Killing Ground has taken a while to arrive in general release on Australian screens. Premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, the film went on to play Sundance, which, as is all too often common for Australian critics, festival programmers (the film was knocked back by its hometown Sydney Film Festival) and audiences, when we finally realised that this country had produced a piece of world-standard cinema. Its writer/director Damien Power was snapped up by one of the biggest management agencies in Hollywood, the film received a US release, and finally it arrives at our multiplexes and high-end arthouse screens.
Will people see this brutal piece of bravura filmmaking or stay away as has too often happened down under? We hope it’s the former, of course, and to that end we requested a chat with Damien Power. Having seen Killing Ground, we could tell that cinema ran in his veins, so we asked him to be part of the Films That Changed My Life podcast. Alas, due to technical difficulties, we are unable to bring you the audio, but as next-best-thing, here’s the transcript of our in-depth chat with Damien Power, writer/director behind this year’s best Australian nail-biter, Killing Ground.
How long have you been working on Killing Ground?
We first germed up the idea about 13 years ago. It was 11 years between that germ of the idea until we actually stepped out on set.
I’d imagine there are a lot of germs?
The idea actually occurred to me as an image. The image of the orange tent, don’t know where it came from, but it kind of stuck with me. I had the idea of ‘what happened to the campers, what is the worst possible thing that could have happened to them’ and that suggested the rest of the film.
Would you say Killing Ground is a horror film?
I would classify it as a survival film. Some call it a horror, which is fine; some also call it a horrific survival film. One of the key differences is the way that we treat violence. In a horror, you are meant to enjoy the violence, as it provides more of a release. Survival horror has more of a realistic tone. More contemporary films have that realism and that was what I was determined to do with this one. You have to bring something new to the formula, and for me, that was to try and make it feel as real as possible.
There is a tradition of that in film, being afraid of the other…
Films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, about middle class people who go out into the country and get ambushed. So, there is that whole genre that I was aware of when I was writing this film. Here in Australia we have the outback, which in itself is something to be afraid of. Killing Ground cuts into both of those.
Let’s get straight into it then, can you tell us about the first film that changed your life?
I grew up in Launceston, very small town, and only 1 cinema. The first ever film I saw there was probably the first Star Wars, and the first film that I saw twice was probably The Terminator. As a teenager, the only way to view something different would be to join a film society, so I joined with my grandfather. We would be watching films from Peter Greenaway, the classics. We also had a film festival which screened art house, contemporary and retro. We had all of this, plus whatever was coming out on VHS. I remember watching Repo Man on VHS and just being blown away by the way it was filmed, it felt so rock ‘n roll. Beyond the soundtrack, the whole thing just felt like this fantastic rebellion. It had all of these different things that I had never seen films do before. I got it on VHS, and then I got the soundtrack, with the Circle Jerks and Iggy Pop. When you look back on the career of Alex Cox, his films suddenly make a lot more sense.
When you watch someone’s films, you can see an undercurrent of who they actually are. Were there any other films that changed your life?
Around the same time, I remember being at my cousin’s house and watching the first Mad Max, when I was way too young to be watching it. It’s funny, one of the US press that interviewed me recently asked me to list my favourite Australian horror film, and I actually listed that one. A couple of the sequences were seared into my brain and still feel horrific.
What was your impression of that film?
It wasn’t the complete dystopia of the film for me, it was that it was more of a connection to our world, just one-step more.
Can you tell us about your journey in getting Killing Ground made?
I was always working a 9-5 job outside the industry too, so I was also trying to write the film and try to get it made. There was a point where we had the script ready and tried to get some financing, but in order to get that you need both a sales agent and a local distributor. We made a short film to act as a calling card, which did really well for us, so then we had a national sales agent on board. They had seen the short and the script and they wanted to hear it from me, so it was the longest pitch in the world. We were sitting in this hotel lobby, and it was the most terrible pitch, went over an hour, but they still came on board.
Once we had the two pieces that we needed, the local distributor and the agent, we then had to persuade the agency that this film was not a piece of exploitation and why I was doing it with violence. Killing Ground is a tough film, and it was a tough read as well, so when I applied for funding, I included 20 pages that included the themes, why it should be made, which I think is a very useful thing to do because it clarifies your intentions. When you submit a script, it’s sometimes difficult to step back and look at it as a fresh work for a director.
After the long journey, I had made five short films in the lead up to Killing Ground; so really, I had time to practice my craft.
Did you go to film school?
I studied at AFTRS in 1998 and 1999.
What was your non-industry job?
In 1994, I joined the classification board. It’s something a lot of people think would be quite fun, but it is actually quite boring. After I had been appointment for my first term, the government changed and I knew there was no point applying again. I managed to stay working there on a part time basis, while I was at film school. From there I started working in the broadcast investigations section, and then in the Foxtel classifications sector. So that has been my day job.
Back to the films that changed your life…
I remember seeing Reservoir Dogs when it came out in the cinema, and I recall watching it on New Years Eve. It kind of wrecked my New Years. I walked out and was just blown away. In the years since, we can now look at that film and appreciate the humor, but when I saw it, it introduced me to the whole wave of 90’s art house.
Films always seemed like something made by other people, but to see this new form showed me that it was possible. Obviously being made on a low budget showed me a way into the industry. I was always struck by the structure of Reservoir Dogs.
I actually saw the film for the 25th anniversary at the Sundance Film Festival where Tarantino was invited along. My favourite scene of that whole film is actually the storytelling scene in the middle of the film, with Mr. Orange getting his story straight before he goes undercover. You see him rehearse the story in front of his boss, and then you see him in the bar telling the story and then you see him step into the story. That is just the prime example of cinema, because we know it is made up. Not only do we know it’s a story, but we actually see him start telling the story out loud in a theatrical way.
Any other films that have had an impact on your life?
I remember seeing Funny Games at The Sydney Film Festival, and then a month later I had to classify it. I just recall being so shocked by that film, about how [Haneke] could continually break the fourth wall, continually telling you that you are watching a film and that it is going to end badly. Yet, due to the power of convention of the film, you still held out hope for these characters.
Killing Ground is in cinemas from August 24, 2017.