Rewind: The Making Of Mystery Road

June 8, 2016
With the series on the ABC attracting a lot of attention, we take a look back at the making of the original 2013 film, Mystery Road, which is about to screen again in the outback at the 2018 Vision Splendid Film Festival.

“I used the Sydney Film Festival premiere as a bit of a test screening,” Ivan Sen told FilmInk just before the theatrical release of his 2013 thriller, Mystery Road. “It was the first time that anyone apart from the workers on the film had seen it, so I couldn’t resist. I cut a couple of minutes out, and gave it a trim up.” This seems typical of Ivan Sen – he’s always thinking, he’s always working the creative angles, and he’s always moving. Sitting in a conference room in the offices of his new film’s publicist, the young writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and composer seems to be hooked up in the possible worlds of the films that are ahead of him, and not in the past worlds of the films that he’s just completed. Though friendly, thoughtful, and a pleasure to interview, FilmInk gets the sense that Ivan Sen would much rather be out there constructing the platforms for his next work, and getting his hands good and dirty.

On its release, the towering Mystery Road was Sen’s most polished, ambitious, textured, and accessible film to date. Chipping away as a filmmaker since the late nineties, Sen – the product of white and indigenous parentage – has slowly, carefully, and measuredly been establishing himself as one of this country’s most accomplished directors. After two shorts (Vanish and Tears), Sen made a major splash with his acclaimed 2002 feature debut, Beneath Clouds, a lyrical, poetic drama about two kids heading nowhere fast. Two documentaries followed (Yellow Fella, A Sister’s Love) before Sen delivered an unlikely feature follow up in 2009 with the richly atmospheric sci-fi curio, Dreamland, about a UFO hunter searching for clues in the Nevada desert around the notorious Area 51. Sen returned to his indigenous roots with 2011’s next-to-no-budget Toomelah, the tough tale of a young Aboriginal boy veering off into a premature life of crime and violence.

Ivan Sen

Ivan Sen

Mystery Road marked a major step up for the filmmaker, who worked with a bigger budget, a bigger cast, and a much bigger crew. Set under the blazing outback sun, the film opens with a dead body by the side of a highway. It’s a teenage girl, and she’s been cut wide open. Brought in to investigate is Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Aboriginal cop caught and twisted in the metaphorical barbed wire of the no man’s land that divides the white and indigenous communities of his rural hometown. Jay is casually looked down upon by his cop colleagues, and treated with a mixture of recognition but deep mistrust by those in the Aboriginal community. As he digs deeper and deeper, Jay Swan raises the quiet ire of enigmatic narcotics cop, Johnno (Hugo Weaving), and starts to get an itchy, uneasy feeling about a malevolent farmer (David Field) and his even less forthcoming son (Ryan Kwanten). On the homefront, Jay has to deal with his angry ex-wife, Mary (Tasma Walton), and the fact that his own teenage daughter might be involved in the young girl’s murder. All the while, Detective Jay Swan is a man caught dangerously and precariously in the middle.

“That’s always fascinated me,” Sen told FilmInk of Jay Swan’s dilemma. “I’ve always been interested in the native trooper, or the black tracker, and the big dilemma that they would face. In the film, someone says to Jay, ‘How do you sleep at night, locking up your own people?’ Being torn between two cultures is something that I identify with. I grew up with an Aboriginal mum and a European father who was absent. I found things quite easy with the white people in town, who really accepted me not as one of their own, but they made me feel quite close. I’d go over to the Aboriginal side, but then I’d hear things that would push me away from both. The white family would say something like, ‘Fuck those black bastards,’ and that obviously wouldn’t make me feel very good. Then I’d go to my Aboriginal family, and someone would say something about me being white, or something because of my dad. So there was this no man’s land that I found myself walking through at times when I was growing up. That’s expressed in the film through a black cop being torn between these two worlds.”

