Interview: Director Daniel Nettheim (The Hunter)
12:00 PM on 04.04.2012 // Hubert Vigilla@HubertVigilla
The Hunter is director Daniel Nettheim's second feature film, and the latest in a string of highly acclaimed movies from Australia in recent years. The film follows Martin David (Willem Dafoe), a man hired by a mysterious corporation to hunt for the Tasmanian tiger. There's a catch, of course: the Tasmanian tiger has supposedly been extinct since the 1940s. Yet there are still supposed sightings of the animal, which sends Martin into the wild on his quest. The Hunter also stars Frances O'Connor and Sam Neill.
I had an opportunity to talk with Nettheim during a roundtable interview with other journalists. He seemed genuinely enthused about the film. Given its praise both in Australia and abroad, it's no wonder. Then again, he may have seemed especially happy about the spring-like weather.
Keep an eye out for our interview with Willem Dafoe tomorrow and our review of The Hunter on Friday.
[Editor's note: I omitted or reworded some questions and responses in order to avoid spoilers.]
How did you capture both the wide space in the wilderness and the intimate setting of the house where Martin is staying?
That was one of the things that always appealed to me about the book and about the whole project. You have this kind of intimate human story set against this quite epic backdrop. I mean, the story between Willem's character and the family, that's one part of the intimate story, but the really big one is just his own internal journey. So yeah, we juxtaposed shots of Willem to these great, wide open plains where he's like an insignificant speck. And I just like the idea that mankind is on this planet having their petty battles and their petty debates and their little lives, but nature is this big, indomitable force that stays there forever. I think as a kid, I remember one of the early films that profoundly affected me was Peter Weir's film Picnic at Hanging Rock -- which, you know, if you haven't seen you should see. The way Weir depicted this monolith of the rock as this sort immutable force that will stand the test of time after we're all gone and eaten by ants -- you know, I thought was really amazing. So I referred back to that film when we were prepping for The Hunter.
I heard that you worked as a photographer at one point. Was part of your aesthetic approach?
I worked with a really good cinematographer [Robert Humphreys], but I do have strong instincts about framing and composition. And they are instincts. Like, I don't even know the logic that drives them, but I can look at a frame and think, "That's telling a story," or I can look at a frame and go, "That's not telling a story; we would have wanted [the camera] a bit here or changed the lens." The cinematographer and I got on really well, but there's a great behind-the-scenes photo of the two of us: he's going like this [motions one way] and I'm going like this [motions a different way]. But we did look at a lot of films together. We went back and looked at a lot of New Hollywood films for that widescreen framing, like Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, Five Easy Pieces, McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the interior lighting. [Editor's note: New Hollywood refers to the American New Wave of the late 1960s through the early 1980s.] We ended up putting together a little booklet of visual references. We took screen grabs from all these movies that we liked. So by the time we're on set, we didn't have to talk much, you know. I would be working with the actors, the cinematographer would set up a frame, and sometimes I'd change it and sometimes I wouldn't. But yeah, composition and framing is always important as a way of telling story.
Two shots took my breath away. One was here Willem was in the wilderness and there was a five-fingered ray of light coming down over his head, like a halo almost. The other one was a shot where birds were just sweeping across. So those shots, how were they come by? And with the birds, were they flying that fast or did you speed them up?
Okay, that bird shot -- when we were down in Tasmania with the main crew and the actors, we didn't get a lot of time to shoot those kind of shots. We did end up going back to Tasmania -- you know, me and three guys -- without the cast specifically to get the time-lapsed shots of the clouds and everything. But that one shot you're talking about we did get in the main body of the shoot. There was one day we finished early. I knew the particular angle on that mountain that I wanted to get, and I knew what time of day the light would be right, but we were running late. We were in the car -- the camera operator, the focus puller, the DP, and me -- and we were driving-driving-driving. And we could see the mountain and I realized we weren't going to get to the location in time for that perfect light. So at that point I saw this little dam on a farm and said, "Let's just stop here because we're going to miss it." We stop here, we pull out the camera, we put it on the tripod, turn it on, fwhish -- these birds flew by. And at that moment everything came together, it looked amazing.
