After “Animal Kingdom” turned Australian filmmaker David Michôd into the realm of hot director du jour–as well as boosting the careers of Joel Edgerton and supporting actress Oscar nominee Jackie Weaver–he jumped into the Hollywood vortex for a year or two. He took meetings. He read scripts. And suddenly one day he told his agents at UTA: “I want to stop reading, I’m not getting any work done.”
He was ready to write again. Independently. And go back to a script he had written before “Animal Kingdom.” But in a rush of writing, Michôd found that he was channeling a sort of rage about what was going on in the world–about the 1% protecting their wealth while ignoring climate change–among other things. When he emerged, Michôd was ready to finance this elemental dystopian road western. He turned to one of the Hollywood people he had met, Lava Bear’s David Linde, to help him assemble the pieces of his indie movie. “The Rover” ended up at Cannes as a midnight movie. And opens stateside June 13.
In our interview, we talk about why he wanted to work with veteran actor’s actor Guy Pearce, as well as Rob Pattinson, who is a revelation in this movie. (We start out on video; the rest of our interview is transcribed below. Check out Pattinson’s Indiewire interview.)
You drop us quickly into the action when Guy Pearce’s character discovers that his car has been stolen and takes off in pursuit. We figure out that he’s not someone to be trifled with, but you parse out details about him over the course of the movie, saving your big reveal until the end.
I didn’t have access to Guy until a couple days before shooting. We both discovered very quickly that this character that I had written and that he had agreed to play was probably going to end up like a more monstrous creature than either of us had previously anticipated.
Guy makes you like him despite how cruel he is.
One reason I wrote it for Guy is he’s such a master at taking a cold stillness and filling it with not only detail but with clear moments of emotional fragility, which is what the character needed. Otherwise he’s just some loathsome guy doing loathsome things.
Also over the course of the film we tease out what are the crucial elements of his backstory, but on a broader more macro level, as crazy and unsettling as it sounds, his character was an embodiment of me when I was writing the film, and writing his character. I felt like I was channeling my feelings of anger and despair, all this post financial crisis stuff, bankers being allowed to get away with the rape and pillage of the middle class with disregard for the challenges of climate change, protecting the things that actually nurture us, manifesting in me an unsustainable anger and despair.
When did you first write the story?
The first draft of my first conversations when Joel Edgerton and I were knocking out the basic story took place in 2007, before I made “Animal Kingdom.” We were writing for his brother Nash to direct. It was an action thing with cars in the desert. It was not until after “Animal Kingdom” when I was revisiting it for myself, that suddenly it was 20 years in the future. It was me imagining a world that is an extension of the world today.
Are Australia’s policies on climate change as regressive as ours? You have an extreme climate.
We have the most repugnantly reactionary prime minister we have ever had at the moment, he’s a declared nonbeliever. It fills you with despair. It has been said that this is the greatest moral challenge of our time, we today have to make decisions and sacrifices for the benefit of future generations. Apparently we are not willing to make those sacrifices.
Did you think of other Australian dystopian movies like “The Road Warrior”?
I knew I wanted “The Rover” to be very much its own beast. I knew the ways in which that might happen…but there’s no getting around the fact soon as you step into this world you are participating in the legacy of a particular genre of film, it’s the Australian genre.
And the Guy Pearce genre: “The Proposition”…
“Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”! You know you’re stepping into tradition. I found it easy to push it aside. It’s not an action film, and all this stuff I was describing, it was important that it not be a post-apocalyptic movie, I didn’t want to allow people the safety net of an unforeseeable cataclysmic event. It’s a version of the world that actually exists. There are third world countries that exist like this today, they have wealth and resources exploited by the elite few, oligarchs and executive levels, and underneath, an infrastructure serving the protection of that wealth. Under that is a massively neglected underclass that is being left to fend for itself.
You were also tapping into western tropes.
In some ways this lent itself to what I wanted to do after “Animal Kingdom.” It took me a few years to figure out what kind of movie I wanted to make and how I wanted to make it. One of the reasons I liked the idea of redrafting and working more on “The Rover” was that it would allow me to work in a tonally similar world to “Animal Kingdom” and yet be formally very different. As opposed to the brutal social realism of “Animal Kingdom,” “The Rover” almost exists as a dark fable. I could embrace the tropes of the western. If “Animal Kingdom” was a dense urban fabric, this could be intensely intimate, this movie would explore the intense intimate elemental relationship of a small number of characters in a vast terrifying empty landscape.
How much is the Pattinson character derived from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”?
You set up a relationship like this, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re thinking it’s Steinbeck. But one thing that appealed to me was being able to make something lean and muscular and elemental. And that basic relationship between a seemingly loveless murderously embittered man and an open naive simple boy was for me the perfect prism for that elemental story.
Why was Pattinson the right casting?
One thing that was clear to me when I was testing people, and Rob already knew it, was that there were 100 different ways you could play this character, differing degrees of mental problems– just uneducated, developmentally slow.
He’s a good gunslinger.
One of the key reasons for that scene telling Guy when he was a kid on the farm and his neighbors was to make it clear that he has a rich imaginative life, he’s not an idiot, he’s looking for someone to love. Guy realizes too late that’s what he’s looking for too. Rob gave me a character who felt plausibly simple without having to push it too far into the mentally disabled world. He was totally open and engaged. That’s why I had a feeing he was going to be my favorite, when I met him. Even thinking about the bubble Pattinson is forced to live in, I was taken aback by how wonderfully open and engaged he was when I met him as a stranger.
How tough were your shooting conditions?
The desert was brutally tough, the heat. When we [scouted the location] it was 122 degrees, that was scary, I knew we couldn’t work in that heat. When it was 113, as long as you stand in the shade and drink plenty of water, it’s kind of OK. We really loved it, we became this dirty traveling carnival, filthy all the time, no mobile reception out there, living in a big dirty school camp, getting drunk all the time. It was tough , but the day it was over I missed it.
When did you realize that Hollywood wasn’t the road you wanted to take?
I had sneaking a suspicion from the outset that I was going to write my own movies. I had to feel like I had built them from the ground up and feel like I owned them wholly. After “Animal Kingdom” my life turned upside down. I went from zero options to having a thousand, which I wanted to take seriously, to take a look at them and read what was out there, and get a sense of what this town was wanting to make. But it wasn’t just trying to figure out what my next movie was. I needed to figure out how I wanted to work. I wanted to be in control.
It was simple. I actively invited the world in: “what’s out there? I want to know.” I spent a couple years doing lots of reading and meetings and looking at ways that projects might happen, and hit a point when my job had become to read scripts I wasn’t going to make. I called my agents and said, “I want to stop reading, I’m not getting any work done.” They understood, they could see where it was going or not going. As soon as I stopped reading scripts I started writing again.
Where does Lava Bear come in?
David Linde was one of those many people I met on a blind date. He was smart obviously and very experienced. At every part of the process I felt he loves filmmakers and wants to find ways of helping us.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple things bubbling. One is a deal with Plan B on the book “The Operators,” which I haven’t started writing yet. I love the material. There’s another thing Joel and I will write for Warner Bros. that I’d love to get rolling. It’s me dipping my toe in the Hollywood waters. I want to make sure the next one happens soon. I have good things to do. There are cautionary tales out there too. One motivating factor all along has been that the most important thing is my emotional state, my happiness. I know these movies are so big. I know the emotional rollercoaster I go on when making one. I felt that losing control or not being in love with it to begin with, I’d be upset. I can endure a couple weeks or months, but 18 months or two years from the start to here, the stuff I’m doing now, I don’t want to be trying to do that filled with anger or resentment. It’s so important for my movies to feel like my babies.