Mystery Road, however, is not an “issues” film. It’s a straight-up procedural thriller with tendrils slinking back to classic American crime fiction and scorched-earth Aussie classics like Wake In Fright. It’s about the cruelty of the natural environment, and the even greater cruelty of the men who rip an existence out of it. There’s an undeniable swagger to the film too, and a freewheeling attitude to traditional cinematic aesthetics. Its cops wear cowboy hats, jeans, and stack-heeled boots, and sling their iron low on their hips, looking more like Old West lawmen than rural Australian cops. “There’s no doubt that No Country For Old Men had an influence on me, more from an aesthetic point of view,” Sen says of The Coen Brothers’ Oscar winning neo-western. “Script-wise though, it took its own path.”

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan

That path led directly into the dense, tangled territory of loaded subtext. Though no fan of the cinematic soapbox, Sen knew that he could seamlessly and cohesively work a little pointed social commentary into his smalltown thriller. “The treatment of victims of crime when they’re indigenous women is different,” Sen says. “Especially in country areas, there’s not a good track record. There’s definitely an insensitivity that’s been passed on through generations of the police establishment. It’s human nature. We come from a different world to them, and we find it difficult to identify with these people. The sensitivity level is just not where it should be, but I didn’t really want to hit people over the head with that. It’s just there. There are political overtones, but I didn’t want to explore that too much. We’re just going down the murder mystery route.”

The murder mystery route is one that has proved more expensive to travel along. While Beneath Clouds, Dreamland and Toomelah were shot for next-to-nothing, Mystery Road boasts not just major movie stars, but also a richly burnished look that can only be achieved on the back of a decent budget. But when FilmInk is cheekily challenged by the film’s producer, David Jowsie (who worked with Sen previously on Dreamland and Toomelah), to take a punt on how much Mystery Road actually cost to make, we are way, way off the mark. Our hastily guessed-at figure of eight million dollars is instantly shot down. “Two million,” says an obviously proud Jowsie. “We haven’t made a big song and dance about it. It’s largely because of the precise planning and preparation, but I don’t think that anyone else could have done this film at that budget. Ivan just fills so many roles on a film. We shot it in just six weeks too, which is pretty good.” Was it tough to finance? “Toomelah was a half-million-dollar movie, so it was a big step up from that level,” Jowsie replies. “It always takes a while, and it’s never easy, but it wasn’t massively difficult to raise the money.”

Mystery Road producer, David Jowsie

Mystery Road producer, David Jowsie

That money has meant a step-up for Ivan Sen, who was in control of a much bigger set with Mystery Road. “That’s where my heart lies, really,” the filmmaker says of the more ambitious nature of his latest film. “My earlier films were expressing my Aboriginality, and my experiences growing up. That’s in this film as well, but it’s not the number one thing. I’m just really excited about getting to bigger audiences. I love genre films…I just love them. Big commercial films don’t have to be quite so bad. I do want to speak to more people – that’s why I’m going on to this even bigger film next. But at the same time, there’s a political restraint that actually makes Mystery Road more artistic, because it’s holding back and letting the audience join the dots if they want to join them. That excites me as a filmmaker and an artist. I want people to be moved, and to feel some emotion, but I don’t want to force anything upon them. We see Mystery Road as this stepping-stone to this larger place where we’d like to go.”

That step-up, however, doesn’t cut back on Sen’s multi-hyphenate status. “Ivan does so much on the film,” says David Jowsie. “I’m not joking; he literally did the sound and everything. Sure, there was a crew, but he still wrote, directed, shot, edited, and then composed the score for the film.” Says Ivan Sen: “We only had one gaffer on Mystery Road, and he didn’t have an assistant. But even having just one gaffer was great, because on the last two films that I made, we had no gaffer at all. I had to do the lighting myself. Having a gaffer frees me up to concentrate on being more precise with the frame.”