I mean, this is a gift of God. [laughs]
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And, you know, that shot of Willem where the helicopter comes around and there's that "hand of God" sort of light... We knew the time of day we needed to be shooting to get that kind of light, but it had been cloudy that day. We only had the helicopter for one day, so we were kind of thinking, "Well, we're not going to get the full backlit thing." And really just when we were coming up to that particular shot, suddenly the cloud cleared at just the right time. But there was a shot that we got shortly after that that was so beautiful that we actually couldn't use it. We were heading toward this rocky outcrop in the middle of this amazing forest. And suddenly there's a rainbow. And the rainbow came from nowhere and hit this patch of ground. It was amazing. Early on I had it in the edit, but I was thinking--
It takes you out.
People aren't going to believe it. I mean, it looks like CG, you know?
So yeah, exactly. The images couldn't be gratuitously beautiful. They had to be serving the story dramatically, they had to reflect the right emotional beat, or we ditched them
Did you know you had that when you go it? I mean, you knew what was in the camera?
On that day?
Well, I was up in the helicopter and when we turned around, I could see it all there. I was like, "Oh man."
You were in heaven.
Yeah, yeah. Tragically, that helicopter pilot died about two or three months later. He was Australia's most experienced and sought-after camera pilot. He was just shooting a standard news story somewhere with a news crew. No one knows what happened. It was a still day, there must have been technical malfunctions or something. His name was Gary Ticehurst, and this was probably the last film he shot. But also, up until the last week of the shoot, we didn't know if were going to be able to afford for him to come down. It was a lean budget, and we really wanted to make sure that all the money spent was on the screen. Our producers would say, "Daniel, you go over time this week, you're not going to get your chopper shot." Really, it was like a week before the end, we realized we could make it happen. To the question before about expansive vistas, those helicopter shots really allowed us to open up the film to another level. Willem wouldn't allow himself to be doubled anywhere. So when you see a little speck--
It's Willem. And he's got a weighted backpack.
Don't you love him?
Well, that's commitment, isn't it? I was impressed. And we'd be going, "Could you walk faster?" or whatever. He couldn't even see us. We'd say, "Walk towards that hill," on the radio, and he'd go, "Umm, which hill?"
[laughs] Tell us about the black and white footage of the Tasmanian tiger in the film. Where did it come from?
There's eight minutes of archival footage that exists, so we got the rights to use it. We ended up getting a hold of the original 16mm print, and redigitized it so it could be blown up for the big screen. I mean, the copy they sent us was pretty bad quality after all that negotiation. In Australia that footage is well known. I'm realizing as I travel with the film that the Tasmanian tiger is really not known outside of Australia. But it has an enduring mythology -- this idea that it's still out there. Every year, people report seeing it. For some reason, no one manages to take a photo on their iPhone, which is kind of weird. When you go down and travel in Tasmania and you talk to locals, the conviction that it's still alive is very widespread. You meet smart people that tell you, confidentially, that back in 1973 they saw one cross the road even though they're supposed to have died out some time in the 1940s.
1935 or '33?
1936 was when that footage was taken. That one died that year. That was the last one in captivity. People assume there were still some [Tasmanian tigers roaming around in the wild]. There was no evidence really after that particular one died in the zoo. But that myth that's still alive is a dangerous one because it lets us off the hook for what actually happened -- it was brutally hunted to extinction by colonial settlers because they thought erroneously that it was killing their sheep. It's subsequently been proved that it couldn't have been [the Tasmanian tiger].
Why is it important to keep species alive?
