Australian Gothic

Greg McLean on the Genesis of Wolf Creek

All images from Wolf Creek

Wolf Creek is a small-budget horror film that has generated the biggest buzz of any Australian film in recent years.

It is loosely based on the case of Ivan Milat, the backpacker murderer, as well as on the disappearance of Peter Falconio and the attempted abduction of Joanna Lees. Though anchored in recent events, the film also draws heavily on the natural and mythological power of the Australian landscape, and the familiar, iconic figure of the Australian bushman. Wolf Creek belongs to a filmmaking tradition that includes such diverse films as Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986), among others. 

Raffaele Caputo talked to Greg McLean, the film’s writer, director and producer, about his painful start in the film industry, his background as an art student and theatre director, his work with Baz Luhrmann, his influences, and the genesis and making of Wolf Creek

Caputo also spoke to John Jarratt, a veteran of the Australian film renaissance, who plays the central role of Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek. Both interviews were conducted in Melbourne in January 2005, while the film was making its way to the Sundance Film Festival.

Raffaele Caputo: You first came to my attention about four years ago at a screening of your short film ICQ (2001) – that film and the fact that you grew up in Bendigo is pretty much all I know about you. Like me, I’m sure readers would like to know something of your background.

Greg McLean: I was set on becoming a painter, an artist, for most of my life. I spent my teen years drawing, painting and studying art history, and I became fascinated with a lot of historical periods like the Renaissance and the Pre-Raphaelites, the Victorian era and Impressionism. Before starting in film, I essentially had a long, in-depth education in art and artists of different periods.

Was this in Bendigo?

Not exactly. I did a year in Bendigo, a year at a TAFE college in Sydney, and then I came back to Melbourne and started a three-year course in fine arts at RMIT University. 

Then, towards the second half of my third year, suddenly I became more interested in pursuing a career in movies. I was always interested in movies and always felt that I’d eventually do something in film, but my road to it would have been through visual arts. 

What happened?

Near the end of my third year I took a long and hard look at the art world and felt that the level at which I wanted to go into it was at the level of popular art. The art world seemed a fairly closed society and the people in that society didn’t seem to get a lot of nourishment from it. Nor, more generally, did the world outside. X artist shown at X gallery is an exclusive event, no matter the artwork. 

So though I had been studying fine arts for a long time, I was drawn to popular storytellers like Stephen King and I was a big fan of comic books as well, popular art forms which we tend to look down on. At the same time as I was reading about the Renaissance, I was watching movies like Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), and looking at both as great storytelling mediums. I came to the conclusion that really good movies can be a collision between low-brow, sideshow entertainment and lofty ideas.

And often there is very little between the low and high.

Yes. Much of my training in art involved thinking about the role of art and, more specifically, the role of story. For me the role of story came together through theatre. At art school, I was looking at notions of dramatic performance and, in the most primary kind of way, asking why we tell stories or what it means to sit around and listen to a story be told, which is a basic theatrical event. 

There are a host of through-lines in my development as a writer and filmmaker and at the heart of it all is the idea of what the function of art might be. I arrived at the very basic idea that you have an encounter with a work of art – whether it’s high or low, or whether it be a painting, a piece of music, a book or a movie – and at the other end of that encounter you are a different person, the world is altered slightly. Whether for better or worse depends on the artist, but the aim of the exercise is to impact upon the psyche so powerfully that you’re a different person, no matter how slight the difference is.

So what did you do near the end of your third year in fine arts? 

I opted out. I left Melbourne to work at a mine in Western Australia. 

Really? You didn’t attempt to switch courses, go from fine arts to film? 

No, I just left the course. I felt I needed a really serious break, to go far away and think about my career path. I went to Western Australia and stayed in a cottage at the back of my sister’s place. I took my sketchbooks and was still drawing, reading lots and doing my own sort of study, while in between I worked as a trade assistant at a mining site out in the middle of nowhere. When I got sick of it after seven months, I came back to Melbourne and put the word out that I wanted to direct in theatre. A friend of mine told me there was a job going at the Guild Theatre at Melbourne University to direct a play. I read a couple of plays, decided which one I wanted to do, which was Equus by Peter Schaffer, went up there with a bunch of design sketches, pitched the idea and convinced them that directing theatre was what I wanted to do. I had never directed a play in my life, but I got the job. 

For me, directing theatre, or even making a film, is almost the same as doing a painting because you are trying to communicate a concept through visual means. The difference is that you have more people contributing to the work, which is the thrill of doing live theatre. And, in a sense, movies are an extension of theatre, except that instead of watching a live performance we’re looking at a photographed performance.

Then at the same time as I directed the play at the Guild, I was accepted into a film course at Melbourne University which was taught by Arthur Cantrill. I went over and met with him and said, ‘I’m not really enrolled at Melbourne University but I desperately want to study film and get hold of some gear.’ Before that I had applied to the VCA [Victorian College of the Arts] and AFTRS [Australian Film, Television & Radio School] and didn’t get in. In fact, I applied twice to both places and just couldn’t break through.

Do you have any idea why you couldn’t get into either school?

I really don’t know. My applications to the VCA and AFTRS were on such a big scale and so widely ambitious they probably thought I was insane or an absolute idiot. 

So how did you get from studying under Arthur Cantrill to making ICQ? 

Actually there’s a bit more history prior to making ICQ. After the play and studying under Arthur, I won a $20,000 grant from Nescafe Big Break to develop my career as a filmmaker. I put in an application stressing how much I wanted to be a filmmaker, that I’d directed a play, was undertaking a film course, and that I was writing scripts. Then when I got the grant I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to direct a film, I really need to learn to work with actors.’ I had been watching student films from the course and thinking, ‘The films are technically great but the acting is terrible.’ I realized that acting is the cornerstone to a good movie and so I decided to apply to NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Arts]. Strangely enough, I got into the directing course.

