Made for less than $2 million, Greg McLean's debut feature film, Wolf Creek, (which focuses on three young backpackers who go missing in the Australian outback) scared festival audiences shitless when it was screened at Sundance and Cannes earlier this year.
Shot on Hi-Def cameras, this ultra-realistic fact-based chiller is without a doubt one of the best Australian horror films to be released in years and the UK will be the first territory to see it when it is released on September 16th.
We caught up with Greg McLean after the film's recent FrightFest screening to ask him all about his inspirations for the film, the shooting nightmares, his cameo appearance and working with Australian Legend, John Jarrett.
To view the video clips you will need the latest version of Quicktime, then simply click on any one of the links below to see that section of the interview, or watch The Full Greg McLean Interview - 9m 35s - (18.2mb). For those of you without Quicktime, there is a full transcription of the interview below.
EMB: Hi Greg. Congratulations on Wolf Creek. A great film, we loved it. What made you decide to do an outback serial killer movie?
Greg McLean: It was the voices in my head (laughs). No, I had the idea about 10 years ago of setting a horror film in the outback, and at that time I was watching lots and lots and lots and lots of Hitchcock movies and I had this pretty obsessive period where I just loved Hitchcock and I just wanted to know everything about him. And he said this great thing about all you need for suspense or to create a thriller is to take some characters that are likeable and isolate them. And I thought, you know what’s more isolated than the Australian outback and what a great place to set a movie. So that’s where it all kind of started.
And then around the same time I was working on another project, and I draw, because I come from a painting background, so I drew this picture of this dude, and it was kind of this character who looks a bit like Crocodile Dundee, but with this huge Bowie knife and a sort of evil sadistic grin. So he kind of just popped out, and then I forgot about him, and then wrote more treatments and versions of the script in the last couple of years. And then I just found that drawing the other day, and it’s exactly what the guy (Mick from the film) looks like, so he just kind of burst forth from some dark part of my brain, you know what I mean? It’s weird.
EMB: Ten years ago was before all these news reports came out of the recent outback killings. When those news stories appeared, did it affect the film’s production at all?
GM: Well, I didn’t know about them until not that long ago. I didn’t know about the Ivan Milat thing until probably two or three years ago – Ivan Milat was about six or seven years ago. They were things that I looked at and researched and looked into, but there are lots and lots of cases that aren’t quite as well publicised about people going missing in the outback. I was more generally interested in taking that idea and making a film out of it, because obviously we had to take dramatic license to make it into a movie. It’s not a documentary telling one person’s story.
But, yeah, the other interesting thing is that when something’s based on truth, it kind of allows the audience to kind of disengage and suspend their disbelief easier. And, you know, so many horror films are based on true events. The Exorcist is apparently based on an event that happened in some mid-West town with this girl and you know, I think we want to believe it’s true because it makes it scarier.
EMB: So how long did it take to shoot Wolf Creek, because I heard it was a very quick production with one day in particular that involved 65 set-ups.
GM: Yeah, it was fast. Like so fucking fast you can’t believe it. We were racing. We had five weeks pre-production, and we had five weeks shooting and then four weeks picture cut for the movie. So we were shooting some of the shots in one take. Because we had to, there was just no time. And we had 10-hour days, and then we found out that we actually had about eight hours a day because we had to take out travel time to the set. So we ended up sitting there with my shot list and going ‘Holy shit, how is this ever going to happen?”
We’ve got all this video footage of us behind-the-scenes and stuff and we are racing – ‘Fucking run!’ And like before the end of the shooting day, this thing would happen called the ‘Rush Hour’, which was basically an hour before close, everyone would realise we had 20 shots to do, and we would just be literally frantically bolting between shots, screaming, ‘Fucking get that!’ It was funny. It was funny in retrospect, at the time a little bit stressful though. That’s why I’ve gone grey in the last few weeks.
EMB: It feels a very naturalistic film. How much was improvised and how much was scripted?
GM: The words that are finally in the film are pretty much the words in the script. But, having said that, there was a lot of improvising around that, so that when they got to the line, it made it sound so naturalistic. Because if you have to say ‘Look over there’, and your starting point is ‘over there’, like, if you can improvise either side, it just flows through really naturally. So ultimately, even though it sort of looks like they’re kind of just making it up, it’s pretty much scripted. But they were free to kind of create anything around that.
