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High Ground director Stephen Johnson hopes that his new film will encourage audiences to rethink the Australian story. Cinema Australia caught up with Johnson to discuss his harrowing and confronting revenge western.
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“It was more about trying to create something immersive and effective. And not being apologetic about it, or else we’ll never reconcile in this country.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
You grew up in Africa. When did you move to Australia?
Bahamas in Africa, yeah. I came out to Australia in the early ’70s. My father is a teacher, as is my mother. And they ended up teaching in remote locations, including the Northern Territory of course. I had quite an incredible sort of immersion in life and cultures from a very young age. All of my friends were indigenous peoples from various places. And that’s been my life, really, just kind of out in the bush and out on country and living in some very exotically exciting places.
What impact did the culture of the Northern Territory have on you?
East Africa, the Maasai, is obviously, a very, very powerful nation of people. And my father used to interact quite regularly with villages, and also just people working and coming and going from the diamond mine where we were living. It was more of a compound, really, in the middle of the wilds of East Africa. And for me, I just got to see and integrate, in a sense, with those people at a very early age, and was just completely accepted and embraced. And it was a very, very beautiful thing just to see a completely different perspective on life. I mean, it was funny, because I was so young, it was just part of my life. It was kind of part of my belonging, where I was at that time, and how I was growing up, and what the influences were upon me. And really, that’s been the journey of my life with some of my very dearest friendships with indigenous peoples. And particularly in Arnhem Land, which is ultimately what led to this kind of collective of telling their story.
You once pursued a career in acting. When did you decide that you’d rather be behind the camera rather than in front of it?
Well, it’s funny you should ask, because I was actually behind the camera before I went to acting school. I was working as a cameraman at Channel 9 and Channel 7 here in Perth, interestingly enough. I was always about working towards wanting to tell stories and make movies and do that kind of stuff. And there was other skillsets that I felt I needed to acquire as part of my journey. So I decided to jump in front of the camera and do some kind of intensive work with acting, and method acting particularly at a school in London. And I auditioned here, again over in London, and got in. And that was a fascinating and really informing and inspiring time in my life. I cut it short though, becausewith all my experience that I’d had already in the industry of television, particularly, I kind of felt I’d got as much as I could out of my days at acting school, and came back to Australia and then headed north to pursue the idea of making a movie.
You’ve piqued my local curiosity now. When you were a cameraman working at Channel 9 and Channel 7 in Perth, were you involved in any big stories that you remember?
Oh gosh. Yeah. Channel 9 was a lot of studio stuff, and I take pride in knowing how to pull focus on great people like Dennis Lillee and all that sort of stuff, doing sport and studio television. It was all really good training as far as learning camera technique. When I went to Channel 7 I became a news cameraman. So I was out in the field and covering every incident that was happening out there and current affair and news. And it was often dangerous, exciting, happy, sad. I mean, it was an incredible experience. And a great training ground for testing various different ways of telling a story, different emotions. I was very committed to the job. If I was shooting a news story, what was the story about? What were we trying to say? And how could I best put that over in picture? So I was always about trying to do the best and find the best angles and the best lighting and the best way of telling that story, whatever it may be.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of your first feature film, Yolngu Boy. Do you look back on that film as a personal success for you?
Look, it was an interesting one, Yolngu Boy, because it really was the first film of its kind. And certainly the first film shot in Arnhem Land with a full indigenous cast, apart from godfather Jack Thompson who’s got a part in that. And it was a very difficult film to get made because everyone was very scared and cautious about a film that was set in Arnhem Land about young Aboriginal boys. There was quite a lot of pressure on myself and the foundation, Dr. Patricia Edgar at the Children’s Television Foundation, was a massive supporter of mine and really helped drive the whole thing financially and support me in the idea of wanting to make this film. And the two of us had to break a lot of ground to get it made. And obviously, again, a very big collaboration with the Yolngu communities in East Arnhem Land there, where we worked together to realise the story.
When was the last time you watched Yolngu Boy?
