[Exclusive!] Tristan Roache-Turner on the making Wyrmwood

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Article by Tristan Roache-Turner

The Wyrmwood film evolved around late 2010. My brother Kiah was working for Aussie Bum doing promotional videos and I was an electrician/project manager at Ausgrid. We’d make a few commercial productions, and do our own film projects with friends. We’d done some pretty cracking short films and then finally won a bunch of awards at Bryan Brown’s Revesby Reel Deal festival, with a bad-ass short called Road Runner. We shot it out Broken Hill way: Mad Max country – we even used the old MM11 Interceptor car that lived at Silverton. We began thinking Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead, and a feature. No one had done anything like that in Oz film.

Kiah began on the script: The biblical Wormwood star became, Wyrmwood, an apocalyptic, zombie-plague signifier. The hero Barry tries unsuccessfully to extract his family from the zombie ravaged city to the bush. A cast and crew came on board, Barry acquires an indigenous survivor, Benny, as a partner, and the hero’s quest begins for Barry’s sister Brooke, who has fallen into the hands of a villainous military establishment replete with music-jiving Maniacal Doctor, led by a very nasty Captain. It’s a fast paced action film with some Aussie records for the number of zombies made up on set and disposed of by a variety of ingenious means.

I gave Kiah the original “hook”. You have to push the zombie law envelope for a successful genre film. What if fossil fuels failed as part of the apocalypse? Our zombies exhale methane and more. It’s flammable. Barry’s a genius mechanic. Cars that run on zombie gas? The Mad Max style zombie-truck was born.

We didn’t have much money. Family and friends chipped in. Cast and crew worked for no pay upfront, to be paid on accrued wages when the film goes into profit: that’s how much belief the core cast and crew had for the project. Later crowd funding via Indiegogo kicked in. We shopped eBay for an old 4WD, parked it in front of our house. Mates from work came up with crazy detailing and modifications. I cut out a trap door with an angle grinder while my Dad did crowd control. It became our signature, bad-assed zombie powered vehicle.

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The first scenes were shoot in Newcastle, north of Sydney, at a friend’s place. The resulting teaser surprised us with over 200,000 views on You Tube (now 700k). Likewise our attempts at crowd sourcing raised money even from Poland (nearly $50,000 was raised). There was a big potential audience out there. Over the next few years we shot mostly weekends when people could make it. Blood, sweat, tears, but also plenty of fun and passion. Everyone just believed in the project. We built our own props. Everyone did zombies, but the actors were top dollar (if under paid). 17 were NIDA graduates, and it shows. Strong relationships developed as new characters joined the film. The script matured and developed it’s distinctive visual rhythm. Kiah did detailed shooting scripts and story boards like quality graphic novels. However, inevitably we cut corners, and they came back to haunt us in post production. Kiah had to quit his job to work full time on the film with massive re-edits.

A quirky, ironic sense of humour emerged between the characters. Benny’s indigenous family back-story, and quest to redeem his brother, parallelled Barry’s loss of family and quest for his lost sister. There were some powerful relationships here that go well beyond a simple action/horror flick.

Over 4 years we shot in a number of NSW locations that gave the film a powerful sense of Australian landscape. The final scenes were shot in a freezing cold pine forest near Oberon, creating an eerie, frosted light. The zombie truck is still there. Wyrmwood was in the can for about $150,000 cash.

There were highlights. Doing all our own effects initially was a hoot. One required putting “machine gun bullets” through our Mum’s garage door. We experimented with blu-tack and string doing fast and slow pull offs. Great effect. Sadly the holes are also still there. A memento.

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We had a near thing with an impromptu late night shoot in a toey Western Sydney suburb. We notified neighbours, but someone missed out. Police arrived in droves at around 10:30pm after reports of gang warfare with axes in the back, nail-guns to the body, multiple head shots and knife wounds to the stomach. Six squad cars, and two unmarked cars, descended on the set. Kiah, as sharp director was the first to spot the flashing lights. He swears he could smell the adrenaline as officers exited the cars, hands on Glocks. He walked slowly towards the police, hands in the air, making calming actions. The relief was palpable. After a few expletives were muttered, the police got chatting and just loved the show. They helped us out to ensure no more real dramas occurred and left us in peace.

