A Mandy Moment

SxSW: With Daniel Netthelm & Kirsten Sheridan

>Opening to great acclaim at Sundance and in Australia, “The Hunter”, is the story of Martin, a skilled and ruthless mercenary sent into the Tasmanian wilderness on a hunt for a tiger believed to be extinct. Directed by Daniel Netthelm and starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor, the film was chosen as a headliner at SXSW. It’s there that I caught up with Daniel Netthelm,following the screening to talk about casting a world famous actor in an Australian film, the Tasmanian Tiger and what’s next.


So this has been a long process for you, from getting the option of the book, to production, to premiering the film in Toronto and then Australia and now here, is it still exciting after all this time?

Daniel: Well it is. I have to say on some of the long, cold days of shooting in Tasmania, one of the things that kept me going is that one day I’ll be getting on planes and going to strange places and presenting the film. And it’s obviously not something you get paid for, it’s not part of the job but it is one of the rewards.

So how does a first time feature film director from Australia no less go about getting Willem Dafoe as the lead actor?

Daniel: I still occasionally pinch myself; it was somewhat of a coup. We were fortunate in that we had always envisioned the lead character as an outsider. It was very much written that way and we wanted to draw in international connections, so it was always better and easier to cast an international actor instead of an Australian actor, although we did get a bit of flak for that, but ultimately you can’t do that cynically. If you’re casting an international actor it has to be for an international role. From the beginning even working on the script, when we said if we could pick any actor we would love to work with that would work in this role who would it be, and his name was always first. And in the end he was the first one we went to as we had a connection with his manager, but the great thing was that he responded pretty quickly. When you present a script to an actor of that calibre then that is an offer, and you can’t go around offering it to anyone else until they have made a decision, but he was really quick. We got a message after about a week saying he had read the script, he was intrigued, and he wanted to know more. I got myself to New York and met with him, and we talked about the character and story and my approach to shooting it. And after that meeting he just said he’d like to work with us, ‘get my people to talk to your people’ type thing.

So the 19 hour plane ride was totally worth it.

Daniel: Yes completely worth it. But then, you know, there was another year of negotiation and working out availability, juggling the schedule. But it all came together and he’s such an experienced and focused actor, as well as physically being right for the part in every way, it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it. It was also a real pleasure having him on set in Tasmania for seven weeks, as he was a very amiable guy.

I’m sure it was a very different environment for him.

Daniel: Well not so much, looking at his filmography he’s gone from big films to smaller films, and he’s worked in remote places and outdoors so it wasn’t too much of a shock. We had a really good crew, Australian crews work really fast and we were very organised and fast. I was very clear about what I needed each day so it was an efficient shoot. The other thing about Willem is that yes I knew he was a world famous actor, but I did underestimate how helpful that would be, both selling it internationally and marketing it internationally. He’s been a total legend in his ongoing support, and anytime he’s been available he’ll come and help promote it.

Yes because they don’t always I’m sure.

Exactly and they’re not obliged to. If an actor doesn’t want to support the film then there’s no point making them go on a publicity tour because they’re not going to say the things you want them to say [laughs]

You mentioned the efficient shooting schedule which is no doubt from your TV background; I think you’ve worked on every great Australian show that’s ever existed.

Daniel: I’ve worked on a lot of television and it does teach you great techniques as a director and one of them is think fast and respond fast and make quick decisions, while at the same time carrying the whole story in your head, and knowing that every single question you answer is contributing towards the bigger picture. You find it so taxing and frightening at first, but thanks to all those hours on TV sets it has become like going to the office. It’s very pleasant and although each day has its own challenges and locations, cast members and script requirements, you just get through it.

You mentioned some flak about casting an international actor but there is such great Australian talent present as well like Frances O’Connor, and I know Sam Neill is a Kiwi but we’ll claim him as well.

Daniel: Yeah yeah just like we’ll claim Russell Crowe and Jane Campion. [laughs]. I mean there was resistance from the actor’s union, and even David Stratton said it was a pity they had to cast a foreigner, but that’s kind of missing the point. I think Australian audiences might have bought Hugh Jackman with an American accent, but to foreign audiences it would be confusing, as they’re like ‘here’s an Australian guy with an American accent in an Australian film, what is going on’. And  Australian actors have had such great success overseas and it’s so important for our industry that they keep being able to do that, go the UK and US and get high profile roles, because that works for all of us, but it needs to remain reciprocal. We need to be able to bring actors here as well.

The film centres around the legend of the Tasmanian Tiger, which Australian are very familiar with but perhaps not overseas, can you talk a bit about the legend and why you think it has persisted.

Daniel: This is a creature that was officially declared extinct, and the last known Tasmanian Tiger died in a zoo in 1936. But these reports come out every year that it’s still alive, and the mythology surrounds that. I met so many locals while we were shooting this that had very convincing stories about having seen one themselves in 1973 or whenever. But I think part of it is that we let ourselves believe that it’s still there because then we’re off the hook for having slaughtered it and hunted it to extinction in the first place. And I think that is the one of the reasons why the myth is so enduring. It offers us a chance for redemption. But we can’t let ourselves off the hook that easily, as an excuse not to face the consequences of our colonial past.

What’s coming up for you next?

Now I’m reading scripts to work out what I want to do next. I’m not aiming for the next one to take ten years to come about like this one, I’ll go back to television in the mean time, but I’m also looking at projects coming from overseas.

Kristen Sheridan

I also spoke with “Dollhouse” director Kirsten Sheridan, last seen helming the star studded “August Rush” following the film’s North American premiere at SXSW.

