Australian cinema might not normally be a home for noir films, but Craig Lahiff’s newest film “Swerve” takes us right up that alley. Starring Jason Clarke (“Public Enemies” and coming up in “Lawless”), Emma Booth (“Underbelly: The Golden Mile”, “Cloudstreet”) and David Lyons (TV’s “The Cape” and “Sea Patrol”) – it’s a tight, sexually charged thriller.
Hugh Humphreys spoke to director Craig Lahiff about the film.
Hi Craig, how are you going?
Not too bad, it’s getting pretty hectic with the release coming up so soon! Just been catching up on some of the reviews, which is always an interesting experience.
I’ll bet. How have you been finding the reaction to “Swerve” so far?
Well, pretty good. I mean, we started off with some really good reviews last year where it first screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and we’ve found the audiences really like it. You know, I tried to do something that was pretty fast moving and fun, so by and large, the audiences do like that. And we’ve watched it in the USA and France as well, and everyone seems to laugh and jump at the same places, so I think it works quite well.
Does that make you feel you’ve done your job right?
Yeah, well it’s always nail-biting thinking about whether they’ll laugh at the wrong spots, or not laugh at all. So I’m certainly pleased with it.
You’ve already mentioned it, but part of what I like it that it’s so fast-paced. The first 10-15 minutes packs in so much of the early plot you think, “wow, here we go”, and it sustains it the whole way through. That was something you had specifically in mind when you came to create “Swerve”?
Yes. You know, we edited it in the same fashion and just cut out a lot and tightened all the shots to make sure it kept moving, and we figured an audience – even if they’ve missed something at a particular point – they’d be able to pick it up again. It’s not too hard to understand the plot. I did have a bit of fun with the opening, I decided I’d introduce these 4 characters with their briefcases or luggage, and try not to have any dialogue for the first 7 minutes and do it all visually. And then after the car crash, the dialogue starts. So I think one of the important things for me in having fun with making a film, is also to make it cinematic. Which is why I’ve used some really wide lenses and caught a lot of the landscape.
That leads me right to my next question – about the opening sequence. I thought it set the tone really well and had some brilliant camera-work of the car crash. You know that it’s going to happen, but the way the anticipation builds towards that really grabs you.
Yeah, that was the idea.
What was it like filming out in the outback like that?
We shot it in the Flinders Ranges, and we were pretty lucky. The weather changes a lot up there. The third day we were there it rained, and were trying to decide whether to come back and reschedule. But on a low to medium budget you can’t really do that, so then you have to devise creative shots and keep wiping rain off the windscreen, and tighten things up and then balance the look of the film in the grading. But overall it was pretty good. And on the final day – and I think you can see it on a couple of shots – we had this huge dust storm! You can see it in the distance in the outback at dusk, and we only sort of got the last shot as the dust was hitting our cameras. And then it rained for 2 weeks.
So good timing!
Yeah, it’s a tricky area to shoot in. Basically we shot all around South Australia. Our very first day of shooting was 44 degrees Celsius, and I had three brass bands dressed in their outfits. But we battled on nonetheless!
What was the background to the film? How did it come about?
After having done “Black and White”, I had a film ready to go called “Drowning City” set in Sydney. And we had most of the money for that and we were all ready to do that, but we couldn’t get the rest of the money. It was a time when people weren’t interested in genre films. So this was one of three noir films I had in mind, and “Swerve” was the second one. So I had the Hitchcock-esque device of a stranger with a suitcase of cash, but setting it in the outback in the wide open spaces. And having a character who always tries to do the right thing, and although we’ve got all these wide spaces around him, he’s got nowhere to run. So it came out of those concepts, and about whether it’s fate or chance, and you make those choices between them. So the very first shot looks down on a junction of three roads, so it sets up that idea of fate and chance, and I try to carry that through the whole way.
Part of the story that really appealed to me was that each character has their set of secrets and motivations, and you weave it all together. For example Frank (Jason Clarke) thinking his wife has had an affair when she hasn’t.
Yes, Frank always makes the wrong assumptions, but it still drives the plot on, which is quite fun. I enjoyed that a lot! [laughs].
Australian cinema doesn’t make a lot of noir films, it tends to be a lot more arthouse type stuff, do you think more genre and noir films need to be released?
Yes! We had a bit of a battle anyway. We had various people on board right at the start, and they sort of fell away for various reasons. And we were buoyed by the fact that audiences really enjoyed it, so we decided to press on. So we’re releasing it with Jamie from Jumpstreet, so it’s a risk but we feel we’ve got to get out there with it for a bigger distributor, and fight the system and build up some word of mouth. And hopefully people will have a good time seeing it.
Well it’s been picked up for distribution in the UK, USA and many other places around the world. Are you a bit disappointed it hasn’t yet been picked up by a bigger distributor here considering the cast and that it’s a good film?
Well, a lot of them said they love it, but some said it was too arty and not mainstream; and others said it was too mainstream and not arty enough! So that was the one thing that was frustrating to have; because the audiences still enjoyed watching it. So it’s an ongoing problem here in Australia, getting your film released.
So I wanted to talk about the casting of the film. Emma Booth. I’m a firm believer she needs to be on our screens more! She’s so captivating on screen, what’s she like to work with?
She’s terrific to work with! Very professional, very easy to communicate with. We had a thing where even if I was happy with a take, she’d like to do another one to try something different, and that was quite rewarding. What we got from some of those takes was great. They were all great to work with. Jason Clarke was the first to get on board. He read the script in the USA and said he wanted to do it. So we had a couple of conversations with him about the style I would shoot in, and then we got Emma next and she was great. Then it took us a little while to get David Lyons, and once we got him he was great. He did a wonderful job with his character. And we had a wonderful supporting cast; we tried to get a couple of people we’d used before like Roy Billing and Chris Haywood who just said yes straightaway, and then Vince Colosimo and Travis McMahon. It was quite quick and rewarding getting the cast together and we really didn’t get any knockbacks at all – so it was quite exhilarating! It was also good working with a young cast; they’re all willing to try and do new things and experiment.
That’s good. I loved how Jason, David, Travis and Vince are all different representations of Australian machismo. They’re all so blokey but incredibly different.
Yeah that was a lot of fun to put together. They say 80 to 90% of directing is in the casting, and they were a lot of fun to reflect off each other.
And what else have you got going on? What’s coming up next?
I’ve got a few projects in the pipeline! One I really want to do is a sci-fi called “Immortality Incorporated”, and there’s a historical Australian film in the pipeline that I can’t say too much about; and a ghost story called “The Island” being written.
So you’ve got lots going on!
Yeah, and a couple of others as well – it’s just a matter of finishing them and financing them, and getting underway.
“Swerve” is out in limited release this Thursday, June 7.