David chats with TOM magazine about how he created the world of ‘The Rover’ and what his films mean to him.
TOM: You and Joel Edgerton came up with the story for The Rover in 2007 – and then you made Animal Kingdom first. What kind of movie do you think The Rover would have been like if it had been the other way around?
David: The kind of movie it would be, I would hope is the kind of movie that it is. Maybe not as well executed, because I just feel more experienced now than I did back then. One of the things I really love about The Rover is that – I’m really proud of it because the finished product feels like what I set out to achieve in the first place. I always wanted it to feel like a sparse, elemental story between a small number of almost archetypal characters in a vast empty landscape. A movie that felt like a dark fable.
TOM: How do you think you’ve grown as a director since you made Animal Kingdom? How has it helped you when making The Rover?
David: I don’t know…I don’t know the ways in which I’m better, I feel like…ok here’s an example. One of the ways in which I’ve improved – Animal Kingdom probably has somewhere in the vicinity of 20-30 deleted scenes, and The Rover has one. One tiny one. And that straight away says for me that I have a much clearer sense of what it was that I wanted to achieve, and wanted I wanted the movie to be than when I started Animal Kingdom. I went into Animal Kingdom with a big, sprawling script which kept mutating and changing right up until the sound mix. Whereas The Rover was always far leaner, and I had a much clearer picture of what the end product was going to look like than when I started Animal Kingdom.
TOM: In terms of the world that The Rover is set in – the website is very detailed about how society collapsed, and in the film it’s sort of left up to your own imagination. Was it more about creating a comprehensive world to frame your characters in, or about making a statement about the way we are as a society?
David: I never set out to make a statement about the present day. I had always imagined that the world of the movie would just sit in the background. I hoped that the basic things that you see and hear in the movie give you the information that you need to get a sense that what you’re looking at isn’t a post-apocalypse. There’s still a functioning infrastructure, there’s still people buying and selling goods, there’s still petrol, there’s still currency, there’s still food – it’s just there are still people making money. There are some people who own the resources and the mining companies that are getting very rich, but there has been some kind of geo-political shift and Australia now is like a resource-rich third world country. It’s almost like an East-African country and it’s just bubbling with danger and violence. I had kind of assumed that that would sit in the background and everyone would just roll with that, and yet I have done so much talking in the last few weeks about geo-political stuff. I suspect that may be because people just want more information in the movie, or it’s because they can feel (laughs) this is me being optimistic – that they can feel what I wanted them to feel, which is the world and the texture and everything that’s wrong with the world is just a logical extension of everything that’s wrong with the world today.
TOM: Did you come up with your characters before the world, or the world before the characters?
David: The characters before the world. What Joel and I did in those ten days that we were talking about it was draw the loosest sketch of a story arch. Something very elemental and very simple. And then when I went away to write the first draft I started feeding the world into the screenplay and started building a sense of this really angry drifter traversing that world. The characters just start getting fleshier and more substantial. That’s what the writing process is about for me entirely – you find something that’s like a loose superstructure and then start doing the work that you need to do in order to layer it in terms of texture and themes until it feels like a whole thing.
TOM: In terms of casting – you wrote the role of The Rover for Guy Pearce, but in terms of Robert Pattinson I heard you really put him through a rigorous audition process. They seem to be actors from quite different backgrounds, how did you approach working with them to build the relationship between The Rover and Rey?
David: In a way they’re not – Rob is probably close to 20 years younger than Guy but their backgrounds aren’t necessarily that dissimilar. I think they’re both basically untrained, and Guy started out in a fluffy soap opera, and Rob started out in a teen franchise. But they’re both incredibly naturally gifted actors who spend a lot of time on set.
TOM: What was it about Guy Pearce that really embodied what The Rover was in your mind?
David: Guy has an incredible ability to play stillness and coldness and has a kind of closed taciturn quality that still feels exactly when it needs to be, totally emotionally available. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know why certain actors like guy can do that but other actors can’t. Other actors just wear their hearts on their sleeves but Guy…it’s strange because he’s a really lovely guy, he’s a warm beautiful person and yet he can be, when he needs to be, mysteriously intimidating. And this for me was The Rover.
TOM: The locations you shot in rural South Australia are absolutely perfect for The Rover – bleak and baron and dry – can you tell me a bit more about shooting there? Did you run into any problems?
David: We were lucky in that the problems that we came across weren’t insurmountable. Weirdly one of the biggest problems we came across was that it started raining in Maree for the first time in 12 months – and like, torrentially. Maree is at the beginning of the Birdsville tracks, we were getting our – because we shot on film – we were getting our rushes flown to Sydney from Olympic dam, and those roads were suddenly completely blocked off. So we had to get a crop plane to fly them to Olympic dam, to fly them to Sydney. It was crazy.
TOM: You shot on film? Why did you decide to shoot on film over digital – film is quite rare these days.
David: Which is sad. I just love it. I love film, it look beautiful. As great as digital technology is these days film is just better. It’s softer and it handles the light out there better than digital cameras do. I love the effect that it has on a set – because it’s expensive and because you can hear it moving through the camera, when you’re rolling film, everyone concentrates. Everyone can feel money being spent and they concentrate in a way that they don’t when your just letting a digital camera run.
TOM: The Rover and Animal Kingdom – they both have quite intense themes and violence, and the world of The Rover has descended in terms of morals quite a lot. Do you ever worry that you may push audience thresholds too far with the elements of your films?
David: They have serious themes – and whilst they can be very dark and very menacing I also have this weird feeling like deep down I’m a sentimentalist. So I don’t really ever fear that I’ll go into territory that is really and truly unsavoury on a base level. There will always be part of me that will want to drag it back to sadness or love or something soppy like that. On a thematic level that’s how I feel about that stuff. Violence in cinema is an ongoing…actually for me I sleep at night because I know why it’s in my movies; it’s a really powerful dramatic tool. I don’t like to wallow in it gratuitously. As violent as The Rover is, a lot of that violence is off camera. There are only a couple of moments where something truly bloody happens. For me the power of acts of violence is their fleeting, sudden nature. All you ever need is a couple of frames of something for the dramatic impact to be felt, and then you can observe the truly fascinating stuff which is the tension leading up to that act or the aftermath.
TOM: With your future projects, do you want to keep making films in Australia or do you want to move into overseas productions?
David: I kind of want to do everywhere. I’ve got a couple of things bubbling at the moment that would be set overseas, little bit in America, little bit in the Middle East, little bit in Europe. But it was really important to me that The Rover be not just shot in Australia but set in Australia. It felt like the world of the movie was very Australian and I love writing Australian characters, I love the cadences of the speech and I love the vernacular and I hope that I would continue to explore that for as long as people are willing to let me.