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Sometimes in life you have to take a leap of faith. You have to bet on yourself to succeed and make sacrifices that could possibly turn into investments. That’s exactly what Australian director Patrick Hughes did when he decided to make the film Red Hill. While his wife was taking care of their newborn child, he took out a mortgage on his house and decided to make his first feature film, a modern day western starring True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten, the potential for failure always hanging over his head. He didn’t fail.
While promoting his film for its limited release (it comes out tomorrow), I had the chance to sit down with the director as part of a roundtable interview and discuss the hazards that come with setting a fire in the dry Australian high lands, his mission to make a western without turning it into a parody, and his realization that Star Wars is essentially cowboys in space.
How does an Australian end up making a spaghetti western?
I think that’s why we made it. We’ve made films like Man From Snowy River or The Proposition, but certainly I’m a huge fan of the westerns and wanted to modernize them. I felt like that would be a really cool spin because you look at these locations and you look at these towns and what’s the difference between 1890 and now? There’s cars and mobile phones, but if you take out the communications, which is what Jimmy does, that sense of isolation is still there and that sort of lends itself to the sort of horror genre almost. I grew up watching westerns and was always a true fan and I think that every… I don’t think I’m lying when I say every guy dreams of either making a western or being in one. I know that was Ryan’s dream. So he was easy to get on board. Big influences were High Plains Drifter, the leanness and the sparseness, it’s just really direct and really confronting. Here’s just 95 minutes of a wild ride from start to finish.
When I was writing the script it was almost like a little bit of an homage. It was like, “How do I get a town hall scene? How do I get a barbershop scene? How do I get a big finale?” But at the same time we wanted the film to be about something. You grow up watching the American westerns and you sort of have the early foundations of Australia history and how the country was founded was not dissimilar to America. They came in and the treatment of the American Indians, when you look at Australia with the colonization and the treatment of the indigenous people, it was like nobody’s told their side of the story. It kind of felt like if anyone deserves revenge, it would be them. When I wrote the script and I handed it to Tom Lewis, I was really sort of like, “This is pretty confronting because I wanted to portray him as a monster to begin with. We know nothing about him, of course he doesn’t say anything, so the less we know the more horrific these actions are.” We just don’t know why he’s doing this. So I was really sort of worried when I gave the script to him, Tom called me back at 6:00am the next morning and he said, “This is the film my people have been waiting for.” [laughs] I knew at that point I had Tommy on board.
There’s a wild crazy man with a half-burnt face stalking people and hunting them down and he’s an expert tracker – you can’t help but start to lend yourself to the slasher films. And then weaved through it is a dark humor, I felt like that was very important too, and also the romance thread. One of my favorite scenes in the whole film is between Ryan and his wife – especially the scene where he goes home to get his gun. For me that’s the heart of the whole film. What she represents is this innocence in a world, in this town of corruption and greed. Ultimately, why I’m drawn to the western is the moral code. Every western’s about a moral code and this story is about revenge and sacrifice. Take a young city cop and put him into this town which just happens to be the worst day in the history of policing. Out of this circumstance he not only has to survive, but he will learn and grow from that experience – and he becomes that Clint Eastwood type at the end.
What was the most difficult thing you had to shoot?
Most difficult thing I had to shoot was probably, I’d say, the burning barn at the end – just the physicality of setting fire to a barn and then having to shoot a scene before it burns down [laughs]. Once it went up, and we’re all prepared, we have one night to shoot this whole thing of Bill riding up and setting the fire, we had gas rigs and all this stuff. And then, of course, a wind came in, this howling wind. You can see it in the film with the final shot in slow motion. We shot that slightly slow motion, at 40 frames, but the flames were sideways. The wind was howling. We were just petrified that we set fire to this barn – they had a drought up there so when we shot the film it hadn’t rained up there for ten years. That whole region’s been crippled. I was kind of drawn to that, the decay of these towns that used to be old gold rush towns, population 40,000 people now 120. But all of that infrastructure is still there. You can’t walk through that town and help but think of the history of it. We set fire to this barn and we were just petrified that this wind was just going to blow the ashes up into the high country and start a fire [laughs].
