"Wolf Creek" - Interview with Director Greg McLean, Part 2 of 2

"Wolf Creek" - Interview with Director Greg McLean, Part 2 of 2
Updated: 12-09-2005

Question: Explain to me your whole approach to on-camera violence, every director within the genre - from Argento to Craven - has one, and each is palpably divergent.


Greg McLean: My approach to the ugliness in Wolf Creek was the same way Mike Leigh would unflinchingly hold the camera on moments of incredibly intense human drama.  I thought, what would it be like to do the same thing and hold the camera on someone who’s being tortured?  What is it like to not look away?  Part of the goal, for me anyway as a storyteller, is to not look away because what we do in our real life is not stare, it’s rude to look at a situation unfold.  We tend to look away and go back into our own world. 


It’s more rare and more interesting to not look away from that darkness - keep the audience looking at it.  The positive thing to come of this is that you make your own judgments about what you’re seeing.  Obviously it’s screwed up, but deal with it because the world is so full of real violence, especially the last five years.  We think we get violence with a lot of television shows but what I think we see in news reporting, and shows like CSI, is we think we’re seeing violence.  It’s actually not, these programs are always panning away.  It’s a homogenized version of it.  I think there’s a value of examining it for real because it says, ‘Okay, this is what it looks like and this is how bad it really is.’


Question: That said, were there any scenes in Creek that were particularly difficult to get through?


Greg McLean: The hardest was the first torture scene in the shed.  That was incredibly hard for the crew and for the actors, as well, because they completely committed to it.  We shot that scene over a span of two or three nights and it was unbelievably hard for Kestie, who plays Kristy.  She and John had to have an incredible amount of trust between them, and they had to have a trust in me that I would look after them and make sure they were okay.  Essentially it was up to them because they worked out what they wanted to do together as actors in the scene and encouraged each other to do more.  Kestie would tell John, ‘The more intense you are the better my performance will be and I will just react to what you do.’  They were allowing each other to go all the way which was brave of them. 


At one point while shooting that scene, because the shed was so small, the crew and me had to be outside for the wide shot.  It was just Kestie and John in there.  I was listening on the headset and watching on the screen the scene unfold and, at one point, I literally sat up from my seat and thought something had gone wrong.  I thought John had gone crazy and Kestie really wants to stop.  I was going to go running in there, it was really quite bizarre and at the end of the take I ran in there and they were both like, ‘What are you talking about?  We’re doing what you asked us to do!’  It was so convincing and so believable I thought he was really hurting her.  I reacted how the audience will react, which is: how do I make this stop?!


Question: There’s a voyeuristic approach to that scene as well because we’re on the outside looking in.


Greg McLean: That’s right, from the moment Liz wakes up, the audience becomes her until the moment she dies.  It’s like a powerful switch because we identified with her so heavily in the first part, when it becomes her story and how Liz gets out of this situation we are essentially her, and we’re literally seeing it from her point of view.  It’s a powerful switch.  If she doesn’t get out you don’t get out and you desperately want her to get out of this situation.


Question: Were there any challenges to doing a film like this due to your limited shooting schedule and budget?


Greg McLean: It was quite an experience because obviously I had been waiting so long and working so hard to get a film going.  Basically on the first day of shooting I told myself, ‘Look, this is probably the only film you’re going to make your whole life.’  I just reminded myself to enjoy it and consciously not let anything stop what we’re trying to do.  On a daily basis there are things that happened that could’ve potentially derailed the movie.  We went to one location to shoot the crater scene and we found a fantastic spot that hadn’t rained there for five or six years.  It was a completely dry and dusty Outback Australia setting.  We get up there to shoot four weeks later and it rained for about a week!  Halfway through shooting that scene - which was supposed to be shot in sunny, bright weather - it’s suddenly overcast and raining every day. 


We couldn’t stop shooting because we’d never get that day back, so what I did was incorporate that into the script.  They get to the crater and it’s raining.  We had our actors comment on the weather and it becomes a key part of the movie now because they’re saying how it’s raining and it shouldn’t be.  What it says thematically is: this weather is unusual and heralds the bad things to come.  The biggest thing, I guess, is to avoid potentially derailing things like this and make it work creatively.  Make the script better by incorporating them and avoid missing a day filming.  Roll with it.  And I think it turned out real well because that scene has rolling thunder, the actors are wet, they get stuck in the car and I think it makes the movie that much better.


Question: There’s a definite sense of dread the minute the trio’s car breaks down.  It almost has an air of the supernatural because of the stopped watches as well.  It appears that Mick has honed in on this phenomenon and uses it to his advantage.  What’s your take on it how does it fall into your theme of realism?


Greg McLean: It definitely has a supernatural vibe.  There’s also the red herring about the alien activity that Ben mentions.  What creeps into the movie is the suggestion of otherworldly forces, which is really great.  When you’re in that location and people start talking about UFOs and that kind of stuff, your mind just runs wild with possibilities.  By opening the possibility of something supernatural going on in that location, in that part of the world, it becomes creepy on a different level.  It also prepares you for the idea that something supernaturally bad is coming your way.  There are things that could have a logical explanation, but by the bizarre coincidence of two things you suddenly go, uh-oh, there’s something deeply wrong.


Question: Was your music selection incredibly important in conveying the true horrors that were unfolding in the film?


Greg McLean: The movie is in two parts, there’s no second act.  It’s a forty-five minute set-up and a climax.  We definitely wanted the first half to feel like a documentary.  There are two music cues in the first half, one of them is the “Eagle Rock” track and we tried forty-five different songs for that sequence.  We tried contemporary stuff, we tried some classical…a few weird selections.  But I definitely wanted a rock ‘n roll track.  Something from Mick’s era.  I wanted it to be something he might listen to and there’s something very creepy about having a happy song like that to be in this kind of movie.  I think on some level you hear that song and you think it’s some kind of a trick.  It’s too good to be true to listen to a pop sequence like that.  You know something is going to get fucked up.  That’s the effect it has on me anyway. 