Why was that strange?

Because when I went in for the interview I’d not really known NIDA’s history or how prestigious a school it is, and I just walked in rather arrogantly and sort of presumed that I was the next big thing. They were looking at me half laughing. Fortunately, I had with me full sketches I’d done for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the sketches made a lot of sense. I’m sure they were thinking, ‘This guy is insane, but his stuff is actually really good.’ Not only had I worked out a way to tell the story, it was all realized on paper. I had a working model of the production, all the costume sketches and a full breakdown of the play … NIDA is where I really learnt about the history of drama and drama as a theme – actually studying plays, breaking down scenes and understanding what a scene is. 

Were you writing at this time?

I had never considered becoming a writer because I was never good at English, I pretty much failed everything at school except for art classes. But near the end of the director course at NIDA, the students had to do a subject on play writing, which was like a chore and all the directing students hated it. We had to attend these classes where we just listened to the playwright students do their stuff, and only sometimes we contributed our thoughts. It was pretty tedious. 

But then one of the exercises was to have the directing students write a scene. I wrote a scene that was pretty terrible, but it’s through that process that a director begins to understand the relationships between what a performer does, what a writer does and what a director does. I suddenly realized that writing, acting and directing are pretty much the same thing. I never really made the connection before; I’d always thought of the director as a completely separate entity to the actor and the writer. But, of course, the writer is the person who has the initial film idea and translates it in a script, which is material for the director to work out how to shoot and construct the film, and it’s material for the actors for how they are going to perform it. To one degree or another, all of them have to immerse themselves in the characters and the world of the story.

Directing is many things, but mostly it’s technical and it’s traffic control. For me it’s all in the writing, because at the centre is someone who can tell the truth about a dramatic situation. Once I made that connection, I started to write scripts. 

What happened after your time at NIDA?

Well, near the end of NIDA I did a final year production, a play by Nick Enright called A Property of the Clan, which became the film Black Rock (1997). That final year performance got me an agent, Hilary Linstead & Associates [now known as HLA Management], and they asked me what I wanted to do. I said that there are two directors in Australia I really admire and would love to work with: Baz Luhrmann and Neil Armfield. As it turned out, Luhrmann and Armfield are clients of Linstead. I first got a job with Baz on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he did for the Australian Opera, and later that year Neil did a production of Hamlet with Geoffrey Rush, Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett. In all, I spent two years of solid training under two people who I think are brilliant. I just absorbed the whole experience. 

It was incredible to watch Neil Armfield direct Hamlet, he taught me a lot about the processes of what actors need to know and what they don’t need to know, how to help them, and when to get the hell out of their way and just let them do their thing. 

And working with Baz and Catherine [Martin] was great because what they are all about is storytelling language. One of the big things they taught me was to understand the world of the story you’re telling, which, in a way, is their obsession. What world are we in? What are the rules of that world? All their films take place in very hermetic environments: Strictly Ballroom (1992) takes place in a world of dreams, Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2000) are whole worlds completely created and sealed off. It was an interesting tool to learn at that stage – that the context in which things take place gives meaning.

Did you work on any of Luhrmann’s films?

I did some design work on Romeo + Juliet and also did some script reading while they finished the final draft. 

Then I had to make a choice between assisting on Romeo + Juliet or coming back to Melbourne and doing my own thing. I had been assisting for two years and felt I had to start my own thing, whether I screw up or make something good … Basically I reached a point where I had a couple of scripts and so decided to set up a number of meetings with some film companies in Sydney. Beyond Films read one of them and wanted to do it, which I thought was amazing.

Which script was that?

Rogue [a story based on the St George and the Dragon myth, with a crocodile as the dragon]. Beyond optioned it and I spent roughly a year and a half developing the project as writer-director.

But there was a clause in my contract which stipulated that if after a certain amount of time they couldn’t finance it with me attached, then I could be replaced as the director, which is what happened. I had to leave the film and it was terrible because I’d spent all that time on it. After another six months the project fell over and the film never got made.

What’s happened to Rogue?

I’ve got the rights back. The good thing about the Rogue experience is that along the way I met some amazing producers, distributors and different people who were brought on to the film. At least I had started to build some great relationships and had people I could talk to about making films in a real way, rather than just sitting in my house in North Fitzroy and dreaming about it.

ICQ comes in at this point because after Rogue fell over, which was a pretty devastating experience, I felt I had to make a really good short film. Part of the reason for not getting Rogue up and running was the fact that I had nothing to show except commercials. No matter how big the commercials, they were still commercials and not long-form narratives. 

And you applied for government funding to make ICQ?

Not right away. I knew I wouldn’t get development funding because I had put in other scripts for consideration so many times before and was always knocked back. I have a collection of thirty-five rejection letters, literally! The scripts would come back with notes saying, ‘It’s too obscure, we don’t understand it.’ So, instead of trying to secure funding I decided to raise the money myself, shoot the film, and then show it to the funding bodies. I figured it would be easier for them to accept something they could see. 

I had two friends who had some money, I explained the contracts to them and how the tax break works and I was able to raise $50,000. I knew I could shoot ICQ on tape for that amount of money, which is what I did. I then sent it to Lawrence Johnston and Lucy McLaren at the AFC [Australian Film Commission], they liked it and thought it had a unique style, and so the AFC put in some money to make a print and finish off the sound.

When did you starting thinking about Wolf Creek

It actually goes way back to when I signed with Hilary Linstead. I had an idea for an intense thriller set in the outback, like Duel (1971) or Flight of the Phoenix (1966), a classic sort of thriller but very Australian … I wrote a sixty-plus page treatment, almost a short novel, about a group of people getting into trouble in the outback with this one guy. At that time it was called The Face of the Enemy, a terrible title. 

