Sean Lahiff: Defying Extinction

November 29, 2022
You’ll never go into the forest again, if first time director Lahiff [pictured, right] has his way with homegrown horror Carnifex.

Australia has always had a reputation for being one of the deadliest places on Earth. It’s a tag greatly attributed to our wildlife. Between the crocodiles, snakes, and some of nature’s deadliest spiders, many outsiders see us as a country actively trying to hurt them. Sure, this perception is a tad overblown, but it isn’t without some truth. Our landscape is home to genuinely noxious creatures. But for first-time director Sean Lahiff, he wants you to know that it could be a lot worse, or perhaps it already is.

Lahiff — the son of director Craig Lahiff — settles into the director’s chair by unleashing an old beast back into the bush. In his upcoming horror film Carnifex, he aims to reacquaint us with a creature long thought to be extinct. That creature is the Thylacoleo carnifex, otherwise known as the marsupial lion.

Carnifex centres on a documentarian and two conservationists who find themselves the victims of its latest hunt. And in following the traditions of Australian horror, Lahiff uses our environment, myths, and fears to tell a distinctly Aussie hair-raiser.

FilmInk caught up with Lahiff to talk about resurrecting a deadly carnivore, his history in genre filmmaking, and taking inspiration from the legend of the drop bear. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This is your directorial debut. Can you tell us about your history in the industry leading up to this point?

“I graduated from Flinders University with a Bachelor of Creative Arts in Screen Production, and always had a passion for movies, more so than TV or anything else. I always chased work on films. I was lucky enough to get a go assistant editing with Jason Ballantine, who went on to edit It and It Chapter Two and The Flash and Wolf Creek and big films like that. So [I did] assistant editing and then visual effects editing on some big Hollywood films for Adelaide-based visuals effects company Rising Sun Pictures. Films like Gravity, Prometheus, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, all that sort of cool stuff. Then on the side, [I] was always making short films whenever I could. Then I started editing films — Wolf Creek 2 and I Am Mother — and I became a bit of a go-to-guy for the darker genre side of films, which suit me perfectly. That’s what I love to watch — horrors and thrillers and science fiction.

“Then I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to direct my first film. It was great to be able to make a film in Adelaide and give everybody here work because often films come to the state to shoot, but then they go back to Melbourne or Sydney or wherever to do their post-production, wherever the director’s from. But this was a born and bred South Australian production, which we’re all really proud of.”

Having edited a lot of horrors and thrillers, what would you say you learnt about things like pacing, tension, and what makes those types of films work?

“I thought I knew everything I needed. It’s amazing what came out of just letting the actors do their thing for a bit sometimes. I needed to let go a bit and see what happens on the day sometimes. I always went in with a plan — I had my shot lists and all that. But when you’re out on set in ankle-deep mud in the rain in winter, there’s magic that happens. I had to learn how to be open-minded and go with the flow and take advantage of what was in front of me there and then. When you’re editing, you read the script, and you get close-ups and wide shots. But when you’re out there, it’s much more of an organic process than I had imagined.

“But it did certainly help having edited so many films going into directing because I knew the minimum of what I needed, and I could tell how angles would go together. I was able to be efficient. We didn’t cut out heaps of scenes. We didn’t waste lots of material. I think the biggest unknown thing for me was directing actors, but I was blessed with such a good cast. We all got along really well. It was a very friendly and safe working environment where everyone could just be themselves and have the freedom to explore.”

How did you snare the director’s chair for Carnifex?

“I edited a couple of films produced by Helen Leake before, and she was one of the producers. There was a working relationship there. And her producing partner, Gena Helen Ashwell, had an idea, basically, [they said], ‘we want to make the first drop bear film, and we could do it all here in Adelaide. We don’t need a huge budget. We’d love to start working on this with you’. I jumped at the chance. I knew they were really good producers. I love the wilderness. It was my call to adventure out of the edit suite and spending a couple of months in the forest. We heavily workshopped a treatment, and then we engaged Shanti Gudgeon to write the script. It was an idea that we all came up with but was spawned by Gena’s English mother, who was terrified when she heard about the myth of the drop bear [laughs].”

The film has a strong focus on conservation. Is it something you’re passionate about and were keen to spotlight?

“It is. We all have to be [passionate about it]. It was a great backdrop for the story. I wanted to keep the film based in science, and I wanted it to feel real. Having that conservation angle just made a lot of sense to me. It’s not something that gets paired up with a horror film very often, and I just thought it was a really good angle. Something that might stand out as being unique for a — I don’t want to say monster movie because it’s an animal at the end of the day — but a new breed of horror film, if you can put it that way. There’s a term for climate-based sci-fi; it’s called cli-fi.”

Carnifex is one of many horror films set in the Australian outback. What makes it such a great location for the genre?

“It’s the unknown. It’s such a vast country. We can’t know exactly everything that’s out there, and I love the idea of playing on the fear of the unknown. At night time, it’s just an endless sprawl of forest, and that’s terrifying for me. Even just the sounds — up until making this film, I hadn’t heard a koala doing a mating call before. The Australian native animals make some crazy noises, and I love that. I wanted to share that with audiences around the world because it’s so unique.

