that felt like a really rich playground to play with. And then the horror angle is the fact that you can’t see what’s on the other end of the line, it is really rich. Means you can really play with the audience of what’s around the corner, where we shot it, we shot it really observationally. So there’s this feeling she’s being watched all the time. So like through glass, these big windows, and it kind of feels like there’s someone looking over her shoulder the whole time. So yeah, it’s a really fun way to play with tension and horror. Because often, if you see too much, the horror goes away. So yeah, it was a benefit in some ways.

Exactly. You touched on two main points that I wanted to ask you. And one of them was, how is the treatment of sound? You know, how that tension builds up from the treatment of sound? Because, for example, you can hear a lot of sound effects that are produced by materials not necessarily artificial ones, you know, and that makes it intriguing for me. 

I’m glad that works for you. Yeah, super important. Obviously, a film like this, the sound is going to be important. And Lee Kenyon, the sound designer and Ben Speed, the composer I’ve worked with before. So we have a really strong relationship. So we had to work quite quickly, but in a really detailed, specific way, which was helpful. And I always had this idea that if the camera was going to be observational, it was going to feel like someone was watching Lily, then the sound would be very subjective, that’s really inside her head. So we do tricks, if you’re watching in the theater, you can hear when she’s listening to the stories of these people, the voice, the mix goes from the center and comes out into the surrounds. 

So it envelops you as she gets drawn into the story. And we did things like, you know, the atmosphere will drop away when she gets really into the tale, or new atmospheres will come in that are kind of related to the story, even though we’re not in that space. There’s a sound effect that’s like the brick, as it’s kind of this alien brick that’s growing through the story, its influences growing, you hear these various textures that grow and build through the film. So, there’s a lot of detail there, but it was pretty specific. It was real choices about, okay, there’s going to be this element, and it’s going to build in this way. And how can we do that over the film? And so yeah, it’s so fun, sounds really, really fun. And then you get to the mix as well. We were blessed with some of the best mixes in Australia. And you get in the mix, you’re just playing with the levels. And where does it sit in the space? And, when does it disappear? And when does it come back? And how loud and, and all those things are really neat tricks to play with an audience’s expectation. And I love it. So I put a lot of weight on it and a lot of time and effort into it, because I think it’s super important. Yeah, that was, for me, it was very cool.

Could we do this kind of alien invasion thriller story X-Files episode, if you will, with one actor?”

Did you have any film inspiration to work with sound particularly, like any kind of movie that was based purely on the sound, and then maybe you took some inspiration from it? 

Not really the sound, there were films that we certainly brought into the shoot that inspired the way we’d like to cover it when we worked with the crew or the feeling of the film. But sound, we were really just working from our gut, mostly with sound, I think. The only one I can think of is a film like Annihilation, which blends score with sound in an interesting way, you often can’t tell what is score and what is sound. So a film like that or Under the Skin as well, I think those are probably the closest that influences the sound specifically. But no, once we were in there, I was finding stuff for the composer, I just grabbed all these percussion sounds off YouTube, like Taiko drumming and Kaito drumming from Korea and Japan, and just put that underneath to just find these really kind of abject, strange music, really loud drums when it’s just a shot of the kitchen and stuff to really grow the audience’s expectations, pull the rug out from under them, get them constantly questioning whether they’re reading too much into things or not. And so it was really just building it with the crew there. I really wanted it to be kind of strange in a blend of organic sounds and artificial sounds, this idea of this brick, but you’re also in this beautiful Adelaide Hills with lots of trees and birds and things. So just playing with that stuff. 

Well, you talked about how, you know, you center your story on just one person, one main character. But it seems to me throughout the movie that somehow the environment also creates a kind of character.  

