Bone-dry, brutal and so slender it’s almost emaciated, Australian director David Michôd’s second feature, after his terrific debut “Animal Kingdom,” premiered in Cannes to high anticipation and ultimately mixed reviews. We really liked “The Rover,” which stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson as unlikely companions on a bleak road trip across a collapsed and exhausted near-future Australia (review here), but can understand how Michôd’s vision of a hellish ruined world, in which the first luxury to disappear is human kindness, might have proven simply too unrelentingly bleak for some; it’s the type of film into whose deliberately empty spaces one can read everything, or nothing at all.
We got to sit down with Michôd in Cannes on a day as rainy and windy as the film is parched and baked for a very enjoyable, in-depth talk about the casting process and his future projects, but mostly about the film itself—how he thought originally he was writing the script for Nash Edgerton to direct and how it’s different from his much-lauded debut. And we also talked quite a bit about the social and philosophical questions that “The Rover” raises. It’s a film that describes an unusually tiny but fascinating arc from nihilism to a kind of existentialism in which a man goes from believing that life is essentially meaningless, to understanding that meaning can be found but you have to make the hard choice to create it for yourself. But if that kind of chit-chat isn’t your bag, then perhaps you may enjoy the interview on the basis that, hand on pounding heart, Robert Pattinson was in the room the whole time.
“The Rover” feels like a much sparer film than your first. Is that because, as I’ve heard, the script predates “Animal Kingdom”?
Well, it predated me shooting “Animal Kingdom.” I wrote “Animal Kingdom” for eight or nine years, while I was learning how to write and making short films and writing other things for other people. And one of the things that I wrote during that period was “The Rover.”
Was that first script very different from the one that went into production?
Yes and no. I had always set out to make something that felt very elemental, very lean so in the course of me trying to work out what my second movie would be I ended up coming back to “The Rover” because I loved how it was tonally speaking the same language as “Animal Kingdom” but was formally very different.
I didn’t want to make “Animal Kingdom” again, and I didn’t want to make a movie that was bigger and more complex than “Animal Kingdom” either, even though I would like to still do that at some point. I wanted for something that was a lot leaner in narrative, more muscular, more…
Mmm, sinewy. Yes.
And was there anything specific that you learned during the intervening “Animal Kingdom” years that you brought back to “The Rover”?
I discovered when I was editing “Animal Kingdom” that stuff that I had written that I thought was necessary was actually extraneous. And even things that I thought I knew like “get into a scene late and get out of it early,” I discovered when I was cutting, you could start even later … And one of the upsetting things was that very frequently I had started scenes with some of my favorite pieces of dialogue. So actually a lot of what hit the floor in “Animal Kingdom” was my favorite stuff.
So you learned to put all your favorite bits of dialogue into the middle of the scene?
Ha, yeah, or to just think really hard and rigorously about when I was entering that scene. Other than that I felt like I have over the years and years since I finished film school been honing my writing craft and this was just an extension of that. So the next draft of “The Rover,” those passes felt more mature.
Having said that when I originally started “The Rover” I thought I was writing it for someone else to direct—my friend Nash Edgerton, who’s a great director of action, so the original draft of it was far more of a car chase movie. And when I knew that I wanted to make it which happened very quickly.
You had a massive falling out with Nash Edgerton?
No, no! I actually felt kind of lucky, because when I showed it to him, he was busy so we both just sort of put it aside. And then when I looked at it again for myself I looked at all these car chases and thought “this isn’t the movie that I want to make. This isn’t even a movie that I would want to see.” So I stripped a lot of that stuff out and drew it back to what it was always about for me which was the strange finding of human connection between these two very different characters.
And now do you consider yourself a writer who directs or a director who also writes?
If anything I’d say “filmmaker”—they all feel like parts of one big process to me. After “Animal Kingdom” I did a lot of reading of other people’s scripts because I wanted to stay open to the possibility that I might do that, partly because it would make the movement of my career a lot easier—the movies would happen a lot quicker. But I realized quite quickly that I like building the projects from the ground up. I was reading other people’s screenplays and very often really enjoying them but feeling like I was being asked to make a movie that had already been half made. For me being on set is just the next stage of the writing process and that process continues right the way through editing and post. And when I’m writing, that’s the first stage of the directing process as well.
So you’ll likely not write for others to direct either?
Less so now. Not because I don’t enjoy it just because I don’t necessarily have the time. Once upon a time when I was writing regularly for other people it was just because no one was offering me anything! I just wanted to stay engaged and stay practicing and I would be very willing to gamble on things, spec scripts for friends. And this was also back when we were all making short films, and I’d quite happily write short films for friends because they only took a couple of weeks. Now committing to write something for someone else is committing six months and I only have so many six monthses left in my life.
That’s quite the pessimistic, ‘Rover’-esque attitude.