“Dollhouse” explores a night in the life of a group of street teens from Dublin’s inner city who break into a house in an upper class suburb. The break-in quickly moves into a night of frenzy, driven by a series of revelations that will leave lasting marks on each of them, and resulting in an emotional conclusion that they will carry with them.

The film is an unscripted, insightful and manic representation of Irish teens from the wrong side of the tracks, with fresh performances from a young group of unknown actors.

Congratulations on the film, I really enjoyed it, and I have to say reading about it, and how it was completely unscripted, you wonder sometimes how it’s going to turn out but I thought you did a really great job.

Kirsten: Great, I actually think it’s a film that Australians might actually get. Sometimes you go, okay this country is just not going to go with it, but you guys have some crazy movies over there.

Yes we do, the wackier the better is our motto I think. So this is very different to what you’ve done in the past, what made you want to go in the direction of a film that is completely unscripted and shot, very much on the fly.

Kirsten: Well I had two years of trying to finance movies that I wrote that were around the $2million-ish mark, and I found myself after a few years, and writing scripts for other people, where I thought, the amount of time I have wasted – if I had put that energy into making a movie I would have made about three. It was originally ‘what is the lowest budget thing I can do so I can just get it done?’ Give me a house, give me six actors and I’ll do one night, one location. And that was really just to free it up and not have that weight of expectation on you as a filmmaker. After “August Rush”, which was like a $30 million movie, you know you can’t pursue it the way that you would when you have freedom to do whatever you want. It was really a reaction against doing a year of financing meetings. It gets to your sense of self worth. So it was a bit of a ‘f&*^ you all’. Just leave me along and give me a camera. I had no real expectation for the film as well, it was just let’s find these kids and make it an experience for them.

And obviously it hinges so much on the cast and relies on them being able to identify and deliver for their character, how did you go about finding them?

Kirsten: We cast for a long time, I have an amazing casting director. The film came about from a collective we have called The Factory, which is myself and two other filmmakers, and the idea is you go into this building with and you do everything within the building including exhibiting the film at the end. So that’s what we’ve done with “Dollhouse”. So the casting director is part of The Factory. Instead of auditioning them with scripts I just met them for lunch and had really long conversations with them, because it was about casting a group as much as it was individuals, and I just needed people who were open, jump in head first and just trust me. One of the guys Shane had been in Lance, my Factory partner’s film “Kisses”, so I wrote the part for him because I loved him. Kate with the long dark hair I had seen on stage. But for the others it was their first role.

They were so natural and embodied the part so well.

Kirsten: Yeah for some of them they had never been on a film set so they thought ‘oh this is how you do it’. Then after they’ve all done quite well in Ireland and they’re going on to sets going ‘what do you mean – hit a mark, have a script, what?’ I just want to do what I want to do. And the director’s like ‘no you’ve got three takes, it’s TV, do it’.

It’s great that you’ve kept it so local and been able to support the Irish industry.

Kirsten: I definitely wanted to consciously make a film that people that age group would want to go see, and in Ireland I never see them portrayed properly. They’re usually portrayed as drug dealers or you know, single moms, and it’s all depressing. It was a balance between doing something authentic and not making them caricatures, but also not making them sweet and sympathetic. So it was a bit of a risk I guess. [laughs]

They all had their certain charms I thought. What I liked was you never really knew where it was going, is this going to take a bad turn, how is this going to turn out?

Kirsten: Yeah, and they thought that as well. They really did.

To prepare with the actors I believe they all went away together and workshopped and bonded?

Kirsten: Yes they went away for a week and it was mayhem. I have good footage of that. We have this making of documentary, and I’m like ‘Yeah they really workshopped their characters’, and it cuts to them and they’re like taking off their shirts, and going mental. They had a good time.

I also really loved the music you used in the film, it was very evocative, was that something you had in mind from the beginning?

Kirsten: It wasn’t at all, and that was quite scary, as it can seem quite hodge podge at that point, and I usually have a plan, to the point where I can even use it on set. But I came across Ryan Gosling’s band just by looking at children’s choir, and I thought they were just amazing, and I’m amazed he keeps such a low profile about it. It’s called Dead Man’s Bones and there are just two of them. So I was delighted about that, and there’s an Irish cellist who plays the song at the end called Happy Thoughts.

Was there a scene in the film where you were just really happy with the way it turned out?

Kirsten: I kind of just liked all the scenes that were quiet. I like when she says it’s her house, and I like the really crazy scene when she’s out of her head and she’s in the safe and in the bath, and it’s kind of trippy. That was the only thing I re-shot, I went back a year later, because I had the baby and worked on the editing, and we shot just one night with her and me and the camera man in the bathroom. Because I really wanted to get inside her head.

Yes you were pregnant while the filming took place that obviously didn’t slow you down at all?

Kirsten: It was kind of great because it gave me a kind of mad energy, and it also meant the crew couldn’t complain [laughs]. They were like ‘I’m so tired – oh’. It was just a crazy coincidence and it just meant we had to go quickly as the insurance was about to run out on us. So that was great, it just made everyone has to say yes.

What’s next for you?

Kirsten: I’m going to do another Factory film, I’m not quite sure what it’s going to be, I still like the teenage world. I’m also toying with the idea of doing a movie in a prison with the prisoners. That will be a drama but the lines again will be very blurred. Because I might make it about prisoners doing a play, but it will be movie about prisoners doing the play, so again it will be very what is real and what’s not real.

Find out more about “Dollhouse” here http://www.thefactory.ie/dollhouse/

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