Interview: Patrick Hughes; writer/director of Red Hill.

Interview: Patrick Hughes; writer/director of Red Hill. By Simon Miraudo.

“If you make a really bad film, and audiences don’t support it, and you do that three times in a row, maybe … just maybe, you shouldn’t be given any more f*****g government funding.”

Patrick Hughes has some strong feelings about the film industry, but then, Patrick Hughes has some strong feelings about a lot of things. I spoke to the Australian writer/director on the eve of the nation-wide debut of his first feature film. Red Hill stars Ryan Kwanten as Shane Cooper, a young police officer who relocates to an isolated country town and finds himself caught in the middle of a decades’ long feud between Sherriff Old Bill (Steve Bisley) and recent prison-escapee Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis). The film is ferocious revenge tale, punctuated with bursts of violence and littered with comic asides. Hughes speaks in a similar manner. Coarse, yet thoughtful. Deliberate, yet impassioned. He shares with us the inspiration for Red Hill, the financial risks he took with the funding of his film, and his thoughts on the state of the Australian film industry. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, it’s impossible to deny his fervor.

SM: This is your first feature film, although you’ve done commercials and shorts in the past. Where did the germ of the idea for Red Hill come from?

PH: The creepiness of small country towns. Literally. I used to drive from Sydney to Melbourne a lot when I was starting out in commercials, and I’d be bouncing back and forwards. I remember each time I‘d stay in different country towns. There’s something really creepy about a small country town on a Saturday night, when there are no cars on the road, and no people, and it’s empty. That sense of isolation. I guess I had this notion of “Wow, that’s kind of like a really terrifying set-up”. Because if something terrible were to happen, where would you run to? So, if you look at a town like Omeo – where we shot the film – it’s literally a two-hour drive to the nearest town for help. Omeo is a town where 120 people live. No one lives in the main street too; they all live in these properties outside of town. So there was something creepy about that, and I thought “That’s a really cool set-up for a story of revenge, redemption and sacrifice”.

SM: How long ago are we talking here when this idea emerged?

PH: Oh look, the only idea I had was this hook: that a guy would bust out of prison and come back to his small country town and kill the man that put him there. That’s literally all I had; just this little sentence. I just have an idea; I write ideas down and put them in the drawer. I’d been writing a lot of scripts, and they were always too big, or too ‘this’ or too ‘that’. And literally I got to a point of frustration where I said, “Alright, I’m going to make a movie; I’m going to mortgage my house to do it”. I’d had that idea for probably 12 months in my head, and when I made the decision to sit down and write it, I wrote the script in three months, I raised the money in three months and then we shot it. So, from sitting down to writing it to getting it to the Berlin Film Festival was 11 months. It happened really, really quickly.

SM: With those earlier scripts you wrote, were they in the same vein?

PH: I’m a fan of genre films. I’ve written heist movies and action thrillers. All sorts of stuff. Obviously I’m a big fan of the western. I guess with my writing I got more and more contained. My first script I wrote, I optioned it a couple of times and I got a lot of heat off of it and got flown around the world. But as a first time director, when you’re quite young, no one’s going to let you make a $40 million action film as your first film. I stepped back and looked at my favourite filmmakers, and every single one of them had done it this same way: Go and make a movie without a distributor. Just go and shoot it. Take it to a festival and try and sell it. That’s how we made Red Hill.

SM: I definitely want to talk about the genre elements of the film, but I’m curious about the screenwriting process. Was there any particular aspect of the script you had trouble nailing down? Something you slaved over for a while?

PH: God, what scene would it be? [Long pause] …That’s a good question; no one’s ever asked me that. I’m going to have to think about that one. I guess the thing was developing the story. I find with writing, it’s not the actual writing that’s the hard part. It’s developing the story.

SM: Getting the beats.

