Interview: Mark Lewis (director of Cane Toads: The Conquest)

Interview: Mark Lewis (director of Cane Toads: The Conquest). By Simon Miraudo.

“The producers would like to give an assurance that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.” Perhaps the presence of this credit at the end of Cane Toads: The Conquest is the first time it has been an unwelcome one. Director Mark Lewis first plunged into the cane toad phenomenon with 1988’s BAFTA nominated short film Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. He follows it up with the comic, occasionally surreal, 3D extravaganza The Conquest, in which he traces the modest introduction of just 102 of the tiny beasts to Australia in 1935, to their current standing as Australia’s most despised pest, with numbers exceeding 1.5 billion on our continent alone. Lewis introduces us to a number of interesting Australians whose lives are intrinsically linked to the toads: the Queenslander who has erected a – not surprisingly, failed – stuffed toad museum; the Northern Territory taxi driver who spends his evenings running them over; the sympathetic environmentalist who has erected a toad sanctuary; wannabe inventors working on elaborate traps; vigilantes taking it upon themselves to euthanise the animals; self-employed entrepreneurs turning the deceased amphibians into purses and bum bags; the dogs who get high by obsessively licking their gross, green backs. Through it all, the toads keep on having sex – yes, you get to see some hot toad action – and the “invading army” spreads across the country accordingly. I spoke to Mark about his stance on the so-called cane toad threat, and how he directs a dog to look “stoned”.

SM: You’ve made a few documentaries about cane toads now, and I think you’ve done a good job of establishing them as a terrifying threat but also as a kind-of unwitting victim to a certain degree. Where do you stand now? When you see a cane toad, are you tempted to stamp on it or defend it?

ML: Defend it, and you know, for so many reasons. I think it’s been vilified unfairly; I think it’s innocent. I think the press overexploits the cane toad, because it’s easy fodder. As a filmmaker who works with cane toads, you don’t want to – how can I put it? – harm your major star. So I got out of my way to avoid the cane toads when I’m driving; I swerve to miss them.

SM: I thought it was an interesting credit in the film, where it is pointed out that “no animals were harmed” in the making of the feature.

ML: Yes, and we do have very strict protocol and ethics when it comes to dealing with animals. We don’t want to hurt them. Certainly in the film it’s suggested that cane toads are [killed]; we have golf clubs and all that sort of stuff. It’s all cinema craft, where we suggest it rather than actually doing that.

SM: Well, I’m glad there’s no blood on your hands. If you go to the Cane Toads IMDB page, they offer you recommendations saying, ‘If you liked this film, you’ll also like these other ones’. It has Cane Toads: An Unnatural History – your short film – and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome – which isn’t so crazy considering the semi disaster movie approach you take here. What was it that inspired you to take that approach?

ML: What I would like to suggest is that I’m a good filmmaker (laughs). It’s not so much an ‘approach’ … well, obviously it’s intuition or instinct how you deal with stories. But I think with reference to Mad Max, there are elements of my filmmaking, where some of the visual sequences are suggestive of cinema iconography or cinema icons. And by that I mean, you could say that the cane toad was an alien, or you could say it was The Terminator. Certainly some of the sequences we did … for instance, we did this toad culling sequence, and I guess a sequence at the end where all the toads are gassed, and we called it the ‘Schindler’s List’ sequence, because it reminded us of the holocaust.

SM: Yeah, it actually reminded me of The Killing Fields, with the mass grave.

ML: Yeah. Then there was a sequence where a man speared the cane toad, and we called that ‘The Cane Toad’s Revenge’, but we shot it in such a way that it mimicked CSI programs, and we called it CSI Mullumbimby. We do like obviously portraying what happened because it’s interesting, but sometimes we call upon greater analogies to reinforce what we’re trying to say.

SM: I’ll rephrase it slightly. You mentioned CSI, and Aliens, and Terminator, but were there any other specific narrative films that you took inspiration from?

ML: Not so much. I think in some of the individual sequences we took inspiration from narrative films, but I like to think my films are in their own way idiosyncratic to myself. Certainly where I’ve come from and how I’ve arrived at my own style is somehow a response against the more conventional documentaries out there. What I mean by that is, natural history for instance has long been a specialty of what I call the safari animals, the lions, the tigers, and what have you. Whereas my natural history is about animals that are closer to us, and that somewhat may carry bad baggage, like the chicken or the rat or the cane toad. So my filmmaking is more an opposition, or a quest to get away from that more conventional or didactic style of storymaking, and create my own distinctive style.

SM: Well, that absolutely comes through. You speak with a lot of the locals who have very passionate opinions on cane toad. Some have them as pets; others have tried to wipe them out en masse; there are those resigned to the fact that they can’t be killed off, and that you just have to live with them. Where did the majority lay?

ML: I guess this harks back to the previous question, and the answer. I don’t have a traditional voiceover, and I don’t have a traditional narrator like Richard Attenborough or what have you. My characters tell the story; my characters inform the audience and move the story forward. So I look far and wide for great characters and great stories. And what I mean by great characters, to me, an individual character with a great turn of phrase or a colourful way of speech, or colour in their presentation, is very important. Because they are certainly going to be much more engaging than a boring host, so to speak. It’s really through research that I find these people; I spent a lot of time cold-calling, looking at newspaper clippings, finding stories, searching the internet to find these people, but for the good reason that these people are my storytellers.

