Daniel Nettheim: Hunting and Gathering

January 16, 2022
One of Australia’s most in-demand and versatile TV directors, both internationally, as well as at home, returns for The Tourist.

In the last few years, Nettheim has gone from directing episodes of Doctor Who, to Australian medical drama Doctor Doctor. Other shows on Nettheim’s CV include Broadchurch, Line of Duty, Ash vs Evil Dead, and local series Jack Irish and Tidelands, to name but a few.

Currently, he’s busy preparing Foxtel’s courtroom drama The Twelve, starring Sam Neill, Marta Dusseldorp, Kate Mulvaney, Damien Strouthos and Brooke Satchwell.

His latest series, for HBO MAX, BBC and Stan, The Tourist, stars Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey, upcoming Belfast) as a tourist who finds himself on the run in the outback and Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$) as a kooky cop on the case.

We spoke to Nettheim about The Tourist, his varied career, working with actor Jamie Dornan and his remembrances of making The Hunter, one of the key Australian films of recent eras.

What got you interested The Tourist?

“I’ve done a lot of TV work in the UK over the years. I met with the company Two Brothers before on other projects. I’ve been a really been a big fan of their series The Missing. They’re also the producers of Fleabag. So, it was a great opportunity for me to be able to consolidate my Australian roots and Australian side of my career with the British side of my working life.

“It was interesting having two British writers who’d never been to Australia, writing their take on a story that fundamentally takes place in Australia, but is all through the perspective of a British character who’s an outsider. Seeing our country through the perspective of British people, British writers, British lead actor… It was exciting to work on home soil on what was an international production with high ambitions and large scale and the best budget.”

On The Tourist, did you face many challenges with COVID hitting at the same time production started?

The Tourist came about after the industry had been largely shut down for the better part of twelve months. In the six months before that, I’d done an episode of Doctor Doctor in Sydney, and that was all. The Tourist was meant to have started a year earlier and got put on hold because of COVID, just before UK crew came out to Australia. I think they literally had already started pre-production. So that got put on hold. By the time it started up again, protocols were in place. So, there was a lot of mask wearing and check-ins and as a crew, we kept pretty isolated together. We were out in the Flinders Ranges. We had to be very, very thorough, and also because when you’re shooting a TV show you’re very much in the public eye, and when you’ve got a big-name actor like Jamie Dornan, you’re gonna attract press and paparazzi. So, we had to be super careful that we were following the protocols that had been put forward by the South Australian government.

“I’d say the biggest impact of COVID for me, looking back, was that when I go and shoot in London, my family live back here in Sydney, so usually months will go by without us being able to see each other. And with the job in South Australia, I was looking forward to being able to get home every couple of weeks or to bring the family over for school holidays. We were all set to do that and then Delta kicked in, so no more interstate travel. So, in the end, I was away from family and home for as long as I would’ve been if I’d been over in London doing a job.”

What was Jamie Dornan like to work with and how did that casting come about?

“Jamie was cast in the show before I came on board. There were two blocks of The Tourist, six episodes. The first three episodes were directed by Chris Sweeney, who’s a British director. I directed the second lot of episodes, so, I was the Australian contingent. Jamie and some of the leads had already been cast when I came on board. And then I got to cast a good handful of local players who were unique to the episodes I directed.

“I think Jamie was really happy to be there. He moved his family to South Australia, put his kids in school in Adelaide and I think was quite happy to be out in Australia and away from the pandemic in Europe that was kind of affecting things much more severely at the time than here. He was entertaining company. He was really easy to get on with, he had good stories to tell, and I think he brought a lot to the project and he’s very talented.”

You have worked in several different and eclectic genres. Do you have a preference of genres to work on?

“I like to work different genres in the same way that I like to watch different genres when I’m going to the cinema or watching tele. I really love thrillers and maybe thriller is my favourite genre. I liked that aspect of The Tourist. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of humour in The Tourist, it’s quite a dark humour.

“When I’m looking at new projects, it’s never really about the genre. It’s really about what scripts are like, or the creative team, what are the unique challenges to that project, but there is also an aspect of what will I get to do on this project that I haven’t gotten to do before. I was attracted to the tone of The Tourist because of that mixed genre of black humour and thriller. And I hadn’t shot in the desert before, so I was really attracted to shooting in the outback.”

Seeing the shot with Jamie Dornan and Shalom Brune-Franklin

How does working on shows in the UK compare to working in Australia?

“It doesn’t feel unfamiliar. It didn’t feel unfamiliar working on UK shoots when I first moved over there, because the style of production is the same, the crew roles match up. A day on set there feels like a day on set here. I did find on some of the jobs, not all the jobs but on some of them, we were given more time, so more days to shoot an hour of screen time than you might get in Australia.

“That can equate sometimes to being able to take a bit more time with things, which is a luxury. But, having trained here, as Australian directors, we’re used to working very fast and makes us efficient when we go abroad.”

