Interview: Daniel Nettheim (director of The Hunter)

Interview: Daniel Nettheim (director of The Hunter). By Simon Miraudo.

Daniel Nettheim directs the feature film adaptation of Julia Leigh’s novel The Hunter, starring Willem Dafoe as a mercenary tasked with hunting down the last Tasmanian tiger. The film – which also stars Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor – made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, where it was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for U.S. distribution. Aussie audiences, however, don’t have to wait very long at all for this local film; it arrives in Australian cinemas this Thursday. We spoke with Nettheim about the reluctant mentorship of Peter Weir, harsh filming conditions, whether or not he’s ‘good with his hands’ and Willem Dafoe impressions.

Check out our review of The Hunter here.

You can also listen to Simon’s RTRFM interview with Frances O’Connor here.

(L-R): Sam Neill, Daniel Nettheim and Willem Dafoe.

SM: Do you remember seeing any films growing up that kicked off the inspiration – that planted the seed – to make you want to become a filmmaker?

DN: I think it was Picnic at Hanging Rock; Peter Weir’s film that I saw when I was about 12 and I was completely haunted by it in every way. I guess the fact that he was an Australian director as well I found fascinating. After that I saw his follow up movie The Last Wave, which also blew me away, because I was seeing my own city on film, but it was imbued with this kind of incredible mystical story, with elements of natural disaster and stuff. I guess Peter Weir has continued to be a very strong influence over me.

SM: Have you had a chance to meet Peter?

DN: I have never met Peter, but I actually wrote him a letter when I was starting pre-production on the film, to see if he would consider taking on a mentor role; I just thought, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great to get advice from someone like Peter’. And he wrote a very polite letter back, saying he doesn’t believe in ‘mentors’ [laughs], but he wished me all the best, and that directing a feature film is a very lonely journey, and that’s one you have to take on your own.

SM: Well that’s kind of a mentoring-message at least.

DN: Yeah, yeah it is. Then he kind of added that his wife is his mentor, so, ‘Go out and marry your mentor.’

SM: That’s pretty good advice. I understand you and producer Vincent Sheehan had been friends for a long time, and that he’d optioned Julia Leigh’s book for you to direct. Can you tell me a bit about coming across the book in the first instance, and the things that stood out to you?

DN: That’s right; Vincent and I had known each other for a good 20 years or so, since high school. We both ended up getting into the film industry, and had wanted to find a project to do for a while together. We also both knew Julia Leigh – independent Leigh – so we kind of read the novel at the same time when it first came out, and we were both struck by the very compelling journey of the character, first of all, and then the cinematic opportunities afforded by shooting in the wilderness of Tasmania.

SM: Interesting. I didn’t’ realise you knew Julia as well. Was she at all hesitant about a film adaptation of her book?

DN: Look, she was open to the idea. The fact that we knew her didn’t automatically mean she was going to give us the rights. There were other people interested. So I wrote a treatment, and we had to convince her that our intentions were gonna be respectful to the intentions of the book. We also offered her the role of writing the screenplay at the time, and she – probably wisely – said she felt she’d already spent enough time in that world and gave us her blessing to find something else and do what we wanted.

SM: Did you see Sleeping Beauty?

DN: Yes, I did.

SM: Did you enjoy that?

DN: I thought it was remarkable for somebody who had not directed any sort of film before. It showed a very strong singular vision which is what I find inspiring about all of Julia’s work.

SM: She definitely does have a singular vision. A lot of her characters and their struggles are internal, so I imagine adapting her books and her stories to film is pretty difficult. Was there anything you found particularly tough when you did your first pass of the script?

DN: I think Julia – when she was writing the novel – she had the novelist’s advantage of leaving out big chunks of information. Because it was so much about the prose and the atmosphere, she could really jump around the narrative, without the need for explanation and filling in gaps as you have when you’re writing in the dramatic form. So there were a few times where I called her up to say, ‘Hey Julia; can you help me? I’m trying to fill in the gaps between what happens here and here’. And she would say, ‘Nah, you’ve just got to work that out’. The other thing about the book was, it was very internal. The main journey was an emotional one, and we had to really develop the dramatic external thrust of the story.

SM: I understand Alice Addison worked on the script after you. Can you tell us what she brought to that new draft?

