Navigating Tricky Terrain
'The Hunter’ is Australian director Daniel Nettheim’s first feature in over a decade, and it’s a big one – based on an acclaimed novel by Julia Leigh and starring Willem Dafoe.
Director Daniel Nettheim's last feature film was the 2000 romantic comedy Angst. Since then the hardworking filmmaker has built up a sturdy resume of television work, directing a string of popular small screen productions including White Collar Blue, The Secret Life Of Us, Rush and Spirited. With his return to the big screen, the director adapts Julia Leigh's acclaimed Australian novel about an enigmatic mercenary (Willem Dafoe) who visits the tangled Tasmanian wilderness in search of the last Tasmanian tiger. Deftly revealing his skill behind the camera, The Hunter is a mysterious, thought-provoking and wholly impressive work.
You've directed a lot of television. Can you tell me how you came on board this film?
Yeah, the television has been pretty non-stop, but Vincent [Sheehan, producer] and I optioned the novel together in 2001. Vincent and I had known each other for quite a long time and we'd been talking about finding a project that we could do together. We both know the author of the book, Julia Leigh, and we both read it independently and thought that there was potential there for a really beautiful film.
It's quite interesting that Julia Leigh is now a filmmaker in her own right. What kind of involvement did she have with the film?
I had written a 30-page treatment to present to her. But at the time, we did also make the first offer to her to write the screenplay and she decided that she'd already lived that world for the three or four years it took for her to write the book, and very much wanted to move on and do other things. So she just gave us her blessing to adapt the screenplay in the way that we saw fit. At various times when I was struggling with the film, I'd ask her questions and offer to let her read what we'd had and she just refused. She'd say, ‘No, I don't want to know, I want to see the film for the first time at its world premiere'.
Was the film always going to be shot in Tasmania? I'd imagine there would be certain difficulties involved with the logistics of that...
We'd done a couple of rookie trips to Tasmania, and we looked at some possible replacement locations in New South Wales and they just didn't stand up. It's a completely different topography, it's different coloured rock, it's different shapes of trees, the sun travels across the horizon at a different level. So then we talked about possibly shooting the exteriors in Tasmania, and building a set and shooting interiors in New South Wales, but I'm really glad that in the end we stuck to our guns and just pushed to do everything in Tasmania. Even when we were inside the house, we wanted to be able to look out the window and get a sense of the mood. In particular, we talked about a particular colour palette and visual style that involved never shooting in overhead sunlight. We found a house that we could completely redress and rebuild and own for five weeks. We had all the cast available at that time so on any given day, if it was bright sunlight outside, we could jump inside and shoot interiors and as soon as we had an overcast, foggy, rainy day, which is kind of the mood we were looking for, then we could adjust the schedule and jump outside and shoot exteriors.
One of the things that I particularly liked about the film was how it shifts across genres and you're never quite sure about what kind of film it is. How challenging was that?
It wasn't an easy tone to nail in the script. Certainly the book has all that. It's a thriller premise, but then in many ways, it's a very intimate story. The biggest challenge in writing the script was finding the balance between those genres: the thriller elements and the more intimate relationship story or the more intimate personal journey of the main character. But also the other balance that took a while to get right was that between subtlety and clarity, or should I say, mystery and clarity. We really yo-yo'ed back and forth in terms of, ‘Are we revealing too much, or are we revealing not enough?'
Yeah, you're never quite sure about Willem Dafoe's character - what he's after and what his history is...
Part of what attracted me to the book was that you were immersed in an emotional experience, and part of what sustained it was just the sheer beauty of the prose. Obviously as a filmmaker, you don't have that unless you're using voiceover or flashbacks, which we elected not to do. So we had to find a visual language that was going to become the equivalent of that beautifully crafted prose in Julia's book.
I'd imagine there would be a lot of complex negotiation in terms of getting Willem Dafoe on board the film. Was that a tricky one?
The negotiation in terms of getting him the script was actually pretty straightforward. We had an instinct that it would appeal to him, partly just looking through his CV. He'll do a film that grosses $300 million, followed by a film that grosses $17,000. So clearly, he's got his eyes open. You know the size of the project is not as important as the interest of the role. So there's a connection there. In this case, we got an email back quite shortly after he'd received it from his manager saying, ‘Willem's read it, he's intrigued and would like to know more'. We kind of converted that into a meeting. I met with him in New York for a coffee, and I went in there really not knowing whether I was going to have to be pitching myself and the script, and pitching Australia to him. But shortly into the meeting it became apparent that he really liked the project and was interested in doing it, and maybe just wanted to suss me out before he committed too far!
The Hunter is released in cinemas October 6.
Photo credit: Nettheim, courtesy of Getty Images/Matt Carr.