SM: Definitely, and you ask for a number of people to participate in re-enactments. Were they forthcoming?

ML: Yes, absolutely. Look, I think part of the craft, as the director, is to encourage a trust between the director and his subject. We talk about how we can best visualize this, and I can say something like, ‘As interesting as your story is, it’s gonna be difficult for the audience to watch your talking head the whole time’. And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way when I suggest that, and I say ‘Look, let’s talk about reenacting this. How can we best reenact this? Show me how to make the story work, with respect to a reenactment’. They become more than enthusiastic in recreating what it is in the story that happened to them. I don’t find that untruthful, and I don’t find that fraudulent. I think if anything I’m trying to create a visual reality for the audience. Did a man spear a cane toad and get electrocuted? He did, and he died. So obviously the man who supposedly died in my reenactment isn’t the real man, but the situation I’m reenacting is as close as possible to what I could find out from the eye-witnesses and the police report. I’m trying to use fictional methods to determine or describe or reveal a truth?

SM: You also ask some dogs to do some reenacting, one of which enjoys a toad-induced LSD-style trip. How do you direct a dog to trip in that manner?

ML: Well, you basically work with the dog to work out best how to make that happen. If anything, the power of editing is to ‘suggest’. There’s the classic tale of old where – I can’t remember the name of the wonderful filmmaker – they cut to an image of a man, and then they cut to a bowl of food, and then they cut back to the man looking, and it’s the same shot, but the audiences’ perception is that the man is hungry. The dog was not tripping out on a cane toad at the time; the dog was licking a rubber prosthetic of a cane toad, and the dog was licking honey on the cane toad. So in order to portray that reality, you set it up to make it look like the truth. When the dog is lying on its back, it’s lying on its back very happily, because that’s what he likes to do. The fact that people think the dog is tripping out is what we’re trying to suggest, but we’re not actually filming a dog tripping out (laughs).

SM: You would hope not.

ML: When you cut to him looking at the fence, it’s out of focus. We used other methods of course.

SM: Well they say one of the hardest things to do as an actor is to play ‘drunk’ or to play ‘stoned’, so I was going to say the dog is either a very good actor, or you were using some interesting editing techniques there.

ML: No, it’s because I’m a very good director (laughs).

SM: Of course! That was my next assumption.

ML: It is hard playing drunk and stoned, and certainly I did get a great performance out of that dog, and it did look stoned. That’s the editing and the craft.

SM: I have a question about the cane toads, and this plays into how you feel about them, and you feel as if you’re on the cane toads’ side, in a sense. In theory, if the cane toads can survive and adapt and mate as successfully as they have, doesn’t that make them – evolutionary speaking – perfect? Do you agree with that to some degree?

ML: I’m not a biologist, and I’m not a scientist, but when I speak to those people, they’re very impressed. Every single scientist talks of a respect they have for the animal. What they mean by that, is the animal’s ability to evolve and adapt is extraordinary, and continues to be so. One of the points we make in the film: there are cane toads they are finding on the so-called front line that have worn their fingers and thumbs off their front pads. They have done that because they have such an aggressive determination to travel, that they wear their fingers and thumbs off. So, you’re talking about an extraordinary animal. Rick Shine, one of our interviewees who’s a research scientist and an extraordinary man who spent years researching, talks about this ‘Olympic village’ effect. The best athletes on the front line mate with the other best athletes on the front line. Through natural selection or what have you, they’re producing very significantly stronger animals than was first brought into the country.

SM: My opinion on cane toads was certainly changed by the film.

ML: I appreciate that, we’re not trying to change opinions- we’re just trying to make people aware of issues, and if they change their opinion, then that’s good.

SM: Part of that is due to the underlying parallels that you brought up, such as genocide, and even to a degree, euthanasia and immigration. These were parallels that I was seeing, especially in quotes from interviewees. Pete Ravenscroft [the environmentalist who erects a toad sanctuary] says, “they don’t know there’s anything wrong with them. They’re just themselves.” Meanwhile, you have the Kimberley Toadbusters who refer to them as “an invading army”. It does establish these strange parallels that you wouldn’t naturally assign to cane toads.

ML: Certainly I think some of the analogies that it brings up are immigration and asylum, which are very topical at the moment. Asylum hunters and refugees. It brings up issues of bigotry; it brings up issues of racism. The wonderful thing about this animal is that it’s so distinctly parochial and so distinctly Australian, yet at the same time it raises extraordinary universal issues.

SM: I’m based in Western Australia, and the film concludes – semi- ominously – with the toads basically heading into WA. Maybe we shouldn’t be concerned. As you suggest, should we learn to embrace the cane toads a little more?

ML: I think to some degree. The end of the film, people says it doesn’t resolve; it has an open ending. I don’t think it has. Certainly what we’re seeing is the cane toads heading out to the hills, into the sunset, if you want to make that sort of connect. I think by default what I’m saying is, and one of the characters make this statement, ‘It’s not the cane toads fault; it’s us. The war is lost.’ Meaning we can’t control it. By default I’m suggesting we need to learn to live with it, and need to learn to cohabit with it. Certainly, there are other issues we need to be worrying about at the moment, and not worrying about the cane toad, be it natural gas or be it carbon tax or what have you. I’m trying to put it into a perspective, but as far as Western Australia goes, I don’t have a lot of optimism that you are going to be cane toad free for much longer.

Cane Toads: The Conquest is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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