Survival of the Fittest: An Interview with 'The Hunter' Director, Daniel Nettheim

Jose Solís Mayén

Shot in the wilds of Tasmania, Nettheim's 'eco-noir', starring Oscar-nominee Willem Dafoe, is at turns brooding, spare and eerily beautiful.

The Hunters

Director: Daniel Nettheim
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Frances O'Connor, Sam Neill
Studio: Magnolia Films
Year: 2011
US Release Date: 2012-04-06

The thylacine, popularly known as the Tasmanian tiger, was declared extinct in 1982, almost half a century after the last, officially known, specimen died in captivity. After its disappearance, reports of thylacine sightings became part of the island’s lore, how could they not? Tasmanian tigers were widely recognized as the symbol of its people, even featuring prominently in their coat of arms.

The reports of thylacine appearances are more revealing sociologically than biologically, given that they force us to wonder how to cope with the literal extinction of symbols that are supposed to define us. In 1999 Julia Leigh published The Hunter, her widely acclaimed debut novel which centered on a man’s search for the last tiger.

Of the way in which the tiger served as a canvas on which to project unique ethnic sensibilities she wrote, “when the tiger was trapped it let itself go. Some trappers said they died of shock, but other sensitive souls preferred the ancient and redeeming thought that the tiger chose its time to die, the trapper being a mere conduit. Others again, the noble men, thought the tiger was a noble beast who refused to suffer the indignity of capture.” It makes sense then that when bringing the novel to movie screens, the result had something that resembled “spiritual” connotations and the leading role went to Willem Dafoe an actor who has become notorious for his ability to play such characters (think of his Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ).

As directed by Daniel Nettheim, in his feature length debut, the film looks and feels like a hybrid of Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick. Richly layered with symbolism and an all-encompassing awe of nature The Hunter might be one of the most unique movies to be released in recent years. PopMatters spoke with the director to find out more about his creative process, the logging industry and that old Dafoe magic.

* * *

You optioned the novel around the time when it came out. What drew you to the novel? Considering it’s such an introspective work, what made you think “this would make a great movie”?

It was initially the amazing central character’s journey, I thought it was a really compelling character, it was a character I’d never seen before and combined with, what I knew, would be really beautiful landscapes. Julia Leigh describes the landscapes in a lot of detail in her novel, but when you actually get to Tasmania they’re even more spectacular. It was a chance to put this not very commonly seen part of the world on to the big screen.

Julia didn’t get involved in the process though...

We asked her very early on if she wanted to work on the screenplay but she had her own projects and she declined.

Were you worried about how she’d react, or did you have her blessing so to speak?

She had given us her blessing and her trust but of course I was still nervous naturally. She chose not to see a single frame of the film until it was completely finished. We were both at the Toronto Film Festival with our movies - she made a film as well [Sleeping Beauty- so she came to the premiere, I made the introduction and then I sat down in the audience next to her. Before the film started I said to her “I can’t sit next you I ‘ve got to go” (laughs).

I was still glancing over nervously to see her reaction. She was also trying to just enjoy the film as a film and not focus on what had changed from the book. She’s seen it twice now and she’s very happy with it. She acknowledges that there are things we changed from the book, which we kinda had to change, but she thinks it’s a really well made film.

The movie has been in development for a decade. Did certain elements change along the process or is this the same movie you would have made in 2002?

In many ways the delay was about getting the script right but also about trying to find the money to pay a scriptwriter, to keep it moving along. I think the script was a lot better in 2005 than it was in 2001 and it was a lot better in 2008 than it was in 2005. In a way I’m grateful for the time it took cause it really allowed it to gestate and mature and we didn’t rush it into production before it was ready.

One of the central problems in the film is the battle between people who work in the logging industry (loggies) and environment conservationists (greenies). During one of the film’s best scenes we see a group of locals wonder which team he’s in. Were Tasmanians friendly on location or did you have any problems like the ones we see in the movie?

Tasmania, apart from having a big forestry industry, has a very big tourist industry so naturally the first instinct is to be very welcoming to outsiders who come to the island. There’s a lot of tourism infrastructure but all of that said if you go to an area where there’s foresting activity and someone thinks you’re a greenie you’re gonna be met with a lot of resistance and hostility. Young ideological people from all over Australia descend on Tasmania each year specifically to be part of forestry blockades, because at that time of life it’s an exciting thing to do, it’s an idealistic thing to do, these people are passionate about their beliefs...but this causes a great amount of difficulty for the logging industry; their work is interrupted, their livelihoods are threatened, it’s a very passionate topic with very strong points of view on both sides and it often escalates to violence down there. Now this is a part of the story that wasn’t featured as largely in the book and [in the movie] it all came about from our experience of going down there and meeting these people and talking to them. We realized it was impossible to tell a story set in the Tasmanian landscape without touching that debate.

