Australian director Daniel Nettheim helms the new film The Hunter, an environmental thriller adapted from Julia Leigh’s 1999 novel. Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Last Temptation of Christ) plays Martin David, a mercenary sent to Tasmania by a mysterious biotech company to hunt what is believed to be the last Tasmanian Tiger in existence. Along the way Martin is drawn into a local conflict between environmentalists and loggers, and against his nature helps struggling mother Lucy Armstrong (played by Frances O’Connor) whose environmentalist husband has gone missing. The film also stars actor Sam Neill.
I had an opportunity to participate in a round table discussion with Nettheim to discuss the film, working with Willem Dafoe, and the challenges of shooting in Tasmania. The questions below were asked by the group in attendance.
How close to the book did you want to keep the script?
There were things in the book that I definitely wanted to hold on to, which were things that attracted me to it in the first place. So we held on to the premise, we held on to the characters, we held on to the locations, we held on to the tone, we’ve held on the essential dramatic arc, and what we’ve changed is certain aspects of the ending, and we’ve really had to find ways to externalize the drama. Most of the book was a man alone in the wilderness and it was all inside his head. As a filmmaker that’s not so easy to do.
In the film, the Tasmanian vistas are absolutely breathtaking. As a director did you find the terrain incredibly challenging to work in?
People had warned me that the weather can change, you can get four seasons in one hour. The cinematographer had worked there before and he said to me very early on, to forget any notion of continuity of light across a scene. For that reason we kind of deliberately didn’t have long two hand dialogue scenes in the exterior because you can start it in the sun and you’ll finish in the rain. The snowstorms you see in the film, we were hoping to get snow, but that snuck up on us. That morning was sunny. We saw the clouds come in at lunch time and half an hour later we had snow. So I just had to quickly say, “Alright guys, let’s quickly scrap this afternoon’s plans. We’re going to shoot the snow scenes.” So as a crew we had to be very adaptable and responsive to the weather because it’s one thing you can’t tame. As filmmakers you try and control everything as much as you can. But the weather, particularly in Tasmania, we just had to roll with the punches. And for that very reason, when we’re talking about Willem’s wardrobe, we decided that when he’s out there hunting, he’s only going to have one outfit. That way, not only can we quickly change what we meant to shoot to respond to the weather, but once I was in the edit I could move anything anywhere and it would fit.
There seems to be a trend in films recently like The Grey and other similar films with regard to man vs. nature. What do you think this film really speaks to thematically to that man vs. nature story?
It’s interesting because it starts off as a man vs. nature story and ends up as a man vs. himself kind of story in a way. This is a man whose work involves trying to be at one with nature, it is a hunter. And as part of Willem’s training for the film we learned techniques like how to move across the landscape so animals don’t hear you, how to use what’s around you to build your traps and snares. So it’s kind of paradoxical because he’s at both one with nature – he understands nature, he thinks like an animal – but his business there is essentially very destructive. So what we wanted to speak about was really the uneasy relationship that has always existed between mankind and the natural environment. This story of what happened to the Tasmanian tiger is a great kind of historical case in point, but that story is continuing with the battle to save the native forest which you see in the film, and the conflict that’s going on between the loggers and the environmentalists.
Is Willem Dafoe the only actor you had envisioned in that part of Martin David? He was so perfect for it.
He was the only actor we approached. I had envisioned him in the part from quite early on in the writing because it’s helpful to have a face in mind when you’re writing scenes. There was a list of people, but fortunately Willem said yes.
What are your thoughts on Willem’s take on the character?
One of the things that was strong in the book was this character had for whatever reasons, shut himself off from experiencing human emotion in a way. He was a character who was assumed to be most comfortable when he was alone in the wilderness. I identified with aspects of that, sometimes I like to get away from people, it’s great, but I found a way to function in society and most people do. This character chose not to. And Willem and I didn’t talk about what pain he might be running away from, what might have been happening to him to make him like that. We didn’t investigate that part of the psychology, we just took it as a given that he’s a man that’s very closed off but over the course of this story he begins to open up to the possibilities of another way of being. And look, it does cause him incredible pain, incredible loss. But that is part of the human experience.
Did you have any conflicts with Willem on set in terms of the vision of how you think the movie should be? Did you lock horns at all?
No, we had a mutual understanding of the character and we worked all that out in pre-production. I invited Willem’s input on the last draft of the script. So the character stuff was clear and most of our work on set was about matching up the expectations of the scene on the page as compared to the physical realities of where we were. Ok, it says, “Martin lays a trap.” What’s that going to look like? Where’s that going to happen? Which parts of the setting of the trap are we going to see? What parts does he need to learn? There were moments where his instinct for the character contradicted what I think the scene needed for the story. And he respected that. We would find a way to get both. But I kind of figured he should take ownership of the character, he should protect that character, and I’ll just keep my eye on the story and the big picture, and we’d work together to make that happen.
Was it quiet crew? Was it a small band up there that was trying to get him to feel as isolated and alone as possible?
We were a pretty lean crew. We didn’t have big trucks. All of the lighting and grip gear could go on the back of a couple of utilities [trucks]. Usually we could drive to within a hundred meters of where we had to shoot. But Willem, that’s where acting really came into it, he didn’t have to actually be totally isolated to feel the part. However, he did insist on doing everything himself. He had a backpack that was always weighted, and he would not be doubled. There’s helicopter shots where you see a little speck, and that’s Willem. He wouldn’t let anyone else do it. Some of the most spectacular helicopter shots, he had a walkie talkie. There was an assistant hiding in some trees or in some bushes somewhere. He couldn’t see us. We were in the helicopter going, “Okay we’re coming up over the hill, come towards it.” And he’d be like “Which hill, I can’t see it.” We’d say, “Just keep walking,” and he would. The ground was incredibly difficult to walk on. He was deep in mud, there was leeches, and these buttongrass tufts are really hard to navigate. He was a real trooper. The things he did for authenticity I was impressed by.