PH: Yeah, I write a treatment before a script. It’s not like a 100 page treatment; it’s just a structure. And one thing I wanted to maintain was the emotional weight. I didn’t want to have just a big shoot ‘em up, because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like any f*****g film you’ve seen. That was really important to me, to have that hook. The biggest thing was … I was like “O.K. that’s cool, you’ve got this indigenous guy busts out of prison with a sawn-off shotgun. But how do I get into that story?” So the biggest thing was discovering the role of Shane Cooper, and how he became integral to that story. Until I had the moral compass I couldn’t write the story. So that was probably the biggest thing; just working on it, was finding who – as an audience – who are we going to identify with, and who are we going to follow, and also who are we really going to root for, in terms of where Shane has come from in his life. You know, his sense of moral code and fiber and justice. It’s essentially an arc: the city boy becomes a cowboy, and Shane has to learn to cross that line. Sometimes you’ve got to be bad to be good; it’s that classic sort-of western terminology. Ryan and I talked about it; if he’s going to cross the line and take the law into his own hands, start blowing people away, he’s the kind of guy that needs to be damn sure it’s justified. And if it’s justified he’ll step up and do it. It’s essentially the boy becomes a man.

SM: I think that’s what kills a lot of screenplays; you don’t have these motivations. People just do things because the screenplay says they have to. So I think that’s quite important.

PH: Also, what have they got to lose? Classic example: take Fargo. Take out the pregnant cop at the middle of it all … who cares?

SM: It just becomes a procedural.

PH: You actually don’t care about any of the people that die. You go, “Oh yeah, wow, that’s really violent; that’s really horrific”. But the heart and soul of that whole film is her whole journey. That was something, in terms of writing, I was always trying to find: Who is the moral compass in this story? I love dirty stories about ugly people, because that’s the kind of s**t you go to the movies for. I guess you’re always striving to find how to implement that moral compass.

SM: It’s interesting that you bring up the Coen brothers, because their whole go is to take on different genres and play on them. Like you said, Fargo is a procedural, but because of Marge you invest in it. With Red Hill you’re playing with the western morality tale in the harsh terrain, but I actually picked up a horror vibe also. Films like The Wicker Man and An American Werewolf in London – those films with a ‘town with a secret’. And again to the Coen brothers, I was reminded of The Big Lebowski, which is a play on film noirs and private detective movies. Reminded me of the way Shane keeps getting knocked unconscious and waking up in different areas.

PH: Yeah!

SM: Did you have a reading list of films you used for inspiration?

PH: The biggest influences were films like High Plains Drifter and High Noon. No Country for Old Men was a big one. I was reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy.

SM: Blood Meridian?

PH: Before I sat down to write the script I read The Road and all of his stuff like Blood Meridian. And then I read Carter – the old classic Get Carter, but the book – and there’s something cool about the lean, sparse style of those storytellers. You look at Carter, what is it? The guy goes back to his small f*****g industrial town with a shotgun. I mean, what’s Red Hell? (Laughs) That was a big influence, and another big influence was Deliverance. The way it operates, it feels like it’s almost real time. Once the f****g horror kicks in, there’s f**k-all dialogue. It almost plays like a silent movie. You could turn the sound off and watch Deliverance from start to finish, and it still works. That was something I was really drawn to. You have a stunning backdrop and a brutal story, and the juxtaposition between those two. There was a gearshift in Red Hill; I wanted to give it this really slow, sort-of whimsical vibe at the start. Maybe the biggest thing is that the tractor might get stolen; one of those towns. Then Jimmy arrives and it’s just a handbrake. Like you said … I didn’t expect the horror associations, but now that I’ve had some distance from it I can see why. Because at that point when Jimmy arrives, the handbrake is pulled on the story, it just becomes “Hunt. Track. Kill. Next victim.” “Hunt. Track. Kill. Next victim.”

SM: Again, you don’t want to lower him to the depths of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees…

PH: No, no, no, but they were influences. It was: “How do I create this figure of this disfigured monster?” Like, just a monster; just a silent, stalking killer. Like the panther that stalks into town. Death stalks into town. When I was writing it, the character names for Old Bill I just called “The King”, and Jimmy I just called him “Evil”. It would just help remind me, “What would ‘Evil’ do right now? How would he f**k with this person?”