Over the next four years I wrote probably five different treatments trying to get the story right. I just kept nutting away at it while I worked on other projects. I’d put it away and then every once in a while I’d pull it out and have another go at it. I’d show it to people and they’d like it, but there was always something that wasn’t quite right. Though the core idea always remained the same: a thriller set in the outback with a group of people and one guy who is completely psychotic. 

Apart from Rogue, I made two more attempts to set up features. One was Playing Jack, a romantic comedy based on As You Like It, which got to a certain point and fell over. Then I wrote another called The Bridge, a script based, metaphorically, on the experience of setting up a film and then being kicked off it. That also didn’t go anywhere. By this stage, I was thinking I was destined never to get a film made, that I was completely barking up the wrong tree and my friends were too kind to tell me I had no ability whatsoever. 

Then it dawned on me that I had started out with really big projects and that they were getting progressively smaller. Rogue was a $15 million film, Playing Jack would probably have had a budget of $10 million and The Bridge was $4.2 million. This is when I thought to myself, ‘I have to write something now that’s very sparse and economical. Why not go back to my idea about a bad guy in the outback?’ By this stage the treatment had turned into a script called Driver. I then wrote another version of the script, but when I finished that I realized there were still way too many characters and way too much action. I estimated the budget at about $6 million and that I would spend another two years wasting my time trying to set it up. I knew then that I had to write another version that could be shot with a video camera and only four actors, something I could actually shoot for only half a million dollars. 

That’s not the actual budget, is it?

No, it went up from that when we decided to shoot in a higher format and to use bigger-name actors, but originally I wrote a version that could be achieved for as little as possible. It basically came down to a very sparse movie with four characters, set at a mine, in a car and on a road. 

Once I started to get confident about the script I asked David Lightfoot, one of the line producers on The Bridge, to co-produce the film with me. I knew David would be an asset because he did some brilliant budgeting and scheduling work when I was trying to set up The Bridge.

Then Matt Hearn, a friend I knew from directing commercials, came on board as executive producer because he had some private investment sources. He said he could probably raise $200,000, which was great because at this stage I was still thinking of getting as much money as possible to just go out and shoot it. I was sick of spending my time setting up films and then have them fall over – it was incredibly depressing.

Anyway, with private investment in place, David went to the SAFC [South Australian Film Corporation] and they said they could probably put up $230,000. This was in early 2003 and by now we had figured on a budget of $1.3 million. That’s when we approached Gary Hamilton from Arclight Films, an international sales agent, for a deal to get us through to the FFC [Film Finance Corporation]. I already had a good relationship with Gary because of his involvement in Rogue. He didn’t really know what the film was about, but he knew that genre films were selling well and that I could do something good. Then Mushroom Pictures came on board because of their relationship with Gary, and they said they could do a good domestic on the film. With all these elements in place we went to the FFC and said, ‘Here is a $1.3 million genre film with confirmed state and private investment and a domestic and international deal.’ The FFC board green-lit the production and Wolf Creek moved ahead very quickly. 

When did the casting start?

We started casting seriously about three weeks after we were green-lit.

And was the script in place by that stage?

Yes, I only did one more pass over it where I changed lines of dialogue. That normally happens in a rehearsal period, where actors would suggest changes, or I’d be watching them rehearse scenes and hear lines that weren’t working. 

Sometimes if actors are having trouble with lines, the trouble is in the actual writing. There were times when I saw actors struggling with lines because the way one line followed another didn’t make psychological sense. Rather than get the actor to do something they felt uncomfortable with, it was easier to take out the ‘offending’ line and then ask what they thought would naturally follow. Usually they’d come up with something better. 

John Jarratt had a lot of input into his character and would often come up with new ways of saying things. 

When and how did you cast for the character of Mick Taylor?

I hadn’t had anyone firmly in mind for a long time, but I knew that if I didn’t cast the right person for Mick Taylor then the film would be absolute crap. That character is the soul of the movie – it’s really about him. I made a list of forty Australian male actors who were between 35 and 50 years old, probably everyone you could think of was on that list … 

At some point I really locked on to John Jarratt, who I’d always loved as an actor. I’d seen him in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and realized John can do something a lot of actors can’t do: he can sit on screen and be in the moment. It’s behavioural performance as opposed to actually acting. 

I’d also seen him on stage in Sydney in a production of Dead Heart, where he played the role Bryan Brown plays in the film. I remember thinking that he has an energy and violence that we rarely get to see. It was his performance in Dead Heart that led me to think John could be Mick Taylor, so we sent the script to him, he read it and word came back that he really loved it. 

Then one day John was in Melbourne for something else, so we met for a coffee and he was cast within fifteen minutes of him talking. He told me his story about where he grew up, the kind of people he used to hang around with, what it was like going out with a bunch of guys on a hunting trip, and he described to me the brutality of life in mid-north Queensland. It was as though John knew Mick Taylor personally, he connected with the character on so many levels. John was saying without really saying it that he knew how to do this guy without judging him. And that was important to me, having an actor who could completely divorce himself from his moral perspective and just be Mick and see the world from Mick’s point of view. 

Evil is what Mick does, but the weird part is that no one who is evil thinks they are evil. John made it clear that he understood how violent, completely abhorrent and utterly evil this guy is, yet he could still accept those parts of the character. Once that happened with John, I relaxed about the rest of the casting because all I needed to do was just be truthful with the other characters. 

How did you go about casting for the three other main characters?

I said to Angela Heesom, the casting agent, ‘I don’t care if the person hasn’t been in anything before, I want to see everyone’s tape.’ I think we saw about sixty people for the role of Ben [Nathan Phillips] and about eighty for the girls’ roles, Kristy [Kestie Morassi] and Liz [Cassandra Magrath]. What I was looking for were people who could be utterly believable with the accents, people who could be spontaneous and improvise in front of the camera and still look realistic, and I specifically said I didn’t want to see models.

