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Missing a very important — and expensive — flight can spark a variety of emotional states, wild panic (accompanied by similarly wild hand gesticulations) usually being the first. For New Zealand filmmaker Michelle Savill, the experience also provided some key creative inspiration.
Set to attend the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France with her first film, Ellen Is Leaving, in 2013, Savill messed up her days, getting to the airport in Auckland a day late and finding out at the airline check-in that catching another flight would cost her more than she could afford.
“My first thought was that I’m just gonna have to hide for three weeks and pretend, because everyone knows I’m going,” she says. “I was just horrified and had this feeling of acute shame.”
Thankfully, Savill didn’t have to hide, figuring things out with the festival and managing to get to France in time. But the idea of making such a horrifying mistake and wanting to disappear out of shame stayed with her, becoming the basis for her debut feature, comedy-drama Millie Lies Low, which is getting its international premiere in Berlin’s Generation sidebar. “It just got me thinking about what would the psychology be of a person be who would actually do that.”
The film begins with an almost identical premise to Savill’s experience, with young architecture grad Millie (Ana Scotney, seen in fellow Kiwi films The Breaker Upperers and Cousins) missing her flight from New Zealand to New York where she is due to start an internship at a prestigious firm, the sort of opportunity on which a career is built. There are slight differences. Millie is flying from Wellington, and she actually boards the plane but suffers an anxiety-induced panic attack before it departs, demanding to be let off. And crucially, unable to afford another trip, she does stay and hide, spending her time desperately — and comically — trying to avoid detection by her former flatmates and recently exed boyfriend, who all believe she’s having the time of her life in New York.
Technology plays a pivotal role in the deception, our antihero posting pictures and videos on social media meant to look like she’s there (in one video she creates snow angels in what is actually flour she’s tipped on the floor), and making Zoom calls supposedly from her Manhattan apartment (a Wellington back street with a poster stuck to the walls or, in one hilarious scene, a small tent in her mum’s garden).
“I’ve seen a lot of content where people had fake holidays overseas from their bedrooms, and a lot was done through Photoshop,” says Savill. “So I thought, as an architecture student she probably has a good understanding of Photoshopping so that is something she’d probably do.”
However, although the premise of someone elaborately living out their fictitious overseas experience online sounds like one for a goofball comedy (perhaps with a feel-good ending as the fakery leads to a growing online following and bigger and better opportunities), things don’t work out quite so upbeat for Millie. Trapped in her own evermore complicated web of deceit as she ties herself in knots trying to keep the secret intact and cover up the growing pile of mess she’s creating for herself, her situation gets more absurd and exhausting — not to mention painful to watch — with each scene, culminating in a truly excruciating moment with her hiding in a cupboard with a full bladder.
“I really like exploring the tragedy and comedy of everyday life, how we laugh and cry all at the same time,” says Savill. “I wanted to see how far someone would go and how far we could push her psychologically.”
The experience making Millie Lies Low — which actually had its world premiere in a very restricted New Zealand Film Festival in Wellington (Auckland-based Savill was in lockdown so she couldn’t attend) — has certainly made the director more wary of social media, particularly the tendency to scroll through Instagram comparing your life to the lives being projected at you by others.
“I definitely have to remind myself more of the phrase ‘compare and despair’ and remember that’s not always real,” she notes. “Most people aren’t posting their fights or their depression.”
For Savill, there’s one particular moment in Millie Lies Low that almost perfectly surmises the duplicity of so much social media activity, one in which Millie, just a day into her fake trip to New York, sits alone in her tent trying to take cheery selfies to post online, looking utterly miserable between each forced smile.
“I just remember thinking that that captures the essence of the film,” explains Savill. “When we shot that scene, because of [Scotney’s] performance, I could see that the film was going to work.”
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