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.
A quick note on interview protocol. We ordinarily designate our questions here as “Premium Hollywood” on the first question and “PH” thereafter. However, since Patrick Hughes’ initials are also, obviously, “PH,” this time my verbiage will be designated as “Question” and “Q” for the sake of not driving you insane.
Question: Patrick, this is a really ambitious first film. I know you have a background in commercials, but still it’s quite ambitious and action-packed, and I know you had a rough shoot. Did you ever kind of feel like, “Gee, I wish I’d made that little coming-of-age film”?
Patrick Hughes: Totally. (To Ryan Kwanten) What was the last thing I said when we were leaving Red Hill? “My next film is in dark room about one guy talking to someone on a telephone. That’s it.” It felt like we’d bitten off way more than we could chew. Literally, I was standing there going, “Who the fuck wrote this? Why are we setting fire to a five bedroom house for one shot? Do we really need this?” You’re going between your director hat and your producer hat, and then your writer hat would come in.
I kind of got really inspired by people like George Miller and the way they’d make films in the seventies, you look at how he made “Mad Max,” and the Coen Brothers [making “Blood Simple”]. They kind of felt like films that had delusions of grandeur, they just didn’t have any money or resources to back it up. I think there’s a texture and quality that comes out of that production. There isn’t that high gloss, and we certainly weren’t aiming for that. I wanted to find what is the reality of the story, who are these real human beings in this story, and this sort of sense of place. I kind of knew that you could certainly do a lot for cheap in the country [i.e., the Australian outback]. It’s not like the city. You don’t need permits and stuff. We just spoke to the [town] council. We said, “Can we have Main Street on Saturday night to have a shoot-out?” and 250 rounds later. “Okay, that’s a wrap.”
There’s no traffic to divert but, certainly, that landscape — you know, the opening shot of the film, it’s one of my favorite shots. That was just me and the camera operator. We shot that whole horse scene [in which Ryan Kwanten’s car-less character is forced to take a horse to meet up with his new boss] ..that was just me and the camera operator. That was it. We were carrying our own gear. But it’s got such huge scale. It’s like you [present] these landscapes, you put them on screen and then you take an actor like Ryan and you give him a gun and let him walk through that landscape. What a wonderful backdrop.
Ryan Kwanten: I’ve got my own gun.
Q: You didn’t lose yours like the guy in the movie. [To Patrick] You were talking a lot about your influences last night [at a post-screening Q&A I attended]. I’m a big fan of Westerns, it’s one of the reasons I immediately glommed onto this when I read about it. I was seeing a lot of things in that movie. I was also seeing a lot of seventies Australian films, not just “Mad Max.”
PH: “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith”?
Q: Which I forgot to see in preparing for this, and that brings me to another point — Tommy Lewis. I did look at the trailer this morning. Boy, has he changed. It’s a really interesting character that he has. He doesn’t talk. Especially during the early parts of the film, he’s like a monster of sorts.
Q: A relatable human monster like Frankenstein or Two-Face.
Q: How did you come up with him?
PH: I really liked that idea. The first image I had for him — I just had the notion of the prison break story. He’d go and bust out of prison and come back and kill the men who’d put him away. You go, “okay, there’s a movie there, what’s the story?” Then, I wanted the film to be about something. I actually wanted it to say something. I felt like by making him an Aboriginal and tapping into the colonial [history of Australia]. What happened to him is sort of the representation of what happened to the indigenous population of Australia when the white man moved in….From the beginning I said, “he’s not going to say anything, the only time he’s going to talk is at the end of the movie. He’s just going to say his one line which connects to a realization Ryan has.”
I felt like by just portraying him like that, we can’t associate with any of his actions, we don’t know why he’s doing it, and his actions are really horrific. He becomes really scary. I love looking around the screening room and seeing people [cringe and cower]. He gets really creepy but, step by step, Shane starts to unravel the truth about Jimmy. Also, we treated it like his last supper. Jimmy knew, the day he broke out of prison, he’s been planning this for years to seek vengeance…he’s come to that town and he’s going out in a blaze of gunfire. He knows he’s going to die that night, and this is his last supper. When he eats the cake, there’s just a little moment where he’s maybe going to enjoy a sensory experience. He hasn’t had that for 15 years. He’s been locked away.
Q: There was the smelling.
PH: Yeah, the smelling. That’s a big thing trackers do. They look for prints. Tommy would always smell the landscape the white man somewhere.
Q: The way he found the guy in the bathroom. And I did think Ryan was extremely astute casting. I’d never really seen before him in anything before last night [after the screening, I ran home and watched, for the first time, the pilot for “True Blood.” Good stuff,]. It was a very credible performance in a very demanding, heroic role. Ryan can tell me why he took the job, but how did you come up with him?
PH: I felt like I wanted to have an actor that, if you’re in a room with him, you could physically feel kind of threatened by him if he did stand up, which obviously Ryan brings, he’s got that physicality. But also I wanted to have that vulnerability and the innocence.
There’s one shot of Ryan that’s my favorite thing that he does. There’s a little look he does to Barlow [a very frightened cop portrayed extremely well by Kevin Harrington] when’s he’s saying [Constable Cooper’s beyond gruff superior, played by Steve Bisley] is up at the town hall and there it is. He pulls out a map. While he’s looking at the map, he just does this little look at him. The subtleties and the nuance that Ryan brings to his performance humanizes him. You feel like there’s a real person
RK: That’s all there for the audience too, it summarizes what they’re thinking.