On another shoot, doing car/truck chases in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney we nearly lost our crack stunt woman (the stunt people and fight choreographers were just so professional, and then some). The jump was from a military truck (huge, tarted-up solar powered, removal van), to the following zombie-truck, with fearsome, jagged, zombie-harvesting spikes on the roo-bar. The slo-mo rehearsals were perfect. Something went wrong on the live jump. She bounced the bonnet, just back-arched the spikes, with nasty skin rips, and slid under the truck. With a split-second stop, and cat-like reflexes from our fearless stunt woman it was the professional stunt crew that saved the day. The incident cast a pall over cast and crew with what might have been. But, the gutsy stunt woman recovered, returned, and declared, “the show must go on”. Now, that’s commitment. Kiah included this incident in the 45 minute doco on the making of Wyrmwood included in the DVD package being released around April. Apart from exciting and informative (even for me, and I was there!), it’s very funny and entertaining in it’s own right if you’re into movie making.

Our Head of Makeup was phenomenal. Her creative vision was crucial to the film’s enthusiastic reception at the international festivals. More than 150 individual zombies required full prosthetic makeup during the production, sometimes in large numbers. Now, I know we’re not in Brad Pitt’s World War Z category. Incidentally, we received some fantastic local media coverage from his visit from the Sydney Morning Herald and others. I think we might have an Australian first with a flaming head shot during the marathon climactic fight scene between Barry and The Captain.

The film was farewelled at the Oberon shoot last year (2014). There wasn’t a dry eye on set as the fading Benny character, propped against a tree in his shredded old body armour, began singing the old gospel song, In the Sweet By-and-By. Gradually the English words morphed into his indigenous language from North Queensland. This is how the Old People up there laid their dead to rest and so too, here on the silver screen for Wyrmwood. It didn’t make the final cut of the film, but it was a very beautiful scene to behold in-person on set.

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With the wrap, and the film in the can, our attention turned to Post Production and seemingly endless financial and budgetary hurdles to overcome.  I can tell you, it was a steep learning curve for me as a first-time producer. As usual we were helped by friends and contacts. Film Australia were great with advice after some screenings, and finally grants for Post Production and release. It was a near thing. Doors opened. Companies and festivals became interested and we were able to make about as a big a splash as possible with a little indie film that started in a back yard.

By the end of 2014 we toured the film at some great genre festivals: Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas; Sitges, Spain; Busan, South Korea, Stockholm Internation, Mar Del Plata, Argentina and many more. Enthusiastic audiences, ‘workshops’ and our Q&A talks (which were awesome fun!) created a good buzz. We even took out a few awards “Best Action Film” and “Most Likely to See a Sequel”. Our team made some great contacts in follow-up LA meetings and we received multiple financing offers on a new film we are working on. We sold into multiple territories including USA, Middle East, Japan, UK, ANZ and more.

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Apart from numerous fan reviews, there were glowing reports in the more regular cinema press, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Empire and Fangoria. Festival invitations continued, Toronto After Dark, and the Stockholm International Festival, where Kiah was accompanied by our Mum who speaks Swedish! (Hope she’s forgiven us for the ventilated garage door – during a shoot, we drilled holes in it to simulate gun shots – it’s still unrepaired!). The reviews are worth a look on our blog http://www.roache-turner.com, in the Guerilla Films Blog section.

Wyrmwood is distributed by Studio Canal in Australia and the UK and by IFC in the US. Our new trailer from Post Production took 600,000 hits in five days, so the buzz is still out there. It looks like it’s pushing well towards our Australian Premiere on 6th February at Moonlight Cinemas in capital cities, with our full international releases on the 13th February in multiple screens across Australia and the US. The DVD release, and package, including the documentary on how the film was made, will be around April.

I really hope you enjoy it!

Wyrmwood Poster

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