Patrick Hughes

If you thought Animal Kingdom would be the only hit-you-for-six Australian genre film released in 2010, think again. A new horse has arrived in writer/director Patrick Hughes’ spectacular neo-western Red Hill (opening this week in cinemas) about a group of small town cops who get tracked down and returned to their maker when an Aboriginal man with half a face and an elephantine sized chip on his shoulder gallops back into their lives.

Clearly inspired by old school westerns of the Sergio Leone ilk, Hughes mixes together flashy aesthetics, a roaring score and a bunch of true blue “flamin hell” performances. The result is damn near an instant classic. Making the rounds on the publicity circuit, I sat down for a chat with Hughes prior to the movie’s release.

Red Hill posterInsofar as genre is concerned, Red Hill is a lot of things. It’s an action film, a revenge thriller, an outback movie and of course a western – but simply describing it as a western is selling the film short. So I came up with my own description: a“neo-western outback revenge movie.” What are your thoughts?

I’d say a neo-western outlaw revenge thriller Die Hard meets Training Day set in the Victorian eye country (Hughes starts guffawing).

I was thinking it also has some touches of No Country for White Men.

Yep. Or No Country for Young Men. The film’s other good selling line is Jimmy Chants Again.

As I began watching Red Hill I first thought of asking you whether you had any reservations about casting the really menacing character, Jimmy (played by Tom E. Lewis), a mostly silent serial killer, as an Aboriginal man. But then as the film went on the audiences realises he’s not a straight cut villain. So I wonder how you characterise him – a hero? A villain? An anti-hero?

He’s a monster and throughout the film we humanise him. I really wanted to present him as this disfigured monster, this shadow of fucking evil that stalks into this town, much the same way as the panther in the film does. Death has just come and he’s come for fuckin’ payback. We treated Jimmy’s performance as a sort of last supper. We put all these little sensory experiences. Just little things, like him eating a cake. It’s like fuck – he’s been in prison for 15 years in maximum security, he’d probably enjoy to eat that piece of cake. So taste it and enjoy it because it’s going to be the last thing you eat on planet earth, know what I mean?

By not allowing him to say anything I had so much fun writing the film because it became about how we reveal these bits and pieces – how we start to learn who this guy is inside. What you start to learn is that he’s suffering great loss and it’s a really tragic story. I wanted to tell a tale of revenge and I wanted to create something quite confronting. The image of an Aboriginal man with a sawn off shotgun is pretty confronting. The way the trailer plays it’s “here’s this evil man who comes to town!” That’s the way it should be played.

Were you nervous about how people would respond to a script like that?

Absolutely. When I was writing the script I was really nervous about handing it over to Tommy, because I hadn’t shared it with anyone. I rang him up and said look I’ve written a script for you but I just wanted to say I’m sorry if I offended you, because if you don’t gel with this, I’m not going to make the movie. The next day he called me back at 6am and I thought holy fuck it’s Tommy – I thought I might have flipped him out. He was like nah man, this is the film my people have been waiting for. So I felt at that point, we got a movie here.

It’s interesting that he said Red Hill is the movie his people have been waiting for. Would it be too much to say that your film visualises what must be a dark fantasy that lingers deep down in some Aboriginal people, that it embodies the fight and revenge against the white man that they were never capable of achieving?

Maybe. But they’re such happy people and wonderful people. Violence is not in their nature. Maybe it is on a level of a sort of fantastical dreaming of it, I suppose. I remember watching Unforgiven in the cinema and I remember looking around and there were people around cheering and punching the ceiling when Eastwood walks into the bar and says “who’s the asshole who owns this shit hole?” People were up in arms, because it’s fucking justified. They killed his god damn best friend! And if something is justified, that’s what every western is about – a moral code. At what point you take the law into your own hands and fight for what you believe is justice and what is right on planet earth. It’s a classic genre because there’s that rawness and sparseness and leanness to the storytelling.

You’ve taken a lot of the elements of a classic western and transplanted them into a modern setting, right?

Yeah I translated old western style into a modern day setting. Looking at a town like Omio, which was once a boom town with 40,000 people, there’s now 120 people who live there – 120! There’s a tragedy right there. I felt like asking what is this town like 100 years after it was a boom town when all the industries that built the town have run dry, all the people have left and it feels like a relic of its former days.

That’s where the character of Old Bill (played by Steve Bisley) came from. He’s a character hanging onto the past. There’s a real sense of tragedy to the loss this town has faced and unless they turn themselves into one of those spa resort towns, what is their place in the modern world?

The role of the black panther in the movie, which comes to town and sort of haunts its peripheries, gives it a very enigmatic element. I decided that when I write my review I’m going to suggest that audiences don’t get up and leave when the end credits appear, because you put the final shot sandwiched between sets of end credits, so some people actually miss it.

Yeah I know I know but I kind of like that too.

We had a different end scene and it was poetic and beautiful but I axed it because the film works better with this kind of high impact ending. But that’s the beauty of DVDs. You’ll be able to see it on the extras.

In the tradition of Sergio Leone westerns, you’ve gone the whole hog with your use of sound. Red Hill has a really strong score, and you’ve used it so heavily that it made me think – how did you make sure your composer (Dmitri Golovko) made exactly the right score for this film?

Well, he’s an incredible talent and you can buy his album on iTunes right now and they’re releasing it on CD in the next couple of weeks. We’ve worked on scores before and the kid’s incredibly talented. We share the same aesthetic. I’m a huge Morricone fan and fan and I collect film scores. I’ve been collecting them on vinyl since I was a kid. He wrote the score off reading the script and we actually had the score while we were shooting the movie. We were playing it with our rushes and listening to the theme as we were driving out to the set, to get soaked up in it. I really wanted to create a visceral experience. I love those filmmakers who get the imagery and sound to be be really bold. I wanted it to be bad ass. It’s big and fat, going back to the classic style of filmmaking.

I see a lot of Australian films and I get a little peeved by an industry that seems to recycle the same things again and again. Especially these kind of hoity-toity dramas that don’t make any splash at the box office and aren’t artistically interesting either. It seems to go around in circles. So when a film comes out and it does something interesting and bold and in your face, it’s something special. What are your general thoughts about current state of the Australian film industry?

I think we need to start making all types of films and there’s been an aversion to making genre films. “Genre” seems like a dirty word. I think well excuse me, the whole of Hollywood is genre filmmaking. Those art house films, they’re a genre as well! If you look at them and the way they structure them, that’s just fucking genre filmmaking! There’s people who go “this is genre filmmaking and this is art.” That’s bullshit.

There’s been a lot of solid, amazing films coming out of this country in the last couple of years, especially in the genre element. Films like Animal Kingdom and The Square. People often say to me “wow you’re part of the new wave of filmmaking.” Well it’s not like a concerted effort. We’re not siting down saying “hey, let’s start a wave!” It’s just something that happens.

Red Hill’s Australian theatrical release date: November 25, 2010.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey