Director Jonathan auf der Heide’s feature film debut, Van Diemen’s Land, is one of the most realistic cannibal movies ever made. Retelling the woebegone true story of Alexander Pearce and seven other convicts who escaped into the Tasmanian wilderness in 1822 and started eating each other in order to survive, auf der Heide deliberately avoided horror, gore, flashy photography and other elements viewers have come to expect from cannibal pictures (read my review here). A week after the film’s national release (it is now screening in cinemas across the country) auf der Heide and I shared an illuminating conversation about bringing Pearce’s story to the screen.
A couple of people associated with Van Diemen’s Land approached me to do this interview and both had read my review. They said something along the lines of ‘well we know you didn’t love the film but you said some good things about it so perhaps you’d like to interview Jonathan?’ I said of course I would like to speak to you because there are lots of interesting things to discuss about Van Diemen’s Land, even if I didn’t give the film a rave review.
Yeah, I read your review and it was quite early when I saw it because there weren’t that many online at that point. I would be lying if I said it didn’t break my heart to read it, but if you make a film as uncompromising as Van Diemen’s Land you can’t expect everyone to love it. When they said to do an interview with you I thought yeah why not – all the points you said in the review, at least they were thought out and discussed and it’s open to debate. Looking at the comments of people who looked at the review is really exciting for me, to see that there are people out there who actually really get this film and get something out of it.
For me the most impressive aspect of Van Diemen’s Land was its realism. It’s easily one of the most realistic cannibal film I’ve ever seen. I’m assuming that achieving authenticity was one of your major concerns?
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It really was. When I heard the story of Alexander Pearce I thought it was one of the most amazing stories – cannibal or not – I’d ever heard. Eight men go into the forest and through extraordinary circumstances they have to kill and eat each other in order to survive. I thought there are two ways you can approach this: you can go the horror film thriller aspect of who’s gonna be next, but the fact is that most of the people who are going to be interested in this film initially are those who know the story and know it very well. I thought a lot of them are going to know who is up next, so to highlight that kind of misses the point for me with the story of Alexander Pearce, because I think you can go a lot deeper with it. To look at it as a sort of metaphysical journey, it’s an exploration of what it is to be human and what we do in these extraordinary circumstances in order to survive and how this has happened since the dawn of time. There are plenty of films out there that glorify the violence and the blood and gore aspect and that didn’t interest me. I think there is much more to the story than that.
What you’re alluding to is that Van Diemen’s Land is very far from a generic horror film. The performances are all very realistic, there is very little gore, no action scenes and so forth. It’s like you’ve deliberately avoided all the obvious things. Is that an accurate impression?
Definitely. The story of Alexander Pearce from the very beginning had been amplified into a ridiculously titillating myth of the Pieman. If anyone ever mentions the Pieman to someone who has done their research and read a few books about Alexander Pearce they get quite annoyed because he wasn’t the Pieman – he was not a blood thirsty cannibal. He was just a regular convict who was put through these awful circumstances and did what he had to do in order to survive. I wanted to pare away that myth of Alexander Pearce and see who he truly was. And so Oscar and I studied the confessions of Alexander Pearce, which are really detailed, and we pretty much put them on screen as is, without making it a Hollywood structure or trying to make the characters more likeable or using those regular tricks that we’re used to as a cinematic language. With the use violence it is quite divided. A lot of people think there should be more violence in the film, that there should be more blood splatters. That is what we are used to as an audience and I just think that’s sick. It’s been reported that people have run out of the cinema and vomited; a couple of people fainted; one guy was rushed to hospital because his heart stopped during one of the killings. I think that’s because I avoid that language. People expect that if an axe goes into someone’s head there is going to be a blood splatter. They expect that they’re gonna see the axe going into the head or if someone punches someone in the face that their nose is going shatter and there is going be blood everywhere. People are actually quite used to that stuff. As someone who is a victim of extreme violence I didn’t want to glorify that in any way. I think that the murders in this film are brutal and honest, clumsy and sometimes mundane because that is what it would have been like for these men. I think to follow the regular violent path would actually give it less impact. If you don’t show it, if you hear it, it is much more shocking and confronting for most people.
What did you mean when you said ‘as someone who is a victim of extreme violence?’
I was nearly beaten to death during making the film. Four of my friends including me were walking home through Brunswick and eight teenagers with clubs decided to beat the shit out of us for no reason whatsoever and I nearly died. My face – I looked like the Elephant Man for a while there while I was trying to finish the film. It cemented in my mind how there is this repressed violence within especially young men today, and where is that coming from? What is it about us as human beings that are capable of such atrocities? The story of Alexander Pearce for me is an exploration of that – of a man who is grappling with his humanity. When you’ve had eight teenagers chase you into an alley way with massive clubs and broken bottles and rocks and they’re beating the shit out of you and you think you’re going to die – I would really like to see someone who has been in those circumstances say the film needed more blood and gore and violence.
At what point in the production did this occur?