[laughs] That’s my world view. I’m hurtling towards oblivion.
So what are your next six months going to be spent on? I believe there’s a film cooking with Brad Pitt’s production company?
Yeah, there’s a project I’m doing with Plan B and New Regency that’s based on a book about General Stanley McChrystal who’s running the war in Afghanistan, the American war—the Coalition war. I haven’t even started writing that yet but I think it could be great.
And there’s another film that I’ve written with Joel Edgerton that we’re working on with Warner Brothers that I’d also love to do. I haven’t worked out what order to tackle these, but hopefully whatever it is will happen a lot sooner than this one did.
They both sound bigger than what you’ve done to date. Are you wary about that?
No, I mean, at the moment I feel like I’m dealing with really good, smart people who want to find a way of making great films within a complicated system. And it’s not as if I’m trying to ram some sort of unmake-able movie through the system—I can’t bear the idea of me wasting people’s money. And I’m beginning to get a pretty good feel for what kinds of movies make what kinds of money. But yes, if I’m gonna make things of scale I want to find a way of doing that that is both commercially sensible and entirely meaningful to me. That’s the challenge.
And how about TV? You shot en episode of “Enlightened” and are, I understand, doing some episodes of a ballet drama?
I did one. I came straight from New York to here after shooting this first episode of this new show [“Flesh and Bone”] set in the world of the New York Ballet Company and it was fun.
I have to say yours wouldn’t be the first name that would come to mind for a ballet drama?
I know! I just love that they thought of me. The show is quite dark, but also quite poetic and beautiful and I got my very good friend, the incredibly talented cinematographer Adam Arkapaw who shot “Animal Kingdom” and has since then shot “Snowtown” and “True Detective” to come and do it with me. But TV is a strange beast; it’s quite clear to me that, unlike the movies, it doesn’t belong to me. I come in there and I do what I can, I control the things that I can control and I accept the fact that it’s somebody else’s baby.
But you mention “True Detective” which feels like it’s broken new ground in that arena. Would you consider doing something like that?
I would consider it and there is one that I have been developing with a friend of mine to do in that kind of way, but even after doing one episode of “Flesh and Bone” I realize how hard it would be … the absurd situation of doing the things you would normally do in preproduction in the middle of the shoot. But at the same time you do have an opportunity to paint on 8-hour canvas.
Always the challenge on TV particularly manifests in post-production. The shoot I did for “Flesh and Bone” was like doing a good, solid, robust indie movie, but post-production is squashed right down, and for me that’s what I love—so much of the movie is made at that back end. And not just the edit, but the sound and the music and everything.
Which reminds me, I wanted to ask about the remarkable music design in “The Rover,” earthy and yet electronic in parts too…
Well, “Animal Kingdom” being a very austere crime drama, had a very traditional sort of score but one that was executed electronically. So we never did any live recordings with orchestras or anything, it was all built in Antony Partos’ computer. Came time to do this one I kind of flipped that upside down and found a lot of pieces of music that were wildly unusual but performed by traditional instruments.
Was there even a didgeridoo at one point?
No there aren’t any in there actually, but there’s this amazing guy called Colin Stetson who’s a saxophonist and there’s quite a few of his tracks and he’s incredible. He does circular breathing like didgeridoo players, but he has microphones attached to his voicebox and he makes the instrument sound like nothing else. And then you’ve William Bazinski who’s this composer who does these beautiful piano loops that are specifically called disintegration loops, these loops that just start to fall apart after 15, 20, 30 minutes, which felt totally appropriate to the nature of the world of the movie. And then there are other tracks in there that have a kind of Western or Asian flavor, and then there’s this world of darkness and tension—of metal scraping against metal.
It sounded a lot to me at times like transmitted signals that are coming to the end of their lifecycle and degrading…
I reckon that would maybe be some of the Bazinski stuff, that starts to fall apart digitally.
The near-future setting is interesting too: it’s actually not that central–it feels like it could be contemporary, just set in a deprived and desperate part of the world?
When I revisited the screenplay it was after what happened to the world in 2008 [Global Financial Crisis] and I was not even necessarily thinking that much about that, but I was feeling it, and it manifesting as a kind of despair. That people in positions of power can so ruthlessly pillage the western economy and get away with it, can cause incredible hardship to so many people, can eviscerate the middle classes…
And do it with impunity.
With impunity. Couple that with what had previously, right up until that moment been generally considered to be the great moral crisis and challenge of our time which was climate change. And suddenly this thing happens and it becomes quite apparent that everyone’s just dumped it all in the “too hard” basket.” The anguish that can evince in a person for me was quite profound. It made it almost unavoidable that I would have a pessimistic view of the future. And I started feeding this into the screenplay and in fact it made it necessary that it not be post-apocalypse. I didn’t want it to be a kind of popcorn, “after the asteroid” kind of movie. I wanted it to feel like these characters were enduring a state of socioeconomic disrepair that is entirely plausible and entirely the product of forces that are bubbling around us today.