There’s an unspoken assumption that indigenous or “marginalised” filmmakers have to make films that speak of their communities. But why can’t an Aboriginal director make a film that has nothing to do with indigenous Australia? In Hollywood, black directors like Antoine Fuqua, John Singleton, Albert Hughes and so on can now move backwards and forwards between more social-minded projects and straight-up commercial movies. It’s a position that Ivan Sen would also like to occupy. “Now that I’ve done a few, not so much,” the director replies when FilmInk asks if he feels any pressure to tell indigenous stories. “Also, there are a lot more people doing it now. Back in 2000, when I was making Beneath Clouds, it was a different story. But as you mature and develop, there’ll be areas other than the indigenous theme to approach. For now, I really want to just let go of it. I just love film, and I want to go off and make a big film for a big audience. But there’ll be an indigenous perspective in that one too, because that’s what I am. It’s always important to know where you come from in a story, and the path that you’re on.”

Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road

Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road

Joining Ivan Sen on his current path is Aaron Pedersen, one of Australia’s most talented, charismatic, and engaging Aboriginal actors. With a range of strong film (Dead Heart, Bad Karma) and television (Wildside, MDA, The Circuit, Jack Irish, City Homicide) performances to his credit, Pedersen brings just the right amount of faded weariness and quiet gravitas to the role of Jay Swan. “He’s got a presence,” Sen says of Pedersen. “I don’t think another film has really given him that presence where you can see him in the whole frame and take him in. You can really feel him in Mystery Road.” Indeed, it’s a wonderfully controlled and soulful turn, and rates instantly as one of Pedersen’s finest. “We’d always been ships in the night, just passing each other, and not really having a chance to sit down and talk to each other,” the actor says warmly of his first meetings with Ivan Sen about Mystery Road.

The director had mentioned the film to Pedersen when the two had attended The Message Sticks Film Festival in 2006, but discussions didn’t start in earnest until later, with the pair finally coming together about two years ago. “He’d pretty much written the script for me, and I just said, ‘Yeah, I want to go ahead with this.’ It’s less than a year now since we shot it, and it all came together quite quickly,” Pedersen explained to FilmInk just before the release of Mystery Road. “Most of the time, these conversations about films can go on for a long, long time,” he laughs. “But Ivan was a man of action. He spoke to me, and we went straight ahead with it. I’m actually a little surprised that I’m talking about it in the past tense now. It’s one of the quickest projects that I’ve ever worked on, that’s for sure.”

Though he’s been kicking around the local film and television scene now since the mid-nineties, Mystery Road only represents Pedersen’s second leading role in an Australian feature film, after Jon Hewitt’s little seen 2006 romantic thriller, darklovestory. “It didn’t really feel any different,” the actor says of taking the lead. “TV and film are different, but they aren’t really that different. They’re just processed differently. The crew is the same, and the storytelling is the same, so for me, it didn’t really feel any different to being on a television set. Yes, we worked at a slower rate, but it didn’t feel any different. Obviously, the location changes more, and that’s what’s beautiful about film – you get away from the studio a bit more. I’ve played the lead in some films that haven’t really made it, so this is the first one that people are going to get to see,” he laughs.

Robert Mammone, Aaron Pedersen and Hugo Weaving in Mystery Road

Robert Mammone, Aaron Pedersen and Hugo Weaving in Mystery Road

While serving as the film’s narrative anchor, Aaron Pedersen receives starry support from the aforementioned Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten and David Field, as well as Jack Thompson, Tony Barry, Damien Walshe-Howling, Roy Billing and Zoe Carides. How did they corral all these heavy hitters? “Once Hugo Weaving had agreed, it really helped,” replies producer, David Jowsie. “Once we had Aaron, we really wanted to get a major actor to help us, and we targeted Hugo for that major support role.” It so turned out that Weaving was more than happy to be targeted. “Beneath Clouds is one of my favourite Australian films,” the actor tells FilmInk. “That was such an astonishing and beautiful film, and it showed a filmmaker with such an exquisite eye and sense of timing. Then I saw Toomelah a couple of years ago, and I thought that film was so unheralded by the industry here. He’s an extraordinary filmmaker, and I was very keen to work with him. I actually put out feelers! Lo and behold, the script for Mystery Road came back, and it was a real thrill.”

