"Wolf Creek" - Interview with Director Greg McLean, Part 1 of 2

"Wolf Creek" - Interview with Director Greg McLean, Part 1 of 2
Updated: 12-09-2005

With special thanks to The Weinstein Company, here is an in-depth interview with Greg McLean, writer/director of the scary and sadistic murder tale, Wolf Creek.


Appropriately enough, the movie opens on Christmas Day.


= = =


Question: For a horror movie of this ilk it presents a very unique narrative style.  Did you consciously set out to do something different?


Greg McLean: It is an unusually structured movie, it’s almost like one of the sole effects of the film is the structure, a special effect of the movie.  Because horror movies are so cliché and there are so many of them we come to expect to know every single beat in the movie.  The whole quest is: how do you make it surprising and interesting again?  How do you make it so the audience doesn’t know what’s actually coming next?


Question: You were heavily influenced by Hitchcock and his penchant for creating likeable characters and isolating them.  Isolation is the easy part, was it at all difficult to build a trio of lead characters the audience could latch on to?


Greg McLean: From the Hitchcock point of view, when I first started this I spent a long time really obsessed with his movies.  If you’re doing a thriller or horror, he’s obviously the greatest filmmaker in that genre ever.  You can learn everything you need to know from him about how to create suspense.  Creating likeable characters and isolating them, it’s such a simple principal but unless you have those characters you believe in and care for, it doesn’t really matter what happens to them.  So it’s about combining those basics of the Hitchcock set pieces and re-conceptualizing the clichés.  People tend to try too hard and make presumptions about what audiences would find interesting, so generally you see actors who are cast in a role that is not believable, you don’t believe in the reality of that person. 


We took an enormous amount of care in casting people who were really great actors, who were actually able to perform and behave in a way that was really authentic and simple.  The usual beats for this kind of movie in terms of set-up are in there, but it’s just done in a serious way as opposed to a fun way.  It’s about not selling out the characters to the audiences as well, because you’ve really got to like them.  Every studio wants more likeable characters but they want them to be funny, to have more sex - that’s not what life is really like.  In focusing on the mundane for a period of time, the audience is able to relate to the simplicity and embarrassment of the kids.  The mundane nature of long distance travel by car. 


All that stuff is there to disarm the audience, make them forget they’re in a horror movie and as soon as they forget they’re in a horror movie then they’re ready to go.  You change the pace, change the rhythm and actually getting the movie towards what it’s all about.  It’s a very long set-up.  You’ll see this movie and go, ‘What the hell is going on here?’  You’ll think you’ve walked into some European art film because there’s nothing happening.  But because nothing is happening, it’s truthful and it is interesting.


Question: You also build our empathy for them during their travel.  For instance, when they’re at the Emu Diner and Ben is faced with three imposing good ol’ boys from the Outback.


Greg McLean:  What that does is give you a sense of invulnerability.  If someone did decide to get mouthy out there you’d be extremely vulnerable.  Essentially it puts Ben responsible for the girls.  Every guy watching that would know that horrible feeling, that kind of sense that you’re the protector and there’s this fear of power shifting away from you.


Question: Did you ever find yourself in a rut looking for a trinity of actors to fill out the characters of Ben, Liz, and Kirsty?


Greg McLean:  We did, it took a long time because we took a huge amount a care.  Ultimately, it was about the acting really.  I first said at the casting: it doesn’t matter if they’ve done ten movies or none, they just have to perform in a way that’s completely unselfconscious, and be able to be confident enough on screen to not telegraph their performance, to be believable and be able to improvise.  We eventually found three amazing people who had those qualities and we pretty much knew straight away that they were the right people.  They had a truth to what they were doing.  It wasn’t television-style acting.  It was very simple, nuanced kind of performances, that was the focus all the way along with those guys.


Question: You found strength within Cassandra Magrath’s Liz to carry the audience through most of the film’s worst events.  Was there anything in particular that inspired you for this character?


Greg McLean: I spent a long time looking at Halloween and Jamie Lee Curtis, she is the great heroine of that movie.  There is a lot of Jamie and Halloween in the Liz character - in a sense of being what she needs to represent which is slightly more intelligent, thoughtful, and removed.  She is basically set up as the character that is going to survive no matter what happens.  Which is obviously the big trick there because she’s not.  The scene where she’s at the beach, I think what it subconsciously says is: this story has meaning to this character and something will happen to her and she will survive and learn from it.  When you completely deny that and destroy that idea it’s entirely shocking because we’ve told the audience, ‘Okay, we all agree that we know what we these signs, symbols and emotional beats mean.’  Then when you consciously rip it apart, you pull the rug out from under the audience and they’re just like, ‘Oh my God, that wasn’t supposed to happen!’  And what that really reveals is just how ingrained the structure of these stories really are.


Question: There’s a lot of truth behind Liz’s actions as well, she goes against the archetype of a slasher “victim,” how hard was it to avoid that pitfall?


Greg McLean: Incredibly hard, you have to avoid those movie moments.  You really have to think about how things would be if they really happened.  If you were in this situation, what could you do to get yourself out of it?  As opposed to doing something contrived.  Obviously there are a few pieces in this film that are contrived and you find are not realistic, but they had to be there.  Like, would Liz really be going through all of those videotapes while Mick’s running around outside?  The goal, though, is to do the opposite when you come to one of those movie moments.


Question: You have a background in art and landscape painting, how did that affect the overall look of the film?


