Capsule chats to Michelle Savill, the co-writer and director of the new dark comedy Millie Lies Low, about the real-life incident that inspired the movie and how the international success of it lead to her being picked to help direct season four of Netflix’s massive hit, Sex Education.
When disaster struck, it was no surprise to writer and director Michelle Savill that her brain moved from panic to ‘this could make a good story’ within days. Her brain wasn’t wrong – a story of her own missed connection ultimately ended up becoming the new film Millie Lies Low, a dark comedy that opened at the Berlin film festival, has received rave reviews, and ended up with Michelle being picked as one of the directors of season four of the hit Netflix series Sex Education.
But to rewind a bit, here’s the incident itself.
“I was going to a festival in France with one of my last short films, Ellen Is Leaving, and I missed the flight – I showed up the wrong time, on the wrong day,” Michelle recalls. It was $3k to buy a new ticket – which she didn’t have. “My first thought was ‘I’m just going to have to hide and pretend I’m in France.’ That was where my mind immediately went.”
After a sleepless night, she pleaded her case to a different, kinder airline person and managed to get on the plane. But the thought of how readily her brain had gone to ‘just pretend’ stuck with her. “I started sharing it with friends and they admitted they’d had similar thoughts or had done similarly sneaky things, about having a big, flash job that fell through and not telling anyone, or not admitting to getting fired; a guy even said he’d slept under a bridge for a while, to save his pride. Just all these little stories came out and I became interested in the idea of a character who would go through with that situation.”
The result was Millie Lies Low, a story of a graduate who gets the job opportunity of a lifetime in New York, only to miss her flight and decide to pretend she made it to New York anyway, while hiding out in Aotearoa. It comes at a time in pop culture when the story of the scammer is very popular; think Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna or – to a more deadly scale – the Theranos scam portrayed in The Dropout. People who make it very far, based on a deeply flimsy premise.
“Those stories were happening while I was writing and they were fascinating to me,” Michelle says. “Those people believe the lies themselves so much that they almost become the truth; it’s a level of self-delusion or belief that they can get away with it.”
With Millie, the scale of the scam is lower – no pretending to cure cancer or build a multi-million dollar club in New York. “The stakes are personal to her own pride and ego,” Michelle says. “There’s also that point that no-one wants to become the viral story, that clickbait at the bottom of a news website. Nobody wants to end up a meme!”
The lead character Millie is played by the wonderful Ana Scotney – best known for her extraordinary work in Cousins – and this role gives her a chance to let her comedy skills shine just as much as her dramatic skills, as Millie’s attempts to pretend she’s in New York become more and more far-fetched. “Ana had the whole package that Millie required, to walk the line of drama and comedy but also the physicality, because Millie is always having to run and hide.”
The filming process was also not for the faint-hearted – production began in March 2020; four days in, they were shut down because of Covid and spend the second half of 2020 dodging lockdowns as they went (with Michelle’s appendix bursting just before filming). “Just to get the film shot, I was like ‘at least we have a film in the can’ and then everything else was a cherry on top.”
And the cherry that ended up being the biggest surprise of all came with Michelle being picked as part of the team of directors to take over the fourth season of one of Netflix’s biggest shows, Sex Education. The international attention that Millie Lies Low received at the Berlin Film Festival led to Michelle getting a UK agent, who put the film in front of the Sex Education producers. “They loved the dark humour – there’s some really dark f—ked-up-ness in Millie, and when they saw it, they saw an alignment between comedy and drama and some weirdness, as well.”
At the time of our interview, Michelle was in pre-production for her directing stint on Sex Education and was sworn to secrecy about, well, everything. But she was able to say how impressed she was at how open the producers were to new ideas. “They want me to put my own things in it, they want me to put my own spin and sensibilities and they want my input – they’re really collaborative and open, I’m not sure if it’s always like that in TV land.”