PH: Yeah, yeah. A lot of actors will just sort of fall into that sort of posing and walking in and doing it by the numbers, whereas Ryan, there’s little unique things that he brings. Remember that ballroom scene when we were shooting that and, mid-shot, you just pull out the notepad and start taking down details?
RK: The license plate numbers.
PH: Oh, that’s fucking genius. Of course he would, because he’s a by the numbers cop.
Q: This film has a small but really strong supporting cast. Where any of these people sort of role models for you, Patrick. You’re an Australian actor.
RK: Oh, absolutely, some of these guys have two, three decades worth of experience. Even though I’m sort of the #1 on the call sheet, I’m asking them for advice. Picking their brains. Seeing what motivates them; how they manage to sustain a career for that amount of time. This business is notorious for chewing up people and spitting them out, so to have that kind of longevity…
Q: The gentleman, I forgot his name…
PH: Steve Bisley?
Q: Who plays the sheriff [not his correct title but, dammit, his character felt like a sheriff] who was actually in “Mad Max.” [Ryan and he] have a really interesting dynamic…You’re probably more familiar with their career than I am. I remember “Mad Max”….
RK: It’s funny, the “stigma” that those actors come in with, for lack of a better word — “legacy” is a better word — works for the character of Shane and for me. As much as I revered them, it’s Shane’s first day at his job, so he’s looking at a boss who’s a total totalitarian and telling him exactly what to do. It was method acting of the highest order, maybe.
Q: Speaking of method acting. You confessed [at the Q&A] last night to a masochistic streak.
Q: …You have to do an awful lot, you get covered with a lot of stage blood in this movie…
RK: We got sent to hospital.
PH: There was real blood, too.
Q: What happened?
PH: We had a squib go off at the wrong time and blew a hole in Ryan’s hand or finger.
Q: My question was going to be “What was your most uncomfortable moment?” I think that would probably cover it.
RK: That wasn’t it.
Q: That wasn’t it?
RK: No. “Uncomfortable.” I got put in subzero temperatures, thrown in the water. All that wasn’t really uncomfortable. This is going to sound really weird, but more often than not we’re all put in sort of the same trailer. Probably the most uncomfortable was having all five of us guys — the guys towards the end that are sill alive — all changing at the end of the night together. We just worked 14 hours straight, full of sweat and pig poo I’d been lying in and it’s revolting. Yet, we’re all changing in the space of something that’s half this room and there’s legs and arms…
Q: Actual pig poo?
RK: Oh yeah.
Q: Was there a pig farm?
RK: No. It was where Shane wakes up and he’s chained and there’s hay and…
Q: Oh yeah, I remember that. I was thinking “What’s that supposed to be?”
RK: That wasn’t Patrick, that was my own [idea], I wedged my head down there. And, once I was down there, you were like, “just get down there a little more.”]
PH: Just get some asbestos in there also.
[All three of us laugh]
Q: Okay. Getting back to some of the movies that are in there, you mentioned a lot of things from the seventies and eighties. I caught even some older films. It almost seems like an inversion of “High Noon.”
PH: I’ve said from the beginning it’s like “High Noon” and “High Plains Drifter,” those are the two biggest influences on me. I think I mentioned “Deliverance” last night, [that] was another big influence. That element of survival. Kind of “Rambo” [i.e., 1982’s “First Blood”] was a little bit of an influence too. This threat, this unstoppable force that just goes into a small town. It’s that sense, geographically, of isolation. Here’s a town. Here’s a monster that’s coming into this town. Geographically, there’s a lot going on, there’s characters at different points around the town trying to stop this thing, and everyone’s sort of chasing each other…If you look at films like “High Noon,” they’re all about that sense of threat that’s coming and where do you run? You can’t run. Will you run out to the dessert and just die in the baking sun.
RK: That may be a better way to go…
PH: Take two — Ryan may have gotten into the police car, gone straight for the wife’s, and just got the hell out of there.
Q: You did make a very bold choice. I’ve had friends who’ve done this. You decided to shoot this on film, for a low budget movie. Obviously, it made your work more difficult. I know you used short ends [left over unexposed film stock from other productions]. You can do pretty good things now with high def. What really motivated you to stick with film?
PH: I’ve grown-up shooting film. I’ve shot everything I’ve done on film. I felt like, if I’m going to make my first film, I want to shoot on film. I want to call it “a film.” I don’t want to call it “a video.” I don’t know about the future. These cameras are developing and changing every day but I felt like I wanted to get that texture and that quality — the grain. Certainly, that’s one of the biggest things you don’t get on HD is that grain you can get off film. The way we sort of art directed this town, I wanted to try and make a film where you don’t know whether it was shot last year or 20 years ago. Everything in this town is kind of broken and old and busted. Every time we did have a car in the movie, there couldn’t be any car that was later model than, say, the seventies or eighties and back….
RK: The crispness that high definition provides I don’t think lends itself all that well to the genre. It was huge calling card for me too to know that we were shooting on 35mm. I’m also very much a purist at heart. So, when Patrick told me that, he said, “things will be sacrificed — that will not be.” That was huge.
PH: I didn’t want to make a TV movie, I wanted to make a movie that you want to go and watch on the big screen and experience and bring, hopefully, sort of a fresh insight, a new spin on something. You know, there’s also an exotic quality, especially to foreign audiences. People here that watch it say, “wow, I didn’t know that parts of Australia look that like that.” You can’t do a Western like that [makes a small, TV sized box with his hands], you’re’ going to have to do that [makes a big, wide movie palace sized “screen” with his hands].