It’s been four years since Australian filmmaker David Michôd wowed at the Sundance Film Festival with his blistering feature debut “Animal Kingdom.” He’s finally back with the equally violent and bleak “The Rover,” which just premiered out of competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and opens in June via A24.
Set in the Australian outback ten years after the collapse of society, “The Rover” centers on Eric (“Animal Kingdom” star Guy Pearce), a weary, hardened man who strikes up an odd relationship with a young, socially awkward American (Robert Pattinson), after his car gets stolen. With the help of his new companion, Eric sets off on a bloody journey to track down his car at any cost.
Indiewire sat down with Michôd in Cannes to discuss his experience at the festival, why it took so long to follow up “Animal Kingdom,” and why he cast Pattinson in a role sure to surprise the actor’s many fans.
This marks your first time at Cannes. How’s it been?
It is as I had always imagined it. The madness of it. That strange mix of money and gross-ass luxury with a true and sincere reverence for cinema. I haven’t experienced it anywhere else.
How is this experience comparing to the one you had at Sundance with your debut “Animal Kingdom”?
In some ways I think the Sundance experience really suited “Animal Kingdom.” I’ve been thinking about the Sundance experience quite a lot this week because I’m remembering what it felt like to slip into Park City completely anonymously, to be on nobody’s radar, and suddenly have my life turn upside down after that first screening.
This time I feel a kind of scrutiny and a weight of expectation, that it feels quite apt to be on a red carpet with a thousand cameras going off, as opposed to that beautiful Sundance thing where there are no red carpets. There’s just people in the freezing cold watching movies.
Having Robert Pattinson by your side no doubt increased the amount of flashes going off on the red carpet the other night.
Yeah, there were moments where I realized that none of them were actually pointing at me [laughs].
About those expectations, how have you dealt with them coming into the festival without driving yourself mad?
I’ve dealt with it by distracting myself with other work. If I hadn’t I would have just spent the last several months sitting around causing myself to suffer. But it has been strange. Certainly this has become apparent for me here. I realized that I just had to let it go. I have no control over other people’s expectations.
As soon as you put two movies together, suddenly the spectrum of expectations gets much narrower. I feel like I understand why comparisons are drawn to the second difficult album. I feel like if I get through this one everything will just fall into place.
Must be flattering though to even have those expectations placed upon you.
Yeah, it’s terrifying and yet I feel like what’s the alternative? No one cares about your film?
Are you one to read the immediate responses to your film on social media?
A little bit, but I do it while squinting. For me this is a very important process of making the movie. By the time I’ve finished the making of it, I feel like I’ve lost perspective. This is the part of the process where I get a sense of how it sits in the world. How it’s being read, and really terrifyingly, what it might mean for me and the trajectory of my career.
How do you want “The Rover” to be read? To me it’s an incredibly bleak, nihilistic tale. Do you see it in those terms? Critics have been labeling it an angry work, much like “Animal Kingdom.”
In some ways, yeah, it is an angry movie. I feel like I was angrier when I was writing it. But at the same time I feel like “Animal Kingdom” is an angrier movie than this one. That weird of tableaux of characters you’re left with at the end of “Animal Kingdom” is a pretty kind of loveless tableaux. Whereas here, where this movie ends for all of its brutality, is an almost sentimental place of human connection.
It does boast the lightest scene of Cannes, where Pattinson’s character sings along to a Keri Hilson jam alone in a car.
You’re the first person to bring that up! I kind of half expected it would be a thing. When I was doing press for “Animal Kingdom” every press person would ask me about “All Out of Love.”
What went into selecting that song?
One of the things that was challenging for this movie was it was set in a period of the future, so it makes musical choices really kind of difficult. I’d imagine that maybe there’s a sense that pop is still some kind of functioning genre, like the equivalent to classic rock. I wanted at that point in the movie to remind people that Rob’s character is a lost kid, one who in different circumstances would have favored pop songs. I just wanted that moment in the film to be a strong reminder of the fact that he just wants to be a kid.
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About his performance, he’s a true revelation in “The Rover.” What led you to cast him?
It was a meeting. I still haven’t seen the “Twilight” films. I don’t feel I need to. I had a meeting with him before I knew I was going to make “The Rover,” and found him instantly beguiling.
Why did you meet with him if you weren’t familiar with his work?
I’d seen nothing. It’s that weird thing that happens after a movie you’ve made has gotten some attention — you go on a billion blind dates. And this was one of them. I didn’t really know anything about him, but I really liked him. He was really smart, funny and open. He seemingly had great taste. He had a really interesting and eclectic knowledge of cinema. When it came time to cast for “The Rover,” I just had this weird feeling that he was the one I wanted to see the most. Fortunately he really wanted to do the movie.
I mean I put him through the wringer. We worked for three of four hours during our camera test, but I felt I knew within the first few minutes that I found the guy for the character. The next few hours were just us exploring. He helped me find the character.
What were the reasons for not including your “Animal Kingdom” star Joel Edgerton in the cast, given he’s co-credited for the story of “The Rover”?
Joel and I actually talked about it. When we were first working on the story together, I don’t know that we had any ideas of who might be in this thing. Then I went away and started writing the screenplay, and started very quickly writing it for Guy. It was very important that this character be a man in his mid 40s, a man who remembered what things used to be like. It’s amazing the difference a thing makes, something so simple like a seven or eight years difference in the age.
What types of conversations did you have with Joel that led to you writing “The Rover”?
We initially thought we were writing a movie for his brother Nash to direct. We were in Los Angeles together, this was back in 2007, I didn’t know why I was there. Joel and I started talking about this movie that Nash could direct, and we started with just as basic as a man in the desert gets his car stolen. Initially we thought we were working on something that would turn into a car chase movie, but as soon as I started writing it, I started writing the kind of movie that I wanted to make, and not the kind of movie that Nash would want to make. If I start writing something and I’m committed, I can’t help but want to mold a world that is mine.
Is it a future you and Joel envision?
I don’t think the future element of it was really a part of our conversations. As I went on and started writing, that’s when it started becoming an angry movie. It was coinciding with my general feelings about the state of the world. I was funneling my own sort of despair into the world of the movie, and specifically into Guy’s character.
Can you elaborate on that disparity?
There was a particular point around the time of the financial crisis where it became apparent that there were men in the world who had been given a license to just rape and pillage our economies, and that they were getting away with it. Often they were actually being strangely rewarded for it in the form of bailouts. In concert with the fact that it became apparent that what I would suggest to be the great moral challenge of our time, which is addressing climate change, has just disappeared off the radar. I found myself, possibly for the first time, feeling I don’t know where we go from here. We seem so unwilling to solve problems in a collaborative and compassionate way. Where does that leave us?
You kept us waiting four years for a follow-up film to your debut. Are you going to keep your fans waiting that long for your next feature?
I would like not to. I think a lot of what happened this time, was as I said earlier, “Animal Kingdom” changed my life. It meant for me that I didn’t have to work out what movie I was going to make next. I had to work out how to work. I went from having no options to a thousand. I felt like I needed to take the time and care to sift through the projects. That took me a couple of years. I spent a lot of time reading scripts that I wasn’t going to make. I feel that I have clearer idea of the way I want to work. So hopefully the next one happens a little bit sooner.