A superb performer, Anthony Hayes has won the AACTA’s (AFI) best supporting actor gong twice; for Look Both Ways (Sarah Watt, 2005) and Suburban Mayhem (Paul Goldman, 2006).
Still, he is perhaps best known for his chilling and memorable portraits of tough-guy vulnerability in The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998) and The Square (Nash Edgerton, 2008).
For the last twenty years, he has also been developing a parallel career as writer-director. He followed his award-winning 2002 short New Skin, with the debut feature, Ten Empty. It premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in 2008 to wide acclaim.
In Gold, Hayes takes a supporting role to Zac Efron. We know nothing of either character, not even their names. What we do know is that both are trying to eke out a living in a place that looks like a bleached, yellowed Hell. Under the gaze of Ross Giardina’s fine cinematography Gold’s setting – a vast, hazy desert – is an ugly scorched evil.
Hayes is the seasoned veteran in the story. His task is to drive Efron, a newcomer to these parts, to his destination, across a bleak landscape, where a job awaits. But on the trip, they encounter a nugget of gold. A deal is struck. But human nature gets in the way… What follows is a suspenseful, twisty, sometimes gruesome, slow-burn that has all the sharp elegance of a very grim fairy tale.
Hayes started work on Gold in 2019. Written with his partner Polly Smyth, he told FilmInk that it was shot in under twenty days in a remote spot in outback South Australia in fierce conditions where the cast and crew battled terrible heat, sandstorms and an unforgiving schedule.
“There was a sandstorm in the script,” Hayes said. “We had organised these big fans so we could create it. We ended up sitting around not being able to shoot for two days because of the real thing.”
With time leaking away, Hayes and the team elected to just go ahead and try to do the scene ‘for real’.
“Then it was about, ‘will Zac be willing to do it?’,” Hayes said. “So, I knocked on Zac’s trailer and said: ‘Dude, we got a real sandstorm here, wanna do it?’ And he was like: ‘yeah, yeah, buddy let’s do it!’
“After that, it was big thanks to the crew because it was tough going. We shot that whole sequence in only a few hours with everyone yelling above [the wind] and we ended up covered head to toe in dust. It fucked up all the equipment. It was brutal.”
Hayes, a thoughtful and sensitive filmmaker told us about his ambition to explore something universal and elemental in the guise of a genre piece.
We spoke by phone from his home in Melbourne just after Christmas.
The set-up for the story is classic. Temptation. Greed. Loss of humanity. It’s like The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953).
“Yeah, we, myself and co-writer Polly Smyth, we looked at that as a reference. And The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948). But unlike those pictures Gold is minimalist.
“It’s a survival story, too.”
It’s just a handful of characters, very little dialogue, and the desert.
“I guess you could liken it to revenge stories – though, that’s a different genre to Gold – but [they share] a very simple throughline.
“We had to find an actor who could captivate an audience for that amount of screen time.”
Zac Efron, who plays the lead is excellent and so is the rest of the cast including yourself and Susie Porter. It must have been quite an actor’s challenge because from the get-go we are plunged into the story.
“Right. There’s no backstory for any of the characters. That was a big thing. There is no real conventional scriptwriting in a lot of it. We would show it to people, and someone would say ‘it’s got no backstory’ and then the second you write backstory into something this sparse, it comes over as ‘written’.
“Usually, you learn about the character through exposition, where they interact with other characters, but here, we [tried to covey the essence of the character] as an attitude thing.”
That’s true of your character, who treats Efron’s Man in a jerky kind of way, but we don’t draw too much from that. At first.
“Yeah, my character is looking at this young dude, who’s come out here trying to make his fortune. My guy has seen it all before and he knows this place is not what it’s made out to be; it’s actually a desperate, horrible place these people are going to. He’s world-weary.”
The film is full of twists and suspense which we can’t spoil. But we can say that Efron’s character, the nominal ‘hero’, he’s maybe not who he appears to be?
“Yeah. Zac’s character starts off as a mild-mannered young man who is thrown into this situation… he’s been through stuff, you can tell. His personality and character is altered by the discovery of this gold.”
We can track that when each crisis point in the story hits by just how much Efron’s character grows that little bit more primitive; like when The Stranger (Porter) appears.
“Yeah. It [the gold] changes him as a person. When she enters the story, it sends the film in a different direction.”
The desert is a major character, too. Why did you elect to shoot in South Australia?
“Well, I’ve shot down there a lot over the years. I shot Ten Empty down there. I’ve acted in maybe five films down there, like The Rover (David Michôd, 2014), so I knew the area really well and I sort of knew what I was looking for and what would work.”
Yet, this outback isn’t the outback at all in the story is it? There are clear indicators that this is not meant to be Australia?”
“Yeah. That was kind of the idea… somewhere that was universal that could be anywhere and, in the future somewhat. I wanted it to be a hodge-podge of different cultures that was in this wasteland. That’s why we had signage in different languages. There was specific real-world imagery that we wanted to get in there.
“We talked to costume designer Anna Borghesi about the way that Porter’s Stranger looks. We looked at pictures of people fleeing Syria. We talked about how there would be pops of colour and this jumbled clothing… Part of Zac’s wardrobe was about finding bits of costume that could have been taken or stolen or scavenged. Nothing came off the rack. My costume was designed and built from canvas. It was constructed from old tarpaulin. The design was about taking things from the world and repurposing them.
“We wanted a place without greenery, trees… we went through colour grades so it would not look like the outback, so that you couldn’t really put your finger on it, but you knew that society had converged upon this place. The world is fucked, and the one glimmer of hope is the compound that Zac and my character are headed to. But they never get there. They find the gold.”
Tell us about the major location?
“I went to SA for a location scout a year before we shot. When we went back in pre-production for another scout, everything was green! They had this rain that they had never seen before. So, I had to search deeper. We ended up going to a private property. It was a salt flat. We were seven hours from Adelaide. So, we were based out there. We had to grade the road so we could get the trucks in and out. It was quite a perilous journey every day! [Laughs]”
One of the major set pieces involves ‘desert dogs’ menacing Zac. Were they CGI?
“They are real dogs, and they have costumes on, so they looked mangy. We did shoot them on location. But the ground temp got up to 70 Celsius – it was so hot that the crew’s shoes were melting.
“I had seen dog sequences with rapid cutting and that’s trying to hide the fact that they can’t get the actor and the dog in the same frame.
“I wanted the sequence to have a story to it; it would build so it would seem like these dogs were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
“It was quite a difficult task to get the exact action beats that we needed because we couldn’t put them in the shot with Zac. To get four or five dogs to hit marks at the same time in a wide shot is impossible. We had to shoot everything green screen.”
It’s a seamless effect in the end. The film is pretty bleak, but that’s sort of refreshing in a way, if we can say that.
“There were certain sales agents and investors who would say things of the sort that would have made it a more conventional film. But it’s about how, if you are consumed by greed, you are probably not gonna win. That’s the fable.”
Gold is in cinemas from January 13, 2022 and will stream on Stan from January 26