Should we blame the director?

With the second series of Please Like Me coming up in August this isn’t an entirely bad time to dig out our DVD of Roy Höllsdotter Live, an early-ish short film by Please Like Me director Matthew Saville. Saville has a long history of directing both comedy and drama – TV and film – and his credits include Skithouse, Big Bite, Hamish & Andy, We Can Be Heroes, The King, Cloudstreet and The Slap. Roy Höllsdotter Live was an early TV project for Saville which aired on SBS in 2003. It won five awards including an Australian Writers Guild award for the script and an IF award for best short film.

Roy Höllsdotter (Darren Casey) is a Melbourne stand-up comedian with problems. He’s brilliant on-stage but a failure off-. When he’s not ripping the room apart with his stand-up he pines for his ex-girlfriend Cate (Asher Keddie) and hangs around in a late night takeaway with mate Simmo (Luke Elliot). Roy drinks heavily, snorts coke and pulls bongs, and as the film progresses we see him driven mad by his empty life and the creative process, making feeble attempts to feel better about himself and generate new material by taking up photography and furiously scribbling down ideas in notebooks.

Shot in the Gershwin Room at St Kilda’s Esplanade Hotel, the film captures the reality of life performing on Melbourne’s live circuit. The sequences of Roy performing are funny and fast-paced, and there are some amusing cameo appearances from comedy notables such as John Clarke (as Mike the venue manager), Costas “Farouk from The Castle” Kilias (as the takeaway shop manager) and Arthur “Mini Mick from The Mick Molloy Show” Serevetas (as a heckler), but the rest of the time the film meanders. There is little real action and a lot of padding, and this is essentially a directionless (not to mention depressing) portrait of a man having a breakdown.

Of some interest are Matthew Saville’s other short films, which appear as extras on this DVD. The best of these (in comedy terms) is Rhonda and Nigel, about an inexperienced director’s attempt to film a wedding. Using (well-faked) footage shot for the wedding video, it charts the rapid deterioration of the relationship between bride and groom Rhonda (Angela Twigg) and Nigel (Simon King), and director Arthur (Aris Gounaris) as Arthur’s over-zealousness repeatedly ruins the couple’s day.

In Rhonda and Nigel and the stand-up scenes in Roy Höllsdotter Live, Saville shows he can make a funny script in to a funny film and direct any moments of drama well. Where he struggles is making shows with comedically weak scripts, like We Can Be Heroes and Please Like Me, funny. Perhaps he’s spent too much time also making drama? Perhaps We Can Be Heroes and Please Like Me are just meant to be like that and we should get over that opinion we have that comedy should be funny rather than “real”? After all, it would be wrong to blame Matthew Saville entirely for the failings of these shows – the writers and global dramedy trend that’s blighted comedy for more than a decade deserve far more of the blame. But it’s interesting to ponder what would have happened to We Can Be Heroes and Please Like Me if a “comedy director” rather than an all-rounder had been in charge. Might they have been funnier?

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