John Curran returned to the director’s chair earlier this year with Tracks, a big screen adaptation of the memoir of the same name by Robyn Davidson.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, teaming up with actress Mia Wasikowska, and what lies ahead.
- Tracks is about to be released on DVD here in the UK, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Tracks is based on the book by Robyn Davidson who, in the mid seventies, decided to leave the city, go to the outback, learn to train camels and walk across the Australian desert to the ocean: a journey that is about two thousand miles and will take about six or seven months. She ended up writing a book about that experience, and the film is based on that book.
- You are in the director's chair for the film, so where did this project start for you?
I moved to Australia in the mid-eighties from New York and, at the time, I was aware of the book. Years later when I was approached to direct it I did re-read it - It had been years since I had read it - and it did speak to me.
It took me back to that age where, in a similar way, I had felt the need to push myself beyond my boundaries. Her book did speak to me of being at that age when you are out of school but before reality where you are wondering where you fit. That instinct to do something that pushes you beyond your comfort zone was something that I found really interesting.
- As you say, you were familiar with the book and her story but during the time that you spent with Robyn before the shoot, did she bring anything to her story that perhaps isn’t in the book?
I think that Robyn is the character that she is in the book and she wasn’t prepared to over-analyse herself. She tried to write the book in a way that was honest to herself, meaning that she didn’t try to project any motivations that were false. I think that she felt that was enough without having to explain why she was doing it.
When I got to know her, I think she would say that it was so long enough that she couldn’t remember clearly. She certainly wasn’t closed to me, but I don’t think she was interested in trying to go beyond the book and make into something different.
That was really up to me and I had to do my own homework and research to get a handle on events in her life that she didn’t talk about in the book: which I did.
- That does lead me into my next question. The book doesn't deal with the emotional journey that Robyn goes on during that time - she never really talks about what drives her to do it. How difficult an aspect was that to weave into the film, as it is something she is quite closed about?
There were other sources where I found more… there is no real background in the book and she doesn’t really give much detail about her childhood. There are other essays, other short stories and interviews that she had done where I gleamed a lot more information: that was how I folded other layers into her character.
When I met her, I knew that that would be the job: I didn’t think that she was going to make it that easy and just hand me all of this stuff. I think she remained consistently a character that was closed to that investigation and that interested me.
She is very mysterious in that way, and I think I wanted to have a character…I didn’t want to over-explain her, but you need to be able to empathise with her as well.
- Mia Wasikowska takes on the role of Robyn in the film, so what did you see in her that you thought would be perfect?
I think she has the same sort of quiet reserve that Robyn has but also has a fierce intelligence that you can access and comes through. She has an aloofness like Robyn but it doesn’t come off as cold: she really is a very warm person.
On top of that, Mia just looks remarkably similar to Robyn when Robyn was her age: It is quite incredible how similar they are. So, on a number of levels she really was the right person: I don’t think that we thought of anyone else except Mia.
- Mia and Adam Driver are two of the most exciting young and in demand actors around at the moment, so how did you find working with them?
It couldn’t have been better. They are so different and their characters, on paper, were so different. I knew that I needed somehow capture that difference for the movie to work. If there is any levity to the whole endeavour it’s that, you have got the unlikeliest pair of people out there: that is what it was like in real life.
I have met the real Rick and the real Robyn, and they are very very different people. The idea of them out there in the middle of the desert - kind of against her will - was very funny.
I wanted someone who brought that humour to Rick naturally, and I got really lucky with Adam Driver. I have really liked him for a while and I knew that he would be perfect alongside Mia. It was really fantastic to work with both of them.
- You shot this movie in the desert, so what were the major challenges that you faced as a filmmaker?
Distance, to get out in the middle of nowhere everyday with a clean horizon, it takes a long time to drive out there. We would use up a lot of film time through just driving out there.
Even though we did try to make it as accessible as possible, I just never felt that we had enough time during out days to shoot. The hardest thing about it, was moving really quickly. We got use to it, but it was getting use to a very frenetic pace.
- It would have been so easy to portray the desert as a bit of a wasteland and yet you do the complete opposite. You find real depth and texture in the terrain, and I was wondering how you planned to shoot the desert when you were setting out?
Robyn was drawn to it and she found a lot of variation and a lot of beauty of it, and I felt that it was my job to replicate that. I didn’t have the same feeling about the desert when I went out there - I am much more of a water person I guess.
The feeling of isolation and openness is pretty remarkable when you are out there. The quiet really does start to affect you. It is a profound environment and I really did love shooting out there because it was so peaceful: it was just us in the middle of nowhere. We were not fighting traffic, noise and buildings everyday: it was like a huge uninterrupted stage.
I slowly fell in love with it while I was out there. I found that there was a lot of variation and beauty out there: it helps when you have a great cinematographer as well (laughs).
- They always say that you should never work with animals, so how was your experience with the camels?
I got really lucky with guy who brought the camels and trained them, as they were really easy. Their job on a day-to-day basis… his job is to run camel tracks, so they are use to a lot of different people, carrying a lot of weight and being handled. The camels were really pretty easy as they were just doing what they normally do every day anyway.
We had two dogs playing the one role and a black dog in the desert does suffer because of the heat. After a couple of takes, the dog would give up and head for the trailer (laughs). So that was a bit harder.
- You also shot the movie on film, so what led to that decision? How stylistically significant was that choice do you think?
I am just amazed that it is such a… I have always shot on film and I guess it is the telling of the times now when most people look at you like it is an incredible thing. I guess it is because so much of the process has gone digital.
For me, being a period story and set in the seventies that was a big reason, and I wanted it to have that texture to it. I personally think that in that lighting - which is bright exterior light - film reacts better.
We all know that film is going and if this is going to be my last film on film - and I hope that it isn’t - then I wanted to do a stunning and photographic piece that was worthy of being shot on film, rather than just being a film where we were stuck in a house.
- The movie has played on the festival circuit and had a theatrical release this year, so how have you found the response to the film so far?
I think it has been good. It is competing in a world where many films are fast and loud, and this is a film that is quiet and meditative, and so it has to drawn that kind of person who wants that kind of experience.
I suppose it is the antithesis of many films - that could be a negative for many people. But that is really why I made it, to play with the idea of silence, repetition, and something that wasn’t so dramatically plot driven: the journey was as much interior as exterior.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the second half of this year?
I am currently working on an HBO mini-series called Lewis and Clark, and we are planning to start shooting that next year.