By Bears Fonte
Camping trip in a remote part of the Australian Outback, what could go wrong, right? When Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer) find they are not alone after coming upon an abandoned tent, the romantic getaway becomes a little more ominous. Played out in two timelines juxtaposed against each other, Damien Power’s thriller KILLING GROUND propels these characters unknowingly towards German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), two locals with very little respect for the law. And then… there is the small child left behind. Without giving away too much, KILLING GROUND becomes a battle between these two sets of characters, with a very small child between them.
Shooting most of the film outside, in broad daylight, Power manages to fill every frame with menace and tension. I had a chance to speak with Power and Glenane at Sundance this year about yet another reason not to go camping in the woods…or go to Australia ever.
BEARS: What I really think you’re really trying to say with the film is just people should not go camping. It’s like openly a bad idea, right?
POWER: Yeah not ever. The hilarious thing is I started writing the script, and then I had kids, and we became a family who went camping.
BEARS: And your wife was okay with that?
POWER: Well my wife was my script editor. So she’s an accomplice. The kernel was just this image of an orange tent object in my head. I started thinking about where the occupants of the tent lived. It suggested a story. We’ve all had that experience of camping in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere, and you feel so far from civilization. That kind of feeling came into it and I really wanted to write the kind of film I like to see – which is character-driven thrillers. This one became a survival tour.
BEARS: It feels like it harkens back to the movies of the late 70s where violence would happen and people would just not be ready for it. I think we’re ready for violence now but there was something about the way you set up the film where I wasn’t ready for it to be that violent, which I loved.
POWER: Yeah. You’re right. Definitely those late 70s films like Straw Dogs and Deliverance were an influence. But you’re right about the people in those films not being ready for violence and you’re right, we’ve been a little desensitized to it, culturally.
BEARS: Tell me a bit about how the structure worked and how that came into the script. I loved that we were watching two story-lines, we didn’t know they connected, and when we realized how they were connected, they were not in sync. Which I loved.
POWER: That was there from the beginning. I think the reason I started out like that was because the kernel of the story idea was about the occupants of the tent and what had happened. It became important to me to tell the whole series of events. Also, I wanted something new with the genre, which is hard because it’s a fairly familiar genre story. People go into the woods, bad things happen. But usually those stories are relentlessly linear. For good reason too, they draw you into that character’s journey. But I felt starting the story in a nonlinear way, it feels more like a mystery, suspense story. It engages the audience in putting together those pieces as all of those storylines wind tighter and tighter together. I think a lot of the suspense comes from (wondering) when will those things meet. One of the things I like about watching thrillers is that the audience often has more information than the characters. That’s a source of suspense. We follow the antagonist a bit. I was trying to do that here with this film as well.
BEARS: My favorite moment in the film is the shot where she’s walking back towards the car and you just get a glimpse of the child in the background walking and stumbling over. It was such an amazing shot because I was like, “wait”, I wasn’t even sure I had seen it. I think that took an amazing amount of restraint with being okay that not everybody caught it on the first go around. Which I loved.
POWER: Yeah, in fact, when I came up with the idea of that discovery, of that shot, was when— that was a real strong motivator for me to make the film. I think those reveals, all the information in the background, are so much more satisfying when you see them done well onscreen.
BEARS: How was it working with your child actor? Because that’s a pretty hard role for somebody at that age, I would imagine.
POWER: We had twins. The hardest thing to be honest was to get them to go to sleep. Because we were working with a child that was so young, most of the action required them to be asleep or unconscious. The trickiest thing was to get them to sleep. When we first find the child on the ground, we had actually built a mattress and a blanket, covered it in dirt, and set it up in a location next to where we were shooting. So we’d be shooting one thing down with the cars and we’d get a call, “they’re asleep, the kids are asleep!” And we’d have to drop everything that we were doing and run up and get that shot. I have some great behind the scenes footage of some big burly film crew standing around while the child’s mom slowly lowers the sleeping kid into the backseat of a car and everyone dead silent.
BEARS: So how far away were you from civilization when you were shooting?
POWER: My producer, Joe and I, we did lot of location scouting. You get on some roads and realize you cannot actually get trucks down them. But in the end, my wife Rachel found a location called Simmo’s Beach. It’s a nature preserve in the suburbs on the outskirts of Sydney, called McQuary Field. The location was amazing because pretty much, just out of sights there was a set of stairs that runs down to the beach. There’s a concrete path that runs down to that location. There are amenities, it was easy to get trucks in, but the downside is that it was next to an army base, where they conducted live-fire exercises. When we went shooting, they were shooting and they had tanks and helicopters and machine guns. We also had a local arsonist trying to burn the place down while we were there. We had shot one fairly typical pivotal scene and the next day, I wanted to go back and get a couple of pickups, and the spot where we had shot was just burnt black.