SM: That’s genre filmmaking. Playing with these archetypes of good and evil.

*** SPOILER ALERT***

PH: Yeah, yeah, yeah! That isolation you have in a small country town; it’s like a hotbed for breeding corruption, right? If you’re disjointed from the rest of the world, your moral viewpoint begins to be disjointed. But for Old Bill the reasons he did what he did, they’re completely justified. So it takes someone like Shane – who’s not part of his posse, and not of that town – to come in with a strong moral fiber and say “Hang on a minute, what’s going on here?” That was the really cool part of the film. You know, great, you create a monster and it’s like a slasher film. But then, to humanise him, so that there’s emotional weight behind the film at the end. You have people that are carrying the fear of Jimmy at the start, and then watching him say his final words at the end. It’s like two complete extremes. I like that thing of little pieces of information slowly starting to reveal who this guy is.

***END OF SPOILERS***

SM: You mentioned character names – and tell me if I’m reading too much into it – but you’ve got Old Bill, which is slang for the police, and you’ve got Shane Cooper, which immediately makes you think of Shane and Gary Cooper…

PH: Absolutely.

SM: And you’ve got Tom E. Lewis, who’s best known for The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith as Jimmy Conway…

PH: Well the story behind Jimmy Conway, is that three of the biggest farming families own half of all the farming properties in Australia. One of them is Conway. What happened to the indigenous people working on land for the white farmer is they would take the surname of the man they worked for, and then they would choose an Anglo name, because half the names they couldn’t pronounce. The most common was Jimmy. So that’s where Jimmy Blacksmith came from – Blacksmith was another farmer. So this is kind of Jimmy Blacksmith 30 years later, and that’s where Jimmy Conway came from. Obviously Shane Cooper – that was a big nod. I thought, “I’m not hiding it, I’m making a f*****g western.” Also, all the other names, including Old Bill, I got from the pub in Omeo. They’ve got photos on the wall of all the footy teams throughout the last fifty years, and they’ve also got all the loggers, and etched in all the old photographs is all their names. And it’s Rex and Dale and Old Bill and Slim. I was just like, “You couldn’t write this s**t; I love it.”

SM: They’ll appreciate that when you take the film to them. So, Jimmy Conway definitely wasn’t a nod to Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas?

PH: No (laughs).

SM: No, I didn’t think so. There’s a new trend in Australian cinema, in that Australian films seem to debut internationally, and get their acclaim overseas, and then come to Australia. We saw this with Animal Kingdom, which played Sundance; The Loved Ones debuted in Toronto over 12 months ago now; Red Hill obviously played at Berlin, and opened in the U.S. a few weeks ago. I have a few questions about this, but first of all, how do you feel about this trend?

PH: We made this film without a distributor. I thought, “We gotta get into an A-league festival”. There are four festivals in the A-league, and you want to get into one of those. When I was editing we had Berlin in mind; that was our goal. We sent it off, and then 48 hours later they called and said “We want you”. We had our world premiere in an enormous cinema, and then 48 hours later we’d pretty much sold it around the world. So it felt like, “Wow; this is very much an Australian film, about very Australian issues, but also the moral code of it gave it a universal voice that people can understand and relate to and identify with in terms of the western genre”. I think it’s a wonderful testament that you go “Hey, here’s a movie that actually works overseas”. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for Australian viewers. It’s scary, how do you get Australian viewers to go see Australian films?

SM: It’s definitely a great thing for Australian films to get international recognition, but you have to wonder, will Australian audiences only see Australian films once international audiences have put their stamp of approval on it first? Do you wish you had more support when you were trying to get a film made from a distributor, so you didn’t have to go make it independently?

PH: With government financing?

SM: Yeah; do you feel there’s a gap there, in the sense you’ve had to go make your film first and then sell it?

