The Midnight section at the Sundance Film Festival is designed to showcase movies that don’t fit neatly into genre categories and are provoking, ‘edge of your seat’ fare for audiences. Australian writer/director Damien Power was selected for his crafted and disturbing survival thriller/horror Killing Ground.
Power told the audience at the premier screening that the idea for the film came to him as an image of an abandoned tent and a question – what’s the worst thing that could have happened with the tent’s owners? With three interweaving narratives following a young couple on a camping weekend in the Australian bush, a couple who were the tent owners and the two villains, the story is deeply unsettling and anything but predictable.
Power has made several short films including the critically successful Peekaboo, but for a first feature, Killing Ground is impressive. From a press lounge on Main Street in snow-covered Park City, Power spoke about bringing his initial idea to the screen. Actor Aaron Glenane (Deadline Gallipoli, Molly, Drown) was also on hand to talk about his character of Chook, one of the two bad guys (with Aaron Pedersen) in the movie.
“What makes a thriller work is the suspense,” Power explains. “It’s all about the anticipation for the audience of what’s coming and that’s the most delicious aspect of them. It’s also about point of view for the audience in relation to the characters. In thrillers we’re often ahead of the characters, seeing what’s going on for the antagonists while the protagonists are playing catch-up and that’s a fun place for audiences to be.
“Killing Ground is kind of unusual for a thriller in that it’s an ensemble piece. I was blessed with an amazing cast, they bring such a sense of truth and believability.
“We were funded without any cast in place so it meant I could go out and get the people I wanted. Also when you cast a big name actor you can guess they’ll probably survive whereas you watch Killing Ground and nobody is safe.”
When asked about his preparation for the role of Chook, Glenane said: “Me and Aaron Pedersen had some time together beforehand. The others had already done a week of shooting before we started so we had time to justify the characters’ actions and where they were coming from and that set a solid ground base for ourselves. It was in the script too and there are a couple of really great lines that gave us some lynchpins. When we were shooting, we set up a really safe environment from the get-go which really gave us permission to not hold back from what these characters were doing especially some of the physical parts. All the others were really willing to jump in and go there which allowed Aaron and I to do the things we had to do.
“I haven’t played a character like this before. I’ve been fortunate in playing such a variety of characters which is great. I want to be a great character actor, but I learned so much from this. It’s the largest role I’ve had to date so it was really great creating an arc which allowed me to go all the way through the story. And I learned so much off the other actors – and especially Aaron (Pedersen). He’s one of Australia’s master actors, he just strips it back to it being really personal. That’s what he said to me every day, ‘Make sure you take this scene personally.’
“As an actor I don’t want to ever feel comfortable because every film is about conflict.
“Damien is an incredibly intelligent, thoughtful director who definitely gives you the time to play out the scene but he also challenges you to think outside what the expected version of the scene might be.”
“As a director I focus a lot on performance,” Power says. “Where the shoot allows I like to make sure actors have the space and comfort to get to the place that they need to in a scene and I don’t like to move on until I feel that we’ve got it.
“Simon Chapman, a great DP, and one choice we made was to film close and wide so the camera is closer to the actor which I think makes a psychological difference. At the same time, we kept the background in focus which gave it a naturalism. That was key for me as I wanted it to feel real.
“My work on short films was invaluable. During the financing process we made a short film called Peekaboo, a short thriller about a woman who loses a kid in a car park. That short did really well for us, and I found it was a perfect expression of what I wanted to do as a filmmaker which was to tell something that was really suspenseful and involving and engaging and a very visceral experience but leaves people thinking.
“The biggest difference with a feature film is that it really feels like a marathon even in terms of just having the stamina to get through the shoot. Killing Ground is set in the middle of the bush, we were outdoors most days, we were hammered with rain. I was forced to essentially rewrite the opening of the film, and there’s a synchronicity sometimes because I love that new scene, it’s incredibly revealing of them as characters.
“Stylistically it’s interesting for a survival thriller/horror film. It’s mostly set in the daytime and there’s not a lot of screaming! That was deliberate. Also we took advantage of an amazing environment, I really feel like the bush is a character. The movie fits into a whole set of Australian films about our unease in the outback.”
Killing Ground will be released in Australia by Mushroom Pictures.