We had just finished the edit and we were doing the sound. So I had to do the ADR with a face that looked like it was gonna need reconstruction. It was quite full on for some of the actors to do the ADR and have this guy whose face is…I had twelve fractures in my cheek bone and major cuts to the back of my head. I’d already known at that point that what I felt was interesting about the Pearce story is that he was a regular human being, the everyman who isn’t the leader or isn’t the monster we’ve made him out to be through myth.
Am I right in saying that generally speaking the critical reception to Van Diemen’s Land has been incredibly positive? I can’t’ remember reading a bad review.
It’s has been really glowing and I couldn’t be happier with the response. It’s more the comments I see from the general public that excite me. Towards the end of making the film I thought this is something the critics are going to like but what’s more important to me is that audiences are loving it. I wasn’t expecting to break box office records with this film. I thought and hoped Australians would be interested in our convict past because this is our first convict film since 1927 and I think there’s been a real gap in our cinema. It’s been the biggest Madman release in Tasmania ever. It got the best opening weekend and we’ve had a screen average so far of six and a half thousand in the opening week and that’s really solid, so I couldn’t be happier with the way the film’s been received. It’s really exciting as a filmmaker to make something and to give it over and let it go and see it received so well. You’re always going to have people who aren’t going to like it but that’s with everything. I am a bit sensitive to that sort of stuff, just because I want everyone to like it. As I said before you can’t make a film as uncompromising as Van Diemen’s Land and expect everyone to love it.
In terms of the production process probably the best impressive thing about Van Diemen’s Land is that you went from pre to post production in just 12 months!
Yeah. Well I wanted to capitalise on the excitement and the commitment of the talented people I had managed to secure for the short film.
But 12 months is insane.
Yeah, I know! And it was all private funding. It was mostly funded by friends and family of Oscar (Redding) and mine. So it’s a completely independent production from the backs of people who are really passionate about this story and wanted to do it justice. I look back at the shoot and think wow – I had 30 people freezing their asses off for six weeks purely for the love of it. It was just amazing.
Did you ever feel like the pace was too fast? Was it ever too stressful?
No, not at all. I guess it was stressful for me coming from never doing a feature before, from doing a short film of six days and then embarking on a six week marathon. That was terrifying for me but I had Ellery Ryan (D.O.P.) and he was imperative for the shoot because I knew that to have someone who’s already shot 15 features before by my side would be invaluable. Whenever I was unsure about something or if I ever had a tiny bit of stress on me I would look to him and say ‘look, this happens all the time, right?’ Because the morale was so good on set, it was hard to get stressed. It was a lot of fun.
As you’d know the Alexander Pearce story continues past where the film ends up to the point he was recaptured, confessed his crimes, escaped again and was eventually hanged. Were you ever interested in continuing the story to include his death?
Yeah we were interested and we did write it but for me, I wanted to parallel the story of Pearce’s confessions with Dante’s Inferno, the poem, which is Dante’s descent through the circle of hell until he meets the devil himself and then goes back up on his way to the sky. I like the idea that it was contained, because as soon as you show Pearce’s hanging it becomes a moral judgement and what I wanted to do was avoid moral judgement on Pearce. I wanted to get to a point where the audience is literally there with Pearce and Greenhill going ‘just kill him! Kill him! Eat him!’ When it gets down to those two you really just want it to end, you really want Pearce to kill and eat him. To show the hanging I think would put a moral judgement on it and then the story becomes about man’s moral code and justice and the legal system and all that sort of stuff, when actually I wanted it to be a story that explored man versus nature and man’s battle with his own nature.
The last killing that Pearce did, which was the brutal murder of Thomas Cox, was a fascinating one because it was the only murder he committed that wasn’t from necessity. He tore that kid apart and it is just horrifying to think what took place and what was going on in Pearce’s mind to be able to do that. Was it anger from not being believed and just wanting to tear someone apart and say ‘look, see this is what I’ve done, hang me, I’m not gonna live in this hell any longer?’ Or was it just that he had a taste of human flesh, or whatever it is that people think. But to even go that far with the story, the film would become an Alexander Pearce biopic which is not what I wanted to do. This is a story about man and nature and man’s battle with his own nature.
The film’s cinematography is nicely framed and you capture some terrific settings. Can you explain to me the logic behind washing out the colour scheme?
I wanted initially to alienate the Australian audience to this picture perfect Australian wilderness. To these convicts they would never have seen anything like this before in their lives. They came in from the rolling green hills of England, Ireland and Scotland which have been cultivated for centuries, but this is completely untamed rain forest, untouched by man. So it would have been terrifying for these men, hence why they keep calling it the inferno or hell – because it did contain the unknown. For them it was the lost world and they were terrified by it and so I wanted us to see it though their eyes…We wanted the wilderness to be bleak and terrifying and I think by tearing the colour out it does that and it also takes you into a different world immediately, like you are going back in time and seeing footage of Australia’s colonial past. And also with pulling the colour out like that, it does make these convicts like the ghosts of Australia’s past in a way, walking through our forests.