“I also loved the idea of creating a myth around tree hollows. They’re beautiful, majestic things, these big old trees with big hollows up in them. I wanted to create the myth that maybe that’s where these carnifexes live or these drop bears drag their prey. It’s like Jaws. Hopefully, Carnifex can do for the forest what Jaws did for the water if you know what I mean! [laughs]”

Let’s talk about your cast. How did Sisi Stringer, Alexandra Park, and Harry Greenwood come into your orbit? And how did you know they were the perfect fit for their characters?

“We needed actors who could just feel real, and all get along. It was really important [that things] felt natural. I loved Alexandra’s work in The Royals, how she was this kind of rebel and alternative spunky, strong woman who was out on her own. I’ve watched Harry in a lot of things — he’s been in a lot of good Australian television. Sisi Stringer, I saw her in Mortal Kombat — I worked on Mortal Kombat, and she played Mileena in that [so] I knew she’d be up for the physical challenges of Carnifex. 

“It’s an interesting bunch. There were other great actors that were certainly on the list, but, for me, there’s got to be something more than just looks, and there’s got to be something deeper in their eyes. You’ve got to be able to see there’s something beneath the surface with them. And I think all of our cast are quite loveable and realistic. With horror films, you’ve really got to care about the cast because when they’re in trouble or when they die, that’s where your drama is.”

When it comes to the carnifex itself, how involved were you with the design of the animal?

“Oh, heavily. It was great; I love this part of the process. The production designer, Jonah Booth-Remmers, did a concept for us very early on, and it was a bit more monster-like, and we needed to make it fit into the megafauna Australiana kind of vibe. So, we adopted the nose of a wombat, changed the fur colour, and gave it two thumbs like a koala. Anto Bond was the CG modeller, and he’s a very, very experienced modeller who’s worked on I don’t know how many Hollywood films doing creature work. So, the way it moved, the way the muscles worked, the way it climbed trees, there’s so much to it that you just don’t even see in the film.

“[Even things like] the clumping of the hair, the way that light reflects off its eyes, the moistness of its nose, the way that its teeth worked. We adopted the Thylacoleo carnifex’s back molar, which was a unique tooth for these marsupials, but changed the front teeth because we had to have it drag its prey up a tree. So, we took every little thing into consideration and created this unique animal for the film.

“I was very involved, and it went on for months.”

It’s an entirely CG creation. Was that always the plan or did you contemplate doing something practical?

“We thought about building parts of it like the paws, the claws, [and] the feet for a few moments. But there were so many things it had to do that was up off the ground. [The film] was a fast shoot. It was a five-week shoot. And in the forest with safety and trees, it would have taken us twice as long to film if we were to have had someone in a suit. I love practical effects. I would always try and do it practically first. But for the budget and the time, we just had to go CG. And CG wasn’t cheap, trust me, but it let us focus on the acting.

“We had a stunt performer who was in a black suit who acted with the actors. So, when [one of the characters was] getting dragged, he was dragging [them], and then we replaced him with the carnifex. It worked out really well. It was all CG, and I think it was a good choice. We just wouldn’t have got the film shot in time if we had done it any other way.”

A lot of attention surrounding the film has been about its resemblance to a 2016 novel of the same name. In regard to that situation, do you have any thoughts you’d be willing to share?

“It’s a tricky one. It’s the first film starring this animal, so it’s a hard thing to quantify if you are to have done something that came before. Think of how many shark movies there are, and if you were to call it Great White or Tiger Shark or something. It’s tricky to talk [about], I guess. I normally just pass that stuff off to the producers and the legal team because the author hadn’t seen the film. He wrote a book about the animal, we wrote a script about the same animal, [but] they’re completely different stories and plots and characters. I haven’t even read his book, but from the blurb I read, they sound quite different. But I’d love [for] him to watch the film and see what he thinks. Certainly, no hard feelings. I understand his frustration.”

What does the future look like for you? Do you want to continue directing, return to editing, or alternate between the two?

“I’d love to alternate between the two. I definitely want to direct again, [but] I love editing. I learn so much from working with different directors [and] editing different casts. You learn so much making movies in any role. In the meantime, while I’m editing, I’m writing and developing stories and working with producers to try and get my next feature film to direct up and going. [But] I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got a six-year-old daughter, I have to make a living. In Australia, just being a director is financially very hard to pull off [laughs].”

Are you excited by what the release of Carnifex could do for your career?

“I’m extremely excited. It’s a very handsome film, beautifully acted, [and] there’s a lot of heart in it. I want people to go out and see it and have fun, and I’m excited for what it can do [for me]. I feel like I made a really entertaining film. Now [it’s] about getting people out to the cinemas to see it because getting Australians to see Australian films in the cinema’s really difficult. It’s a big challenge. But Carnifex is unapologetically Australian, and I think that’s a really good thing. I think it’ll work well internationally, and I think Australians will get a kick out of it here.”

Carnifex is in Australian cinemas from December 1, 2022