Director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) made quick stopover in Brisbane (en route from Sydney to Los Angeles) to talk about his terrific new film, The Rover. He provided some insightful answers at a post-film Q&A at the Dendy Portside and just beforehand, I was lucky to sit down with him for 15 minutes to talk about his movie…
Matt: Animal Kingdom was a script that took a long time to get off the ground. Given that film’s commercial success here in Australia and of course the Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver, was it a little easier getting The Rover kick started?
David: Once I decided that The Rover was the film I wanted to make, yeah, it was a little bit easier. Animal Kingdom was such a life changer for me. After its first screening at Sundance in 2010, I spent a couple of years sifting through all my options. I wanted to take them seriously but in the end, The Rover became a “no brainer” for me.
Matt: The backstory here is intriguing and it’s really only referred to during the opening title sequence as the “collapse”. Was thought given to providing a bit more history, a bit more context for this futuristic setting?
David: Not really. I knew I wanted to set the film in a kind of degraded future and within that, there were two options. I either the put the movie on the other side of an unimaginable cataclysm like an asteroid hitting earth or a nuclear holocaust. Or, I just make it what it is – the product of a couple of decades of really steady but severe Western economic decline. I really wanted everything that had gone wrong in the world of the movie to feel like a direct product of everything that is wrong with the world today.
Matt: Guy Pearce is fantastic in the role. He’s expressionless for so much of it and never really speaks unless he has to ask a question. I believe you always had Guy in mind for the character but he took a little convincing?
David: I don’t know if he took a lot of convincing but on the page, the character reads as very taciturn, very shutdown. I think he wanted to understand what I was asking him to do before he took the full leap of faith. This guy is a murderous, embittered drifter and I wanted Guy to play the character because he is such a master at playing a powerfully intense stillness and yet filling the stillness with tiny little bits of emotional detail. There aren’t many actors in the world who can do that and certainly not as well as Guy can.
Matt: Did you always want an Australian for that role?
David: Yeah, it felt important to me. It never felt to me like a movie that could have been shot anywhere but in the Australian desert. There have been a few decades of Western economic collapse but the mines are still working and we’re still feeding the Asian century. In the middle of this world, I wanted this angry drifter in his mid-40s who was old enough to remember what the world used to be like but also young enough to be physically dangerous.
Matt: Robert Pattinson is the person who most people will know as the sparkly vampire from the Twilight franchise – a role that couldn’t be much more different from this. How did he come across your radar?
David: I had a meeting with him in Los Angeles. As Animal Kingdom was so well received, I went on the super intense meeting circuit for quite a while. I did hundreds of meetings and I met producers, studio executives, and actors. It’s like your agent is setting up on blind dates. I really liked doing them because I love actors and I love meeting them personally because you frequently find something in them that you don’t necessarily see in their work. Rob was one of those for me.
I was totally unfamiliar with his work when we had the meeting with him but was completely beguiled by him. He had this wonderfully awkward physical energy and he was really smart and funny. When it came to start testing for The Rover, Rob was willing to come in and audition for me. He was one of a few people who came in but within 5 minutes of seeing him perform, I knew he was my guy. There’s an exhilaration in that because I knew that if he gave me on set what he was giving me in the audition room, people would be seeing a side of him that they had never seen before.
Matt: Do you tailor a role like this when Robert was cast? I was talking to a fellow critic and we both found it interesting that he’s in the car singing the lyrics to “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”?
David: Yeah. I had already tailored that song to the movie already but it was one of a few different options I had. As soon as Rob was on board, I kind of thought this was strangely perfect. It’s a moment of levity but it’s at a particularly dark juncture in the movie and it was important that I reminded the audience that he’s a kid. In different circumstances, he’d probably be listening to pop music and looking at himself in the mirror and thinking about girls. Not in this world though and not while sitting alongside the monstrous creature that Guy Pearce plays.
Matt: Almost every film is shot digitally these days but not this one. Speaking to someone who doesn’t have an intimate knowledge of the technology, what was the advantage of using film on The Rover?
David: There were a number of reasons. The first, and most important, is that I still love it. As great as digital technology is, there’s still something beautiful about the organic milkiness of film. It handles contrasts better than digital also. It can handle the incredibly intense and harsh light that you get I the desert.
Another reason I love shooting on film is because it’s more expensive. It’s not that I want to spend more money but when the film is rolling through the camera on set, you can feel everybody’s focus. They know that money is being spent and that everyone needs to concentrate.
Matt: A lot of people are shot dead but we don’t actually seem them getting killed. We’re either looking at the shooter or looking from a far off angle. It’s different in one particular case though towards the beginning of the film where Guy is looking for a gun. Was there something about that particular moment that made you use that approach?
David: This really gets to a broader question about my feelings towards violence in cinema. It doesn’t surprise me that violence is such a prevalent dramatic tool in cinema because it’s a powerful one. It has the capacity to turn characters’ lives upside down. I don’t like to revel in violence for the sake of it but I needed to show that Guy’s character is an incredibly dangerous and volatile person. It’s at that moment where you realise just how dangerous he is and how he is capable of anything. It felt like it needed to have that impact.
There are other moments though where I didn’t need to see the direct consequences of what he’s done. Sometimes if you are too graphic in your representation of violence, it can detract from the dramatic power of it. I’m always very aware of that.
Matt: The film was shot in the Flinders Rangers in a remote part of South Australia. I’m guessing that threw up its fair share of challenges?
David: It was the height of summer and it was really, really hot. We had vast distances to travel. We were quite isolated much of the time. We were in an amazing town called Marree for the last three weeks of the shoot which is about 8-9 hours north of Adelaide. It’s so beautifully strange. There was no mobile phone reception. There was only one phone line in town that we could use. We kind of all went a little wonderfully mad. It’s often the case that the more physically demanding the shoot is, the more you bond with your cast and crew. That was certainly the case on this film.
Matt: The film screened as part of the “midnight screenings” at the Cannes Film Festival. What was the whole Cannes experience like for you?
David: I almost can’t even tell you because it felt like I’d been hit by a Gucci truck. It was amazing. All the pomp and ceremony that Cannes puts on… it all comes together to make you know definitively that once you’re on that red carpet, you’re having one of the most important experiences of your career, if not your life. It’s the spiritual home of cinema and it feels amazing to be a part of it.
Matt: What plans are in place for the film’s international release?
David: It opens the same week in America as it does here and so tomorrow I’m on a plane to L.A. and the travelling circus rolls on.
Matt: And where to from here? Do you have any other projects in the works that you can tell us about? Or will promotion for The Rover be occupying your time for a while?
David: The Rover will occupy a little bit of my time first. I’m glad it’s opening at the same time in America as it is here because I can condense all the promotion. On Animal Kingdom, it felt like I was living in hotel rooms and airports for about 18 months. It felt important to do though as it was my first movie. I needed to be where people wanted me to be. It also meant that I didn’t get anything else done.
But yeah, there are movies that I’m fooling around with at the moment and I’d like to get back on the horse and make them reasonably soon.