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Wolf Creek whips up a storm at Cannes for the media, while the stars and director Greg McLean talk about the making of a horrifying film in the Australian outback – on little budget and much ambition. Andrew L. Urban reports.

If you think Wolf Creek is creepy, you should have been at the Directors Fortnight screening of it at Cannes in May 2005, and the press conference immediately following.

We trouped out of the cinema in the starkly dull basement of the Noga Hilton into the breathtaking sunshine of a typical Cannes festival day, the Mediterranean lapping gently against the soft sand (imported daily) and the sun’s rays poking happily into the large white tent fixed to the side wall of the hotel for the press conference. An altogether inappropriate ambiance to discuss and deconstruct such a tough, confronting drama about such a distressing subject as torture and murder in the Australian outback. But this was about to change …

The media mix settled into the hired chairs, and soon the attending filmmakers walked in to take their seats behind the table on the raised platform at one end. They came in and took their places from the right: Cassandra Magrath who plays the unfortunate Liz, cinematographer Will Gibson, director Greg McLean and producer David Lightfoot.

As the first questions were put, the sky turned dark, ominously grey and within moments a cold, heavy rain began to lash the tent – and all of Cannes. We had our creepy atmosphere. I scribbled myself a note: ‘Check: who wrangled the weather?’

But McLean looked happy and confident, clearly buoyed by the largely positive reaction to the film’s festival screening; the walk out at Cannes are so common that unless it’s a mass exodus, filmmakers have learnt to more or less ignore them. I was curious about his choice of actor for the villain, a wonderfully nasty piece of work played by John Jarratt, the actor with the nice bloke next door image. He’d quickly fix a neighbour’s broken down pipe, and here he is preparing to gut young tourists.

"it was conscious reverse casting"

“Yes, it was conscious reverse casting,” McLean replies. “It’s the equivalent of casting Tim Allen in Hannibal … Actually, I had seen John in a darker role than he’s used to playing, in a stage play, and I was impressed.”

Although the film is inspired by real events, it took McLean seven years to connect the dots of his idea. “I started working on a script seven years ago, a thriller set in the outback. I had several goes at it but none were any good. Then there was the Ivan Milat backpacker murders, and later on, the two English tourists who blundered into a nasty outback character.” (This subtle reference to the nasty Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio outback incident resonates now on the film’s release, coinciding as it does with the trial of the man accused of murdering Falconio in the NT. The film is being withheld from release in NT as a result.)

Wolf Creek is the story of Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi), twenty-something British backpackers in Broome, Western Australia who team up for a car trip with young Australian, Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips), to a remote spot in the Wolf Creek National Park. At the end of the day when their car won’t start, a gruffly affable local, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), turns up in his truck and offers to tow them to his place, an abandoned mining camp, and fix their car. When Liz wakes from a drugged sleep late the next day, she’s tied up and gagged, in a hut. She hears loud music and screams from another hut and her worst nightmare has begun.

The film has the mood of danger and a raw, naturalist, documentary style, which prompts a question about the degree of scripting versus improvisation. “We had a very tight script,” says McLean, “and we wanted the performances as observed not structured. So we shot lots of coverage and once we had the scene as written, we would shoot it with some improvisation.”

The result is a viscerally confronting, often violent film; one Sydney critic found it almost unbearably tough, and the film haunted her for days.

It’s not the sort of film a Hollywood studio would allow to be made, at least not with McLean’s choice of ending. “It was the low budget of the film that enabled us to have a downbeat ending,” says McLean.

But even the relatively small budget was hard to raise. Producer David Lightfoot says “it was difficult to convince the funding bodies, but Brian Rosen [then new chief executive of the Film Finance Corporation] already had plans to start supporting genre films. Since 1985, Australians made very few genre films – lots of comedy and art, but no genre films such as horror.”

Cannes proved a useful launch pad, and Wolf Creek has been picked up for international release in several major territories, including the US (opening January 2006) and the UK, where it opened in September and has so far grossed about $3 million, twice its budget.

"the specific objective of conveying realism"

The world wide fashion for hand held camera work was, in this case, rather more justified than usual, and used with the specific objective of conveying realism, says cinematographer Will Gibson. “The way you convey realism is to be like an observer, as if you are another character observing the action. We were aiming to work toward ‘found moments’ – as if even the filmmakers don’t know what’ll happen next. It was primarily about getting into the actors’ performances.”

Published November 3, 2005

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