As for the rest of the movie, we wanted to be as observational as possible so there’s no swelling score in the first half.  When the change in tone comes there’s pretty much music throughout every scene because once we’re in the shed we’re connected with the characters emotionally.  So we wanted to start off with how they were feeling.  Frank Tétaz, the composer, and I started looking at a lot of films thinking about the way the music is used in that movie and avoid a lot of obvious cues and stuff like that.  We wanted to counterpoint to create some kind of effect.  The more intense and action-y the sequence the more subtle Frank takes the music cue. 


What the movie starts to do is stop selling the horror to the audience and stop trying to tell them its scarier than it is and just letting them watch it unfold.  It’s even more disturbing for an audience because the storyteller isn’t saying, ‘This is scary and you should feel disgusted.’  We’re just saying, ‘Here it is, it’s happening.’  Watch or don’t watch.


Question: So, you’re avoiding the idea of broadcasting the scares?


Greg McLean: That’s right, the audience is so smart and sophisticated these days with all of the movies and television show, on a narrative level audiences are clever.  You have to be sophisticated these days to create something genuinely interesting.  I think we made a decision to approach the music with truthfulness and not making it obvious.  What would the sound feel like if you were in that environment?


Question: The sound design reflects that as well.


Greg McLean: And the sound design and music are closely linked.  Our sound designer, mixer and composer all worked together through the mix.  Sometimes we found a cue that was written that wouldn’t work and we opted to make it a sound design moment instead.  I think design is one of the most underused tools in movies.  The power of not having music is strong.  Music is the lazy director’s out, something to rely on if he doesn’t know how to play a scene.  There’s so much overuse of music in movies.


Question: How do you think shooting Wolf Creek in Australia made your experience and, ultimately your film, unique?


Greg McLean: In terms of that, basically, I had complete control of the movie, which is rare.  I had final cut and shot the film I wanted to shoot.  I was the writer as well as the producer so I could make the changes I needed to make.  I sat in the edit room with the editor and we did our own little test screenings to see what worked.  As a filmmaking experience, I’ll be lucky if I ever have another experience as perfect as that.  What I mean by “perfect” is having the time to experiment and not having twenty people send me notes every day.  There were no notes because it was basically my co-producers and me.  Essentially they would protect the artist while making the movie.  The film that’s being screened is exactly the film that came out of the editing room. 


When Bob and Harvey picked it up they were great.  They did some screenings and there were some comments from people who said it was slow at the start.  I actually believe that’s one of the best parts of the movie, I think people are commenting on it because it’s unusual.  Producers or studios would push to get into the action a bit more or sooner.  When people see something they haven’t seen before they comment negatively because it doesn’t remind them of some other film and therefore it must be bad as opposed to just trusting that it’s okay to take the time.  Bob and Harvey thought it was cool and wanted to send it out like it is.  They said they loved it.  I mean, we weren’t making it for everyone.  We had hopes people would dig it and it would go somewhere, but ultimately we’re just trying to make the best film we possibly could.


Question: Wolf Creek comes in the wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, when you sat down to write it were there any conventions you were trying to avoid and trying to achieve?


Greg McLean: I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a fairly large influence.  Some people think it’s the scariest thing since Massacre, I don’t personally think it is.  I definitely set out to be as uncompromising as that film is and as unapologetic.  Massacre is just the most remarkable, brutal comment - it’s actually an anti-comment because it’s saying nothing about what happened.  It doesn’t say, “And these people were bad and they died in a shoot-out with the cops.”  It ends with a psychopath waving a chainsaw on the highway, and it doesn’t tell you what to think about that!  I’m glad we actually got to make a film and not have to explain it.  You make of it what you will.  These things do happen and there are people out in the world that act like that.  That’s just part of life.  You can make this film any day of the week, but you’d have to do it with private money.  You have to do it in a way that you can. 


The other thing is that it’s hard to make a film with a countercultural comment and get it seen in the mainstream media today.  If you look at Massacre, it’s a remarkably bleak thing to say.  To put it out there and make people look at it, it’s almost illegal.  Going back to the earlier question about shooting in Australia  There wasn’t any attempt to please anybody when we make this movie.  I was aware of the fact that it was a film so low budget it was probably the only time I can say something countercultural which is that evil gets away, the bad guy doesn’t get punished, the lead character who tries hard fails. These are things you’re really not allowed to say. 


This concept of the western capitalist ideal of “you work hard you will overcome the odds,” all these core beliefs of our culture, by making a comment like this is the reason it’s attractive to young people because they have a sense that these beliefs are not true anyway.  By seeing a horror film that shatters those conventions they sense something truthful about the chaotic world we live in.  We’re sending out and marketing films about happy smiling people while we’re also reading about torture, death and carnage.


Question: It falls in line with what horror veterans like Wes Craven and George Romero talk about in the documentary The American Nightmare which looks at the correlation between the horror films coming out of the sixties and the Vietnam War…


Greg McLean: Exactly! 


Question: But what’s interesting is this rebel voice is coming not from America but from a country where people perceive it as a happy haven where nothing really happens.


Greg McLean: I’m a friend of Adam Simon who directed that documentary.  It had a big impact on me because I remember talking with him about the relationship between the chaos and the culture.  These movies were born out of the unconscious and the nightmares of the culture at the time.  In retrospect I think there’s something in the dichotomy between what we tell ourselves and the kind of movies we put out there.



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