“The script came to me through producer Judd Tilyard while we were developing one of my own scripts,” says Jesse O’Brien about the origins of his latest feature. “Two Heads Creek came across Judd’s desk and he thought of me, because he thought it’d be a good bridging film towards some of my more ambitious projects. I read it with a sense of reluctance – do I really want to make a film about cannibals in the outback? It truly sounded awful, not at all what I wanted to put out there in the world, but as I turned the pages, I realised that Jordan [Waller, writer and lead actor] had a very intelligent approach to the material. There was a lot of subtext and commentary which lifted it out of its genre trappings. And as soon it clicked that this is a film about Australians seen through the eyes of British characters – I knew that was my way in. Rather than drag out old tropes, that perspective would allow me to have fun with Aussie stereotypes and play up the cartoonishness. Australians don’t mind laughing at ourselves, but this was a chance to point a finger while laughing, and really spotlight some ugly stuff about ourselves while still having a great time.”
Two Heads Creek follows British siblings Norman (Jordan Waller) and Annabelle (Kathryn Wilder) as they travel to Australia to track down their birth mother in the fictional titular outback town. What they discover are OTT Australian characters who are harbouring a very dark secret.
“The balance of comedy and gore was there from page one,” says O’Brien about the screenplay. “It was part of the deal from the beginning so it’s something I really embraced. We’ve seen a lot of violence and gore under the Australian sun in other films, but this was a chance to really go over the top. It’s amazing because as gross-out as the film gets, it treads a fine line between offending the audience and offering them a story with a lot of heart. And I think we’re on the right side of that line; the film definitely has a moral centre, you just had to cut through some meat and gristle to get to it.”
An appropriate pun for a film that O’Brien reckons was influenced by Stephan Elliott’s overlooked guilty pleasure, Welcome to Woop Woop. “It’s an overlooked oddball gem that gave us incredible costume inspiration, and it gave us permission to be as weird as we needed to be. [Also] I looked at a lot of John Carpenter films as well as Evil Dead for its playful, non-threatening gore. Our major touchstone was Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, mainly for its town of bizarre locals. Visually, we leaned towards older films so that we had a classical look through our vintage 1960s lenses.”
In between the belly laughs and goretastic moments, Two Heads Creek also touches on racism and immigration.
“I never wanted to be a political filmmaker or use filmmaking to promote an agenda,” says O’Brien. “But I couldn’t ignore the surprising undertones of this script. It’s partly an allegory of the immigration crisis, but rather than preach at anyone, it’s more of a jumping point for those conversations. I think if there is a message to be had, it’s always better served through laughter.”
To serve that laughter, O’Brien and his team managed to get an impressive cast of Australian actors onboard. “There was more going on with this story than just another outback b-movie schlock fest, and I knew that putting Australian names and faces would be one way to legitimise it. I was determined to cast some new faces (David Adlam and Madelaine Nunn are both exciting newcomers) but it all started ramping up when Kerry Armstrong signed on. I was surprised that she wanted to do it, as it’s a very different role for her. But she’s got real comedic talent and she loved disappearing into her role. After she signed on, agents started paying attention. We were able to get Gary Sweet (whose German accent was his idea – I wish I could take credit for it!), Kevin Harrington, Stephen Hunter, Greg Fryer, and of course the outstandingly talented Helen Dallimore as the town’s psychotic matriarch, Apple. That was a tough role to cast, and eventually I literally saw Helen across the room at a MIFF event, called her agent the next day, and within a week she was our villain. Her rendition of Skyhooks’ Horror Movie as part of our ‘cannibal karaoke’ musical number is something to remember, that’s for sure.”
The six-week Australian shoot took place, weirdly enough, in a tiny Queensland town called Cracow, a six hour drive from Brisbane. “The only thing there was a pub, which we filmed in and had crew sleeping in, so it became our home,” says O’Brien. “When you have nothing to do but drink together, play pool and stay up late into the rural Queensland nights, you have no choice but to become a family. That isolation really bonded us and helped us rally together until the end. The wrap moment was amazing – on my first film Arrowhead we hadn’t filmed everything so that wrap moment was a little bit heartbreaking. But this time we achieved the mission together and it was an entirely different feeling. We gathered for a fireworks show right as the town’s power went out, and there was a stunning dry lightning storm playing back and forth with our fireworks. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t plan, but it was a signal that we’d achieved something unique, strange, and powerful.”
The shoot in Australia wasn’t the end of it, though, as O’Brien, his British actors and a small crew flew to the UK to shoot the opening scenes of the film.
“We went from extreme hot to blistering cold, but it helped bring authenticity to the opening scenes,” remembers O’Brien. “Opening the film in the UK was a great way to establish that this kind of growing nationalism isn’t just an Australian thing, it’s everywhere. Even as a white male, our British hero Norman faces racist slurs because of his Polish heritage, then he comes to Australia and it’s no different. Everyone everywhere is telling each other to ‘go home…’ but the real point of this story is, none of us are home. We’re all immigrants wherever we go.” And, the bucketloads of gore and laughs, of course!