BEARS: So one of your bad guys, Aaron Pederson, I loved in MYSTERY ROAD, where he is a detective – he is normally on the other side of the law.
POWER: He said, “I’d love to do this. I never get offered these kind of roles.” He was fantastic.
BEARS: And Aaron Glenane, plays what a would call a more compassionate baddie, decent guy under bad circumstances.
POWER: He was determined to find the humanity in a character that does inhuman things. That was really important to me that those characters, Chook and German, almost cartoonish villains, not even think of themselves as villains but be real, recognizable people because I think that is so much more fascinating.
BEARS: Aaron, what made you want to go out into the woods and play in this violent world?
GLENANE: You know, the script was just so great. When I first read it, it was that non-lineal timeline that hooked me in, really, because I hadn’t really seen that in a survival thriller. I just remember, I kept turning the page, and not being able to put it down. And then the role of Chook, all though he does these, heinous, heinous acts, there’s something fascinating about him and complex. I thought his action just seemed so out of the blue, I was almost curious as to how to justify them and find the motivation behind what he was doing. That challenge was what hooked me in. Getting to work with Aaron Peterson, who plays German, was another big part of it because he’s one of Australia’s greatest actors. He’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with and he was just such a great mentor, which worked really well with our relationship on the film.
BEARS: Yeah, that really came through. Did you guys talk a lot about the backstory between the two characters and what your relationship was like?
GLENANE: We didn’t have a heap of time. We were both brought to the location the day before our first day of shooting so we had this afternoon, evening together to hunker down in Aaron Peterson’s motel room. We picked through the script and talked for hours about the backstory, where the characters are coming from. But the lynchpin we hung onto was— I think it was mentioned just twice in the film— where Rob the father of the family says, “there was a massacre here. This is massacre ground we’re standing on.” We really took that element of the script and set that as the lynchpin of the basis of where we are. I think it was interesting that Damian cast an indigenous actor in the role because from my point anyway, it adds a whole other element to the film. [Aaron Pederson is Aborigine] And if you want it to, or allow it to, it comments on Australia’s history and past with the first settlers and the treatment of indigenous people. I remember Aaron was talking about this sickness of the land that he was wanting to play around with and having it infect the German character that he was passing onto Chook. Those were the things we talked about and I don’t know, when you’re sitting in a motel room, if you can discuss these things and say Chook and German probably discussed these things all the time. The place they get to becomes understandable.
GLENANE: The short film was awesome. I got to play this escaped prisoner. He was trying to flee and get away and hitch-hiking to get away from the cops. But unbeknownst to him, he’s picked up by a serial killer along the way. It kind of unravels from there. The great part about that script, which was really cool, Damian took a bunch of different hitch-hiker scenes from all these different films and every piece of dialogue was lines from different scenes. So we couldn’t really stray off script too much because the whole point was to use these lines from previous films. It was really interesting because I like playing around with that, in the confines of the dialogue.
BEARS: So for KILLING GROUND, when you got to the set and saw the wilderness there, what was your first impression and how did you think that was going to affect your portrayal?
GLENANE: I grew up in the country so I guess I have a relationship with it from growing up. But the bush we were in was a little different and in some of the places we were shooting— I remember this one. It was on one side of this valley and on the other side there was this big cliff face. There was this rusted-out, old car just hanging on the edge of this cliff and I just thought to myself, “how the hell did that get there?” My brain was just going, “what happened? What’s going on there? How did this car get on the side of a cliff?” But as soon as I saw it, I thought it’s not that unbelievable that this story could go down out here. There’s something about the Australian bush that’s stunning and beautiful but also really harsh and relentless, and a little daunting. I feel like the Australian bush is a character within the film itself and when you go and watch it a second time, and see those bits of dialogue that reflect the landscape, it adds a whole other element to it.
BEARS: Yeah, it’s not really a great, ‘come-to-Australia’ tourism type film.
GLENANE: No! That’s it! I don’t know if we have a whole lot of Australian tourism type films. I think Wolf Creek did a whole lot of good for Australian tourism. I don’t know how they feel about Australian films, but people seem to keep coming.
KILLING GROUND just screened at FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL and IFC Midnight will release the film in Theaters and On Demand on Friday, July 21, 2017.