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