Kriv Stenders: Close to Greatness

July 30, 2019
With his latest film, Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan, the prolific Australian filmmaker took on his biggest challenge yet.

“I think any film or creative endeavour is like a war or a battle,” Kriv Stenders tells us. “In fact, I believe the more terrifying and dangerous it is, the better your work becomes. Fear is a great motivator. When something goes wrong it forces you to think creatively and spontaneously. That gets addictive, and I now secretly wish for things to go wrong on set because it forces you to fight for the film. That struggle, that challenge I think is vital, as you don’t want films to make themselves. You want them to bite back at you, to kick you and slap you. You need to work very hard to make something great, and if it’s all too easy then I think that’s when you make mediocrity.”

Which films did you take inspiration from when making DANGER CLOSE? And can you be specific about which aspects of said films?

Well, Apocalypse Now was very much a keystone reference for us. Not so much in terms of style or tone, but very much in terms of colour palette and light. I am obsessed with Apocalypse Now on so many levels, but one element that I truly love about that film is that it manages to totally capture the sensuality of Vietnam. Coppola, his DP Vittorio Storaro and his production designer Dean Tavoularis were able to capture the specific light, atmosphere, sounds, and the ambient mood of that part of Asia. I really wanted DANGER CLOSE to tap into and draw from that same visual and aural reservoir.

I also obviously studied a lot of war movies, but it was actually United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass that I really learnt a lot from. Greengrass is a master at staging action in an authentic way and I also think he is very skilled at making each character, no matter how minor, come to life on screen and contribute to the dramatic narrative. United 93 is a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking and I just learn so much from that film every time I watch it.

I wanted to employ that same level of realism and attention to character detail. Finally, we also closely studied the sequence in The Thin Red Line in which the U.S. soldiers capture the Japanese machine gun nest, the one shot in the tall grass. That sequence showed me how important faces were, and how much you could emote and communicate action through the faces and reactions of the characters. Also, all the soldiers in that sequence are lying on their guts as they were in the battle of Long Tan, so it was interesting to see how Malick got the camera down to their level, but also gave you this beautiful sense of the surrounding landscape and the geography.

Why do you think that it has taken this long to get The Battle of Long Tan story up on the screen?

War movies are always a tough sell, always. When you add to the fact that this was an Australian war movie, about the Vietnam war, the impossibility just multiples. We could never get our budget down below $15mil and that obviously meant getting “name” actors involved. We had a number of false starts over about eight years with actors being interested, then not and it was always a numbers game of trying to make the dollars work to what the market could handle or accept. There was always a huge gap. But in late 2017 that gap was filled with some substantial private investment and we decided to have one more run at it. It was the most terrifying pre-production of my life. We lost $2mil on a Friday, two weeks before shooting, but got it back by the next morning. It was just such a sickeningly stressful way to work on such a complex and challenging film. But as they say, ‘Fortune favours the brave.’

Was there anything in particular that got you this gig?

Red Dog! Plain and simple. Martin Walsh, the lead producer approached me in 2011 after the film had been released and was a success. I read the script and was bowled over by the story. I just couldn’t believe it was all true. Then I saw Martin’s earlier documentary [The Battle of Long Tan], did some more reading and was hooked. I knew it would make for an incredible film, and that these kinds of projects don’t come along that often. I leapt at the offer to direct it and really appreciated how my producers Martin, and John and Michael Schwarz stuck with me over all those years. They could have moved on and got a bigger name, but they believed in me and I will always be grateful to them for that. That kind of loyalty means a lot to me.

Did you meet with some of the people involved before stepping onto the set; if so, how and what was it like, and what did you take away from the experience that fed back into the film?

Because the film was so precarious for so long, I didn’t really get the chance to meet any of the vets until we were way into pre-production. We had a very special ANZAC Day memorial service a week before the shoot started in Wooroolin in Queensland where we shot the main rubber plantation sequences. Travis Fimmel and I met Harry Smith, Bob Grandin, Laurie Drinkwater, Bill Akell and a whole bunch of the guys who were in the battle and who were key characters in the film. It was a beautiful way to christen the film. We went out to the location, got their blessing, then ended up at this gorgeous little country pub in Wooroolin, drinking beers and being regaled by all these incredible stories as the sun set. It was one of the most incredible afternoons of my life. I realised then, how those four hours of that battle have haunted these men’s lives every day for the last 53 years. I knew then why I was making this film. I will never forget that day.

Kriv Stenders, Travis Fimmel and crew

How did you work towards building camaraderie among your cast and crew on this film, which must have been particularly important?

Well, that was easy. I had a great cast and a great crew who all wanted to be there, and wanted give this project 1000%. I just watched it all happen. Everyone bonded immediately and the cast did a short “boot camp” for a few days and that really helped to get them all on the same page. We had a fantastic military advisor, John Iles who trained them as hard as he could in the time that he had. There was just a very special sense that we were all very lucky to be making this film and telling this story.  Nicholas Hamilton who plays Noel Grimes, turned 18 on the eve of the shoot and the cast all took him out on the town in the Gold Coast for his birthday. I don’t know what happened that night, but if there ever was a bonding exercise, that was it! What happens on the Goldie, stays on the Goldie. The great thing is the cast have all become great mates and still stay in touch, which I find really moving.

Is this your biggest budget production ever, and was that a blessing or a curse? Can you speak about the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

Yes. At $24 million it is by far the biggest production I’ve been involved with. There were some days where I found myself looking at these Hueys flying around, the APC tanks moving in formation, and the artillery guns firing with six cameras running and a drone flying above it all and just having to step back for a moment and pinch myself. In fact, I would sometimes just burst into mad, nervous laughter at the insanity of it all. It was just nuts! The biggest challenge was to not try and think about the whole. The minute I started thinking about the film in a complete form I would just wither at the knees and feel a little piddle of urine trickle down my leg. It was terrifying. So, what I had to do was break everything down into small elements or units of action. Just take small steps, or bites, then chew slowly. Basically, the advice I read somewhere from Spielberg or someone as equally experienced was to simply shoot the call sheet. Just make the day, or in some cases, just make the morning and then worry about the afternoon in the afternoon. And that, along with having an amazing 1st AD (Jamie Leslie) who was able to manage and coral the madness, was how I got through it.

You must have had offers to make films overseas by now, is that an ambition of yours, and if not, why?

I’ve had U.S. representation for about 10 years now, and have dipped my toes in over there a number of times. A few things have come and gone. But every time I go to L.A. to see if I should stay, there are such seismic changes going on. First time was the writer’s strike, then all the independent studios were shutting down, and now it’s streaming that’s changing everything, and what happens with that is going to be another profound shift in the business. I love living and working in Australia, my family is here, and my son is still at school here, so I also want to see if I can create and develop international projects with a base here. I think more and more, it’s really irrelevant where you live. It’s more about who you are working with, or want to work with. So, I’m always looking at things and considering offers, but as I get older, there are so many other factors that are coming into the choices I make.

What’s next?

Well, I’m working on some TV and documentary projects right now, and I’m developing a feature film about Steve Bradbury with my Danger Close producers, John and Michael Schwarz with Stuart Beattie writing. He’s just delivered the draft, and I have to honestly say it’s one of greatest scripts I’ve ever read. So, I’m very, very excited about that one.

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan is in cinemas August 8, 2019

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