The Hunter, an outback Australian adventure/drama starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neil and Frances O’Connor, taps into the legend of the Tasmanian tiger and uses it to frame a story about a stoic hunter’s psychological journey.
Set largely in lush Tasmanian wilderness and loosely adapted from a novel by Julia Leigh, Dafoe plays Martin David, a gruff American mercenary flown in from Europe to find and capture the elusive Tassie tiger. Easier said than done when the animal’s existence could well be myth and the locals are deeply suspicious of “greenies.”
The Hunter premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, opened to strong reviews and is currently screening in Australian cinemas. I sat down for a chat with director Daniel Nettheim.
Why do you think the legend of the Tasmanian tiger has endured for so many years?
I think the story of the tiger resonates on many levels. For me personally it represents the mistakes of the past, which resonates for the main character of the film who’s on a bit of an emotional journey. The possibility that the animal is still alive is fuelled by alleged sightings, several of them a year, which has been the case since 1936. It represents the possibility of redemption for the mistakes of our past. It speaks of the endurance of hope. The possibility that if we found one we would look after it this time — that we’re more enlightened and would know what to do. I think we’re all looking for salvation in that way.
Are you a believer in the possibility of the Tasmanian tiger still existing or were you simply interested in using it as a storytelling device?
I’m certainly a believer in the possibility. I really look forward to the day that one of the many eye witnesses manages to take a photo on their iPhone. Everybody carries cameras around with them these days. The thing that puts the biggest doubt into my mind is that nobody has ever managed to take a photo or find a footprint. However, when you look at the map of the island, 37% of it is locked up in world heritage areas or national parks and is largely inaccessible. The vegetation is incredibly dense. So if this thing was still out there it would certainly have places to hide.
At the centre of the film you have a gruff and determined performance from Willem Dafoe, whose presence is not to be underestimated in an artistic or, I assume, a commercial sense. Obviously you would have been tickled pink to sign him onto the project. How did that come to be?
From the start of developing the script we had Willem’s name on a list of people we would love to work with. We were blessed in a way that the character was always written as an outsider, as somebody who has come from very far away to this remote island and provides a conduit for the audience’s journey into this world. We thought ‘why not start with the highest on our wish list?’
We sent Willem a script, got a response that he was interested and I flew to New York shortly after to meet with him. At the end of that meeting he kind of said ‘yep, well, I’d love to work with you guys, let’s make it happen.’ It was incredibly good for the project to have him come on board. I was able to pitch my working process to him in a very honest way, which was like ‘here’s a character, there’s not a lot of back story or detail in the script, it’s really up to you to take ownership and build this person’. I think when you allow actors to take control of their characters it can create great results.
That’s true, but doing so also means you’re ultimately surrendering a part of the filmmaking process, aren’t you?
Yeah, but likewise for him. It was a big move for an actor of his calibre to jump on board a very small Australian film with a director he didn’t know that was shooting in the wilds of Tasmania. He responded with a passion for the project.
No doubt you’re very much aware how hard it is to a) finance and make a film in Australia and b) get it released on a national and international level. Did you feel that once you secured Dafoe as the star, that was a kind of leverage, a kind of insurance?
Not really. I’ve certainly seen plenty of films with really great actors in them go straight to DVD. I think the key is you’ve just got to make a really good film.
A lot of The Hunter is, in the simple and crudest terms, simply footage of a man walking. Did you every worry about that? Did you think maybe you needed to add more dialogue or more drama or did you think the Tasmanian surroundings were so beautiful you could rely on them to sweep audiences away?
The film is deceptive in a way. There appears to be a series of quite simple scenes of a man in the wilderness but in each scene there is a storyline happening. Generally he is performing a very specific task that illustrates a point in the plot, whether it’s setting up traps, eating his dinner, walking to the next location. We had to make sure there was always a forward momentum. There’s quite a carefully structured cause and effect whereby every scene leads to another event. But it’s true that you can get lulled into the beauty of the surroundings. Personally, I find being alone in the bush incredibly meditative, contemplative and comforting.
The Hunter depicts a lot of tension between Tasmanian locals and the so-called ‘greenies,’ to the point at which it leads to dangerous confrontations. To what extent was this exaggerated for dramatic effect?
We realised it was virtually impossible to tell a story in Tasmania — particularly one about the relationship between mankind and the natural environment — that didn’t touch upon that subject. There’s a lot of ongoing suspicion between greenies and loggers. It’s very real, it’s very present, and the events we depict were all based on anecdotal stuff provided to us by both sides of that debate.
I read the other day that you filmed a shot that was so beautiful, so idyllic, that you chose not to put it in the film? What’s that about?
It’s true. When we were filming late one afternoon a magnificent rainbow opened up and it looked like god was touching the earth. But the thing was, there was never a point in the script where there was a rainbow breaking out. It’s such an optimistic symbol of hope and beauty and it just wasn’t appropriate for the story. And another thing, the rainbow was so beautiful it even looked fake. To that end it was actually more distracting than it was useful. As much as it was tempting to put in beautiful shots of amazing landscapes, they had to serve a story purpose. It couldn’t just be gratuitous beauty.
I also heard vague stories about encounters with leeches while filming. Can you elaborate?
They (leeches) were our friends and constant companions. Some of the plains looks beautiful but are very soggy underfoot and difficult to trek through. We had Willem walking through a lot of them. These are fields that at night are inhabited generally only by wombats. Leeches love finding warm spots, so in the day when there were suddenly a bunch of warm humans in their territory they naturally gravitated to us. You’d be talking to a crew member and sometimes, you know, they’d have a leech on their eyelid.