Angus Watts: Crafting An Outback Noir With Locusts

October 7, 2019
With the grim, gritty and darkly humorous Locusts, writer/producer Angus Watts turns the Australian outback into a singular vision of hell.

“I’m a radiologist by day – which is pure science, left-brain stuff – so I guess that writing is a kind of cathartic Hyde-esque outlet for my right-brain,” Angus Watts reveals to FilmInk. Only in the Australian film industry could a radiologist moonlight as a screenwriter and producer, and come up with a first-time-out effort like Locusts. The film is slick, polished and imaginative, while the first produced screenplay from Watts is strung tight like piano wire. But the Australian film industry – particularly now – is a tough and hardscrabble one, so day jobs are a necessity even for those blessed with prodigious gifts.

As the film’s producer, Watts is also on the tools when it comes to getting Locusts into cinemas. “An independent filmmaker’s work is never done,” he laughs. “We’re fortunate to have a great distributor on board, but the release is very much a team effort. I have a marketing and business background from my radiology business, and am quite handy with Adobe suite, so the commercial and creative marketing side of things was a bit like pulling on a pair of old sneakers.”

Angus Watts (left) with director Heath Davis, on the Locusts set.

This, however, is the end point of the Locusts journey. The story of this gripping outback thriller begins five years ago. While working in radiology by day, Watts was penning scripts by night, and doing the hard yards trying to get them produced. With international film markets proving fruitless, it was a chance meeting with another filmmaker that really got Locusts up and running. Fellow Aussie Heath Davis was at The Gold Coast Film Festival with his grim but soulful drama, Broke, and when he and Watts met, an instant kinship was established. They both loved genre films of the 70s and 80s, and they’d both been through the wringer trying to get their projects made. Eventually, Heath Davis agreed to direct Locusts, and Watts boarded Davis’ next project, Book Week, as an executive producer.

“Heath and I complement each other in a lot of ways,” Watts tells FilmInk. “Broke looks like a million-dollar production, well above its modest means. Optimising production value on an independent film is almost as critical as script and casting, and I knew that Locusts was going to be a quantum step up for Heath after Broke and Book Week, in terms of budget, scope, logistics and cast. As a first time filmmaker (and financier), I was very hands on in every aspect of the filmmaking process. Heath and I have a lot in common in that we’re both passionate about the filmmaking journey, have a healthy distaste for convention, and share a penchant for the struggle of the anti-hero, and counterculture. We bring complementary skills to the process – I have a background in science, business and people management through my radiology work, so I tend to approach things in a very structured strategic way, and thus producing was a natural extension for me…although the creative itch is always just beneath the surface. Heath is more spontaneous and tends to shoot from the hip creatively, sometimes pushing the boundaries of order vs chaos…but he’s still acutely conscious of the boundaries and limitations of what’s achievable. It’s a Yin-Yang dynamic.”

Ben Geurens as Ryan in Locusts.

Locusts hones in on successful tech industry player, Ryan (Ben Geurens), who returns to his small outback hometown of Serenity Crossing for the funeral of his violent, abusive father. Ryan’s broken down and considerably less successful brother, Tyson (Nathaniel Dean), is still there, and so are the debts left by their father, which hurls the pair into the orbit of a local crime boss (Alan Dukes) and his henchmen (Steve Le Marquand, Justin Rosniak, Ryan Morgan and the late Damian Hill). With only Ryan’s embittered ex (Jessica McNamee) and a family friend (Andy McPhee) on his side, the prodigal son is soon cursing his return to Serenity Crossing.

It’s an ugly, brutal, booze-sodden town – more than a little reminiscent of Bundanyabba in the 1971 local classic, Wake In Fright – so filming it in the same location seemed perfect. “I location scouted central Australia, which took me to some breathtaking locations like Coober Pedy, Winton and Broken Hill, but we eventually settled on Broken Hill in NSW for logistical reasons,” Watts explains. “We’re blessed with an amazing wealth of stunning natural canvasses for filmmaking in this country which are hugely under-utilised, especially in the genre space. That’s largely a reflection of the prohibitive equipment and crew costs that go with working outside metropolitan areas, and unfortunately our funding bodies largely pay lip service when it comes to supporting outback independent filmmaking.”

The Locusts crew on location in Broken Hill.

