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Tracks - John Curran interview (exclusive)

John Curran

Interview by Rob Carnevale

John Curran talks about the making of Tracks and why it marked something of a coming full circle for himself personally.

He also talks about working with the real-life inspiration behind the movie, Robyn Davidson, why taking artistic licence was necessary, and why he enjoys working with actors of the calibre of Mia Wasikowska, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo. And he gives us an insight into his forthcoming TV mini-series, which will take viewers on another epic journey through American history. Tracks is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, August 18, 2014.

Q. What kind of journey did the making of this movie take you on?
John Curran: Well, I’m from New York and I moved over to Australia in my early 20s, when I was probably about the same age that Robyn [Davidson[ was in the book. It was a time in my life where I was trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and I think a lot of great stuff happened to me in Australia before I became a filmmaker. So, this book brought back very distinct memories of that time in my life and I remembered the book, so making the film kind of felt like I was coming full circle. That being said, I wouldn’t say I was a desert person but I came to appreciate it on a whole other level.

Q. Was it a love-hate relationship?
John Curran: Well, we didn’t go out and shoot in the summer-time – that may have been a hate relationship [laughs]. We shot in the spring and it was really quite beautiful. I’ve never been on a shoot where you’re out in the middle of nowhere every day; you’re not fighting traffic or dealing with a town that’s full of people. I actually thought it would be a lot more difficult to make than it was. And another thing that struck me about the whole experience was just how peaceful it was.

Q. It’s one of the themes that emerges from the film – the desire to get away from it all. Is that something you think is missing from today’s society, or rather is increasingly more difficult to find – the ability to be alone if you need to be?
John Curran: Yeah, one of the reasons why the film probably resonated with me now is that idea… if I was in my 20s right now, I think I would have a whole different relationship to digital media than I currently do. But to me, it’s a loss of a certain kind of freedom – being connected all the time. Given that Robyn went out there in the ‘70s without a GPS or a phone, it sort of seems even more extraordinary today than it did back then. The idea of disconnecting yourself from the world for six months would seem very strange now. I’d love to be able to do it myself but I know I‘d come back to eight zillion emails [laughs]!

Q. Did that ideology also inform the decision to shoot on film as opposed to digital?
John Curran: There were a number of reasons for that choice. One, it was a period film and I felt like it [film] was the proper aesthetic for it. Second, I knew the shoot was going to be outside for long periods in the glaring sun and film is a lot more forgiving in highlights than digital. But I think the most important reason is that a lot of filmmakers right now are recognising that film is dying. You’ll see that in the last couple of years – and in the next couple of years – a lot of filmmakers have, or will be, shooting on film because it’s their last chance to do so. And I wanted my last film on film to be something that deserved it, photographically and this is the perfect sort of story. So, part of it was a nostalgia thing because it’s not going to be around much longer.

Q. Christopher Nolan is another big advocate of it…
John Curran: Everybody is – because it’s better! That’s not to say that anyone is close minded to digital, and it’s improving all the time along with the cameras, but there’s so much discussion right now about how to make a film digitally that sometimes we, as filmmakers, feel ‘why not shoot it on film?’ There is, of course, a digital aesthetic that works for a certain kind of storytelling but likewise there are some projects and film styles that suit film better. I guess it’s rather like all the old master painters who were working in oils and then the acrylics came along and you had people in two different camps. It just depends on your own personal preference – there is no right or wrong.


Q. How was working with the real-life Robyn Davidson?
John Curran: She’s great. I don’t think I would have made the film if I didn’t like her. It’s pretty tough to do a film about someone living anyway. But for this story, I was really glad to be able to meet the person I was hoping to meet. She was fantastically supporting and trusting. In fact, there was a mutual trust between the producer, Robyn and myself. She was very hands off but very supportive when we needed her to be.

Q. How did you decide when and where to take artistic licence with the story?
John Curran: Robyn, from the start, said that the book she wrote is sort of an embellishment of the truth anyway. And while she’s always striving for authenticity she also recognises that she put her own spin on it [the journey], so also recognised that we’d be putting our spin on hers. For instance, she didn’t talk about her past in the book and refuses in the book to answer people’s questions about why she undertook the journey in the first place, so I had to project my own ideas on that – but all within the truth of Robyn Davidson. I didn’t make up anything that wasn’t true about her. So, it was impossible not to take creative licence.

Q. Even today, the answer to everyone’s question of why she did it is ‘why not’?…
John Curran: But she’s not the kind of person who would psycho-analyse herself anyway. And while that’s enough for her, the film needs to go into deeper layers. But what’s why I wanted to make it. I enjoyed trying to figure her out. I didn’t want to simply make the book but to bring other layers to it. I don’t really trust first person narratives anyway because I tend to find that everybody is protective about something of themselves. Sometimes, someone else telling a story about someone can be a lot more honest and insightful.


Q. You have a tremendously talented leading lady in Mia Wasikowska. What do you feel she brought to her portrayal of Robyn?
John Curran: Robyn is a very particular kind of character. In the book, she recognises that she’s very self-aware and somewhat anti-social. She gets on better with animals and tends to pull away from people. She’s kind of a prickly character and I wanted an actress who would be able to play that authentically yet still be able to bring warmth, intelligence and likeability to the role because you don’t want a person to be one dimensionally awful. I found that Mia and Robyn are very similar types. They’re both very quiet and reserved but they see and hear everything, they’re fiercely intelligent and they are, ultimately, really warm. They can come off as aloof sometimes but once you get to know them they’re extremely friendly people to know.

Q. You’ve previously worked with the likes of Robert De Niro [Stone], Edward Norton [Stone and The Painted Veil] and Mark Ruffalo [We Don’t Live Here Anymore] and it strikes me that you like to work with actor’s actors. What do you like about working with them and what do you look for in someone when casting a leading role?
John Curran: Well, when I’m writing a script or reading a book, I kind of get an essence of the character in my head and a flavour of their tone, so I try to cast actors that capture that essence. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project with a performance that was someone doing a really broad shtick. I’ve always tended to have material that meant I could cast actors who were as close to the characters I imagined as possible. And what I liked about working with those actors, in particular, is that they’re constantly trying to be more authentic. They’re searching for the same kind of truths in a character that I am. And I’m fortunate that I have gotten to work with some really great actors because it makes things a hell of a lot easier.

Q. Is the TV mini-series Lewis and Clarke still going ahead? Is Casey Affleck still attached? And what attracted you to that one because it takes another great journey as its theme again, doesn’t it?
John Curran: I’m working on that one right now. Actually, I’ve been working on it a lot longer than Tracks. But you’re right, it’s about another journey… although I don’t know if that’s by coincidence or design [laughs]. But yes, Casey Affleck is starring in it and it’s about the idea of first contact. It’s the story of the first Americans to go out and really meet the dozens of different indigenous cultures that existed. A lot of Americans tend to view the American Indians as one culture, but as well as there being these incredibly different landscapes that they’d never seen before, and were the first white people to see them, they were also the first to interact with a really wide variety of indigenous nations that were wildly different.

It was kind of the last walk into Eden because it came before the beginning of the end for those people. We all know what happened in the wake of that journey; it wasn’t a happy ending for the American natives, even though those first explorers were going out there with the best intentions.

Tracks is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, August 18, 2014.