The origins of a project that would eventually become The Rover date back several years to when David Michôd was starting out on his career and, at that point, still wondering whether he would make it as a filmmaker. He certainly did, of course. Michôd announced his arrival on the international stage in 2010 with the brilliant gangland thriller, Animal Kingdom, the gripping story of a teenager who tries to survive amongst a brutal Australian crime family.
But back in 2007, Michôd was still an unknown with a few short films to his credit and he’d arrived in Los Angeles to hang out with a group of friends, including Australian actor Joel Edgerton, in the hope that something might happen.
“Having ambitions to be a director, I felt like I needed to go there at some point, so I thought that I may as well go there when my friends were there,”
Q: When did you begin working on this project?
A: In about 2007 I was in Los Angeles and I didn’t really know why I was there. I had this little kind of group of friends in Sydney, with whom I had been making short films – basically we were a bunch of people who were at about the same level, roughly, of experience in the industry, and who all felt like perhaps we were just delusional, and had the comfort of sharing that delusion with other people. One of them was a guy named Spencer Susser, with whom I’d written a film called Hesher a few years ago, and Spencer already lived in LA – he was born there. Another was Joel Edgerton. He was an actor on the rise but he was still very much trying to make it happen back then. His brother Nash was an accomplished stunt man, with an aspiring directorial career. And then there was me, and I had been writing with them a little bit. I had been to film school years before, and it was one of my very early trips to Los Angeles; I just wanted to have a look at it and see what it was about.
Q: So you were unsure of the direction you were heading in?
A: When you’re tooling around in the kiddy pool of short films, it’s fun and it’s exciting, but you don’t know that you actually have any kind of meaningful career awaiting you. Having ambitions to be a director, I felt like I needed to go there at some point, so I thought that I might as well go there when my friends were there. I got there and then wondered why the hell I was there because it’s a brutal town if there’s nothing going on. While we were there, Joel and I started talking about a movie that maybe we would write together for his brother Nash to direct – his brother being a stunt man and a great practitioner of visceral action; his shorts are really alive on a physical level. We started writing a story that we thought was just about a man who has his car stolen in the desert. Joel and I spent about ten days thrashing the bare skeleton of a story out. I went away to write the first draft, and very quickly I started writing a movie that I wanted to direct. I then went away and made Animal Kingdom, which I had been writing for eight or nine years. Then in the couple of years after Animal Kingdom, I was working out how and where to make my next movie, and what it should be. I ended up coming back to The Rover, because I realised what I wanted to do was control my second film. I didn’t want to get sucked into the Hollywood machine and get chewed up by it.
Q: You must have had a lot of offers after Animal Kingdom?
A: Yeah, which meant that I spent a couple of very confusing years reading screenplays, having meetings, talking about possible projects – all of which was protracted, but very productive for me in terms of working out what kind of a filmmaking career I wanted to have. I realised that I wanted to direct my own writing, not because I didn’t like the scripts I was reading, but because I realised what I had probably already known, which is that for me, writing is the first part of the directing process, and directing is just a continuation of the writing process. Also, I wanted to maintain control of the project.
Q: Have you moved to LA now?
A: No I still spend more time in Sydney. I have a place in LA but I still spend more time in Sydney.
Q: Did you write The Rover pre-economic crash? When you went back to it, did you adapt it in light of what had happened?
A: Originally, that first draft was a very wild sort of action movie for Nash to direct. Nash at that time was already busy on something else, and I said, ‘I think I would quite like to direct this thing.’ I went away and completely stripped it back, and took a lot of the action sequences out, but what I had always loved at the centre of it was this murderously embittered man, and I began to see the ways I was able to project onto the character a lot of my feelings of despair and anguish about the state of the world, especially post-economic crisis.
Q: Did you have parallels with The Road or Blindness in mind?
A: Not necessarily. What was very important to me was that the movie not be post-apocalyptic, because I didn’t want to put the action and events of the movie on the other side of some kind of unforeseeable cataclysm – an asteroid hitting the earth, or whatever. I wanted it to feel like the air and dirt of the story was very much a product of the forces that are bubbling around us today, very real pernicious forces of greed and disregard for the things that sustain us. It was born very much out of the despair I felt after the economic crisis, which seemed to involve a number of quite possibly psychopathic people in the financial industry, eviscerating the Western middle class, and getting away with it, which also seemed to put a full stop to anybody’s willingness to do anything about climate change. It seemed impossible for me to imagine how this couldn’t just induce despair, so then I projected all of that onto Guy Pearce’s character. All of this stuff bubbles in the background of the movie. I wrote the character for Guy because I wanted the character to be a man in his mid-40s, who was old enough to remember a time when things were different, but was still young and vital enough to be dangerous. I was incredibly attracted to the idea of the extreme representation of that anger and despair that I was feeling.
Q: Was it difficult to avoid that Hollywood machine? Was the project hard to finance?
A: One of the great privileges of Animal Kingdom being received as well as it was is that once I had gotten this script to a place where I was happy, everything that followed felt quite simple. I went to Los Angeles to test for the character that Rob [Pattinson] plays, and found that there were a number of really quite accomplished actors who wanted to come in and work with me in an audition type environment.
Q: How did you choose Robert Pattinson?