Could you talk about Morgana Davies who plays Sass in the film. She’s a real scene stealer. What was the casting process like for that role?
I’d seen Morgana, she’d done one film before which was a French/Australian co-production called “Betrayed.” It played at Cannes a couple of years ago and she had a small role. I liked her, I met her maybe on the third day of casting but then I met another 200 girls after that because you don’t want to throw all of your eggs in one basket. If you’ve got one great kid and no backup, and that kid gets sick or pulls out, or has stage fright, and suddenly they can’t perform you need to know you’ve got someone standing by. So although I liked her we kept looking. We came back to her, she was very natural, she was outspoken, she was a real tomboy, she was confident, she didn’t really care if she was going to be an actress or not. Her mother was really supportive, but equally if the girl decided she didn’t want to act anymore her mom wasn’t going to push her. So she was a kid. She was primarily a kid and then she had some great natural abilities. She was close to her character. With kids, obviously kids that age can’t rely on instinct or you can’t rely on technique or training like you can with someone like Willem or Sam Neill. You’ve got to rely on what they do naturally. And we said to her mom don’t rehearse the scenes at home. Yes, she should learn her lines, but don’t rehearse them. I had a kids acting coach on set as well so they talk about the meanings of the scenes and they riff on that, but we never over rehearse stuff. [The cursing] was part of the script. She came to me and said, “I, Morgana, would never say that, but I know that Sass says that.”
In the film, you used real footage from the 1930’s of the last Tasmanian tiger. Was it difficult to get permission to use this?
That footage wasn’t difficult to get a hold of. It’s quite famous footage. There’s maybe eight or ten minutes of footage in existence in the world of the Tasmanian tiger when it was alive. That footage was partly owned by the Hobart Museum and partly owned by the National Film and Sound Archives. One frame belongs to someone, and one frame belongs to someone else. So we had to go to both bodies for permission. When they sent us up what they said was the best quality master available, on an HD cam or something, it was really bad quality. It was a very low res digitized image. And this was the coup: we got them to send us the original 16mm print, made a new High Def digitization of it. And no one’s ever seen it projected like that before since the 1930’s.
Did you have a personal connection emotionally with the Tasmanian Tiger?
I had a personal connection with the landscape more than anything initially. The descriptions in the book were really beautiful. I knew that landscape a little bit because I traveled a bit in Tasmania. I knew it was a place that hadn’t been filmed much. It’s hard to have a sentimental feeling about general animals – kangaroos, wallabies – which are hunted for meat and for sport in Tasmania. But the Tasmanian Tiger itself, it’s become part of our national mythology. There’s a great sense of national guilt about what happened to it, and I think this myth that goes on that it still might be alive in a way is kind of a dangerous one because it lets people off the hook in a way for that kind of destruction. But I think it’s also become symbolic of the way that progress can decimate nature.
Do you think there really can be some type of balance between the industrial side and the environmental side in that area?
I think there can. In areas like that in the U.S.and else where there are plantation forests, a sustainable timber industry. And in Tasmania, one third of the island is world heritage area or national parks. It’ll never be touched, but where the frontline of these battles is there’s these borders, the perimeters of these national parks, that are constantly being shifted. The government is constantly allocating little sections to the logging companies of these old growth forests which will become toilet paper for the Koreans, literally, and never exist again. But that’s the front line of this battle, and it’s very heated. You go down there and it’s a very, very emotional debate. We spoke to people on both sides, they were all very articulate. We were clear that we wanted to depict both sides as characters in parts of the story and we wanted to make sure we were presenting them in a fair way. Obviously I have my own feelings about that kind of conflict. There was a point where there was close to some kind of truce when we were down there, but I think it flared up again.
What would you say would be the most important thing you learned as an independent filmmaker making this film in Australia, and what advice would you have for filmmakers that would want to work in this type of environment?
There were pluses and minuses. One of the things that really worked in our favor was the story of the film was very contained. There was the house, there was the pub, and there was nature and a couple of other small locations. So it was achievable. We got a lot of support from the state of Tasmania who wanted us to come down and present their landscape in a way that would encourage tourism, and it’s worked for them. The budget was very lean, as they always are. But we couldn’t make that film without Willem Dafoe. Which is a paradox because we had the Australian actors union going, “How dare you bring in a foreign actor.” In Australia we receive foreign subsidies to help finance cinema. All our films get government subsidies, but we’ve got the government saying you need to make films that are going to be exported overseas. It has to play overseas for foreign audiences. So it was fortunate that we had a character who was an outsider. It allowed us to cast someone like Willem who could bring a name to the project but not in a cynical way. It was right for the character that he play it. So yeah, casting was critical, and making sure that all of the money was on the screen. None of us got paid much, but we wanted to make sure that every cent we spent translated to some amazing landscape. Up until the last week we weren’t sure if we could afford the helicopter shoot. The producer would say, “If you’re going to do overtime today, you’re not going to get your chopper.” So it was very lean but the chopper was important because it really just opened up that world.
Magnolia Films’ The Hunter opens in theaters on Friday April 6th.