DN: I worked on an early draft of the script, putting in place the key elements of the film that I wanted to make. It got to a certain point where I’d taken it as far as I could. So we handed it over to Alice, who really was able to bring her personal touch to it; her own unique perspective and vision. Also a lot of discipline and a lot of skill with characters.

SM: Speaking of the characters, Willem Dafoe is a pretty great ‘get’ for the lead role in this picture. He’s one of the great working actors of the past couple decades. Can you tell us about scoring him?

DN: What a coup. I still pinch myself. We always had Willem on the potential list of people to play this part. The great thing about this screenplay is we adapted it so the character was an outsider and he was coming to this exotic place. We could cast from the whole world; so it was like, ‘Let’s make a list of the people we’d love to see in this role and who would make us want to go see this film’. So the combination of Willem Dafoe in this landscape was particularly appealing. There was something about the fact that made the character older in the screenplay than he was in the novel, so that we could raise the emotional stakes. But the character also needed to be extremely physically fit. Willem ticked those boxes. I think I was emboldened by his body of work, where he clearly jumps from very large studio productions to very small independent productions. So I had the impression he was somebody who was interested in the material rather than the paycheck. And we were lucky enough that he’d already done a film in Australia [Daybreakers], and I spoke to some people who worked with him and they said, ‘No, he’s very approachable’. So we gave the script to his manager. We were bold enough to send it across, and word came back he was interested. I flew to New York a few weeks later and had a meeting with him, and at the end of that meeting he said, ‘Well, I’d love to work with you guys. So [with American accent] tell your people to talk to my people!’

SM: [Laughs] Do you do a Willem Dafoe impression? Have you shown him that?

DN: No, no I’m not nearly a good enough actor to do that.

SM: Fair enough.

DN: Although he certainly had fun with our accent.

SM: Can you tell me how much time you spent in the Tasmanian wilderness – in the rough – shooting there?

DN: We made a few trips during the development of the script in pre-production. Before pre-production, we had an idea of the landscapes we wanted to film in, and so then it was actually during pre-production that we had to find the landscapes that matched those descriptions, but that we could actually get the crew vehicles to. I think one of the beauties of Tasmania is that you can drive along a fairly decent road, pull up the car, get out, and look at a vista that looks completely untouched – because it is. Turn around the other way and you’ll see a road, but 270 degrees you’ve just got magnificent vistas. So we spent a bit of time during early pre-production travelling down there; we kind of got there for real about a week before we started the shoot, locked off some final locations, settled in. I was flying there a lot during pre-production. Then we spent seven weeks there during the actual body of the shoot.

SM: Shooting a film is hard enough, let alone in the outback. Did you have any days where you thought, ‘I’ve had enough!’ What was a tough day on the set?

DN: OK. We were at the house location for close to five weeks. We didn’t shoot there every day for five weeks in a row, but we were there for most of the time. It was a small location and it was claustrophobic and that’s where the kids had to do all their scenes. And I think by the end of those five weeks, everyone was ready to go back into the wilderness.

SM: [Laughs] Are you much of a hunter yourself? Are you good with your hands? Do you think you could last in the wilderness?

DN: I’ve never done any hunting; I’ve never even considered it really. I’ve always kind of imagined it was quite brutal, like the kangaroo-hunting scenes in Wake in Fright. But what I learnt is that bush craft – this primitive snaring technique that Willem’s character uses in the film – is incredibly beautiful. It’s an amazing skill going back centuries; more, thousands of years. I was really in awe of these trapping techniques. As a result, I wanted to capture the beauty of them on film.

SM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is your first film since Angst back in 2000.

DN: That’s right.

SM: But you’ve been working solidly in television for the past decade. Do you have any preference between the two mediums?

DN: The great thing about television is you’re able to keep working. Being on set working with crews and actors is what I love. If I was only working on films I’d only get that experience every five or seven years. So, really, I love working in both. The beauty of doing a film every now and then is you get to take a little more time to focus on the details, and that’s a luxury. The schedule felt luxurious even though it was only seven weeks.

SM: I know you’re on the festival circuit now and the film hasn’t even come out yet, but what’s next after this? Have you lined up some projects?

DN: I am reading some scripts at the moment, and I’m also looking forward to going back into television. I like that fast turn around and finishing it all within seven or eight weeks, and seeing it on screen another couple of months after that. But no, reading projects at the moment and yet to decide what the next film project will be.

The Hunter arrives in Australian cinemas October 6, 2011.

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