Interview – Lily Sullivan talks new thriller ‘Monolith’ and an investigative podcast about Mark Wahlberg’s burger joint!

Recently disgraced and desperate for a story, a writer gets to work on the only job she can get – hosting a clickbait investigative program. When she receives an anonymous email leading her to a retired housekeeper who claims her life has been destroyed by the discovery of a strange black brick that influences the person who possesses it, the mystery leads the podcaster down a rabbit hole of truth and lies that might resurrect her career, or destroy it.

As the Australian made psychological thriller Monolith finishes it’s festival run and is set to hit cinemas on October 26th,  I had the chance to chat once more with the film’s lead (and solo) star Lily Sullivan (Evil Dead Rise) about acting as the only character on screen, the excitement of working with a first time director, and a shockingly hilarious answer for what her investigative podcast would be about!

Nick: It’s so good to see you again!

Lily Sullivan: Wait, are you wearing the same shirt as last time?!

Nick: Okay, I have to tell you why! You complimented my shirt. Then M. Night Shyamalan complimented the shirt…

Lily Sullivan: No way!

Nick: And I’ve worn it for every interview since!

Lily Sullivan: How good!

Nick: That’s the Lily Sullivan effect. That’s what I’m going to call it! Look, congratulations on Monolith. I was so engrossed by the mystery of this story, but I’m curious to know whether you had the same experience actually reading the story through the script from Lucy Campbell?

Lily Sullivan: Yeah, I mean it was an absolute page turner. It had that intense anxiety whilst reading it, and it was such a tight script. I have not had so little input in regards to like, changing things or rewrites because it was just flawless.

The birth of the idea came from the South Australian Film program called New Voices, which basically is like, instead of fitting your film into a budget, build a high conceptual piece with a director, producer and writer working in the program. It’s such a beautiful program for up-and-coming creatives, because they all working intimately together to be able to actually pull off a piece on this sort of budget, and for only 15 days of filming. Then with editing, the film is completed in like, 6 months, which is insane.

For me, the challenge of that descent into madness and to take on a project where you’re the only person on screen, being shot for 12 hours a day – and we also shot it in chronological order – it was this character slowly losing grip of reality.

Nick: It’s like a forming of method acting, but not by choice!

Lily Sullivan: Yeah! And, you know, the film dealing with themes of intergenerational privilege and the spread of misinformation and click bait podcast culture – I love this genre for it. Lucy’s writing uses these sci-fi elements to explore the themes. It was a terrifying idea of doing it, so I did it! I was like: are you scared? You should do it!

Nick: You mentioned the parameters of the script, and not having to give too much input yourself. So, I’m curious to find out how you worked on your character with Matt [Vesely, director] and Lucy? There are so many lengthy conversation scenes where the dialogue seems so deliberate and specific. What was your experience like in fleshing out this character on screen?

Lily Sullivan: Yeah, I found I was approaching it like theatre. I had to learn it [the script] from front to back with that kind of shooting schedule, and covering like, 17 pages of dialogue a day. Also, really having to listen. When you eliminate another person, like an actor or a body to read information and react and look into someone’s eyes, it’s really just acting blind. I would just sort of disappear into myself and my voice constantly. It felt like an echo chamber. Like this stripped back, isolating experience.

Matt and Lucy before takes, to really feel that isolation, is get the whole crew to be silent and I would just be in the space, by myself. Everyone would step out, and then they would come in and start filming, which was quite a heavy method, and really surreal.

I had noise cancelling headphones and Ansuya [Nathan], an actor I worked with, was at the other end of this giant mansion, in like the walk-in wardrobe on the phone actually calling in and playing all of the characters, which was so trippy! Every now and then, when I felt like I was losing grip or forgetting lines, or just feeling insecure, she was always just like: you got this! She was the voice inside my head! [laughs]

Nick: I was so intrigued to find out how you filmed those scenes! I can imagine how much of a challenge it would’ve been having to do those scenes as the only person on camera, but it’s great to know you had that support on set too.

Lily Sullivan: It was such a challenge of a lifetime! It was such a dance of all departments. Like cinematography through Michael Tessari, and Matt Vesely. We knew we had no budget, and we’re not going to do CGI or anything. We couldn’t afford to do all these different setups, so we shot so much in long takes. It was so fun.

Nick: It sounds like this whole shoot was a fun, renegade approach to filmmaking, honestly. Is that exciting for you as an actor to work with a first-time feature director like Matt? And what’s the experience like compared to working with experienced directors like PJ Hogan or Greg McLean?

Lily Sullivan: Matt and Lucy together had a wealth of knowledge and they really had to execute how to make a film in 15 days! But Matt was brilliant! He would create exercises for me prior to filming. Things like writing a piece from this journalist’s point of view, or an apology for what this journalist did, and then record that and send it to him. I did all my own research, but it was amazing to be challenged by someone who was soft and had no ego and was just open to owning that fact even though I had more experience than him in filmmaking, he just wanted to make a great film.

I was usually quite on edge and very in my head a lot of the time. It was quite tense and Matt always had such a beautiful nature of coming in and meeting me on whatever level I was on to keep my in the zone, as opposed to bombarding me and giving me a million notes. He would softly drip feed information or change the scene slightly. He had a really beautiful sensibility and natural instinct. I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him and I’m so glad to have been apart of his first film!

Nick: I want to quickly circle back to the New Voices program that you mentioned, that was in association with the Adelaide Film Festival. Another great Australian film that came up through this program was Talk To Me! How exciting is it for you as an actor who has worked in both Australian and in Hollywood, to have these genre films coming from our home country absolutely dominating the horror and thriller landscape?

Lily Sullivan: It’s so wonderful. There’s gotta be a benefit of being a country isolated from the rest of the world, and we can get weird, genre based like, horror and sci-fi [laughs]. But, they’re great genres to deal with confronting themes, and play in a territory that gets to challenge audiences and shock them. It’s such a great way to make a film. And for Australia to be nailing it, it’s exciting and playful and challenging.

Nick: I want to shift gears a little bit, and I want to know – if Lily Sullivan was an investigative journalist, what would her podcast be about?

Lily Sullivan: What’s with that burger joint that Mark Wahlberg has in Australia?

Nick: Wahlburgers?

Lily Sullivan: Yeah, what the fuck are you doing in like Byron Bay? [laughs] What is this money laundering shit? It’s like empty all the time.

Nick: When I was down in Sydney last year, I went into try it. And like, the burger was fine, but there’s so many pictures of Mark Wahlberg around the place. It’s like a church or shrine to the Wahlberg’s! There’s totally something going on there.

Lily Sullivan: That would be my podcast. Why does this exist? What are you doing? Me and my mates just sitting there wondering what the hell is going on with that place!

Nick: You got your first subscriber right here! I want to wrap things up by putting a slightly nicer spin on one of the elements of Monolith, in which someone receives a phone call regarding something quite significant in their past. So, if you had the chance to call up yourself from 10 years ago, when you were starting out in the industry, and just won your Best Young Actor awards – what would say to Lily Sullivan 10 years ago?

Lily Sullivan: You’re enough. What you’ve got is what you’ve got, and you’re enough.

Nick: That’s so good! Lily, I’ve had so much fun chatting with you again. You are great in this film, and you’re just a dead set legend of a person. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me again!

Lily Sullivan: Thank you so much, Nick, seriously. Talk to you at the next one!

Thank you so much to Lily Sullivan for her time, and to TM Publicity for organising the interview. Monolith is in select cinemas from October 26th.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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