Biodiversity. That's the argument that biologists and conservationists will give, that biodiversity is really important, that everything has a role in the ecosystem. But I mean look, you know, creatures do naturally become extinct not through the hand of people but through nature. Creatures evolve and become extinct for various reasons, but the Tasmanian tiger was brutally massacred before its time. And it was a unique creature. It's not a dog, it's not a cat, it's a marsupial, and most closely related to the kangaroo. It was the largest carnivorous marsupial, and it was really a kind of noble and very unique beast. There was actually a quite famous attempt to clone it from DNA from preserved specimens going back to the beginning of the 20th century. The Australian Museum led a team. Ultimately they decided that the material that they had was not in a good enough state to use. But people still hold out hope in the future that they can do that.
Does that dissention between environmentalists and loggers really exist to that extent in Tasmania?
Oh yeah. Tasmania is probably a global hotbed for the debate between environmentalists and the logging industry. Most of the state is owned by a private corporation called Gunns, who are the main logging firm, who no doubt are in the pockets of the government in various ways. But if you look at the map of Tasmania, a third of the island is World Heritage area or national park. It's protected, it will never be touched -- never has been touched. But there are these boundaries which are constantly changing. You know, the government is constantly handing over new sections of this preserved land to the logging industry to supplement what is mostly an industry based on sustainable plantations. So it's where old-growth forest is threatened that you get these blockades -- people chaining themselves to trees, blocking off roads. That's a real blockade that you see in the film, and they are real protestors. And they showed us this camp and they had this amazing system where they had people camping up in the trees -- right at the top of the trees. And the trees are all interconnected by chains and ropes, so that if one tree gets chopped down, it will pull down the others, including the ones with the protestors. So the loggers can't be responsible for the death of a protestor. They have no choice but to stop, and that creates a lot of anger because this is their livelihood. The passions on this debate are really, really strong, and any time we thought we were writing something that was maybe stereotypical, we'd go back down there and realize that the reality was so much more extreme. That situation in the pub where Willem walked in and someone thought he was a greenie [protestor] happens everyday in that area.
How was the film received in Australia, and in particular in Tasmania?
The film was received really well in Australia, and particularly in Tasmania -- they loved it. In fact, Tasmania is not usually a great place to distribute an art house film or independent cinema, but the State Theatre in Hobart was like the number one venue in the whole country for this film. It played there for months longer than it did anywhere else. We had a premiere down there, Willem came down, they closed off the main street -- no one had seen anything like it. Films never get premiered in Tasmania. So really, I think there was a lot of local pride. I think people really relate and that they like the film, that it depicted the island in a truthful way, in a beautiful way, and they liked the story as well. It was very gratifying, because the Tasmanian government film board put money into the film, it was first big thing they'd really invested in, and it paid off for them.
I was told that Willem really wanted to do the film because he wanted to go to Tasmania. Can you tell us something about that.
Yeah, well Willem had never been to Tasmania before. But he'd worked in Australia and he remembered years ago (maybe decades ago) touring with his theater group and going to Victoria and going to the Mornington Peninsula. Someone pointed across the water and said, "Over there, that's Tasmania." I mean, he remembered that. So I think when I met with him and said we're going to be shooting this all on location in the wilderness, that was an appealing part of the adventure for him. He didn't know Tasmania, but he really liked it, and we were very generously received wherever we went. So he was very happy to come back.
Can you describe the influence of opera music on telling the story? From scene one, it seems to be a recurring thing.
