Director Jonathan Adams joins Cinema Australia to discuss his new film, Rough Stuff.
“I’d like to continue to make films that are transportive and exciting but also thoughtful and have something to say.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
This is the most fun I’ve had watching an Australian adventure film in years. Was it just as fun to shoot?
Thats a fantastic thing to hear. I suppose shooting a movie is fun in the way that running a marathon is fun, or maybe climbing Mount Everest or something. Its exhausting and it pushes you far beyond your comfort zone. But its also thrilling and enormously gratifying. I look back on the shoot and I kind of smile about the sheer swashbuckling nature of it, even though I know at the time it was really just like climbing a mountain, trying to keep my energy up, trying to focus on the goal. But we really were this ragtag crew of adventurers ourselves, getting in and out of remote locations, contending with the weather, and trying to shoot 5-6 pages a day, with a singular goal of getting this movie made. When I think about it, that sounds like a lot of fun – but, as I said, at the time it was more like just trying to survive. I will say that I’ve heard from the rest of the cast and crew repeatedly that everyone really had a blast, particularly the two weeks we were in Lithgow. We were all crammed into this one big house, like, seventeen of us, the cast and the crew. So there was a lot of bonding and a lot of shenanigans, and then we’d go out and shoot like the clappers all day. I think everyone looks back on that whole experience pretty fondly.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
The big picture of what became Rough Stuff has been kicking around in my head for years. I think since the early 2000s I’ve had a notion I wanted to do a modern day adventure movie. This was at a time when there was a bit of a revival of the swashbuckling serial adventure movie in Hollywood, with things like The Mummy franchise and Pirates of the Caribbean and even Lord of the Rings and King Kong. And being a teenager I just ate that shit up, of course. And I grew up on 80s staples like Indiana Jones and The Goonies. I loved all of them. But I always had this sense of being a bit disconnected from them, because they were always period-set or in a fantasy realm and I always wanted it to be real. I wanted to believe that those kinds of adventures in far off exotic places could still be had today (I suppose there’s a bit of The Goonies in that idea, that wish fulfilment of a mystery to be solved awaiting in your attic and discovery just a bike ride away). So there was a vague sense of a kind of the genre and the tone, and I wanted it be Australian. Australia is that far-off exotic place, you know? Then the 4WD component kind of just hit me one day. That was the key – thats how our rugged and charming adventurer would find himself in these far-off places, searching for long lost treasures and solving mysteries. I remember having that idea and leaping up from my chair and pacing around and after about 15 minutes I had most of the key imagery. I knew all the big picture elements, the tone the visual style and the score. And from there I just developed bit-by-bit, incorporating mythology of the Rovers, and developing the characters and just trying to make it as exciting as possible.
The entire cast give great performances and they all have great chemistry. Tell us about the casting process for the main group of actors.
I agree, they’re all so fantastic. Honestly, we just got so lucky – it was a pretty straightforward audition process organised by our casting director Steven Gregory. We saw quite a few people but the stand-outs were obvious. Buzz was probably the most challenging role to cast, because I wanted something very specific. I wanted someone who could play outwardly a kind of traditional or romanticised masculinity, but who also had the sophistication to undercut that and deconstruct it. And Gareth really embodies that – a stoic, no-nonsense country boy at heart but cosmopolitan enough and self-aware enough to know how to undercut that persona in just the right away. Man, did we get lucky. He’s a god damn movie star, he’s a modern Bogart if you ask me.
Did it take much to convince Ernie Dingo to come onboard?
We really wanted Ernie for this role. He really is an icon for our generation, just a constant presence whether it was Crocodile Dundee or Great Outdoors or whatever. His face and voice just carry so much gravitas, and he brings so much soul to the character in a short amount of screen time. Ernie called me after we offered him the role and he asked a lot of questions about the character and his background and what we were trying to do with him. I think he’s very aware of being an Indigenous icon and he’s so passionate about the Indigenous Australian history and culture and wanted to make sure we were coming at it from an honest angle. But he really liked the character and I think its a really different side of Ernie we’ve never seen before.
Were any of the male leads clueless to the mechanics of a car, or were they all quite educated?
I think there might have been a bit of that “padding the CV” that actors are known for! Gareth could drive manual, so that was a help, but he hadn’t really driven off-road before. We had to teach Vince to drive manual, which he got very good at…by the end of shooting. And poor Sam was on his Ls the whole time, so all his scenes had to have a supervising driver in there with him who wasn’t part of the camera team. So we clearly cast off their suitability for the roles, not their driving skills! Fortunately I had a great driving instructor and 4WD Co-ordintor in “Mad” Matt Gillan, and he showed them the basics so they could get through what we needed them to do safely. Most of the more exciting action stuff was driven by Matt and his team of drivers – sorry to spoil the magic!
I imagine there were very strict safety precautions on set considering the scale of some of the off-road scenes. Were there ever any close calls when it came to people’s safety?