How did you come to work in the UK and how did you get a foothold there?

“I went over there initially when The Hunter was being released in 2012 to do some publicity for that and I met with agents at the same time.  I ended up signing with an agency. Went back and did a round of meetings about potential TV work and ended up getting offered my first UK job by a producer who I’d known already for 10 years. It was helpful to have a contact to make my first break, but then once I’d done my first job over there, the interest just kept coming, I think just by virtue of being a new face in the industry but with lots of experience, which definitely helped.”

With Ólafur Darri Ólafsson on The Tourist set

Having worked extensively in series and features, how does the approach on each differ?

“If you’re setting up the series, if you’re doing the first couple of eps of a new show, that is closer to working on a feature than just doing middle episodes of a show because there’s more creative input in the casting and setting the style and tone. Generally, you get a bit more time to shoot a feature, than to shoot a couple of episodes of TV, but that’s the nature of it. There is also something really rewarding about the immediacy of working TV in that as a director, kind-of gun-for-hire, you’re not involved in the long development process to get the series commissioned. You’re hired when they’re ready to go and they’ve got production dates, and within six months to a year, it’s on TV. There’s something really rewarding about that narrow gap between getting started on the job and seeing that.

“In my experience with films, say in the case of The Hunter, Vincent Sheehan and I optioned the novel 10 years before that film made it to screen. So, you wanna be really committed to the projects that you’re doing as a feature director.

“For me, being a set-up director is probably the most desirable part of working in TV, when you get to set up the tone for the whole series. I’m also very open to doing middle blocks of a show or the final block if it’s a project I believe in.”

Do you think there’s more opportunities for international shows to film in Australia with the rise of co-productions?

“There’s absolutely more opportunity here now than there was eight years ago when I first moved to the UK. It’s partly co-productions, it’s partly the streaming services offering a new range of outlets for content. And I think there’s a greater range of interesting, ambitious stuff in media now because local producers and the channels realise that they need to compete with the international streaming services, like the HBOs and the Netflixes. There’s definitely been a shift towards more ambitious high end, local, drama content, which is exciting.”

It is 10 years since The Hunter came out, what are your memories of that film and making it?

“My memories of making (the film) are having a small crew and cast all kind of hunkering down together in Tasmania for six, seven weeks. Particularly, I remember the versatility and the variety of the Tasmanian landscape, in that we might need four different landscapes to tell one part of the story. We could go out to one location, point the camera in four different directions and have four completely different looks. We shot in areas that looked like they were incredibly remote, but they were never more than a couple of hundred meters from a road or a car park; just by nature of needing to get gear around the place. And also, because a lot of the really remote landscape there is protected, we were limited to where we could actually go, but we could still very easily find places that looked like pristine, untouched, wilderness, but were accessible for filming. I remember that really well.

“I remember weekends were really fun because there’s so many great wineries and restaurants there and Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe both really enjoy a good bottle of fine quality wine and a meal. We were living well, as well as really exposing ourselves to harsh elements through shooting on location.”

How do you feel about the films legacy and what it means to viewers and to Tasmanians?

“That’s a tricky question, because I know what it means to me and to other people closely involved, particularly Julia Leigh, whose novel we adapted, and Vincent Sheehan, who was the producer. I have stayed in contact with Willem over the years after that and we’d catch up every so often. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of it. Every so often, I see it come up in critics’ list of favourite Australian films which is always really thrilling.

“You set out to make the best film you can and one that’s kind of meaningful to you as as filmmakers. It’s always gratifying when that translates across to wider audiences, that’s what you’re hoping for. But also, I think that film definitely boosted my television career to another level as well. That film launched my UK career and led me to be considered for much more ambitious and interesting work, which was great.”

Do you have any reflections on working with Willem Dafoe?

“I learned a lot from Willem on that. I think one of the things I always remember about his particular technique was that he always wanted to have something to do, and I mean something manual or physical, because his character, there wasn’t a lot of in the film. And we needed to find ways to convey his skills and he wasn’t interested in playing results, in terms of emotions, like happy or sad, he wanted activities and then he could convey where the character was at, through what the character was doing. So as a result, he learned how to set quite elaborate traps, he learned how to hold a rifle, he learned how to clean a gun, he learned how to prepare food out in the wilderness. He wanted to have a very kind of hands-on involvement. He wanted to choose all his own props, which was fantastic. He wanted to practice using them before we shot scenes. So, it was great seeing firsthand, that sense of an actor just taking ownership of a character.

“He worked in Australia a couple of times before, so he enjoyed that aspect of it. And I just think that we were lucky that there was an aspect of that character that appealed to him, made him wanna sign up, spend six weeks in Australia with a bunch of people. He only met me once. He didn’t know anybody else, but he took a punt on us. And for that, I’m forever appreciative.”

The Tourist is available on Stan now.

The Hunter Is screening at ACMI on January 16.

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