Maybe peri-apocalypse rather than post-apocalypse then?
Maybe. When the opening card says “ten years after the collapse” it’s just that a particular economic event has started breaking everything down. And it turns the Australian desert in particular into a sort of resource-rich Third World country, where there is still an economy of sorts, there is still a functioning infrastructure but that infrastructure functions only to protect the wealth of the resources industry. Which isn’t necessarily that far removed from the underpinnings of the Australian economy today.
So yeah, by extension it’s imagining an Australia that’s become kind of like Nigeria or a West African country that is actually capable of generating a lot of money but that money goes only to fill the pockets of a number of high-level oligarchs or whatever and everyone else can fend for themselves.
It’s a pretty devastating view of a world without compassion.
It has a very dog-eat-dog quality, yes. But also on a very important level, perhaps the most important level for me, it’s a movie about love. It is about the human need for connection regardless of the circumstances. And if you look at the movie it’s actually full of people in pairs or in tiny little groups, clinging to each other. And Guy is a drifter who is very much alone and is thrust into one of these little pairings and doesn’t realize how important that pairing is to him until things get ugly…
So it’s about the difficulty of connection, and the fragility of it?
Yeah, but yet the constant need for it anyway. Guy and I knew that the character we were creating was a creature, he was a monstrous man, and yet it was always important to me that he had flickering inside him the pilot light of that basic need for human love.
I suppose that’s the note of hope then—that if even this man in even these circumstances can acknowledge the need for connection, perhaps anyone can?
And on that level, as ironic as this may sound “The Rover” for me is a far less bleak movie than “Animal Kingdom.” “Animal Kingdom” is quite a loveless movie—where that movie ends is a place of pretty grotesque lovelessness. Whereas this becomes a movie about sadness borne of…
Of something decent?
Yes, of something decent and loving.
So tell me when in the process you thought of Guy Pearce for the central role.
Very early on. And especially when I started thinking about it being a movie set in a relatively near future after a period of socioeconomic decay. It began to feel important to me that that central character be played by a guy in his mid-forties, someone who was old enough to remember what life used to be like but still young and vital enough to be dangerous.
Yes, he’s someone who can know what he, and the world, has lost.
As opposed to Rob’s character who’s just roaming around and this is the way the world is. And when I started imagining that central character’s relationship to that damaged world and imagining the anger and the burning, murderous resentment he carried around, that’s when I knew I wanted Guy to play it. Because Guy is so good at playing really strong powerful stillness, but with the capacity to open little windows to a richer deeper emotional life. In the tiniest ways.
I’m a huge fan of Pearce’s and always wonder why he’s not a bigger star. I kind of suspect because he doesn’t want to be?
It requires a very specific level of not just ambition but self-sacrifice to engineer a career of that nature, and I get the impression that Guy worked out early on that he wants to do interesting work with good people and that’s it.
And speaking of crazy levels of fame, how did Robert Pattinson’s casting come about?
I had met him in L.A. not long after “Animal Kingdom,” before I knew I was gonna make “The Rover.” And I just really liked him, I didn’t know anything about him, I hadn’t seen the ‘Twilight’ films, I still haven’t seen them…
I wouldn’t worry too much about that.
Heh. I didn’t want to. I didn’t see how it would help me in any way.
But you did see some of his performances?
I saw “Cosmopolis” and I saw “Water for Elephants” and after meeting him I was totally aware of the fact that those were performances, because he’s not those guys. And I just liked him. How intelligent he was, his interest and curiosity and taste, I liked his physicality. As soon as I knew “The Rover” was the movie I wanted to make next, he was at the top of my list of people I wanted to see.
I didn’t know whether or not he could do it, but I wanted him to test for me and at that stage in his career obviously he was looking for interesting things to do and was looking to work hard to get them. So he came round to my house and we spent a few hours together and worked with some scenes and I knew very quickly that a) he was my guy and b) it was going to be very exciting for both of us.
Did the fame phenomenon that surrounds him make you wary at any point?
I was vaguely aware of the fact that his audience and mine weren’t necessarily natural bedfellows. But that also made the prospect exciting—I felt like it would be an unexpected casting choice. And I always felt like if the performance he gave was extraordinary, then we could get these worlds into bed together. And I have felt it all along—that in the middle of this quite spare and lean film are these two really amazing performances
And have you been pleased with the reaction so far? Cannes must be a strange pressure cooker in which to debut a film.
This for me is like, I’m suddenly finding what out the fucking movie is, you know? And having to process all that, and the reactions and all the emotional stuff is … weird. This one is a little more of a polarizer, I’m sensing, than the last one was and that’s OK. I kind of always knew that it would be.
“The Rover” opens in limited release this Friday and then goes wide Friday, June 20th.