Nearly twenty years since he made his debut with the effervescent indigenous coming-of-age charmer Yolngu Boy, director Stephen Johnson returns for a far darker, and much more brutal sophomore effort. High Ground is a grim but deeply humanistic Australian western that plays out against a bloodstained backdrop of Aboriginal annihilation, as colonialism makes its horrific way through The Northern Territory in the first half of the twentieth century. Simon Baker plays Travis, a world weary bounty hunter whose earlier tenure as a policeman led to the massacre of an entire Aboriginal tribe. An outsider after leaving the force in protest over his superiors’ efforts to cover up the mass killing, Travis is many years later co-opted by his former boss (Jack Thompson) to hunt down the much-feared warrior, Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr), who has been attacking the area’s white settlers. In a bleak acceptance of his past, Travis recruits Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) – who was orphaned by the massacre years prior – as his tracker. The two eventually forge a strange, culture-spanning relationship that forms the heart of the film, and provides veteran actor Simon Baker (best known for TV’s The Mentalist) and first time screen performer Jacob Junior Nayinggul a chance to really shine…
How were you cast in the film?
Simon: “I’ve known about the film for a long time. Stephen [Johnson] and I met way back in the ‘90s, at the very beginning, before I even started really working as an actor. He was the cameraman on a music video that I was in. I hadn’t seen Stephen for a while, and we ran into each other at a festival in The Northern Territory. He sent me the script, and then Jack Thompson gave me a call, and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing the film.”
Jacob: “Stephen came back and forth, and he was asking my grandfather about me being in the film. He’d been coming around and asking and asking since I was fourteen or fifteen. Stephen found me and took my photo and tested me for the film…”
Simon: “He was street casting then…”
Had you worked with Jack Thompson before?
Simon: “I haven’t worked with Jack before, no. But I’ve known Jack since I was in my early 20s.”
But if you’re Australian, you can’t really not know Jack, can you?
Simon: “Yeah. Well, everyone knows him, obviously.”
Jacob: “Yeah, everyone knows him. He has legendary status.”
What was it like to finally get on set with Jack?
Simon: “It was lovely, because he’s always looked out for me, and he’s always had a warm, open heart toward me as a young guy, and has almost been like a father figure character at times. And he’s a very generous person. It was really good. There’s a kind of weird father-son dynamic in the film, like the bad seed son character.”
The subject matter is very important…
Simon: “It was powerful making it. There were some days when there was a full mob with traditional hearts…the whole setup. And the reenactment of the massacres was hard. That was very hard, and very emotional for me. I can’t imagine how emotional it was for all the indigenous actors, because it’s their ancestors who were massacred. And in some of the places where we shot, stuff had gone down. There was an energy, you know? There’s a lot of energy, particularly in that part of the country. So as a balanda, as a white fellow, being on that land is powerful, and you feel it. You really feel it. A lot of these places are pretty sacred, and we’re being sort of welcomed in, traditionally welcomed in. What’s the word you used, Jacob? Welcomed or sung in? We were welcomed in with a ceremony. And then we leave with a ceremony as well. So all of that creates an energy straight away. And obviously we know the potency of what is the story. It was very powerful. It’s very uncomfortable for white Australians to sit with the reality of what happened to the nation’s first peoples. It’s confronting. And it’s interesting that you are so confronted by it, because you don’t want to know that it’s true. And I guess what’s interesting is to learn how to sit with that uncomfortableness, because I think it’s important for the indigenous people to be able to feel it and mourn it, and to have this sorry time.”
What is your character’s journey for the film? Because he seems quite conflicted as to what he’s been told to do, and what he’s doing, and what ultimately happened…
Simon: “He becomes this patsy in the middle of it, but there’s a conscience in there that’s affected. He’s getting pushed and pulled in different directions, and he doesn’t necessarily even want to get dragged into the whole situation, but he’s kind of blackmailed back into the situation, really. And then he ends up developing a relationship, an empathetic relationship, with Jacob’s character. He eventually cares more about him than he does himself.”
What was the shoot like for you, Jacob?
Simon: “He’s used to it, like how hot it is!”
Jacob: “Yeah, I grew up bush.”
Simon: “It was hot, and we had big storms that came in. We had a crocodile wrangler on set, because there was a big croc that would come up towards the set. Lots of crocs would come up and sit in the backyard.”
Jacob: “There were lots of crocs.”
Simon: “We had to drive across The East Alligator River every morning, and it’s tidal. So there’s water coming up the side, and sometimes there were like fifteen crocodiles just waiting for the fish to come. So you look out from driving your car, you’re in the water, there’s water inside of your car, and there are crocodiles.”
Did you have any other encounters with dangerous animals?
Simon: “I nearly hit a wild pig traveling home. It came running at the car. So apparently what they do is they see a headlight, and they charge at the headlights. And I’m driving on this road about 100k an hour, and the next thing you know, I just see this massive boar come flying. I don’t know how I didn’t hit it. I’m so glad I didn’t. I must have missed it by that much.”
Have you ever shot anywhere like that before?
Simon: “Anything as wild as this? No. This was wild. It was wild.”
I’m guessing that there were no mega trailers that you could retire to either?
Simon: “No, there weren’t. And then at the end of the film, we camped at Gunlom Falls, down in Kakadu. The whole crew was camping in tents. It was all very exciting. But it was hot, mate! 45 degrees! And I was wearing those thick, heavy, flannels…I was just sweating constantly.”
Jacob had less clothes, luckily. You didn’t have to wear the flannels…
Simon: “He’s also used to the temperature. It’s hot and humid, because of the wet season. It’s wet season out there now, so where we shot is all about two metres under water.”
Jacob: “I think we got six seasons.”
Simon: “It’s like six seasons in that part of the world.”
Jacob, how did you find the filming experience? Did you enjoy it? Would you like to do it again?
Jacob: “Yeah. Good experience. And I want to do it again.”
What is next for you?
Simon: “I’ve got a couple of acting things that will either fall into place with financing and stuff, or not. It’s been a while. This was the last movie that I acted in. We shot this a year ago. I’m developing a couple of different projects that I’d hopefully like to direct. I love directing [Baker made his feature directing debut in 2017 with Breath]. It’s hard to act in films, because my head’s just there all the time, thinking about directing. So I’ve got to silence myself!
High Ground is in cinemas January 28, 2021