by FilmInk Staff

This unlikely crew made up of a snake, a koala, a spider, a lizard and a scorpion have to learn to love themselves and each other as they find increasingly ingenious ways to evade capture while battling the elements.

Doggedly pursued by a boofhead zookeeper voiced by Eric Bana (think Steve Irwin imitating Chopper) the group, led by the lovely ‘killer’ Maddie, the snake (Isla Fisher), collide with the perils of toxic branding, celebrity, notoriety, and poor body image in between chases, narrow escapes, pratfalls, and the odd comedy show-stopper.

Featuring the voice talents of Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, Miranda Tapsell, and Tim Minchin (very funny as an up-himself star koala Pretty Boy), the script was written by Harry Cripps (The Dry, Penguin Bloom) who teams with veteran editor Clare Knight (Kung Fu Panda 2) to co-direct.

Completed during the pandemic, the production used creatives in Montreal, Sydney and Toronto.

We spoke to Knight and Cripps about making their debut as directors.

When did you start on Back to the Outback?

HARRY CRIPPS “2018. I’ve done a lot of pitching in LA and in Australia and this is the only one where they bought it in the room. Netflix heard it, liked it, and said ‘go write the script!’”

How did it originate?

HC “Greg Lessans, our producer, came to us with the idea. Greg is American. He took his kids to a butterfly exhibition at the LA Natural History Museum, but all the kids wanted to do was check out the snakes and spiders. He thought it would be cool to make a movie about snakes and spiders and that got him thinking about setting it in Australia and Australia is, of course, notorious for having the deadliest creatures in the world.

“I loved the idea that we could tell the story from the point of view of [these creatures].”

Built into this scenario is a story about identity, and acceptance. The hero is Maddie (Isla Fisher) a poisonous snake, who demonstrates emotional intelligence, though suffers an image problem since she is branded a ‘monster’.

CLARE KNIGHT “Yes. In a way, Maddie reflects how we all stand in our own light. You think you don’t look right, and you act like that. She is most empowered when she feels she is powerful, and she is the one who is going to save the day and she is beautiful. Maddie is like a teenage girl with braces… there’s a lot about female identity and how you look and how you feel about yourself.”

There’s a lot about celebrity, too. Tim Minchin voices Pretty Boy, a cute Koala who is as self-involved and mean-spirited as Maddie is good-natured and open-hearted. Some of the best pop-culture satire in the film is spun around him; reality TV type bitchiness a la Big Brother and the Kardashians…

HC “Yes. Celebrity for the sake of celebrity…”

Though it does give you an excuse to do a Saturday Night Fever reference…

CK “[Laughs] Yes! Pretty Boy strutting his stuff down the street!”

In fact, the film is full of cheeky jokes, everything from the Steve Irwin family history, to the sexual realities of reptiles and spiders… all done very discreetly, and sweetly of course…

CK “[Laughs] Well it’s a family film…”

HC “You want adults to like it. Look, some films you have to endure with your children and some films you enjoy with your children.”

The movie-quotes are part of that…

HC “And inspiration.”

CK “We did look at Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) for the scenes set in a sewer.”

HC “We watched Mad Max a lot. And Strictly Ballroom: [We were drawn to] the colour and the movement and the journey of that central character [in Luhrmann’s film]. We watched a lot of Australian films and showed them to the crew just so they could get a sense of colour and space – because of course, they couldn’t go there.”

You co-directed the film; did you assign yourselves specific roles in the process?

CK “No, we didn’t divide up the tasks at all. We were in unison about everything. We were on the same page on everything, and we wanted to share everything because it was our first time directing. It was the joy of being part of it all. Animation is very different to live action, in that you are not waiting on the footage – you are creating the footage [as you go].”

HC “There were times where the both of us didn’t know stuff. But that was part of the fun – to learn; we wanted to be part of every part of the process. We started off once we got the script down, with a good old-fashioned actors’ read through with Netflix. That really felt like the beginning of a live action film, if not theatre. It was about getting the characters right, first.”

CK “We learnt a lot from the table-read [we made cuts].”

The voice-acting is a highlight.

HC “Our first record was with Jacki Weaver in March 2020, and we were told that day to go home and after that it was the lock down. From then on it was all over Zoom. They were all in their wardrobes under blankets.”

CK “It was a lot of fun actually. We got a lot more intimate performance. We got to see a lot of actors’ closets. Isla was my favourite. She has some great clothes [Laughs].”

The soundtrack is pretty eclectic. You’ve got everything from Zou bisou, bisou, 9 to 5, The Angels’ Take a Long Line and Phil Collins’ Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) to Coincidence, Handsome Dancer, Into the Wild by Ace Wilder.

CK “Harry did script in songs. Phil Collins was always there.”

HC “My taste in music ends in the ‘80s. The old ones are mine. [Laughs] Clare has a much better ear for music. I mean, there are some great things in there, like Evie Irie Hello World…”

Maddie might be the hero of the film, but Back to the Outback is also about the importance of the ‘group’; that is, the community, an analogue for our times?

HC “Yes. This is going out to kids in 190 countries. We wanted to show, first of all, something that was uniquely Australian. We wanted the audience to be drawn in by these fascinating unique little creatures.

“The hope was, once drawn in, we could explore these very universal themes about tolerance.

“That became a very big thing for us. The last two years in America have… there’s been so much violence and division against different groups of people because of their skin colour, and what people believe in, because of their politics.

“That is really tearing apart society at a time when – you would think during a pandemic – people would forget their differences. It made it even worse.

“We wanted to make a film about how our differences don’t divide, they bring us together; where it makes you not fear someone because of their differences. You embrace them and be proud of your own differences.”

Back to the Outback is in selected cinemas now and streams on Netflix from 10 December

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