Though Weaving (“He’s such a talented man, and he’s such a lovely guy,” enthuses Sen. “He’s the greatest guy that you could ever meet”) happily signed on for Mystery Road, the constantly-in-demand actor’s busy schedule meant that David Jowsie had to do a little logistical juggling. “We were lucky enough to make it work with him, but we had to split the schedule because of his commitments,” the producer explains. “We actually shot Hugo’s scenes as a pick-up after the main body of the shoot, simply because he was so important to us. It was worth reconvening everything to get Hugo into the movie. He was incredibly generous signing onto this little film, and once he was on board, it created a certain ring of interest for other actors.”

Ryan Kwanten and Aaron Pedersen

Ryan Kwanten and Aaron Pedersen

Getting those actors was of crucial importance to Ivan Sen. As Detective Jay Swan moves through his ever darkening investigation, practically every new scene brings with it a new character that either helps or hinders the troubled cop. “I wanted every small character to have a big weight,” Sen offers. “Jay goes to this house and it’s Jack Thompson! Then Bruce Spence turns up,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘I’ve gotta have Roy Billing as the guy working in the gun shop!’ It was tough to manage, but I was really passionate about all these great spots being filled by all these great actors. The last film that I made had basically no actors in it, and because I was going down this genre road, I thought, ‘If you’ve got to have actors, then you’ve got to have the best!’ So we just went for it. They all wanted to be involved to support the script and what the film was about. A lot of them had enjoyed my past work as well. It’s just lovely to do a scene with someone who’s so strong – it makes a big difference to the film. When you’re following Aaron’s character coming across these other characters, it’s such a big boost. It’s what the film really needs.”

Hugo Weaving laughs good naturedly at the memory of Sen on set with the film’s various local cinematic big-shots. “It was quite funny because he’d never really worked with that many actors before,” Weaving says. “On set, he realised, ‘Oh, actors can do all these things, and I don’t have to do it for them.’ He was excited by having new collaborators, and by having the weight partly lifted from his shoulders.”

Ivan Sen, however, is undoubtedly the captain of the cinematic ship, and he knows how to keep it on course. “We were able to work through scenes quickly, and we were never really chasing our tail,” says Aaron Pedersen. “I never really felt like I was under the pump. The art department and other departments had limited time to do stuff, but I have nothing to whinge about. It was a memorable journey on so many fronts. I haven’t forgotten a day, because they were all so unique. It was a fantastic cast and crew, and I felt like I was rocking up to set with my family every day. In terms of the cast, we were all grateful that they even made that trip. People were just there because they wanted to work with Ivan and support this young filmmaker with brilliant ideas.”

Aaron Pedersen (with Alex Russell) returns in Goldstone

Aaron Pedersen (with Alex Russell) returns in Goldstone

Just before the release of Mystery Road, Ivan Sen revealed that he’d been bashing around the idea of engineering a TV series around the character of Jay Swan. Given that the Aboriginal detective actually has the feel of an ongoing character in a yet-to-be-written collection of classic Australian crime novels, it felt like a perfect fit. “There are all kinds of places that we could go with it,” Sen offers. “You could have the case solved by the end of the show. It’s just chatting, but Aaron’s very keen. I’m not sure if I’ll have the time to sit down and give it the detail that I would love to give it, so it may be more of a team effort. I’d have an overseeing role, or perhaps direct the first episode.”

When FilmInk asked Pedersen about the concept of a TV show, the actor was raring to go. “Yes, definitely,” he says. “I’m in this with Ivan. We’re in a business, but I don’t want to waste my time with things that I don’t have an interest in. Mystery Road has been a very special thing for me. Ivan made this film for 2 million dollars, and he made it shine. He’s raised the bar here in a lot of ways, not just for his own filmmaking, but also as a filmmaker in this country.”

And though a TV series revolving around Jay Swan would have been great, Ivan Sen and Aaron Pedersen have gone one better by keeping the character on the big screen with Goldstone, another taut and timely tale of crime and corruption in the outback…

Mystery Road screens at the 2018 Vision Splendid Film Festival, June 29 – July 7, 2018. For more information head to the website.

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