Unfortunately, when it comes to horror films people think of the lowest common denominator. They think it’s a boys’ genre and so cast girls with big boobs who run around in low-cut singlets. I didn’t want that look; I wanted this film to feel authentic. The girls had to have maturity to their performance and not feel the need to announce themselves every time they were onscreen. 

I think we really succeeded in getting a good group of actors who could be unselfconscious.

You had the idea for Wolf Creek very early on, around 1994, but the film opens with an inter-title that reads ‘based on actual events’, which we assume refers to the Ivan Milat case, and possibly that of Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees. When did those elements work their way into the script? 

In the very last couple of versions. I was living in Sydney at the time the Ivan Milat case was going on, but for some reason I actually hadn’t heard about it until I got back to Melbourne. I’m sure I read headlines but never paid it much attention. It was when I got back into working on the script that I became more aware of Ivan Milat’s story, read a couple of books about him and started looking at his case more closely. I suddenly became very interested in his character and delved into what type of person would be able to perform those hideous crimes. I researched his past and particularly his crimes, so some of the elements of Milat’s personality – what he got up to and what his particular tick was – found their way into Mick Taylor.

Though, more broadly, the film deals with a particular class of person?

That’s right. The Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees incident happened long after I had the script in place. Their case started to unfold about three years ago I think, but there were a number of other less-sensational cases which happened in between. 

There was a similar incident to the Falconio case where this lone Australian guy took two German tourists hostage up in the Northern Territory. And there was the story of the original ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, an amazing Northern Territory character who, after the fame of being known as the real Mick Dundee, became a speed addict and alcoholic. Then one day he went crazy and ended up getting killed in a gun battle with the police.

What interests you about a certain type of male, outback character who seems to have an obsession with guns? 

Well, usually they have some very strange relationship to being jilted by the opposite sex, because most of their crimes are against women. One very clear through-line with a lot of serial killers is a narcissistic wound. Not that all of these characters are serial killers, but they are definitely disturbed men who seem incapable of dealing with problems in their personal lives. 

The notion of a narcissistic wound kept on coming up as I was writing the last versions of the script. When I was reading about Ivan Milat, for example, it seemed his crimes always took place during periods following the breakdown of relationships or rejections from women. His violent eruptions were the dark result of reclaiming some sort of power against the powerlessness he felt by being emotionally devastated when someone left him. For a lot of serial killers, when rejected on a sexual and social level, in their minds the way to get back on top is to enact a power scenario. There are clues in the film about that. For example, there’s a scene when Mick says to Liz something like, ‘I’m going to have to do something to you so you won’t run out on me again.’ You can imagine that the idea of someone running out on him has been a recurring theme throughout his life.

In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King talks about phobic pressure points, which I would describe best as akin to what happens when boarding a plane. Despite statistics about air safety, despite increased security, somewhere deep in the back of your head is the thought that the plane might crash. Do you think you’ve pushed on particular pressure points with Wolf Creek?

First of all, I think you have to understand the particular psychic pressure point that’s pushed by your story. Sometimes they press a couple, but usually it’s one primary point. If you started to analyze the top five scariest films ever made, in about twenty seconds you can work out what particular psychic pressure point each of those five films is pressing. [In] Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), for example, the psychic pressure point deep within the audience’s psychological – and perhaps mythological – selves is the fear of being devoured by a large animal. 

Good horror stories know what they are doing; they are not randomly tossing out things hoping to be scary. They set out for the edge of a taboo and then say, ‘Let’s go into this territory and explore what the horror is, let’s open it wide and show it you.’

With Wolf Creek the pressure point is not just the idea of a serial killer, it’s more the idea of being isolated, which is a big fear, particularly in our techno-obsessed society where we can’t leave our emails or mobile phones for ten seconds. Imagine being somewhere where you can’t email, telephone or contact anyone, and your machines break down, your watch stops and your car doesn’t work. You’re totally cut off from modern society and then along comes a character who seems to be one way but is completely the opposite. You think you’re talking to a man; instead you’re actually talking to a monster.

There are no wolves in Wolf Creek, until you realize that the wolf is Mick.

That’s right, Wolf Creek is a monster movie. What Stephen King talks about very articulately in Danse Macabre is that stories about serial killers are actually different versions of the werewolf myth.

Along these same lines, one of my original titles for Wolf Creek was Little Red Cap, which is an obvious reference to Little Red Riding Hood. Stephen King – sorry to keep using his name but he is such a master of horror – also writes that most good horror stories have a fairy tale structure and have some relationship to the notion of fairy tales containing powerfully metaphorical characters. 

I worked on the structure of the script by doing a story breakdown of Little Red Riding Hood, which breaks down into four basic parts: (1) an innocent character goes into a strange environment; (2) she meets the big bad wolf and tells the wolf all this information about going to Grandma’s house; (3) the wolf gets to the house first, jumps out and devours the little girl; and (4) the woodcutter comes along and cuts the wolf open. 

You’ll notice that in Wolf Creek, Liz wears a red cap, she is Little Red Riding Hood and the events of the film are almost the same. Three innocent characters set off on a journey into the outback, another character comes along and asks them where they are going, the characters open up and tell him their stories, because of all the information they hand over the stranger now has them in his power, they go to sleep and when they wake up he is the big bad wolf and begins to devour them. The end of the story is different because no woodcutter comes along, but the basic set-up is from Little Red Riding Hood

Now, Little Red Riding Hood is a moral tale saying to little kids that if you meet a stranger, you don’t tell them where you are going or what you’re up to, because that stranger could be a wolf. In fourteenth century Europe a wolf in metaphorical terms meant a sexual predator, which is what Mick is. 