Yeah, yeah. That wasn't in the book. That was one of the devices we came up with. Really what we wanted to say was that this is a man with quite refined tastes. He has a certain way of living his life. You know, he has his bath, he likes his music, but he can go out and rough it when he needs to. So it was a way of putting in little character hints. When we started listening to some choices, I had a music advisor who was suggesting certain pieces of Italian opera, and I was thinking "That's too much." So we had to be very specific with the choices that we made. Willem... I've since seen The Boondock Saints where he plays this detective and he [listens to opera]. So he was a little bit wary about not wanting to stereotype this character in a falsely cinematic way. In fact, I've got to say about working with Willem: he was like a heat-seeking missile for anything that reeked of untruth in the script. Pretty much whenever he'd point something out, I'd agree with him. It's like, "Yeah, you feel the hand of the writer here, let's pull back, let's not do that." Maybe the music thing wasn't fully to his taste, but he could understand the role in the script and for that character. But we pulled it back from what was originally in the script. Music is always important to me when working on a film. That Bruce Springsteen song was in the very first draft. It wasn't in the book, but it was in the very first draft which was written by a guy named Wain Fimeri, who only wrote one draft. But he came up with the bath and the Bruce Springsteen.
How much did you have to pay for the Springsteen?
Obviously he's a well-known artist and it was one of the big budget items in the film. But it was two years of negotiation. The producers started negotiating with his reps before we had the film financed.
[laughs] Yeah, you'd have to know how much you needed.
That's exactly right. And we'd constantly think, "Well, if we can't get it, what else could we use in that sequence?" And we could never come up with anything nearly as good that was right -- that sounded right, that was emotionally right. Everything about The Boss -- even the little girl saying "The Bofth" -- there were so many reasons why we were determined to keep it. So in the end, I think Bruce didn't read the script, but I think he read the scene and he read the context and gave his permission. It's not permission given lightly.
I was just curious -- was there originally more background story about Martin? It seems as though you consciously chose to make us wonder who this character is.
In the book, there's a lot of stuff happening inside his head, including some memories of when he was a kid and things, but they weren't really things that informed his character in a meaningful way. We made a disciplined choice when adapting the book to keep it in the present tense, to not have flashbacks, to not have voice over. Everything that we learn about this character we learn from his actions and what we see him doing rather than what people say about him or what he says about himself. And it wouldn't make logical sense for him to be sitting down at the pub and talking to some guy saying, "Hey, when I was a kid..."
He's not someone who wants to reveal stuff about himself. Likewise with what we learn about the world, I wanted the audience to learn about it as he learns it, through his eyes. Those are choices of discipline we made in the writing, and Willem very strongly supported that. There were moments when we talked about putting bits of backstory in, but they weren't helpful. They weren't helpful for that narrative and that journey.
What are you doing next? Do you know yet?
I've been reading scripts. I haven't decided what the next project's going to be, but it probably won't be someone alone in the wilderness looking for an extinct animal.
[laughs] It's going to be a romantic comedy. Set in Paris.
Well, yeah, hey, I'd happily shoot in Paris. One of the reasons I loved [doing The Hunter] was because it felt like I could contribute something new to the canon of world cinema rather than repeating a familiar story or repeating a familiar genre. I just wanted it to be new and somehow surprising and a bit different, and something that would last rather than something kind of disposable.
Did you initiate this project?
Yeah, absolutely, with the producer. We talked about it for some time, we decided to do it together. He optioned the rights with me attached as director, and it always stayed that way.
Was the project difficult to get started?
The hard part was adapting the script. That probably took eight years. Not eight years of full-time work -- we were always working on other things -- but there was always either me or someone else working on a draft of the script, and it was a hard nut to crack.
It's a big little picture.
And we always knew the casting was going to be critical, that we needed the right actor to carry it off, but we couldn't really go sending it to actors before it was ready. And I got to certain stage where the potential investors were all saying, "So who is playing Martin David? Who was playing the hunter?" And when we could finally turn around and say "Willem Dafoe is The Hunter," suddenly people could see the film. It's like, "Okay, right, I get it. I can see that."
Who else were you considering?
There was a list of people in Willem's kind of caliber, I won't say who they were. The character is older in the film than in the book because there's more at stake. For a young man, he can move on from these experiences, but someone later in life, their choices are narrower, the stakes are higher. To be that age and that physically fit, no one apart from Willem has that.
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