Daniel Nettheim filming The Hunter – Photo by Matt Nettheim
In Daniel Nettheim’s character drama/thriller The Hunter, Willem Dafoe stars as a professional hunter hired by a shady biotech concern to track, kill and extract the DNA of a Tasmanian tiger, an animal believed to have gone extinct 80 years ago but unverified sightings of which persist. Amid extreme tensions between environmentalists and loggers, Dafoe’s mission seems perilous from the start and it’s complicated further when he gets involved in the lives of the family with whom he’s staying. It turns out the father of the family has gone missing and there’s evidence to suggest his disappearance could also be related to the Tasmanian tiger.
I spoke with Nettheim by telephone from New York where he and Willem Dafoe were presenting the film.
Craig Kennedy: The Hunter has played at festivals all around the world – Toronto, South Korea, Rio de Janiero, Rotterdam. Was the plan always to roll the film out internationally that way?
Daniel Nettheim: I always hoped we would. I have to admit there were plenty of days when we were in the cold in isolated parts of Tasmania, you know in the rain and with leeches, where I was kind of thinking in my mind, “One day I’ll be on a plane flying to some exotic country to present this film.” That’s one of the great rewards for filmmakers and it can sustain you through the difficult parts.
CK: Tell us a little more about Tasmania. The Hunter isn’t the first film to be shot there, but it’s the first to really get wide spread attention in this country and here I think most people think of a cartoon character when they think of Tasmania.
DN: Tasmania, as a lot of people know but many don’t, is a large island state off the south coast of mainland Australia and it’s best known for its amazing landscapes. About a third of the island is protected World Heritage area and national parks and will never be touched. It’s also well known amongst the rest of Australia as being a real hot bed of political activity in the battle to save the existing rain forests and old growth wilderness from further destruction. Tasmania is also known as the home of a mysterious creature called the Tasmanian tiger that once roamed the island freely but started to die out with the arrival of white settlers. As colonization continued it was seen as a threat by farmers to their sheep. In the end there was a government bounty, like one pound for very male head, to eradicate it as a pest. By the time anyone realized it was under threat, the critical numbers were low and it was too late to do anything about it. The last known Tasmanian tiger in captivity died in a zoo in Hobart in 1936.
CK: You use footage of that actual tiger in the film, correct?
DN: That’s the one. It’s very, very poignant footage which is quite well known and we got to use some of that. But, I guess the counterpoint to this story is that every year there are a handful of sightings where people claim to have seen one of these things still wandering around in the wilderness. So, it’s become a kind of national mythology in Australia, a bit like the Loch Ness monster or the Yeti, this supposedly extinct creature that is still out there. It’s really alluring. You can see why the myth endures, as a nation there’s this possibility of redemption for the slaughter we committed in the first place, but it’s a dangerous mythology because it kind of lets us off the hook.
CK: The story of The Hunter plays right into that mythology, doesn’t it?
DN: It’s very much tapping into the prevailing mystery of a possible last remaining tiger. The fact that there’s a biotech company interested in harvesting its DNA is also current in as much as several years ago there was a concerted campaign to actually try and clone this animal and bring it back to life. You’ve kind of got to wonder what is the agenda of these biotechs looking for rare creatures. This premise in the book opens up lots of interesting possibilities.
CK: You’re referring to Julia Leigh’s original novel…
DN: Yeah it was published in 2000 and I read it, the producer read it, and we both thought it had a lot of cinematic potential.
CK: Did you seek it out on your own or was it presented to you as an idea?
DN: We read it and sought out the rights. It was always me attached to direct and Vincent Sheehan as producer, so we very much owned it together and developed it together over an 8 year period to get the script to where it needed to be to try to finance it.
CK: Once you got the ball rolling, how were you able to get Willem Dafoe involved?
DN: I always had an interest in potentially working with Willem in that role and I used to imagine his face when I was working on some of the scenes because it’s helpful to imagine a face when you’re writing a character. In the end we got him the script through his manager and we got a refreshingly quick response which was that he was interested and he’d like to know more. That lead to me flying out to New York on the off chance of actually getting a meeting with him because I knew he had a theater play coming up. It was great. We talked, we met for about an hour really about the character, about the story, about my approach to making it, about the fact that I really wanted him to have ownership of that character and to collaborate with me on the next parts of the script that I was going to do. He responded positively to all of that. I think as well the chance to go somewhere remote, to go to Tasmania and shoot it in the actual landscapes [was a draw].
CK: Much of the film seems to be shot in the middle of nowhere. Were you really that remote or was that more a trick of cinema?
DN: Most of the time we were within a hundred or so meters of the vehicles. In doing our initial research, the producer and I went camping and we trekked into these amazing places and took photos. When it came down to the practical realities our location scout was also our key grip so he completely understood the needs of the film crew and he was able to find substitutes for a lot of these places in my mind that were more accessible. The other thing was that areas that I originally thought might be accessible by chopper turned out not to be because there are all these rules about flying over certain areas of the wilderness and certainly you’re not to be able to land anywhere that is protected.
CK: Because of their environmental sensitivity?
DN: Yeah, exactly. So, very often there’s a car park behind us but then you can turn the camera 270 degrees and it looks like no one’s ever been there before.
CK: Even if you weren’t always literally in the middle of nowhere, you still had to contend with the elements and being outdoors though, right?
DN: We were really making the same journey as Willem’s character. When he was in the snow, we were in the snow. When he was in the rain, we were in the rain. All of that suited me fine because I knew I wanted to use the weather as well as the landscape to kind of chart an emotional journey as well as a topographic journey. In that way, we had kind of a flexible shooting schedule. If we woke up one morning and it was sunny, we could pretty much say “Alright, we’re going inside to shoot interiors because full sun is not the look I want for that shot.” If we were out in the wilderness somewhere and it started snowing – which it did, that snow storm came in with like half an hour’s notice and it had been sunny before that – we were able to quickly drop the scenes we’d planned to do that afternoon and pick up a bunch of other scenes. One of our strategies was that Willem’s character would always be in the same wardrobe whenever he was out in the wilderness and all the props he ever needed he would carry with him pretty much, so we could jump from scene to scene at the drop of a hat. Because those scenes were never dialogue scenes, he was always prepared.
CK: Environmental issues are a strong undercurrent in the film and I read that real environmental activists and real loggers appeared in the film.
DN: Yeah, absolutely.
CK: Wasn’t there a lot of tension between them?
DN: There actually was tension between them. This is a really charged, emotional issue on that island that sometimes leads to violence. There’s certainly a lot of mutual distrust and antipathy between the two opposing elements. There’s only one scene where we had to have them all in the same place, which is the campfire scene. The location was about 100 meters from the house and we were ferrying people up in a minibus and one of the loggers actually said “We’re not going to get in the minibus with those stinking [unintelligible insult].” But, by the end of that night they were sitting there on the set talking to one another. I think that these are smart people who, when they’re calm, can articulate their position very well and very persuasively, but tempers can get pretty nasty. That conflict between the loggers and the environmentalists trying to protect the old growth forest, it was hinted at in the book but it was much more prevalent in the film. Thematically the battle to save the forest is a continuation of the same story as the extinction of the tiger, but also dramatically it allowed us to put heat on the character much more. To have this undercurrent of threat and tension surrounding him the whole time.
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