A: I had met him before I even knew that The Rover was going to be my next movie, just as one of the billions of meetings that you do in Hollywood when your movie gets some attention. I really liked him. I didn’t know anything about him; I hadn’t seen the Twilight films, and I still haven’t seen them, but I just liked him. He was intelligent. I loved his physicality, I loved his face – his very unusual face. He’s quite beautiful, but strange and very open. When I knew that The Rover was going to be the next movie and I started testing for it, Rob was at the top of my list for people I wanted to see. He came in and demonstrated to me immediately that he was a really interesting actor. He came in with a really beautiful fully considered version of the character, because it’s a character that could be played in a lot of ways – it could be caricature, or it could be played as severely mentally disabled – and his test was just beautiful. He was hungry for it, as well, which was important to me. I knew that we were going to be spending a couple of months out in really quite testing conditions.
Q: How difficult was it?
A: It was really tough. It was really hot and very remote. No-one’s phone worked. We were just filthy all the time. But we were all together all the time – the entire crew, we’d work all day and then we’d go and stay at the same pretty shabby accommodation every night, and we’d just be together. We’d get drunk and sing songs.
Q: How did Robert find that?
A: Great, you know. I remember having one experience in one of the first towns we shot in. We’d finished shooting for the day; we would all gather at one of seven pubs in this town – it’s a town of like 300 people, but there’s seven pubs –and I remember one night I was walking across the street to the pub and I could see Rob walking down the street from the room that he was staying in towards the pub, walking down the street by himself, and as we got closer, he says to me, ‘I can’t begin to tell you how magical this experience is for me. I’m just walking down the street by myself.’
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: Our journey was a road trip of sorts. We started about four hours north of Adelaide, and ended up in a town called Marree, which is about eight hours north of Adelaide, in the middle of nowhere. It’s the end of the road. It is itself at the end of an hour long drive on a dirt road, and from there on, you don’t go anywhere unless you have your car loaded with supplies to keep you alive for a week. It’s a weird and beautiful place.
Q: Were you a reporter before becoming a filmmaker?
A: I worked for a filmmaker magazine in Sydney. I went to film school in Melbourne and when I finished I moved back to Sydney where I grew up. All of my filmmaking connections were in Melbourne, and I desperately needed a job, so I got a job at this magazine answering the phones, and then within a couple of years I became the editor, and I did that for another three years, and it was great. I felt connected to the industry, I felt connected to the thing that I loved. I learnt so much about how the industry works, and I met a lot of great people.
Q: Were you still making films at that point?
A: Not while I was at the magazine. What I was doing when I was at the magazine was continuing to write Animal Kingdom. I knew that at some point I would take a leap off the edge and do what I had gone to film school to do.
Q: From where do you take your inspiration?
A: I don’t know. I loved movies when I was a kid, but I never dreamt of being a filmmaker. In a way, it was an accidental career, because I remember when I finished doing an arts degree in Melbourne, I just suddenly realised I needed to work out what my career would be, and almost on a whim, I thought I’d apply to film school and see what happened. I liked movies, and I’d watched a lot. It looked fun. I was lucky I got in, because then that was the first year of school that I truly loved.
Q: What kind of cinema do you like watching?
A: I like all kinds. My favourite movie is Apocalypse Now. It’s the one that I’ll watch a couple times a year. My favourite movie of the last 20 years is The Assassination of Jesse James.
Q: Do you think it’s a good time for Australian films?
A: I think so. It’s difficult for me to say because I feel like I’m in the middle of it, but I feel like I’m witnessing a number of my peers and contemporaries suddenly making their first or second or third films.
Q: Is it centred in Melbourne or Sydney, or both?
A: It feels pretty evenly spread between, with little pockets in Adelaide or Brisbane, but yeah, I have really good warm solid connections to a community of filmmakers in both Sydney and Melbourne.
Q: There aren’t many women in the film. Why is that?
A: It was important to me that the nature of the environment that people have to live in out there is incredibly challenging, and it would be especially challenging for women, but it was always important that I find places to show what kinds of women might be surviving out there. I always wanted there to be a woman who for a long time had managed to survive hidden in the hills, self-sustaining, not wanting to leave the animals that she’d been looking after. Of course, Guy Pearce enters her world and ruins it. But in some ways, to the extent that this is a movie about that emotional emptiness that Guy Pearce carries, those women are the characters who inform his backstory. I wanted the character that Gillian Jones plays, in the kind of brothel/opium den, to be like a strange manifestation of his mother, who’d be the first person to chastise him for being so resentful, and for engaging in such a pointless pursuit. Then he encounters Susan Prior’s character, who somehow fills him with the guilt about what he has done to his own wife.
Q: Do you think you’re a pessimist about the world?
A: A little bit, but I don’t think I’m a nihilist. I don’t know if these are mutually exclusive, but I think I’m both a pessimist and a sentimentalist. I do still feel this strange underlying despair about what will become of us, and yet I also then come full circle to knowing that really the only reason to get out of bed in the morning is to establish meaningful connections with other people with whom I share this despair, and that that in itself can be joyous and wonderful, and one day we’ll be dead (laughs).
The Rover releases on local cinemas Friday, 22 August 2014