And there are moments, even scenes, that are completely improvised. The scene where he’s with the mechanic and he’s basically saying ‘Yep’ – all that, there was no dialogue – it was actually a one-shot scene in the script - ‘Ben gets his car looked at by this old dude’. But the guy looked so amazing and was so funny, and when I gave him some stuff to do we just started doing all this poking around shit. And Nathan (Ben) was actually quite bored, and the light was great, so we just thought let’s just do that. So, you know, there were a few things like that where scenes became bigger and better because we were just open to things happening.
EMB: I heard you were actually in the film as the old man getting killed. Can you tell us about that?
GM: Well, I’m in it twice. You see my body’s in it, because we were shooting this scene of this guy getting his head blown off and I had this very complex idea early on of how I wanted to achieve the effect and it was make it a shot, and put some explosives in this plastic head and put a blood bag in there and do this huge explosion, cover it from all angles and make it look really cool. And I think I told someone that on the first day of pre-production.
Five weeks go by, I’m on set and I’m ready to shoot the scene. And no-one’s really given a fuck about what I said, so this guy down the line says ‘Yeah, I’ve got the thing you were talking about at that meeting’ and pulls out this store dummy – like a real store dummy that looks so crap. And I had three minutes to shoot this scene, freaking out saying ‘This is just totally shit’ and meanwhile, the explosive guys filled the head with explosives and stuff, and we set it up and everyone knew it was just going to be a disaster.
And we shot it and it looks so bad this shot, it’s hilarious. It’s basically you see this store dummy sitting there like that at low-angle, you hear this tiny little ‘pop’, a bit of blood goes ‘phpp’, and then someone, this stunt guy, had it on a cable and then yanks it off screen. So the timing is like ‘pop’ ‘phpp’ ‘whooo’. And it’s like, so that’s the old guy getting killed?
And then one of the other guys says ‘I’ve got another way to do it. We need someone to do a stunt fall for us and we’ll do a blood spray on the window at the same time’. And I said ‘Well who’s got a body type similar to Gordon, the 75 year old actor’ and I realised, well, it’s a skinny guy, so it’ll be me! So I chucked on this stuff, put all this shit in my hand and learnt how to do the fall. And it looks really good, like I’m very happy with that moment, considering it was a total fucking disaster when we shot it, it was just so bad. It’s gotta go on the DVD – it’s just the worst effect shot.
EMB: What made you choose John Jarrett for the role of Mick?
GM: Yeah, he’s like a legend. Like he’s done dozens of movies, and he’s been in some classic movies - Picnic at Hanging Rock - and he did a really good television adaptation of Ned Kelly in the 80s. And he’s been doing television, he’s been doing McLeod’s Daughters and stuff, so he’s in our consciousness in Australia very strongly, and he’s always portrayed the good solid Aussie kind of bloke. That’s why it was such a great idea, one of the great ideas about casting him was that it was such a headfuck to have this guy who’s perceived as the nicest guy in the world to come out and suddenly start chopping people’s heads off. It’s like casting Tim Allan if you’re doing this film in America or Jerry Seinfeld – (adopts Seinfeld voice) “What is it with knives in the spine?” (laughs) I don’t know who would be the equivalent over here, but it was a bit of interesting trick casting.
You know, I saw him in a play a couple of years ago where he played this really racist cop and I though it was a really dark and disgusting character, and I just got a glimpse through to another quality that I’d never seen in him as an actor and I thought ‘Shit, wow!’. So when I came to cast this, he came to mind, and everyone was like ‘Are you fucking crazy? Why are you thinking of John Jarrett, he’s so wrong’ and I thought ‘No, think about it. Think about how good it would be’, because he’s a really really great actor, but he has this perception of being this nice guy. And the thing you hear about serial killers is ‘Oh, they were such a nice guy, we never would have thought, no they were quiet’, and that’s exactly right and as soon as you meet someone like that – ‘They’re a serial killer – Run!’
EMB: How was it working with him?
GM: Well, yeah, I’m a huge fan of him and working with him was great. He’s not a method actor, but he did do a very alarming amount of preparation, which is him driving off into the desert – I don’t know what he got up to out there – but he basically decided that this character would never really wash. So basically he had sweat, dirt and shit caked on him for the entire shoot. So he’d walk into the make-up room and he would basically stay in character the whole time because he didn’t want to dip in and out because it was too hard to get back into that horrible place in his mind. And it was just his creepy presence on set so he’d just walk past the make-up people and get this wafting smell of dried sweat, yucky. It was full on, like he really really went there which is why the performance is so un-fucking-believable.
You know I was watching it last night (at the FrightFest closing-film screening) I was just laughing my head off because he’s so funny. It’s an amazing performance. I’m, you know, really proud of it.