Another connection with Stephen King I’d like to try on has to do with that classic urban legend The Hook, which King explores in some detail. The reason is because the last shot of the film is of Mick walking off and dissolving into the sunset, as though he becomes the stuff of urban legend, a story to be told around a campfire. 

The Hook is one of those simply-structured, classic horror tales that doesn’t fail to get a chill out of the people you tell it to. It’s a tale that always involves an incident you’ve heard happen to a friend of yours, or to a friend of a friend of yours. King talks about that story as containing the perfect structure for a horror story because it has one function and that is to scare the shit out of you. 

In previous drafts of this movie, what was preventing me from getting it right was that I was constantly trying to add meaning to the story. The breakthrough came when I realized that for a horror story the meaning is in the experience of dealing with the story. I was writing all this needless stuff about the character’s past, but then I looked at the simplicity of some great horror films. What’s the meaning of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)? What’s the meaning of Jaws? There are thematic ideas and suggestions of meaning in the visuals, but it’s really the experience of a story that creates the impression of meaning. 

And meaning can be suggested on a psychological level, but often it cannot be articulated. How do you articulate what it means to feel horror?

Wolf Creek has an unusual structure …

That’s right, it’s a two act structure. 

And, in one respect, for almost the first half nothing happens, there is no story until the moment Ben and Liz kiss. As an audience member, although I’m aware of a threat or nightmare about to happen, I’m also wondering all the way through, ‘What kind of horror film am I watching?’ And that question keeps shifting: is it going to be likeClose Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)? Is it like Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), or is it a slasher film like Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)? Then when the horror does happen, the question becomes: to which character does this story belong?

One primary influence when writing the script was journalistic crime writing. Let’s say the story of Wolf Creek was told in a page long description in the Sunday Herald, the journalist would first do the atmospherics, set the scene for you, the time and place, the characters, and then an event happens. For most of Wolf Creek I wanted to convey a journalistic telling of the story rather than a movie telling. The audience watching this movie is probably thinking that movie rules will apply – that a particular character will find their special power, kill the bad guy and escape – all of those things audiences expect and know how to deal with. Instead, when the audience is saying, ‘Okay, it’s going to be this type of story,’ that’s the point at which I tried to remove any comment from a movie point of view and purposely took the model of documentary or journalistic storytelling to tell a horror story.

The music is really good in those terms because it rarely announces that this film is scary. 

Let’s discuss the music now that you’ve mentioned it. Wolf Creek opens with a lengthy pre-credit sequence, the music is mostly source music and it’s definitely associated with Liz, Ben and Kristy – what they’re up to, their youth and attitude to life. But in the credit sequence the soundtrack is Eagle Rock by Daddy Cool, and it’s incongruous! 

It’s purposely incongruous. The composer, François Tetaz, and I went through a difficult process to come to that track. The song I originally wanted and which we went after was The Wanderer by Dion. We almost had it too, but then a company in the United States asked for a ridiculous amount of money. We had to forget about The Wanderer and go into a different mode of thinking: a different song but with the same effect, and better an Australian one because it’s easier to get the rights to it.

We didn’t want a pop song because they often sound dumb. Essentially my composer described it best when he said, ‘The track we put over the credit sequence is the height from which the characters are going to fall, and it’s the diving board from which the audience will plummet to the darkest pits of their imagination.’ So, the more positive and feel-good the track, then the better, and Eagle Rock is a track that we all know and love in Australia. It goes beautifully with the credit sequence in the sense that it’s a fun, carefree and rebellious rock ‘n’ roll number. 

That’s interesting what you say about its feel-good quality, because I actually found Eagle Rock’s incongruity somewhat disturbing.

I know what you mean, there is a quality that’s disturbing and it’s because Eagle Rock is a retro track. What it tells you on one level is that this is kind of fun and feels like a good sequence. But, subconsciously, for some reason you know it’s wrong. Why aren’t we hearing Silverchair or Pearl Jam? Instead, it’s a song from 1970 – something which makes you think, ‘I’m nervous about you presenting me with this track.’

I can’t always explain the connection, but for me there has always been something weird about a particular period of rock ‘n’ roll – in terms of its innocence and lightness – and horror movies. The innocence of certain rock ‘n’ roll songs put onto a horror film creates really scary resonances. 

I get a visual echo of the opening track later in the film, in the scene where Mick is torturing Kristy. It’s the first and only time we see Mick without his hat and he looks like a rocker.

Exactly, because the scary thing you picked up about the opening track is that it belongs to Mick’s era – it’s not from the kids’ era. He grew up with that song and those kids would not have Eagle Rock on their CD player in the car. Although Eagle Rock is not source music, if this were your usual horror film you would have a track those kids would listen to, like a dance song or Moby. Instead what it suggests to you is that this is someone else’s music playing over this sequence. 

The sequence was slightly more powerful with The Wanderer because that’s even older than Eagle Rock and perfectly describes Mick as a character: ‘I’m the kind of guy who likes to roam around/ I go from town to town/ Where all the pretty girls are/ That’s where I’ll be.’ The lyrics describe him in a creepy way. The good thing about not having The Wanderer is that it was a bit too pointed and you’d get the connection too quickly. Whereas with Eagle Rock the suggestion is implied rather than stated: that those kids are going into Mick’s world. Without having yet introduced Mick, the music is subtly creeping you out and you don’t know why.

Another incongruous element is the beauty of the landscape. The landscape has an unusual role in your film in that the beauty is some consolation to the nightmare, yet it’s the beauty of the landscape that is also extremely unsettling.

Absolutely. In terms of the film being in two parts, the landscape is presented in two distinct ways. When I discussed it with the production designer [Robert Webb] and DOP [Will Gibson] we decided that the landscape at the start of the movie should be picture postcard. We see the girls at a glorious beach, the colours are bright, the sky is an amazing blue, everything we see is beautiful and it’s the reason why people from overseas come out here. 