Absolutely. When you’ve only got one actor, you’re constantly thinking about how to make it cinematic. Still, it’s so much dialogue. And these one actor films, like Locke with Tom Hardy and The Guilty, an amazing Danish film, often have real time events going on underneath. The Guilty is about an emergency call operator, a 911 operator takes a call and it’s a kidnapping and they’re talking to the person who’s been kidnapped. And it’s this real time adventure of: can they save the person? And we don’t have that. Ours is about people telling stories from their past; it’s a slower burn and about piecing together a mystery. And so it needs this visual element, this present thing that’s growing and changing in the moment. And so the cinematographer, Mike Tesari and I, had a chapter document that had really clear visual rules for each section of the film. So we broke the film into eight chapters or nine chapters with a clear turning point in each. And we had rules like, in the first chapter, there’s no picture, you don’t see anything. And then you can’t see Lily’s face and then you can see Lily’s face, but the camera won’t move. And then as she starts losing it, the camera starts to move, but of its own accord; these really simple rules that I don’t think the audience is thinking about at the moment, but they feel it. They feel a growing change. And the location is the same, Jonah Booth-Remez, the production designer, was working in that same arc to have the location change as well. So it gets messy, it’s so beautiful, it’s a beautiful mansion that’s very clean and spare, and it gets messier. Things spread on the walls that we see out the window more, we’re seeing more into the environment as we go on. We put the camera outside back into the space more. So you feel this sense of something from the outside. So you’re playing with all of that stuff. I mean, eventually we go outside as the film goes on as well. So yeah, you’re just using everything at your disposal to have a feeling of cinematic change, I guess, an arc to the film. And the location was a big part of it. And obviously it being such an isolated place, the idea of it being so beautiful, but also quite cold, it’s obviously a very privileged household as well. This is very much within the theme of the film. There’s this moment you step out, you’re like, oh, she comes from a lot of money, which is going to come back. You know, it’s going to be a big part of her story is that wealth she comes from. So yeah, they’re all visual elements that we’re looking to and a lot of them are in the script too, you know, Lucy wrote about them too, but we’re just working in concert to try to support what is a very audio driven story.

You’re doing a story around the media and you chose this character to be a journalist. How do you construct horror around a journalist who doesn’t know if the answers she’s getting are right, you know, are truthful, if she can trust them or not? 

Yeah. Well, there’s a couple of things. I mean, one, working with Lucy on the script, we were really within each scene, wanted to make sure the character has really clear intentions for what she wants to get out of the interview. So she’s always got a motivation and always, you know, she’s always trying to draw these stories out of people and what sort of tactics she uses to kind of manipulate them are really interesting. And there’s always a turn within each scene. There’s some turning point where she either might lie to them or she might bend the truth or she might confide in them to get them to trust her. And you’re watching her. I think that’s part of the joy of the film is you’re watching her figure that stuff out. And so it is a lot about who’s the person behind, who’s telling the story and why they are the ones that get to tell the story, it is really important to us. And I think also, in the modern technological age, that journalism has shifted so much and there’s still fabulous journalism happening. I don’t think the amount of good journalism has gone down at all. It’s just there’s so much more. And because of the democratization of media, YouTube, social media, podcasts, everything, anyone can do that stuff. And there’s no real difference in terms of the way we engage in it. We don’t see a difference between the stuff that is incredibly ethical, has lawyers and researchers and all these people ensuring their ethics are intact. And the stuff that is literally just a person in their bedroom, just making stuff up. It’s like the presentation is the same. So that is such a fascinating thing that we have to contend with now. And hopefully the next generation of kids is going to be better at that media literacy of checking the source and working out why they might be saying what they’re saying. But we and my generation and the generation above us, it’s like we’ve gone through this transition, we’re so used to big traditional media that was actually incredibly biased and had all its own issues anyway. But there were certain things that we could trust about it. And now we have to be skeptical of everything. And that’s such an interesting thing to play with, though. Like where does ethics stand in that? And if there’s no watchdog, then what can people get away with? And it’s just as I said, I don’t think podcasts are great, either. Like I’m not anti any of this stuff. I just think it’s really interesting how complex it is and how much we have to think about it now. So there is a commentary on how the amount of information that we manage from all different sources just makes it very difficult to know what’s true and what isn’t. Absolutely. Yeah, that’s embedded in the theme of the film. And that comes again from if we’re going to make a film about one actor, really, we are born from that one idea. It’s like, well, if it’s one actor, why is it just one person? And then why do we trust her? Can we trust her? And that’s the same with podcasting, with journalism, all these things. So you’re trying to make sure that everything, the character, the narrative, the style and the theme are all working in concert to explore those ideas. And yeah, I think it’s super interesting territory. And Lily’s character is not revealed to not be particularly trustworthy. And I think that’s a really interesting thing to think about. 

One last question. Is there any other project that you’re working on that maybe we can see soon? 

Yeah, nothing to talk about or announce or anything. We’re hard at work. So, Lucy and Bettina and myself are developing another film together. We really like working together. So we’re writing a kind of cosmic horror story at the moment. It’s a similar kind of tone to Monolith, but bigger, a slightly bigger scale. And then I’ve been writing my own kind of Lovecraftian cult film, the script is nearing completion. So yeah, just ticking away at stuff. So hopefully within the next, six to 12 months, we’ll have stuff to talk about. But yeah, just that fallow development period, which is actually a really fun time. So yeah, stay tuned.

Order Monolith here.

Jenny Paola Ortega Castillo is an English philologist and has a master’s degree in cultural studies from the National University of Colombia. She is a literature, writing and reading teacher from Minuto de Dios University in Bogotá, Colombia. Her main research interests are in literature, visual research, television studies and cultural studies.

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