A Chat with director Patrick Hughes and actor Ryan Kwanten of “Red Hill”

Patrick Hughes and Ryan Kwanten of First-time feature directors — especially when they’re essentially financing their films — tend to make low-key stories without much in the way of action. Often, they are offbeat romances or perhaps something about a bunch of guys in their teens or late twenties avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood. Directors who emerge from the world of commercials often wind-up making movies that rely on flashy visuals and employ the worst kind of ADHD editorial approach. To his everlasting credit, Patrick Hughes, a first-time self-financing feature director with a background in commercials, did none of those things in his first feature, “Red Hill,” an often violent suspense tale with elements of classic westerns, monster films, and a strong sense of its Australian heritage.

Its star, Ryan Kwanten, is by far best known as Jason Stackhouse of “True Blood,” an occasionally likable dim-bulb of a character who would pretty much be nothing if it weren’t for his athletic good looks and sexual prowess. But Kwanten as an actor is certainly no mere boy-toy, even if he remains a favorite of young female fans and looks about a decade younger than his actual age (he’ll be 34 later this month). As the rather archly named Shane Cooper, the earnest, violence-averse policeman hero of “Red Hill,” he must be believable dealing with the rampage of revenge waged by an Aboriginal escaped convict (Tommy Lewis) while protecting his loving and pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom), dealing with the barbs of his taskmaster of a new boss (Steve Bisley), and spending a good chunk of the movie marinating in his own blood and believably fighting on. If that isn’t proof that Kwanten is, you know, a real actor, his next non-“True Blood” role appears to be as Charles Manson.

I met with voluble writer-director Hughes and actor Kwanten – who, as befits this film’s low budget provenance, come across as remarkably down-to-earth in person – during a press day held at Strand Releasing’s east Culver City office. A short time later, Kwanten would be chatting telephonically for a solo interview with my colleague, Will Harris, who’d be concentrating on his career, definitely including “True Blood.” No prima dona, and you’ll see just what I mean by that later in the interview, he was fine with surrendering some of the spotlight to director Hughes, who kind of dominates the discussion during the first half of this interview. However, do not fear, Kwantenites: we do hear from the very talented actor starting just past this interview’s halfway point, as he discusses crucial matters of blood, guts, and pig poo.

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It’s your just barely pre-holiday weekend movie news dump

I was going to try and avoid doing this this week and meant to gripe about the Los Angeles Film Festival’s rather serious problems in terms of how they treat the human beings who attend, but there was simply too much interesting news stuff going on to ignore, even if some of it is outside of what I usually cover.  So, LAFF, you get another reprieve…

* I don’t do gossip and the content of an argument between a director/star and his ex-mistress certainly qualifies. On the other hand, when that star is Mel Gibson and he has the history he does and he says something as noxious as this, you just can’t ignore it. People say terrible stuff when they’re in the thrall of extreme anger, but Gibson keeps going back to the racist and misogynist well when he becomes unhinged. It’s not nothing.

Also, I hope he avoids anything that looks like preaching ever again. I’m no theologian, but as I understand it,  a devout fundamentalist anti-Vatican II Catholic who openly cheats on and leaves his wife is not exactly walking the walk, but it’s only anyone’s business because of the way he’s made religion part of his career and it’s hard not to think of him as complete hypocrite, on top of everything else. I truly don’t believe that people should decide not to see movies based on a particular actor’s behavior, not matter how bad, but this comment is so repulsive, and the man is so clearly out of control, that I’ll understand if people would just prefer not to look at him anymore.

On the other hand, for those in the talking and making fun of people business, it can be a good thing, and it’s already started, largely via Twitter. Jeff Schneider of the Wrap has compiled some of it.

* I usually also try to avoid stories that are vague and unconfirmed, but this one is a bit too interesting and potentially big to ignore. There’s also a various obvious Gibson connection to the biggest unconfirmed glorified rumor of the day. It’s that it’s just barely possible that two back-to-back “Mad Max” sequels are being directed down-under even as we speak by the Max man himself, George Miller. Certain aspects of the story, especially the putative titles, are hinky, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.  If it’s true, I’m guessing Miller is a bit relieved that Gibson isn’t involved this time. (Though can they really be sequels in the usual sense without him, or at least his character?)

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Zzzzz….”Avatar”…zzzz

We’re deep, deep into the January doldrums this week with the studios putting out three new movies that will be lucky to be fodder for late night cable or very hard trivia questions after a few weeks. We also, of course, have one true-blue blockbuster dominating the box office for the sixth week in a row.

Sam Worthington in And so THR’s jolly Carl DiOrio is beyond certain that James Cameron will, by Sunday, not only be the director of the #1 and #2 moneymakers of all time (not adjusted for inflation) but also will be matching his own “Titanic” record of six consecutive #1 showings at the U.S. box office. He also says “Avatar” will make roughly $25 million. That sounds about right to me, but all I can really say for sure is that it does seem reasonably sure to wipe the floor with the three fairly lackluster looking films on tap for this weekend.

The Tooth Fairy,” at least, benefits from a quickly understandable premise which has some comic potential, as well as a very strong supporting cast. Dwayne “no longer ‘the Rock'” Johnson is an unpleasant hockey star forced to become the winged pixie of everyone’s childhood. Playing M to his emasculated James Bond is a slightly stern Julie Andrews, with Billy Crystal and Stephen Merchant of “Extras” as his Q branch operatives, while Ashley Judd performs love interest duties. The consensus on this one is that, while  it’s the very rare critic who will go so far as to admit to actually liking the thing — it has a lousy 11% “fresh” Rotten Tomatoes reading — it could have been worse. Talk about faint praise. The trailer isn’t exactly huge on laughs, but Crystal variation on his old Miracle Max shtick got a chuckle out of me. Considering the family factor and Johnson’s appeal, I suspect this Fox comedy will stand up nicely to the weak competition of the other new releases.

Speaking of weak competition, every review I glanced at, including the one from our own David Medsker, compared “Extraordinary Measures” to a TV movie. This fact-inspired maiden voyage for the newly formed CBS Films stars Brendan Fraser as a corporate executive with two children suffering from a rare disease who joins forces with Harrison Ford‘s curmudgeonly scientist to find a cure while battling the medical and corporate establishment.

Brendan Frasher and Harrison Ford take

This type of material can work in theatrical films as was proven by both Steven Soderbergh with “Erin Brockovich” and, before that, George Miller with the underrated “Lorenzo’s Oil.” (Nick Nolte’s Italian accent wasn’t all that bad, besides, he got the emotions right.) The consensus here, however, is that pedestrian execution destines this film to fairly instant obscurity — a familiar face and an aging superstar won’t be enough to attract major audiences to a film that really could have used a few some good reviews. Instead, it got only 23% percent of critics at Rotten Tomatoes admitting to even a mild liking for the film.

Only one critic we know of has even seen “Legion.” Released by Sony and made by a first time director with a background in effects work, this one sounds to me like an action/horror remake of Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” or “Wings of Desire” gone very, very wrong. The film has very literal killer angels besieging a diner — because hashhouses are always the best place to start an apocalypse. Starring Paul Bettany as the week’s second ass-kicking winged mythological being and Dennis Quaid as a sick looking middle-aged guy, DiOrio says this is “tracking best among young males” and I can’t imagine who else would see this one. Judging by Mr. One Critic’s ultra-harsh review, even they may find better better things to do. As for what religious people will make of a film which has angels wielding machine guns, I can only imagine.

  

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