Not surprisingly, there was a mountain of logistical hurdles to climb when it came to shipping a cast and crew into central Australia: transport, accommodation, location scouting, approvals, vehicles, traffic control, and even kangaroos loitering around the desert highways, making evening driving extremely hazardous. “I’m not easily discouraged,” laughs Watts, who himself is a product of the Australian outback, growing up in drought-afflicted NSW in the 1970s. “By pre-production six weeks out from principle photography, the bulk of locations, vehicles, logistics and casting was locked in. We had a fabulous core team with a mix of experienced heads and youthful enthusiasm. Our greatest fear – ironically – was rain. We were acutely aware that Mad Max: Fury Road had been moved to Namibia at the 11th hour when rainfall turned the desert green. But we were fortunate enough – somewhat selfishly – that the rain stayed away long enough for us to get the job done. It was surreal, breathtaking and bloody freezing in Broken Hill! We shot in mid-winter, and we were doing late night vehicular stunts on desert highways, long shooting days, and battling antiquated vehicles and a locust collection that didn’t fancy the icy conditions. Broken Hill is iconic, film friendly, and feels a bit like a museum of Australian cinematic history wherever you turn.”

Though almost a vivid, terrifying character in itself, the wretchedly parched expanses of Broken Hill fade in the shade when propped up against Locusts’ deeply flawed and all-too-human actual characters. There’s abundant grit and truth in the relationship of the bruised brothers played by Ben Geurens and Nathaniel Dean, and it gives the film a true emotional anchor. “At the heart of this crazy rollercoaster journey is the struggle between these two estranged human ‘islands’ to find a way to reconnect,” Watts offers. “That reconciliation can only be found by making some kind of sense of their tortured childhood at the hands of their deeply disturbed late father, and to ultimately find a way to close the book on that chapter. It’s a faux-pas to make bloke-orientated films in 2019, but the story’s been bouncing around in my head for twenty years, Your Honour,” Watts laughs. “I hope in a way those themes of estrangement and reconciliation will resonate with a section of our audience.”

Justin Rosniak in Locusts.

As with any thriller, however, the film is almost stolen by its bad guys, with four of Australia’s finest character actors – Steve Le Marquand, Justin Rosniak, Alan Dukes and the late Damian Hill – absolutely going to town with a grimy quartet of nasty, sneering performances that will send cold-sweat shivers through the audience. “Those guys have a new title, I believe,” Watts sniggers. “I read somewhere that they’ve been dubbed ‘The Four Bogans Of The Apocalypse’…very fitting! The Foursome were brilliant, and I suspect had more fun making this film than anyone else. It’s Steve’s third film with Heath, and he was as brilliant as ever. Rosniak is incredibly underrated; we should enjoy having him here on our shores before he’s snatched away. He plays a kind of transgressive sneering small-town bogan who switches between grinning village idiot and calculating psychopath in a heartbeat. Al Dukes is a genius. I watched him working on the set of Book Week and knew immediately that he was perfect for McCrea, the hard-case paraplegic ringleader. Damian, of course, was amazing.”

The polish of the performances is more than matched by the polish of the film itself, which boasts stark but glistening cinematography, a highly inventive musical score, and top-notch tech credits across the board. Every hard earned dollar, it would appear, is up there on the screen. “We squeezed that budget like a dirty mop,” Watts – who has two further screenplays in development – laughs. “It’s a unique difference as a creative producer when you have equity on the table. But it was also important to me as a first time producer that everything be done by the book and to the highest standards. No corners were cut. That’s a reflection of my business background. We had an amazingly talented team, and I’m pleased to say that we wrapped on time and on budget thanks in no small part to their efforts.”

Ben Geurens and Nathaniel Dean in Locusts.

But in the end, it all comes back to the script, and Locusts was truly born with Angus Watts. “The writing process was fun and challenging,” he says. “As a writer, you have to be honest, look in the mirror, and tell the truth. Reality TV is so feverishly popular because people look at those regular folks on TV and see themselves, and imagine what they would do in those situations. People want to feel visceral authenticity on screen. But conversely, audiences don’t fork out their hard-earned to be lectured. Most consumers want to be entertained. I call it the ‘Twenty Dollar Test’ – as a filmmaker, you’ve got to earn that 20 bucks, because they have a choice…it’s you or Captain America Part 26.”

Locusts is released in cinemas on October 17. Click here to read our review.

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