But when those three kids get to the roadhouse, the environment is suddenly darker. It’s right in the middle of an amazing natural environment, but the roadhouse is a human place and it’s weird. There’s crap everywhere outside and the place inside looks tobacco-coloured. The people there are these disgusting guys just sitting around smoking and festering about the tourists. The kids then move on to Wolf Creek and it’s not what they expect. They expected a bright blue and sunny sky and instead a storm takes place. Then night falls, they get to Mick’s place and go to asleep. The next morning we see the same spectacular natural world we saw in the first part of the film, only this time the landscape is very cold and indifferent. 

In the first part of Wolf Creek the landscape is depicted as though we are observing it; in the second part it’s observing us. The shots of the sun rising and setting to me are like eyes watching those characters going out of their minds, and it’s not caring. The Australian outback is fabulous, but in the blink of eye it can become a cold, emotionless, natural world that doesn’t care if you are dying. Hopefully that aspect of the landscape is suggested enough that the audience picks it up at some level. 

Can you explain the relationship Liz has to the landscape? She’s the one who says at the start, ‘I can’t believe I’m leaving this place’, and who wakes up on the beach and while the others still sleep, she seems to commune with the environment. She is like a ‘genuine’ tourist in the sense that, at one and the same time, it’s her place and not her place.

The scene when Liz wakes up on the beach is the first time we hear a piece of score music in the movie. She wakes up to a beautiful sunrise, there is a moment between her and the surroundings and then she’s in the water. What we see are images of waves crashing in and a tiny naked figure diving into the waves. She is alone in a huge dark sea and the music says it all because it’s a tragic piece. That scene is the whole film right there: a character in an environment that is wildly more powerful than that character could ever be.

One of my other favourite bits of the film is the first nature sequence where we see the cockatoos and the emus and the hills, and then we cut to a wide shot and we see a tiny car in the distance and the music goes ‘bonnngg’. It says these guys are now beyond their own realm. I think that’s when the horror starts and when the audience really knows something bad is going to happen. We are constantly surrounded by human contact, so to suddenly realize how small we are in the face of nature can be very scary.

With regard to landscape, while watching Wolf Creek a few films ran through my head, films that can be labelled Australian gothic, such as Wake in Fright and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Were you at all conscious of, say, a tradition of Australian landscape films?

Well, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favourite Australian films as well as a favourite horror film. And I think the sound design of Picnic is probably one of the best sound designs of all time. During pre-production I was talking to François and Will, saying to them to look at Picnic at Hanging Rock and notice how darkness and power is suggested in the landscape. There is a great shot in Picnic, right after a scene when one of the girls runs down the hill screaming, which cuts to a wide shot of the rock and we hear a deep rumbling sound. The landscape is not terrifying in itself, but what the sound does is to suggest that the rock is a monster. I wanted that same kind of effect with Wolf Creek and to have the landscape come across as a tangible character.

But the other landscape influence in the movie comes from having studied the Australian impressionists for five or six years. I’m a huge fan of Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, David Davies and Walter Withers. All of their paintings are about the power, awe and beauty of the landscape. 

And there is a tradition in Australian landscape painting of tiny characters in big landscapes. Arthur Streeton’s paintings of the outback always show things on a massive scale. One in particular has a little woodcutter standing beside a gigantic tree, and it’s saying that we’re insignificant. Culturally, our relationship to the landscape, since the time we were dumped here, has always been one of battle and fear. We’re constantly struggling to cut it down or change it, but we can’t because it remains bigger than we are. I think part of the way the landscape is presented in Australian painting found its way into the film.

How do you figure Mick in your understanding of the Australian landscape?

He obviously has a better relationship to the landscape than the other three characters. I wouldn’t say he has subdued it, but by having learned to live there he has accepted its brutality. I think the brutality informs his character. Once you accept its rules and regulations and realize the life and death nature of the landscape, and its indifference, then you form a different personality. 

Can we explain Mick?

Not really. That would be like trying to explain evil. Why do people perform evil deeds? If you look at the backstories of serial killers, you could surmise a psychological explanation because of something terrible having happened to them in their past. But I think there are cut-off points. Finally, it’s a choice, which is a view that’s hard for us to grasp. But so what if you had a shitty childhood? Everyone’s life is tough and we all have to deal with our demons, and if you deal with your demons by torturing other people you’ve basically separated yourself from the rest of society and ignored every primary rule we have. 

The interesting thing about trying to explain these characters is that there is no explanation. When you look at the explanations for any one of the well-known serial killer cases, you still go, ‘Well, that’s not an explanation.’ Lots of people have bad things happen to them but they choose not to commit hideous crimes. At the end of one book written about Ivan Milat, which is very detailed and exhaustive, the authors concluded he wasn’t insane. He was just bad.

It was always my intention to create Mick as an evil figure in the mould of a Jason or a Freddie or the Bogey Man. Mick is the Australian bogeyman.

Mick is an archetype of horror, however there are also a couple of direct references to Crocodile Dundee in the film. Isn’t Mick Taylor also a dark variation on an Australian archetype, which we see in the likes of Mick Dundee?

Absolutely, Mick Taylor is basically the flipside of Mick Dundee. I was very conscious of Mick Dundee when creating the character of Mick Taylor, to the point of giving him the name of Mick. When I was working out how Mick Taylor would look – the hat, shirt, jeans, boots – I remember hoping that the texturing of the clothing would suggest Mick Dundee as well as other well-known bush characters. The Bush Tucker Man, for instance. Or, it wasn’t intentional, but if you look closely at the fireside scene at Mick’s camp, there is a minute there when John looks exactly like Slim Dusty.

