The Hunter – Daniel Nettheim interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DANIEL Nettheim talks about the 10 years it took to get The Hunter made and what he learned about himself during that time, as well as why Peter Weir was such a big influence upon him.
He also talks about the importance of finding original material and what it was like to work with Willem Dafoe, to shoot in the Tasmanian locations and why the help of a survivalist added even greater authenticity to proceedings. The Hunter is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, October 29, 2012.
Q. The Hunter is a passion project for you. Didn’t it take something like eight years to bring to the screen?
Daniel Nettheim: Yeah, it was closer to 10 years by the time… between off shooting the book and working off the edit.
Q. What grabbed you about Julia Leigh’s book when you first read it?
Daniel Nettheim: Well, it’s unique. I thought it would make a good film but I also thought it would make an original film. It didn’t remind me of anything in particular and I thought that was a good thing. I was taken by the descriptions of the landscapes. I thought the writing in the book evoked that beautifully. And a very lean central character journey… I liked the pared back minimalism of the story-telling and I thought it had a lot of cinematic qualities. But it wasn’t an obvious adaptation because the book was very literary and very internal, so it was quite a challenge to find ways to dramatise what was a very internal journey for that character.
Q. Did that make it harder to get made?
Daniel Nettheim: Well, not really because by the time we’d finished the script we had externalised it and made it, I suppose, a lot more conventional in many ways. So, we weren’t relying on voice-over or flashbacks or anything to psychologise the character. I wanted to keep everything in the present tense, for the audience to go on the journey with the character as he experienced it. It was only harder to finance because it wasn’t a commercial film. But once we had Willem Dafoe attached and certainly Sam Neill people… people had always liked the script but once they knew who was in it they could see the marketing potential and they could see where it sat genre-wise and box office wise. It helped to make it clear.
Q. How did you get Willem on board?
Daniel Nettheim: That was a surprisingly direct process of getting the script to his manager [laughs]. He responded really quickly. We had a message back within two weeks saying that it was interesting and that he’d like to know more. I then met Willem in New York and we chatted, only for about an hour, and at the end of that he kind of agreed to come on board.
Q. How collaborative was he? Did you invite him to participate in the production?
Daniel Nettheim: Oh I invited his collaboration. I was aware that the script was still a draft or two away from its completed form. And I knew that at that stage I wanted whichever actor was playing the character to be a part of evolving the character through the next draft because there’s not a lot of description of the character on the page. He was really a blank page for an actor to take and run with, particularly in terms of back story and history. There wasn’t much sense of where he came from. So, Willem and I had some good discussions before pre-production started and a lot of it was just about his way of working as an actor. He needed solid actions to play in scenes.
If there were occasional moments where he was required to play an emotion or some psychology he would say: “Let’s find an action that can convey that because I don’t walk into a room and play sad or happy…” But that was great. It really meant that by the time we started shooting the intentions were very clear and had been agreed on between us. Our on-set discussions were more about how to adapt the clear intentions of what was on the page to the locations we now found ourselves in – whether it be the house or a section of wilderness. It was a matter of making adjustments and still being able to tell the same story.
Q. Every actor says that being out in the environment helps to inform the character much more so than being in a studio or working off green screen. How was it for you? Was it a difficult place to shoot in at times? Or did you thrive on that challenge?
Daniel Nettheim: I really loved being outdoors for all that time and it was easier for me and the crew than it was for Willem because we could dress warmly. His character had a very lean, paired back wardrobe. We wanted his silhouette to always be very distinctive against the landscape, so he didn’t have the benefit of a big puffy jacket during the scenes when it’s snowing or when it’s icy or howling gales. He hates the cold but I’ve heard him say in interviews that he did appreciate doing everything for real because that’s often what an actor is trying to achieve: the effect of reality. So, if you don’t have to fake it, it’s so much easier [laughs].
Q. Did he work with a survivalist as well?
Daniel Nettheim: He did, yeah. That was something we talked about early on, finding someone to train him up on some of the specific skills that were in the script, like using a sniper rifle and skinning and field dressing a wallaby and particularly making traps. We met someone who showed us a couple of the skills that were described in the script, like making snares out of bits of bent timber and ropes and hooks. This guy’s stuff was so beautiful to look at and his process was so great, there was something incredibly cinematic about it, that we ended up inviting him to come on-set for two weeks with us and actually be there and give very specific guidance on a scene by scene basis. Willem obviously didn’t become an expert in survivalism but he learnt very convincingly to do the actions that we see on-screen that we needed to tell the story.
He turned out to be an actor who was very particular about his props. He had to have the right knife, it had to have the correct weight and the right kind of handle. When the art department met with him for the first time and said ‘this is your luggage’ he rejected it all [laughs] and they had to go out and look for an entire new set of stuff. So, he was very particular and I think that was part of his process of inhabiting that character. He wanted props he could feel a history with and an affinity with that reflected a personal taste and style of the character he imagined.
Q. I’ve read that there is at least one report of a Tasmanian Tiger sighting each year. Do you believe that one could really still be alive?
Daniel Nettheim: Well, that’s part of our contemporary Australian mythology the idea that the Tasmanian Tiger still exists. It’s kind of like the Loch Ness Monster but in our case it was a real animal. Look, there’s a bit of a muted debate on the mainland about it but within Tasmania itself one in three people you meet claims either to have seen one or to know someone very close to them who has seen one. And they’re very compelling stories and the people who are telling them are people with a lot of seeming credibility. It’s almost like a conspiracy to keep it quiet. When you meet people who say they’ve seen one they always add: “I’ll never tell anyone where it was!”
