“Wolf Creek” tells the chilling story of three backpackers travelling in remote Outback Australia. When their vehicle breaks down they accept help from a friendly local, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) inspects their vehicle and manoeuvres them into letting him tow it, promising to replace the faulty part at his camp.
The next day they wake up only to find they have been abducted in the isolated outback, and they realize Mick has no intention of fixing their vehicle, or of them leaving… ever again. The film, opening in the US December 21st, is the feature film debut of Aussie director Greg McLean and recently he sat down with us to talk about the project.
Question: What were the true events that inspired you to write Wolf Creek?
Greg McLean: I wrote the original story five, six years ago and it was pretty much a standard horror thriller set in the Outback. Then over the years I heard about a couple of true cases that happened in Australia, one of them being the Ivan Milat case which is about a serial killer who would pick up hitchhikers on lonely highways and take them out into the woods and do horrific things to them. That case was influential in many ways because is had all of these elements that were so terrifying and scarier than anything I could possibly come up with. So that case influenced the Mick Taylor character a lot in terms of what he did, what his background was, mode of operation. Then more recently there was the Bradley Murdoch case taking place right now, again, a very similar character who lived in West Australia patrolling these lonely highways looking for victims who pulled over this car with two British backpackers in it and shot the guy and tried to abduct the woman, Joanne Lees. They just had all of these similarities and had all of these incredibly bad intentions. When people would meet him he’d be the nicest guy in the world because he had to be nice enough to get them to come with him in the first place. So that was the key quality that I took from those true cases. There’s other details too that are a blend of those cases. I also tried to blend clichés and icons from Australia – the Steve Irwin or Mick Dundee character, all of these big broad Australian characters recognizable in the States.
Question: Mick Taylor joins a long list of cinematic bogeymen, do you hope he’ll attain a similar prominence in the genre like, say, Leatherface or Freddy Krueger?
Greg McLean: I don’t think you can consciously sit down and say, ‘Okay this weekend I’m going to come up with the next great horror icon.’ Because if you could, people would be doing it every weekend! I think the successful characters have to come from some true place. Look at Mick Taylor in the movie, it’s conceivable that this guy could be real. He could exist. Also, even though we don’t know anything about his back-story really he’s a genuinely frightening character who is like a monster. In terms of what he does and what he gets up to. He transcends things, he’s not just a bad guy. He’s so evil he becomes this monster. And he just got more evil when John Jarratt started playing him.
Question: Was Jarratt someone you saw right away and knew exactly what you wanted?
Greg McLean: I had a long list of people I wanted to read for the role and had an idea of the quality he needed to be the character. John was the first actor I met and after ten minutes I knew that he was perfect. The difficulty with this movie is: how do you find an actor who can completely commit to doing that role and not judge the character? It would be very hard to do that performance because some part of you would be judging the character while you’re doing it. John immediately got that when we met. He said, ‘I understand this guy and how far I would need to go to make this work. It’s also about not judging him and being inside him. As soon as I heard that I said, ‘Alright, you totally go how far you need to go.’
Question: There’s an almost dutiful sense of research behind some of the torture scenes, like the “head on a stick.” Was this common knowledge to you or did you look for interesting way to kill people?
Greg McLean: That’s real! That whole sequence is taken from the Milat case. When I read that I couldn’t believe it. That’s what he did to some of his victims, and that’s probably some of the worst stuff I’ve heard my whole life. That’s very real which is even more disturbing.
Question: Explain to me your whole approach to on-camera violence, every director within the genre – from Argento to Craven – has one, and each is palpably divergent.
Greg McLean: My approach to the ugliness in Wolf Creek was the same way Mike Leigh would unflinchingly hold the camera on moments of incredibly intense human drama. I thought, what would it be like to do the same thing and hold the camera on someone who’s being tortured? What is it like to not look away? Part of the goal, for me anyway as a storyteller, is to not look away because what we do in our real life is not stare, it’s rude to look at a situation unfold. We tend to look away and go back into our own world. It’s more rare and more interesting to not look away from that darkness – keep the audience looking at it. The positive thing to come of this is that you make your own judgments about what you’re seeing. Obviously it’s screwed up, but deal with it because the world is so full of real violence, especially the last five years. We think we get violence with a lot of television shows but what I think we see in news reporting, and shows like CSI, is we think we’re seeing violence. It’s actually not, these programs are always panning away. It’s a homogenized version of it. I think there’s a value of examining it for real because it says, ‘Okay, this is what it looks like and this is how bad it really is.’
Question: That said, were there any scenes in Creek that were particularly difficult to get through?
Greg McLean: The hardest was the first torture scene in the shed. That was incredibly hard for the crew and for the actors, as well, because they completely committed to it. We shot that scene over a span of two or three nights and it was unbelievably hard for Kestie, who plays Kristy. She and John had to have an incredible amount of trust between them, and they had to have a trust in me that I would look after them and make sure they were okay. Essentially it was up to them because they worked out what they wanted to do together as actors in the scene and encouraged each other to do more. Kestie would tell John, ‘The more intense you are the better my performance will be and I will just react to what you do.’ They were allowing each other to go all the way which was brave of them. At one point while shooting that scene, because the shed was so small, the crew and me had to be outside for the wide shot. It was just Kestie and John in there. I was listening on the headset and watching on the screen the scene unfold and, at one point, I literally sat up from my seat and thought something had gone wrong. I thought John had gone crazy and Kestie really wants to stop. I was going to go running in there, it was really quite bizarre and at the end of the take I ran in there and they were both like, ‘What are you talking about? We’re doing what you asked us to do!’ It was so convincing and so believable I thought he was really hurting her. I reacted how the audience will react, which is: how do I make this stop?!
Question: Wolf Creek comes in the wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, when you sat down to write it were there any conventions you were trying to avoid and trying to achieve?
Greg McLean: I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a fairly large influence. Some people think it’s the scariest thing since Massacre, I don’t personally think it is. I definitely set out to be as uncompromising as that film is and as unapologetic. Massacre is just the most remarkable, brutal comment – it’s actually an anti-comment because it’s saying nothing about what happened. It doesn’t say, “And these people were bad and they died in a shoot-out with the cops.” It ends with a psychopath waving a chainsaw on the highway, and it doesn’t tell you what to think about that! I’m glad we actually got to make a film and not have to explain it. You make of it what you will. These things do happen and there are people out in the world that act like that. That’s just part of life. You can make this film any day of the week, but you’d have to do it with private money. You have to do it in a way that you can. The other thing is that it’s hard to make a film with a countercultural comment and get it seen in the mainstream media today. If you look at Massacre, it’s a remarkably bleak thing to say. To put it out there and make people look at it, it’s almost illegal. Going back to the earlier question about shooting in Australia… There wasn’t any attempt to please anybody when we make this movie. I was aware of the fact that it was a film so low budget it was probably the only time I can say something countercultural which is that evil gets away, the bad guy doesn’t get punished, the lead character who tries hard fails. These are things you’re really not allowed to say. This concept of the western capitalist ideal of “you work hard you will overcome the odds,” all these core beliefs of our culture, by making a comment like this is the reason it’s attractive to young people because they have a sense that these beliefs are not true anyway. By seeing a horror film that shatters those conventions they sense something truthful about the chaotic world we live in. We’re sending out and marketing films about happy smiling people while we’re also reading about torture, death and carnage.