Australia has a very fond relationship with the myth of the bushman. From the time of settlement there has been a romanticized and idealized vision of a lone figure who lives out in the bush, and that figure has evolved into characters like Steve Irwin and Mick Dundee, updates of the archetype. Part of the mythology expresses the idea that there is a friendly, dependable, trusting, uncomplicated guy out there who can solve our problems. Not only because he is better than we are, but because he is more pure than we are. All of us city folks are so confused and we don’t know what we think because we live in big cities with too many choices, whereas the Aussie bushman knows what he thinks and knows what actions to take in certain situations because of the simplicity and purity of his life. 

But what if the reverse were true? What if there is a person out there who is capable and skilled and clear on what he wants to do, and that is to fucking kill you?


Raffaele Caputo: Is there much of you in the character of Mick Taylor?

John Jarratt: When he is a bit of a larrikin in the early part of the film. That’s about it. Also that Mick is a country boy, and so am I. I was born and raised in the bush for most of my life. I’ve never lived in a big city, except when I decided to become an actor and went to NIDA.

Wolf Creek is partly based on the Ivan Milat case. If not that specific case, did you get into researching serial killers?

I read the book about Ivan Milat, Sins of the Brother. I did a few things that Milat physically did, but I think the character I play is nothing like Ivan Milat as a person. There are a lot of differences. Milat was an urban person who worked on expressways near cities, whereas Mick Taylor is an outback shooter and a loner. There is a smattering of Milat’s case in the film but I think that what Greg did was to research what serial killers do and then invent a character called Mick Taylor. 

How did the role of Mick Taylor find its way to you?

Greg always had me strongly in mind because he saw me do the lead role in the play of Dead Heart. Bryan Brown played the leading role in the film; I did off-Broadway for Bryan Brown, if you like. 

Ray Lorkin, the lead in Dead Heart, is a very strong character, much stronger and much harder in the play than in the film. I think Greg was tremendously impressed with my performance in the play. It stuck in his mind.

Had you met Greg McLean at that stage?

No, I had never met him before Wolf Creek. I guess he had admired me from afar and had always kept an eye on what I was up to. It was probably from seeing and remembering the play that Greg realized I would be capable of playing someone like Mick Taylor.

I didn’t audition for it. I just went over to Melbourne and talked to him and that was it.

Wolf Creek seems to play on your persona from Better Homes and Gardens. Were you aware of bringing your television persona to bear on your role of Mick Taylor?

I don’t work that way, but it’s nice of you to make that observation. My television persona is probably there because I am who I am. Though I wouldn’t know how the persona would come out for other roles. I approach every character in a certain way and I do my level best to interpret the kind of human being I’m playing. I’m not interested in any technical things – I’m there doing what I think a particular human being would do in particular situations. 

I certainly don’t shy away from aspects of my personality that would fit with the character I’m playing. I think that’s very important. With any character I’m to play, what I do is to study him and give him a story. I gave Mick Taylor a backstory from when he was a kid right up to page one of Wolf Creek. In my mind I knew exactly what he did all of his life. Then what I do is say, ‘Okay, where does John Jarratt fit?’ I put as much of me in as I possibly can because that gives a much more honest performance. I don’t have to stretch out too far and rely on something exterior to me.

Are you aware that over the years, certain audience expectations develop about the characters you play? In The Great McCarthy (David Baker, 1975), for example, you play a country boy who comes to the city, or in Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), the character of Albert is a young and innocent type. Past performances tend to add a shade over future performances.

I have played in horror films before, Plunge into Darkness (Peter Maxwell, 1977) and Next of Kin (Tony Williams, 1982), although I was actually a good guy in both. I played a bad guy once in a mini-series I did with Noni Hazelhurst and Nigel Havers called Naked Under Capricorn (Rob Stewart, 1989). So, I’ve played a bad bastard prior to Wolf Creek, but not as evil as Mick Taylor. 

One thing Greg was fully aware of – and I’m certainly aware of it – is that basically I’m known as Mr Nice Guy. I’m a nice-looking country boy, and so to enter this evil bastard is more shocking than having someone who looks the part.

Do you have any thoughts on the idea that Mick Taylor is the dark side of an iconic figure of the bush?

Well, Craig McLachlan is a mate of mine and I invited him along to an early viewing of the film. I respect his intelligence and I wanted to hear what he thought of the film. He described it as the ‘anti-Dundee’, which I thought was spot on.

There is a heroic image of the Australian bush but there is a lot of insidious stuff that goes on out there – and that’s not just with the Mick Taylors of this country. If you’ve spent any time in the outback, which I have for a good part of my life, you realize there’s a lot of shit that goes on and it’s pretty dreadful. The outback attitude to our Indigenous people is just astounding. The only reason people in the middle don’t go on what’s called the ‘nigger hunt’ anymore is because they don’t want to get into too much trouble and go to gaol, not because they don’t want to kill them or because killing another human being is fundamentally wrong. The amount of hate and narrow-mindedness in redneck Australia is quite astonishing.

How do you feel about possibly destroying the tourism industry single-handedly?

Yeah, like what Jaws (1975) did to surf beaches! To be honest I couldn’t have played Mick Taylor because it was a fun thing to do. I really had to think this role through because Mick is a pretty drastic human being. One of my strongest bugbears in life is the violence that men perpetrate on others; they shame the male side of the population. Fifty percent of us are male, fifty per cent are female, but men commit 99.9% of aggravated violence. So I certainly didn’t set out to glamorize Mick Taylor in any way. I just hope that he’s seen as the insidious creep that he is. 

And if anything does come out of Wolf Creek, then I hope it’s that maybe we can start educating people and their children not to get their testosterone so out of control.

You don’t appear on screen for the first third of the film – how long did you spend on the shoot?

About six weeks. From memory, the break up was a week of rehearsal and a five-week shoot. We shot it chronologically so I wasn’t on for about a fortnight, but I was still there. I drove up to Lake Eyre by myself and spent a lot of time on my own. 