Q. So, how did they take to the film?
Daniel Nettheim: The film was really well received in Tasmania. I think it had been a while since a film had been shot entirely down there particularly one with big stars like Sam and Willem. So, for the first couple of weeks, five out of our top 10 performing cinemas were in Tasmania. Really, art-house films never play in Tasmania. Ours is not an art-house film but it certainly leans more in that direction than it does a Stallone-style thriller [laughs]. So, I was really happy with the way it was received because Tasmania and the Tasmanians were very welcoming to us. They facilitated what was a very smooth shoot.
Q. I gather the tensions you depict between the loggers and environmentalists really do exist?
Daniel Nettheim: Oh yeah, that’s very real. Tasmania has been a hot-bed for the environmental protest movement for decades and it can be violent. It’s very passionate and it’s ongoing.
Q. Did you have to give any reassurances that your film wasn’t going to lean one way or the other?
Daniel Nettheim: We did. We told people the story we wanted to tell and that the characters were part of the background conflict but we wanted the audience to experience that political dynamic as the character does. So, he arrives with no particular prejudice either way and he sits back and watches it in a very detached way. He has his own agenda, which probably doesn’t fit in with either of what both parties are trying to achieve [laughs].
Q. Do you think the film paints an optimistic look at humanity?
Daniel Nettheim: Um, well, that’s an interesting question. I feel the book presented quite a bleak view of humanity but I took a leap with the possibility of redemption. I think the story of the sad saga of the demise of the Tasmanian Tiger is very resonant of this idea of the mistakes of our past that we can’t go back and change. It’s not that the animal operates on that symbolic level in the story but I think that resonance is there – you know, the mistakes of our past that we can’t undo, but will we learn from them? That’s certainly a thematic question that’s being asked in the story. This is a character who discovers his humanity in the story and that’s really through exposure to people’s suffering and people who are experiencing grief and loss and him finding an affinity between his own loneliness and the characters in that house. So, definitely, this is a story where you watch a man change and question himself for the first time.
Q. It kind of reminded me in some ways of The American, especially the parallels between the characters of Willem Dafoe and George Clooney…
Daniel Nettheim: That’s interesting. Yeah, I saw The American after I’d finished shooting this film and once again this is a man who has devoted his life to a highly specialised career and in both cases a destructive career. So, yeah, there are definite thematic parallels there. It’s the great tradition of the cold, detached, loner anti-hero in cinema.
Q. I read also that you looked at Picnic At Hanging Rock a lot. How big an influence has Peter Weir been on your career?
Daniel Nettheim: A huge influence. I credit seeing Picnic At Hanging Rock as an 11-year-old kid with really discovering the power of cinema and probably latterly launching my interest in one day being a director. Peter Weir continues to be a very inspiring role model in terms of someone who has moved his career to Hollywood but continues to seek out the most challenging material, doesn’t repeat himself, holds onto his artistic integrity and the purity of his vision and has strong personal philosophies. There’s a lot depth and thought in the material that he tackles.
Q. How come it took so long for you to make this film after your first film? It was a gap of almost 12 years… I know you’ve done a lot of TV…
Daniel Nettheim: Well, I didn’t know I was going to take 10 years to… this was a project that I was working on and I always thought it was around the corner. I had other projects I was interesting in doing but once The Hunter gained traction those fell by the wayside. Television is my career, it’s how I pay the bills, and the longer I work at it, the easier it gets. Ultimately, I’m glad we didn’t make The Hunter earlier because I was able to apply 10 years worth of directing experience and also the script just continued to become leaner and more focused. So, it took the time it took and I was patient, I had other things to do and that’s the nature of the industry in Australia, and possibly here as well… that film projects are hard to get off the ground, which means you have to stick with them and be patient.
Q. Has the success and the global awareness of the film made it easier and opened more doors to future projects?
Daniel Nettheim: Um, it’s meant that I’ve been reading a lot of scripts that have been sent my way. I don’t know if it will necessarily make it any easier to finance any of them. But it probably makes it easier for me to meet the people.
Q. Would you like to go to Hollywood one day?
Daniel Nettheim: I’m actually more interested in working in Europe and the UK. I’ve got an agent over here who represents me for TV work. I’m also hoping to do some work here in the first half of next year. As for the next film project, that’s probably still a couple of years away. There’s a couple of things in very early development and a couple of things I’ve read that I’m interested in doing. But I haven’t locked anything in yet.
Q. What was the biggest lesson you took away from the whole experience of making The Hunter?
Daniel Nettheim: That’s a good question. Probably it confirmed the lesson that you should wait until the time is right; don’t do anything that you’re not completely passionate about because it can take 10 years. That was what sustained me during the amount of time we spent in development, was the fact that I really loved this project and I still love it. You live with these things for a very long time so you’ve got tom love what you’re doing. So, I think that was the lesson I took away from it. I also think looking for really original material was another lesson because I think one of the reasons why the film has resonated with as many people as it had because there’s an originality to the world of the film and the story-telling. It doesn’t feel like a carbon copy of something you might have seen before. I think that’s important. I think there’s no point working so hard just to add another product to the supermarket shelf that is the world of cinema.
The Hunter is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, October 29, 2012