You were on location for seven weeks and Tasmania is known for its inclement weather. What were the biggest challenges of working in exteriors?

There were definitely two main challenges, one was navigating our way through the political climate on the island, getting support from loggers, greenies, politicians and everybody else. The other thing was definitely the ever changing weather, but because Tasmania is known for how quickly the weather can change, and if you’re preparing to go on a long trip somewhere, all the signs indicate you need to take clothes for all sorts of weather because it can change so quickly. But we had this knowledge, we knew what it was like, we knew we’d never be able to fight it or conquer it, we knew we had to make the weather our friend.

So really we had a shooting schedule every day but it was very adaptable. The conditions I preferred to shoot in were fog, mist, rain, snow. I was least happy shooting in full sun. If it looked like we were going to have great weather we’d choose to shoot interiors in the house for example but if it looked like it would be overcast or misty we did exterior stuff. One of the great assets we have is that Willem’s character only has one change of clothes when he’s out in the wilderness.

Are you planning to have your next movie take place exclusively in interiors?

(Laughs) It’s been long enough now, since the shooting, that I can only remember the good bits. Really for me the next choice will be a good story, regardless of whether it takes place in exteriors or interiors.

One of my favorite things about the film was the way in which the beauty of the landscape contrasts with the ugliness of the characters’ inner struggles. Can you talk about this?

We made conscious decisions when choosing the locations to find places that would underscore the emotional journey of the film. I have scenes in the script where it would say “he goes out into a forest, he goes into an open plain” but it wasn’t until I started looking at actual locations that I started going “well this looks dark and foreboding, this will really work for this section of the story, this place is open and kinda benevolent, it’ll work for a different section”. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t having gratuitous use of beauty and that the beauty always contributed to the storytelling in some way.

I’ve heard you say that the story of the Tasmanian tiger in the movie is about redemption and watching the movie I noticed how many symbols you use to represent cleansing. Willem’s character takes baths all the time and even suggests a bath will help heal someone else. Was your aim to make the whole story be specifically about finding redemption?

At a certain point in the story this man is taking stock of his past actions and is wanting to find redemption. As storytellers we’re trying to say “you know, redemption is not that easy to find, it’s not easily won”. One of the dangerous things about this myth of the tiger still being alive is that it kind of collectively let us off the hook for the destruction that actually happened to it. It’s more important that we face up to those errors of our past and learn from them so we can move forward in a different direction and it’s the same for the character.

It’s interesting you touched upon the water theme because it is used thematically, for bathing, drinking, as is the image of fire which can provide comfort and security and warmth or fire which can exhibit terrible destruction. Even the lyrics of the Bruce Springsteen song [“I’m on Fire” played by Dafoe’s character] tie in to the themes of the film.

The film is filled with amazing performances. Willem in particular was quite haunting. His performance reminded me of a Klaus Kinski performance in terms of how not only he’s in almost every scene but also how lonely he is and how he exteriorizes so much without dialogue. What kind of preparation did Willem undertake?

Willem and I realized that the key to understanding this character and the key to his performance was in the actions he played, it’s not about playing emotions but about playing very specific tasks and actions for each scene that the script itself was strong enough that he doesn’t need to feel responsible for communicating the plot or the story, eve the emotions. That was really a great key, when we were collaborating on final drafts of the script he would find scenes where people might be using words and he would say to me “Daniel can we find a specific action that can communicate this emotion instead”. One of the things that really attracted me to the book was how little dialogue there was and even as we went about shooting the film -- even though if we’d done a lot of editing on the script beforehand, Willem and I would sometimes get to a scene and would suddenly realize that he was saying a line that he didn’t need to say, that there was no logic or truthful for him to say at the time, so if anything we were continuing to edit the screenplay.

While on location did you ever hope to run into the Tasmanian tiger?

Can you imagine the publicity? (Laughs) In all honesty our stills photographer was constantly on the lookout for a figure in the shadows and every new location we went to we were filming a lot of behind the scenes footage and we shot interviews with some of the locals asking them if they ever seen the tiger if they believe in the tiger. It was really astonishing how many people really believe that they’ve seen one, that someone they know has seen one or that it’s still out there. In fact in Australia for the DVD release we ended up putting this material as behind the scenes footage cause I found it so compelling. I have to say when we started the film I was skeptical that the animal still existed, by the end I was quite seduced by the passion of those who still believe in it.

* * *

Magnolia Films will release The Hunters theatrically on 6 April 2012. The film is also currently playing on VOD.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.