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In 2007, writer, director and producer Andrew Trauki burst onto the Australian film scene with Black Water – a low budget crocodile nightmare that had massive bite. Thirteen years later, Trauki has returned to the world of Black Water with a worthy follow-up, Black Water: Abyss.
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Black Water: Abyss just scraped in a post-Covid-shutdown cinema release before a digital release. How has that left you feeling, personally?
Look, it’s a little deflating because you don’t get to do the usual thing like talking to people and seeing your film on the big screen with a big audience and all that sort of stuff. So I’d kind of rather it never happened, but that’s life.
How valuable is it for you watch your films with a packed house and to get feedback from the audience?
Oh, look, by that stage I guess the film is done and dusted. Then it’s really up to the distributors to see if any of the information that comes back might help their distribution pattern. But it’s just good just to see your film with an audience. It’s good to know whether or not they react in the right places and all that sort of stuff. It’s good to see it on the big screen because from here on in it’ll be all on the small screen. It was filmed for the big screen, so it’s just nice to see it on the big screen.
Take us back to the beginning of Black Water: Abyss. When did you guys decide that you wanted to make a sequel to Black Water?
It was an interesting process because it wasn’t me that was driving this project. What happened was that the producer of Black Water was approached by another producer, Neil Kingston, with a crocodile script which was the next film; the sequel to Black Water. Then Michael, the original producer, said, “Look, you’ve really got to get Andrew involved here because he did such a good job on the first one.” So then I got involved, and then it was a process of working with the writers on the script for about a year or so whilst finances were being raised. I got involved in 2017, so I guess it was longer than a year, a bit, and then we worked on the script and we finally got the money.
Did you ever imagine that you’d be making a sequel to Black Water?
Not really, no. I didn’t think we left much area to go to, but, at the same time, a sequel this day kind of means different to the old days where it was the next film in the sequence. It’s just a film with the same name, almost.
So far, your films have included a leopard, sharks and crocodiles. Where does your obsession with the creature feature come from?
Oh, look, it’s more a two-part thing. One is I’m now known as that guy, so it’s easy for me to get a film made. It’s never easy, but easier for me to get a film funded if I’m doing something in that creature feature area because that’s who I am now. It’s a double-edged sword because it’s good that I can get stuff financed easier, but I’ve obviously got other projects I want to do. I’ve got a black comedy. I’ve got various films that aren’t creature features, and they’re much harder to get financed because everyone seems to know me as this guy now. So, that was one thing. Then, I just like anything that’s sort of a survival story. As long as it’s got that element to it, I’m always attracted to it, and if I can try and make it scary and suspenseful and it would seem to me like a good premise to have a big, menacing thing in a dark cave, then that was also attractive.
I’m glad you mentioned the black comedy because I was going to ask you about other genres and whether you think you have a romantic comedy in you or whether thrillers and horrors are where it’s at for you.
Oh, yeah. Look, I’ve got lots of other ideas. I’ve got a sci-fi, I’ve got a black comedy, and I’ve just got sheer suspense without any animals in it. But, like I say, there’s a market for these films and I’m still in favour.
Most creature features, especially the ones that are coming out of America, portray animals as these relentless killing machines, but mostly you stick to an animal’s natural instincts with your films. Is this intentional?
Yeah, it is. I really believe that the big bad, as they call it, or the threat in the film has to be as real and as menacing as possible. Obviously, if you’ve got a big-budget American film and it’s already out there as something that’s not necessarily believable but just a popcorn film, then you can get away with murder. But if it’s sort of a smaller film where you’re trying to create tension, I think that really helps if it’s a much more realistic a beast. I try and keep it as real as possible because I’m working on the idea of suspense more than action, and suspense, for me, easily dissipates if you just go, “Yeah, that’s just a CGI animal. That’s just a guy in a suit or whatever.” It just all goes away. So I really try very hard to keep the threat as real as possible.
That must mean that you put a lot of research into these animals.
I know a lot more than I should about sharks and crocodiles, let me tell you. [Laughs].
I want to ask you about David Nerlich who you co-wrote and co-directed the original Black Water with. Was David ever considered to return for Abyss?
Not really. We parted after that film. It’s a difficult process, I think, co-directing because it’s such an auteurish or a one-person job. We didn’t part in a bad way, but we just both realised we never really wanted to co-direct again because it becomes really difficult knowing who did what and who should get credit for what, so it can get just very fraught. So, no, David didn’t have anything to do with this one.
This is the first feature film that you’ve directed from a script that you hadn’t written. Can you tell us about collaborating with John Ridley and Sarah Smith here?
It’s a very different process because normally when I write something I’m writing with the film in mind and I know my budget level, probably, so when I deliver a script I’ve written it’s very close to where I want it to be. There’s always stuff you tinker with and budget limitations arise, et cetera, but it’s usually a lot closer. This script came to me much more as an action film, and I knew we wouldn’t have the budget to do half the things they were trying to do. So I had to kind of re-sculpt it and take it back to where I wanted it anyway, which is more about suspense rather than action and more about the anxiety of the situation other than the chomp, chomp, chomp. So most of it was spent around that and then trying to get the characters in a good place so that their journeys were something you cared about.
Production designer Adam Head has done an incredible job with the set design. It really is phenomenal. Everything about the film looks great. Can you tell us about working with Adam to achieve this vision?
Adam’s great. He really has a can-do attitude, and that’s fantastic. Look, it was a very difficult set to make because in the end it was 250 tons of water. People were going, “Oh, we can have this little thing,” and I’m going, “Well, there’s going to be a 15-foot crocodile in there, so how can we have a 12-by-12-foot pool if there’s a…” It just had to keep on getting bigger to accommodate the size of the crocodile, but that meant that we then had to put more water in and it was just a much bigger deal. The cave set was a big deal in the sense that it took longer than we wanted it to, it was trickier than we wanted it to be, and credit to Adam, he got it there in the end, because it wasn’t easy.
You’ve got yourself a great team of incredible young actors here. I know it’s an actor’s job, but from a director’s point of view, how difficult is it to achieve such terror from someone when they’re acting opposite a rubber crocodile?
It is difficult, and the actors were fantastic. They really took on the part. You can appreciate: I was in a wetsuit for most of this shoot and so were most of the crew, and the actors were quite often wet and cold and running around in this sort of setting. So they had a lot of physical things to overcome. Then, on top of that, they had to bring all that emotional content as well, so I have a lot of praise for the actors because I think they did a great job.
Real crocodiles were used, right?
Mostly. 90% is a real crocodile, a big crocodile called Smaug that the same zoologist, Adam Britain, who helped with the first one, has got that lives in his backyard. It is Darwin, so I guess you can get away with that sort of stuff up there. [Laughs]. Then there were a couple of shots we just couldn’t get right with the big fella, so there’s two CGI shots in there.
What’s your favourite Australian creature feature and why?
Well, Razorback always pops up, but I’m not sure I’ve got a creature feature. My favorite Australian film was probably, harking right back, would have to be Mad Max for what it did to the scene and just because it was so in your face, just so courageous, and just went out there and spawned a whole industry in a way. So that’s definitely my favorite Australian film, I’d say. But look, there’s been a lot of great Australian films. I think we punch way above our weight in terms of making films, and it’s great to see that we’ve got, small as it is, a culture and an industry.
Black Water: Abyss is out now on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray.
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