Its interesting how the process works, as the actors and main unit crew weren’t very often involved in the major stunts. We shot all the interior action with the actors and a lot of the time we were “Star Trekking it”, meaning we were shaking the camera and having the actors shake around as if they’re on this hectic track, and then we’d come back with a small crew and the driving team and shoot the real thing. Matt, our 4WD co-ordinator, is extremely safety-conscious and so I had nothing but trust in him when we were prepping and shooting those scenes. We did have one day, I think it was the 3rd day of shooting, when I wanted to get shots of the cast in the vehicles on some genuine off-road scenarios, so we had something to bridge the gap between interior vehicle shots and exterior “driving team” shots. So we had Gareth and Vince and Sam actually driving the vehicles, fully loaded up with the other cast members, up some pretty hairy hill climbs. Now for Matt and I this was tame stuff, but I might have dropped the ball a bit in explaining to the everyone that this was perfectly safe and the guys had had training for this. There were a few white faces and knuckles but the end of those runs, and I distinctly remember one cast member who refused to be in the vehicle! So we made it work and incorporated it into the scene, which I think worked great. But yes, things were a bit tense back at the house that night!
It’s hard to believe this is Jack Crombie’s first feature film as cinematographer. Having worked as cinematographer on six short films yourself, did you find yourself mentoring Jack during the shoot?
Trust me, Jack needs no mentoring from me. Although its his first feature, Jack is a DOP by trade and he knows his stuff. He’s a fantastic operator. He shot I’d say 90% of the movie himself. And his technical knowledge is just intimidating. When looking for a DOP, I had the same approach as when I was looking for the cast – I wasn’t interested in profile or even experience, I was looking for passion and drive and someone with something to prove. He’s a very visually sophisticated guy and he loves movies and he’s always exploring how to create or recreate certain looks. I knew if I gave Jack a shot, he’d give it his all and them some, and he did. Also as an experienced DOP myself, I’m obviously quite visually assured and I know what I want, so I was quite specific most of the time in terms of composition and motion. But Jack was fine with that because his whole thing is collaboration – he was also an associate producer, and he played a large role in bringing together the team – he loves bringing in the right people for the right roles rather than trying to be too many things.
While most Australian filmmakers are launching their feature film careers with coming-of-age storeys and grim suburban tales, you’ve launched yours with an action-packed, adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride. Was this always going to be the case for you or were you ever tempted to go ‘softer’ for you first film?
Well, the first thing to say is I love all kinds of movies and I would love to make some “softer” films in the future. But this genre just happens to be what floats my boat. I’m a big believer that filmmakers should just make what they themselves like. When you start to try and guess what other people want, you get into all kinds of trouble. That goes as much for market-research-driven blockbusters and dreary indie social issue movies. Pandering is pandering. What people really respond to is passion and authenticity. So with Rough Stuff, I was in a place where I was telling myself “stop trying to be so clever. Just make what you always want to watch but you can’t find.”
How has the overall experience of making your first feature film been so far?
Its been a rollercoaster, of course. Its been frustrating at times – trying to get the money together, trying to keep the whole thing from just stalling. Trying to keep the energy up while work and rent and other life responsibilities are all catching up with you. But its also been the most rewarding and gratifying thing I’ve ever done, and I’m immensely proud of the film. For better or worse, it is the film I set out to make and, if I know anything, I know not all filmmakers get to say that.
Who are some of your filmmaking inspirations?
I think Rough Stuff lays out a bit of a template for my, for lack of a better word, “voice” as a film maker. Its unapologetically “B-grade”, but I hope its executed with A-grade thoughtfulness and attention to character and theme. So I’d like to continue to explore that, to make films that are transportive and exciting but also thoughtful and have something to say. That could take place in both the low-budget indie sphere or in the studio sphere. I confess I would love to take the reigns of a big studio movie, and I think my particular skill set is really suited to those kinds of big popcorn movies. But like I said, I just can’t pander to an audience, I can only work on something I believe in, something I would love to sit down and watch in a dark room myself. I’m not interested in being an on-set traffic cop. So we’ll have to see.
Are you keen to stay at home and make more local films, or would you prefer a more international career?
I’m pragmatic enough to go where the work is. I think deep down everyone wants the “Peter Jackson deal”, where he got to bring Hollywood home rather than chasing it across the ocean. Obviously if I can make the kinds of films I want to make and still feed myself, I’d prefer to do that here. But I’m more than happy to move to America or Canada or the E.U. if there are opportunities there I don’t have here. That’s unfortunately the reality for most people in the arts industry in Australia.
What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
I’m feeling very energised the moment, I have three ideas I’m excited about which I’ve been developing concurrently for months. One is a sequel to Rough Stuff, and the other two are fun spins on a classic genre setup. I feel equally excited about all of them, so the only challenge is deciding which one to pursue to the script stage! If Rough Stuff is a success, then jumping on the sequel would be the most pragmatic thing to do. So we’ll find out soon I guess!
Rough Stuff is in cinemas Thursday, 16 March. Keep an eye on http://www.roughstuffmovie.com for details.