It’s been 12 years since Greg McLean first unleashed Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor onto unsuspecting audiences, forging his reputation as one of Australia’s foremost genre filmmakers in the process. Or filmmakers period, I should say.
As our interview begins, talk turns first to Tobe Hooper, the legendary horror filmmaker responsible for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre who had sadly died the day before. McLean notes that although Hooper’s films are revered by fans of the genre, in some ways his reputation is restricted to a “horror ghetto”.
“[Actually] people who love film, I find, love all kinds of films,” McLean says. “There’s so many films and great filmmakers and interesting voices out there, so you’d be bonkers not to explore everything and be inspired by everything.”
McLean has a busy few months ahead of him. He will soon find himself in the unusual position of having two films released in Australian cinemas in consecutive months, as well as the debut of Wolf Creek series 2 on Stan late in 2017: audiences will be able to catch his ultra violent yet inescapably fun The Belko Experiment later this month and then psychological thriller Jungle in October.
“I was actually trying to get as far away from Wolf Creek as I possibly could by telling a story about someone trying to survive and succeeding.”
The latter tells the story of Israel-born Yossi Ghinsberg, a young man who goes adventuring into the Amazonian rainforest, and is based on Ghinsberg’s recollection of events, written soon after they happened in 1981. Starring Daniel Radcliffe as Yossi, a go-getter who learns a lot about himself the hard way, the film also features Australian actors Joel Jackson and Alex Russell as fellow backpacking adventurers (they’re Swiss and American in the story).
The trio head for Bolivia, where Yossi is persuaded by a charismatic Austrian (Thomas Kretchmann) to journey into uncharted territory: the ‘real jungle’. Needless to say, it doesn’t turn out to be the smartest move.
“I was actually trying to get as far away from Wolf Creek as I possibly could by telling a story about someone trying to survive and succeeding, as opposed to someone trying to kill people and succeeding,” McLean says.
“I thought [Yossi’s story] had some interesting themes about what people are capable of in terms of using imagination to help them survive horrible situations.”
Clearly he is a filmmaker attracted to extremes, whatever the genre. Jungle and The Belko Experiment are tonally worlds apart, yet both are precise, almost forensic examinations of the survival instinct.
Like Battle Royale before it, Belko sets up a brutal dog-eat-dog scenario in which office workers discover that they will be executed by a Big Brother-type figure unless they murder a specified number of their colleagues first. Although McLean continues to depict humanity in a less-than-flattering light, there are redemptive elements to his work too, and his films frequently feature some kind of saving grace, such as a “final girl” (or “boy”) who makes it out, broken and heartsick, but alive.
Jungle, for example, focuses not only on the physical dimension of Ghinsberg’s journey but on what McLean calls a “mystical aspect”, shown in the story through Yossi’s hallucinations while he’s alone and suffering.
“I thought [Yossi’s story] had some interesting themes about what people are capable of in terms of using imagination to help them survive horrible situations … It’s a pretty potent metaphor for the way that people survive adversity in small ways in their lives; in using stories as an escape, in using music, in using art, as a way to get out of whatever shitty situation you happen to find yourself in.”
But McLean says it was the relationships in the source material that first attracted him to the project, and “the way that very close male friendships can shatter and break apart, particularly in this kind of circumstance. Really the most important thing for me was being very moved by the friendships.”
It was essential then to cast the supporting roles well, particularly Kevin, the backpacker who ends up spending the most time with Yossi when the group is eventually split in two. McLean says he was impressed by Joel Jackson’s star turn in Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door and by his evident enthusiasm and commitment to his craft. But he acknowledges there was a degree of luck involved in shaping the on-screen dynamic between the cast, saying “it could have gone the other way.”
“We weren’t able to audition them together because they were all over the world…. [but] it really helped that there was an essence of each of the real people in each of the actors that we cast. That helped make the story clear and helped make the relationships very believable.”
“[Distributors] do tend to basically keep trying to push the same thing, which is why we’re living in a world of endless remakes and sequels.”
I take the opportunity to ask McLean a few broader questions about being a filmmaker right now in Australia. As distribution models continue to evolve at lighting speed, he’s in prime position to see the way ahead. Working across both film and television, locally and internationally and at various budget levels, he’s at the vanguard as the Australian film industry struggles to maintain its identity while finding more commercially lucrative ways of operating globally.
For example, what’s the point of making horror for the Australian theatrical market, when it rarely attracts significant audiences? “There’s certainly a myth that Australians don’t want to see genre,” he says.
“I think that’s an illusion; it’s not true. [Distributors] do tend to basically keep trying to push the same thing, which is why we’re living in a world of endless remakes and sequels and corporate decision-making that’s not particularly inspired. But at the end of the day I think the only thing that people respond to is good stories.
”That’s the exciting part of the industry: all it takes is an amazing idea… That’s really what keeps the industry alive and rejuvenated: outsiders from the bottom coming up with something cool and making it for themselves.”
Jungle is playing as part of Jewish International Film Festival on Saturday September 23. The Belko Experiment arrives in cinemas on Thursday September 21.