I actually sat down and wrote a treatment, it’s called Three Colors Vengeance. It’s Red Hill, White Valley, Black Mountain. The next one’s set in a fictitious border town in Mexico, set against the Narco Drug War. It’s three Model A revenge stories that take place in three separate towns in three separate countries. White Mountain’s set in North Dakota in the dead of winter, blood in the snow, that kind of thing. I had this frustration, I’d written a lot of scripts, this is the fourth script I’ve written. I’ve really got a big influence in Greg Mclean, who executive produced the film, made Wolf Creek. And the way he made that film, he decided to make a film for $200,000 and they were all “You’re crazy, you’re an idiot,” and then, of course, he’s at Sundance, and then he’s represented by top agents and then he’s off doing taking huge checks for his next film. I was like, “Maybe there’s some truth to that.” So that was a really big influence and looking at all my favorite filmmakers and how they all first made their films. So then when I sat down I just had this epiphany, I would draw up this list, I would write Christopher Nolan, that’s how they did it, they raised money and shot on weekends. George Miller with Mad Max, the Coen brothers with Blood Simple, Robert Rodriguez, obviously – all these guys raised private money. I would have been happy if I got an agent out of it.
The idea, I sat down to write, I wanted to sort of modernize the western. I feel like that hadn’t really been done, probably the closest would be No Country For Old Men in terms of the tone and the texture and the feel of it, and take one of those classic revenge stories and place it in the Victorian high country. And then, like I said, looking at Australia’s past and the colonial era. It happened pretty quickly. I had an idea for a prison break story floating around in my head, that the guy would come back and seek vengeance the cops who put him there, but I felt there was no way into that story, so it wasn’t until I found Shane Cooper’s role in this film that he would become the moral compass. There’s not a lot that you can relate to in the other characters. It really needed that central character that the audience could identify with and obviously that was Shane. I think my wife was pregnant with our second kid when I was writing it. I think with westerns my dad was always like, “You have to watch Red River, you have to watch Stagecoach” and I was like, “Go away.” I was fourteen, I was watching Star Wars, and then you realize that’s a western set in space [laughs]. It was funny because when I was younger I really it was like, “Yeah, they’re cool” but I didn’t really connect with them. And then as you grow older and you sort of mature and you have family, you have kids, and you actually start to realize what a moral code is, and that is you’re not going to cross the line. It’s about honor and it’s about family and it’s about trust. Every western, you break it down, there are revenge stories about somebody’s family who has been wronged or whose friendship has been wronged. I feel really close to those. I think any parent would. If your family or your town is under threat, you stand up and do something about it.
One thing that I noticed about the film was that there are constant throwbacks to older western elements, like you have the bad guy in the black hat, the good guy in the white hat, the good guy is the new sheriff in town, his name is Shane Cooper, like the movie Shane and Gary Cooper. Was that all part of the writing process?
I kind of felt like if you’re going to make a flat-out modern day western, I wanted to have a bit of an homage and have a sort-of playful tone – the dark humor in there was very important for me. And it is a fine line about what point you slip into a parody. It was interesting because you have this big, grand finale, while we’re shooting it there’s a house on fire, people with guns and hats, but at the end of the day that town, you stand on main street on Saturday night there’s something inherently creepy about it. It’s just empty. There’s no one there, there’s nothing. The town hall speech that Old Bill gives, that’s based on truth. Some of these towns, the only way they can survive is if they turn themselves into a spa resort. So you get all of these old bastards that were the foundation of this town that was built on gold and crops, and they can’t grow anything because their drought-stricken. Their not allowed to deforest so the logging was shut down, because you’re not allowed to cut down anymore trees because the greens came in and stopped that and the saw mills abandoned. You actually drive past all these abandoned industries and there’s something kind of tragic about it. That’s what Old Bill represents.