Did that time on your own help with the character?

Yes, because I’d never played a character like that before. I had to be consumed by him to be able to play him. Not so much with those larrikin scenes around the fire, where I’m talking in a jocular way about being an outback shooter and having seen a dog’s head taken off by a wild boar. Those scenes weren’t so bad, but when I had to get into the torture stuff I had to go into a strange place. I put on the wardrobe and make-up and became him, and just stayed there for the rest of the shoot.

You didn’t switch off?

No, I couldn’t. If I was John Jarratt again I wouldn’t have been mean enough to carry out that stuff. I had tattoos on my arms and I had the sleeves cut off a dressing gown I wore around the set. That was all I had on while everyone else had Antarctic parkers on because it was rainy and cold. I didn’t feel any pain from the cold at all – while I was Mick I felt nothing. Though I ran for cover as soon as it was a wrap. 

There was one time when Greg didn’t call cut and had decided to just let the scene run, which is fine, but there was nowhere to go, I was just standing there and I said, ‘You were fucking going to say cut! You haven’t fucking said cut! When are you fucking going to say cut?’ The gravelly voice stayed with me and I think it scared the shit out of him. Even through those little moments I had to stay in Mick’s mindset.

In the scene where there’s the head-on-a-stick routine, Mick mentions that it’s an old Vietnam War trick for extracting information. Would the Vietnam War have been part of the story you gave to Mick?

No, he knows all about that stuff probably from magazines or books.

What about the scene where Mick is torturing Kristy, he doesn’t have his hat on, his hair is slicked back and he definitely looks like a rocker.

I lived in Central Queensland in the 1960s and when the cowboys took their hats off they had the Elvis look. And when I came out of Central Queensland in 1968 and ended up in Townsville, I looked like that sort of dude. I was absolutely freaked out because most of the people coming into the high school in Townsville didn’t use any hair cream and their fringes ran along their foreheads like The Beatles. I felt like an alien. I figured Mick hadn’t moved on either.

Did you work on the idea that part of the reason for the horror is to be found in the generational differences between the characters? For example, played over the credit sequence is Eagle Rock by Daddy Cool, which deliberately cues the audience to another time.

When you read the script it’s immediately obvious that there are three young characters and there is my character. Yet slowly but surely you realise there is a fifth character, which is the environment or the landscape. That’s pretty much what the beginning of film is about. Even though I haven’t come onscreen, the credit sequence is like going through Luna Park’s mouth to the tune of Eagle Rock. To me, that says they are coming into my land now, where we see dead kangaroos and signs with bullet holes. Insofar as Eagle Rock signals the gateway to the horror, yes, there is a generational element at work there that I was aware of.

One thing you should know about is that I worked on Mick’s laugh for six months. I worked on it and worked on it until I got it dead right. As I said to Greg one day, I wanted my laugh to be like the music in Jaws. When you hear that laugh it’s like that giant shark coming at you.

Well, possibly the scariest scene in the movie is when Liz gets into the car …

Yes, the laugh freaks people out and then you get to see Mick’s reflection in the windscreen. I actually practised the laugh just for that scene, as though the whole film is all about building up to that one scene where we hear that bloody laugh.

Did you have much input into the script?

Little things within it. There were a few scenes I improvised, like the one with Nathan [Phillips] when I say, ‘I’m heading south, you’re heading north’, which was really sweet. Or the campfire scene where I describe what happens to the dog – the head rolling off, the little legs still scuttling along, and blood spurting from the neck. 

But as I said before, Greg just wouldn’t say cut, and so some scenes would go on forever because he was looking for these little gems. Occasionally he got them, but Greg wrote such a fantastic script that we were just enhancing what we already had. And as a director I think he is phenomenal, one the best directors I’ve worked with in a long time.

With Wolf Creek over, what are you looking to now?

Now that Wolf Creek has gone to Sundance and it has sold all over the world, it’ll probably be released quite heavily in the States. Good or bad, my profile is going to be truly up – for six months, at least. Or maybe for the rest of my life, who knows? Either way I’m going to take every opportunity and I’m going to try to make my own feature at the end of this year.

You mean directing?

No, acting. But doing my best to use my profile to raise the money for the film.

And that’s Cody Jarrett’s project?

Yes, it’s called Crossing the Line and it’s set in northern NSW and Brisbane. It’s a modern-day film noir with a very novel twist.

We’ll do our best to take advantage of everything that’s happening at the moment. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if Wolf Creek is a huge hit – and I think it’s got every chance – that will probably do good things for me in getting other films made.

I’ve heard you have a fan in Quentin Tarantino?

When he came over two years ago to promote Kill Bill (2003), I got a phone call from my agent while I was driving home in my old FJ panel van. My agent says, ‘Quentin Tarantino thinks you’re the best thing since sliced bread, he loves your work, seen all your films and he wants you to come to tonight’s premiere of Kill Bill.’ I said to my agent, ‘You’re joking, aren’t you? It must be someone else.’ But no, it was true. Apparently he stepped off the plane and said, ‘I wanna meet John Jarratt.’ 

Anyway, I said to my agent, ‘Well, I can’t go. It’s 4.30 now, the film is on at 6.30 and I’m half way to Murwillumbah. I’ll just have to miss out.’ She rang again when I got home and said, ‘He is really disappointed, but could you fly down to Sydney tomorrow, have a drink and talk with him for a couple of hours?’ So I went down to Sydney and had a talk with him, and discovered he loves Australian films and particularly loves me. His favourite Australian film is something I did called Dark Age (Arch Nicholson, 1987), about a giant crocodile on the loose in North Queensland, which I thought was so bad that I didn’t even bother going to see it. Apparently he has been given a copy of Wolf Creek, so hopefully he likes that too.