After getting his start making short films and working on commercials and music videos, Melvin Montalban is making his TV directorial debut by directing an episode of the four-part heist caper The Unusual Suspects.
SBS Guide caught up with Montalban to chat about the process of directing for TV, bearing the responsibility of being truthful to the Filipino experience and how the series was impacted by COVID-19.
How did you get involved in the project?
I’d been working with the writer Jessica [Redenbach] on a previous project so she knew my style and how I worked. She told me about this project and I was really interested in the story, concept and characters. So she put my name forward to [producers] Angie and Polly, who then sat down with me and we talked.
I’ve never made TV before. This is my first hour. But I felt very ready, because I’ve been directing for 20 years if you count making short films. When this project came along, not only was it Filipino – that being a major drawcard – it was the sort of show that I liked to do, which is genre and entertainment mixed with characters with emotional depth. That sort of ambition excited me. I want to be moved as a viewer but I also want to be entertained. So to see a project like that come up made me want to be involved.
How is working on a TV project different from what you’ve done before?
The scale is very different. And the challenges are different because you approach a commercial with a lot more precision. You’re concentrating on a much shorter time frame and you’re also working with a client which means every step of the project is examined and talked about – it’s pitched and explained to them. Whereas in TV although there are a lot of stakeholders involved and a lot of feedback to take on board, the true boss of the show is the script and being truthful to the script and the characters, so that requires a lot of conversations and discussions about what works and what doesn’t. It’s a much more rewarding process but also a much more exhausting one.
How long have you been involved with the project?
I came on much later than everyone else. I was only really on from pre-production onwards, which was six weeks of pre-production and seven weeks of shoot. There was still work on the script to do, so I felt very involved in the development process, but there was a lot of history to the show before I was involved.
How do you bear the responsibility of telling the Filipino experience on screen?
I feel the weight of that responsibility but the more I studied or analysed the Filipino-Australian experience and the Filipino immigrant experience, I realised how varied it was and you couldn’t really pin down or succinctly encapsulate the Filo experience as being a singular. I felt as long as I was being truthful to my experience and my family’s experience then it was truthful to me and that’s what mattered to me. If we made sure the nuances felt truthful it would resonate with the wider community.
The Filipino culture is so varied and experiences are so varied. I feel this show is the first wave of Filipino experiences. As cast and crew we are first-wave creators. More than anything I hope we are able to create more opportunities and to normalise Asian stories on the screen, so we can get more Asian stories on screen, because a singular one can’t encapsulate all experiences.
What can we expect from the show?
Expect a really entertaining ride with heart and humour. I feel that’s what all entertainment should do, particularly at a time when there’s a lot of hardship in the world. Entertainment should give us hope and entertain us. It can give people a good time and remind them of perspectives that aren’t necessarily their own. It’s a comedy and going into that seems very Filipino. To acknowledge hardships but also to make a joke of it is very much of our culture. I hope through that we can speak to all Australians.
To acknowledge hardships but also to make a joke of it is very much of our culture. I hope through that we can speak to all Australians.
The heist genre is one of my favourite genres and the rise of its popularity has meant that we’ve seen it in quite a few familiar ways – just look at the Oceans franchise. But to take that genre and subvert it and add characters with great emotional depths and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing ultimately makes this a much more satisfying show. It’s not about do they get away with it, it’s a lot deeper than that. It’s about hitting that sweet spot of emotional truth and entertainment.
How did COVID-19 impact you?
It was tough. I’d already done a few shoots during COVID before this one. And things like wearing masks, that was challenging as a director because I want to build a rapport with my cast but it was hard being able to emote with my face. That took some getting used to and in some regards is quite a hindrance, but we got through it because we took the time to talk and thankfully we had a decent rehearsal process so we could get a lot of the questions out before shooting. But things like social distancing between cast members and extras – we just had to work around it. We had some party scenes and everyone was talking from a distance. But hopefully it won’t feel too weird as it’s an experience that everyone understands.
The Unusual Suspects premieres Thursday June 3 at 8:30pm on SBS, with the full series also available then at SBS On Demand.