Greg McLean: All of my background training in the visual arts and love of landscape painting, I guess it - in designing and storyboarding the film - allowed me to give depth to a film that would otherwise not have any depth.  You can look at a landscape and in just the way the music is put over it and the way it is photographed.  You can create atmosphere and emotion through that.  There’s very rich context in which the characters can start playing in.  There’s a level in which the landscape is part of the theme of the movie.  This is an incredible, vast, isolated place that people come to.  At the start of the film we experience Australia in a way that tourists come and see - it’s bright, light, and beautifully colored. 


Then the landscape towards the end of the film changes, it’s still beautiful, it’s still there, but it’s incredibly cold.  It’s not warm and fuzzy, it’s incredibly dark and distant.  This is the background on which we as people run around and do the things we do.  Some of them are great, some of them horrific.  Ultimately, the landscape sort of looks at these things and asks, ‘Does it really matter?’  What is the meaning of good and evil?  Does it mean anything at all?  When you look at it in the context of time and nature, does anything we do mean anything? 


Those are some broad philosophical and explicit things but they’re suggested by things like the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and the eclipse.  All of these images are on a symbolic level all of the ideas in the movie.


Question: Nature is something to be feared and awed.


Greg McLean: Exactly.


Question: What were the true events that inspired you to write Wolf Creek?


Greg McLean: I wrote the original story five, six years ago and it was pretty much a standard horror thriller set in the Outback.  Then over the years I heard about a couple of true cases that happened in Australia, one of them being the Ivan Milat case which is about a serial killer who would pick up hitchhikers on lonely highways and take them out into the woods and do horrific things to them.  That case was influential in many ways because is had all of these elements that were so terrifying and scarier than anything I could possibly come up with.  So that case influenced the Mick Taylor character a lot in terms of what he did, what his background was, mode of operation. 


Then more recently there was the Bradley Murdoch case taking place right now, again, a very similar character who lived in West Australia patrolling these lonely highways looking for victims who pulled over this car with two British backpackers in it and shot the guy and tried to abduct the woman, Joanne Lees.  They just had all of these similarities and had all of these incredibly bad intentions.  When people would meet him he’d be the nicest guy in the world because he had to be nice enough to get them to come with him in the first place.


 So that was the key quality that I took from those true cases.  There’s other details too that are a blend of those cases.  I also tried to blend clichés and icons from Australia - the Steve Irwin or Mick Dundee character, all of these big broad Australian characters recognizable in the States.


Question: Mick Taylor joins a long list of cinematic bogeymen, do you hope he’ll attain a similar prominence in the genre like, say, Leatherface or Freddy Krueger?


Greg McLean:  I don’t think you can consciously sit down and say, ‘Okay this weekend I’m going to come up with the next great horror icon.’  Because if you could, people would be doing it every weekend!  I think the successful characters have to come from some true place.  Look at Mick Taylor in the movie, it’s conceivable that this guy could be real.  He could exist.  Also, even though we don’t know anything about his back-story really he’s a genuinely frightening character who is like a monster.  In terms of what he does and what he gets up to.  He transcends things, he’s not just a bad guy.  He’s so evil he becomes this monster.  And he just got more evil when John Jarratt started playing him.


Question: Was Jarratt someone you saw right away and knew exactly what you wanted?


Greg McLean: I had a long list of people I wanted to read for the role and had an idea of the quality he needed to be the character.  John was the first actor I met and after ten minutes I knew that he was perfect.  The difficulty with this movie is: how do you find an actor who can completely commit to doing that role and not judge the character?  It would be very hard to do that performance because some part of you would be judging the character while you’re doing it.  John immediately got that when we met.  He said, ‘I understand this guy and how far I would need to go to make this work.  It’s also about not judging him and being inside him.  As soon as I heard that I said, ‘Alright, you totally go how far you need to go.’


Question: How long did it take to shoot Wolf Creek?


Greg McLean: Twenty-five days on a 1.3 million Australian dollar budget.


Question: Did you choose to shoot digital for budget or for aesthetic reasons?


Greg McLean: I originally wanted to shoot it on mini-DV, like very low quality digital video because I was working on a couple of different scripts and was having trouble getting anything greenlit.  It was getting really frustrating, so I pulled out the script for Wolf Creek which I had been working on and told myself I needed to rework it into something that can actually get shot.  It’s obviously difficult to get money for movies in Australia, there are not many places to go.  In the States there’s a number of doors, you keep knocking and one will eventually open. 


Eventually, I told myself that the script has to have a very limited amount of characters, about the same time I saw some of the Dogma films like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and The Idiots.  I was really blown away by them and the whole Dogma 95 manifesto that was obviously saying, ‘What are the basic elements to make a movie?’  What if you could free yourself from the huge budgets and constraints of eighty million dollar films and is it possible to make a compelling film with just digital video and a bunch of actors.  That’s where I started production-wise.  I wanted Wolf Creek to look like a recreation of a real crime so we shot on digital video so then I worked and worked on the script until it came popping along. 


A lot of the good ideas happened there during that phase where I started playing with the traditional structure.  I thought, why not try to tell the story like a piece of journalism?  Make it quite cold and cynical and very observational so the audience feels like they’re watching a visual version of a piece of journalism.  This obviously changes towards the end when we get more manipulative, but the initial set-up says you’re watching something that really happened so sit back and watch it unfold.  This is even more terrifying than trying to scare the audience and that aesthetic went through the music and sound design.


Question: There’s an almost dutiful sense of research behind some of the torture scenes, like the “head on a stick.”  Was this common knowledge to you or did you look for interesting way to kill people?


Greg McLean: That’s real!  That whole sequence is taken from the Milat case.  When I read that I couldn’t believe it.  That’s what he did to some of his victims, and that’s probably some of the worst stuff I’ve heard my whole life.  That’s very real which is even more disturbing.


Continue to Part 2...

Latest User Comments: