While not exactly a "horror" movie… OK, not a horror movie at all, the thriller The Hunter is still very much worth a look from genre fans and deserves a fair shake, since it's only coming out in limited release and we reckon it's going to need a little extra TLC in getting the word out. Similar in plot to many films we've covered in these pages before (mostly animal experimentation gone wrong, or mad scientists and mercenaries on the loose in any number of SyFy originals), what sets The Hunter apart is the tone and the elevation of the proceedings due to the fact it was shot on location and employs actors with weight.
Sam Neill, who can currently be seen in episodic television in the series Alcatraz, has a small but meaty supporting role, and Willem Dafoe, who's a tour de force in everything I've seen him in, is the quintessential strong silent type as the title character — a marksman who's been hired to find and bring in the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger… dead, or alive. Which one of them survives may come as a surprise, but really the satisfaction is in watching the story unfold.
It's based on a novel by Julia Leigh (director of the recent film Sleeping Beauty, starring Emily Browning as a sex slave), and blends fact with fiction along with the what-if's inherent to such speculation: that the creature's DNA represents a fortune to vested interests. The movie is out in US theaters April 6, 2012.
Staci Layne Wilson: Interestingly enough, I just saw, again, Sam Neill in Possession. Zulawski's Possession, from 1981. Have you seen that? Great film, and then to see him in yours. It's just an amazing span that his career has had. It's such a satisfying one, I would think, for him. What was it like to work with him knowing the body of work behind him, as a director?
Daniel Nettheim: Yeah, it was funny; there was something about his character. You know he wasn't an obvious choice. I've so often seen him play very refined, urban kind of characters and I think it was the producers suggestion. The producer Vincent Sheehan had worked with Sam before, and as soon as he said it, I thought, that's great. I would love to see Sam do something that I hadn't seen him do, which is to play a kind of quite a rough kind of Bush man type. And when I met with Sam to discuss it, he said, you know, I'm not obvious casting for this role, am I? I imagine it would be quite a difficult role for me to play, which is why I think I should play it.
Interesting. He still finds challenges, or feels unsure, even after all he's accomplished.
Daniel Nettheim: While I think that, you know actors like to challenge themselves. And I think his attitude was, if it feels too comfortable. He's not pushing himself or developing himself in his craft. So he was open to the challenge of that. And I didn't really get any rehearsal time with him, but he was over here in the US shooting something. But when he calls me up a couple of weeks before the shoot and said. I don't think any of the character's clothes should be newer than 25 years old. I knew we were on the right track, because Sam likes to dress well. So he really embraced it and maybe this is something that he lost on US audiences, but as a New Zealander with a kind of a British accent, he did a great job in finding this very kind of remote, regional Australian country accent. That was great.
Yeah. That's got to add nuance to it, even if all the people don't catch it.
Daniel Nettheim: It was a transformation and because he is wearing this big hat as well and he's using that as a prop and sort of hiding behind it. I've had some people who know some of Neil's works really well get halfway through the film before they realize that it's him.
As for Willem Dafoe, who is also amazing, I had read some of what you said in here about how it's hard to find an actor who is of that age, who is also physically fit and believable in the cerebral sense. And so he was on your shortlist from the beginning?
Daniel Nettheim: He's got a great face and for a character without a lot of dialogue. So much of the depth of this character you've got to be great in how he's using his expressions. It's got bo be a face that you want to look at carefully for an hour and a half. He fit that description. I knew him to be a risk taker in his choice of roles there is also a matter of like there is a possibility that he might actually want to do it. You know, which helped. It had been a while since I had seen him play such a central role. And, you know, really it came down to if I was in the audience of this film. What I like to see up there walking around the Tasmanian wilderness for an hour and a half.
Now the Tasmanian Tiger, this is a truly extinct animal? Can you give me a little background?
Daniel Nettheim: It is the Tasmanian Tiger was a real creature that could be found on the island of Tasmania well, uniquely, when it was first colonized by British settlers as a penal colony in the late 18th century. It was fairly widespread. And this is an animal that would hide away, but there is very early botanical reports describing it and from very early on, it was kind of stigmatized as the Wolf. They thought it was killing their sheep.
Is it like a hyena?
Daniel Nettheim: You know what it looks kind of like a dog with stripes, but it's more closely related to the kangaroo. It's a carnivorous marsupial it was the largest carnivorous marsupial in Australia. It was physically entirely unique. It wasn't like any other creature on the planet. It could open its mouth like a snake. He could open its mouth 180° to help swallow its prey, but unfortunately it was stigmatized as a sheep killer and from the mid-19th century. Farmers were hunting it down. The government put a bounty on its head. 1 pound per adult male. And by the time anybody had any kind of environmental awareness and consciousness about what they were doing to this creature. Its population had fallen beneath the critical mass needed to survive. So, despite numerous attempts in the 1920s and 30s to kind of breed them and regenerate the population. The last known Tasmanian Tiger in captivity, died rather pathetically in a zoo in Hobart in 1936, and we see footage of the actual creature in the beginning of the film. So that's a real footage, and it's part of 10 or 12 minutes of existing footage in the whole world that shows this creature as a living moving thing. Since then, mind you, pretty much every year there are reported sightings in the wilderness of the supposedly extinct creature. And it's kinda filtered into our national mythology, a little bit like the Loch Ness monster or the Yeti… is it still out there?
How did you first come upon the story, which originates in the book?
Daniel Nettheim: I knew the author. So, I would have been amongst the first people to read the book and immediately I found it was a beautiful piece of literature. It was a very unique story, and it was in a part of the world hadn't had many films shot there at all. What attracted me was a combination of the very intimate personal story and this amazing epic factor.
I'm curious to know, without giving anything away, of course, is the ending of the story. The upshot of your film. The same as in the book?
Daniel Nettheim: Obviously the film hasn't all for all more optimistic and then the book does. I mean, there is certain very profound and powerful things that happened in the film. That happened in the book, and it was always important for us to hold on to those particular moments. To sum is quite shocking, what happens, but it's an important part of the story to hold on to.
What would you do if you were in his shoes?
Daniel Nettheim: That's a real interesting question. We interviewed a lot of local Tasmanians about what they would do if they saw a Tasmanian Tiger in the wilderness. And for a lot of them the answer was the same, which was I would tell it to run away, and I would not tell anybody. But there are different reasons for this. There's a big political debate going on in the island between the logging industry who want to chop down sections of old growth forest and grainy kind of conservationists who are desperate to protect these remaining older forests. It's a really hot, impassioned topic. No one I spoke to like loggers saying, what would you do if you saw a Tasmanian Tiger? They would tell it to run away because if they reported it. That would mean the whole scientific community would come down to that landscape. And they would have to stop their work. On the other hand, the environmentalists wouldn't tell anyone either, because suddenly you would get half the world media treading on this very fragile ecosystem trying to find this supposedly extinct creature. So it's kind of like nobody wants to disturb it and everybody has a fear that if there is still one out there today. Human greed would be responsible for killing it, which is what happened in the first place. So it's a very complex issue, but I started off the journey of this film as a cynic thinking. Well, there can't be any more out there. Science tells us it's not possible. There are many down there who claim very sincerely to have seen one. Their belief in that conviction is quite seductive. So I went out thinking well that's possible. You look at the map of that island 30% of that whole territory is a World Heritage area or national Park, completely untouched wilderness can never be touched virtually impenetrable by people. So if there was still a breeding population out there and they were smart enough to hide from humans. There's plenty of places for them to hide.
There's definitely some mystery there and looking at just the trailer. It's kind of being presented as mystery suspense, there is action. How do you feel about that presentation of it? Do you feel like there are some tense scary moments and that's what you are after?
Daniel Nettheim: In the script writing and in the edit it was always important to find a balance between tension and suspense mystery and kind of like meditative poetic stillness and space, which is what the landscape is about. I think that the trailer probably leans on one side more than the other. But that's the nature of trailers. I don't think it misrepresents the film at all. I think there are strong kind of thriller elements that kind of go throughout the film. And there is also, as I mentioned a kind of stillness and the quietness that befits the landscape.
Can you reference some films, such as, "If you like this movie, then you'll like The Hunter"? I know in the 70s, it was big the man against nature, nature attacks man — Day of the Animals, The Prophecy. Those movies like that… there's also one from Australia… what was it called, do you remember?
Daniel Nettheim: There was a film called The Long Weekend. Australia has a great tradition of landscape filmmaking, and I went back and reference the best of it in preparation for this film and to cite a few examples like Peter Weir's early film The Picnic at Hanging Rock. Which had a profound impact on me as a young guy at discovering Cinema and the way that depicts the relationship between people and the natural environment is phenomenal, with humans being presented as a very insignificant speck when faced with the indomitable forces of nature but I could name Fred Schepisi's film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith sorry, Nick Roeg’s film Walkabout. More recently, John Hillcoat's The Proposition. So there is a very strong tradition of using the landscape as a storytelling device.
As an adversary too. An adversary, and an ally.
Daniel Nettheim: Definitely an adversary, and like in all of the films that I just mentioned it's about the futility of the attempts to colonize the landscape to impose what is frequently a very kind of British colonial existence on what is really a wild untamable land.