PH: I literally said, “I’m going to make it outside of the system”. It was an active decision. The support’s there if you want it. Great. If you want to sit around for a boardroom meeting for six months, and try and apply for development funding, and then try for preproduction advance funding… and I was like “F**k that man!” Mortgage your house; put your balls on the line. Seriously! Go and f*****g spend real people’s money. You know, I think maybe what needs to happen in Australia is … the tragedy is that sometimes we make really good films that Australian audiences don’t support. Right? But if you make a really bad film, and audiences don’t support it, and you do that three times in a row … maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t be given any more f*****g government funding. That’s the one peeved thing I have. Sometimes you get in a situation where people make bad films that nobody wants to see, buy or distribute, and they keep getting funded. If you did that in Hollywood you’d never f*****g work; you’d be sent to director jail. Maybe the rule is for the first film you f*****g mortgage your house and spend your own money, because the problem is with the government money, people think “Oh yeah, we’ll just drop $9 mil on an Australian film and it didn’t get its money back…that’s alright! It’s not my money.” Whose money is it? Who’s to blame? No one’s personally responsible for that investment. And I’m not saying everyone has to go do it the way I did it, but the way I did it gave me a real personal responsibility – not only to not losing my house – but also to the people that I raised finance off and said “Hey, come invest in me.” And then I think, I don’t know, we’ve kind of lost our way, and it’s like turning the Titanic around. I don’t think one film’s going to do it. I think if we progressively make better and better films, maybe that ship will slowly turn around. The distributors will get behind film, and obviously the government money’s there if you want to apply for it. There’s enough money going around. If anything they need to keep Australian budgets down. They’re too big. $10-12 million. Like, really? How you going to get that back?

SM: It’s funny you mention that, because I recently saw a film called Monsters which was made for $500,000; not sure if you’ve heard of that. ..

PH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SM: A monster movie that’s filmed guerrilla-style and it’s phenomenal. I think the industry is in this push-pull state at the moment; with audiences and distributors and government funding. So it’s interesting to hear your thoughts. I’m interested; you wrote a treatment for a trilogy around Red Hill. Can you tell me about that?

PH: It all came in a flood of sudden inspiration. I guess the whole notion of it came from looking at the landscape we had here. I was like, “Why hasn’t someone done this? A modern day western.” Because there is nothing different between now and then. Sure, there are mobile phones and cars, but big deal. It’s still a two-hour drive to the nearest town, and if Jimmy takes out the mobile phone tower, you’re f****d. So three revenge westerns came into my mind; three stories – they’re all revenge, redemption and sacrifice. None of the characters related, but there are three stories that take place in three different towns, in three different countries. The next one’s called Black Valley and is set against the backdrop of the Narco drug war in Mexico. It’s a fictitious border town; it’s a drifter with a bag of guns and 24 hours to kill. It’s a revenge story. And if you want to talk about the Wild West, I mean, go to Mexico right now – the northern parts of Mexico – where you’ve literally got shootouts on main street between feds, local police, the army and the cartel. It’s a dire situation up there. When I sat down to write; I wrote a one-pager – I always do a one-pager first. “What’s this story about? It’s going to be about this.” I wrote three in a row, and they’re called Three Colours Vengeance.

SM: Have you seen Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy?

PH: Yes I have.

SM: So, it’s that idea of three separate stories linked thematically.

PH: Yeah, like Red, Blue and White.

SM: Is that the next film you’re going to work on?

PH: I don’t know. This film’s opened up every door in Hollywood. I moved there three months ago. I don’t know if it’s going to be one of theirs or one of mine. I’ve got two scripts that I’ve got. Everything’s opened up for me now. It’s a really exciting time; you feel like you bust your ass long enough and … in a sense it felt like I was just trying to make a show reel. If I could get an agent I would have been happy, but now I’ve got an agent, manager and a lawyer, and the keys to the kingdom of Hollywood, in terms of opening a door to get in a room. The first one gets you in the room; with the next one you have to lock the door behind you.

Red Hill arrives in Australian cinemas November 24, 2010.

One Response to “Interview: Patrick Hughes; writer/director of Red Hill.”

  1. >Awesome, amazing interview. Should be compulsory reading for all Australian creatives – espec. film schools.

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