Quite a while ago now, actually. I always think it could almost be rereleased, I think, in some ways. I’d love to see it get a bit more of a run, because as I say, it was one of those things, when it came out, people were very nervous about it, and one of them wanted to get their money back. And I can’t even remember how many screens it went out on, but it’s nowhere near as many as High Ground or the recent round of wonderful indigenous films that are getting out there on our screens. So yeah, it was perhaps at the beginning of things a little bit.
You mentioned Jack Thompson. Is Jack someone you’ve stayed in touch with over the years? Or is your relationship with him purely professional?
Very much so. A mentor in my life, Jack. And a beautiful supporter, and a big part of the whole High Ground story from the beginning. They’re supporting me in all the ways that he could. And obviously, there was always a part for Jack in the story.
You began working on High Ground almost 20 years ago with Witiyana Marika and Dr M Yunipingu. Can you tell us about the early interpretation of this film, and how the story evolved since then?
When you say early interpretation, I’ve gone back to the territory with the idea of trying to connect with the true history of what happened in this country when it was colonised. And I had grown up hearing horrific stories about massacres and various things. So it was always about trying to come back to a position of truth telling and working closely with my friends and the communities and the families in Arnhem Land to really extract the story, and come at it. I mean, Mandawuy was a very dear friend. It was all about his philosophy of both ways, sharing ideas, creating that bridge of understanding between cultures. It’s very much how the film and the story evolved. And we’re all grappling with the history of this country, and we grappled with the story for years and years and years, all of us, families included, about how we could best convey and tell a story in an entertaining way, in an engaging way. Not in a way that would alienate people. It was more about trying to create something immersive and effective in that way. And not being apologetic about it, or else we’ll never reconcile in this country. We’ve just got to get on with putting things out there and coming together and having a two-way conversation. And I mean, I’ve never seen the world in black and white. I’ve always been very, very engaged and live my life very much with indigenous people, as I was saying before. So it’s a very natural and easy process for me to sit down and get dirty, and for us to grapple together with the idea of telling a story like this.
You’ve said that you hope that High Ground encourages audiences to rethink Australia’s history. Thanks to filmmakers like yourself, Jennifer Kent, Warwick Thornton and others, our perceptions of Australia’s dark past are being challenged on film more often. As a storyteller, do you feel a sense of responsibility to be as honest as possible with a film like High Ground and not let the fictional aspect of it get in the way of the truth?
Yeah, definitely. Look, it is ultimately a fiction, but it’s a fiction to tell a deeper truth. It was about drawing from our history and the characters of our history, and incidents of history, and really allowing that to inform and inspire us to come up with a ripping tale, something that was exciting to watch and engaging. And yeah, it was all about navigating the idea of an exciting story, something to kind of challenge people’s perceptions and to take people on a journey into a time and a place in a way that they haven’t perhaps been before. To give that perspective, I suppose.
The locations play a pivotal role in High Ground. Filmmakers quite often tell me how welcoming traditional owners are to allow filmmakers to shoot on country. What was your experience like getting permission to shoot in Arnhem Land?
Well look, I mean, as I say to you, I’m a probably a little bit of an exception to the rule in the sense that I’ve grown up there, I’ve spent years and years of my life there. So I have very established relationships and associations with families in both the East and the West, the Bininj and the Yolngu people. This film was actually all shot on Bininj country in Western Arnhem Land. Witiyana’s a Yolngu man, a Rirratjingu leader from the East. And he came over, and the song lines are connected to the East and the West. So all the families ultimately are connected, as is the whole nation really. And just having those friendships and those relationships, it was a very natural process for me. They wanted to tell a story, we wanted to tell a story, and together we’ve been on that journey. So it was almost like they were in it from the start. So it wasn’t like I needed to sort of seek permission. It was like, let’s do this. And the permission was there by the very fact that it was their story, and they’re very much a part of it. And they wanted to film it in very special places, in sacred places, in places that were beautiful, that had meaning, that had story, and had connections to this story, ultimately. So the people who acted in the film are actually acting on their own country. I mean, they had such a beautiful connection, not only to the story, but to the land, to the sounds, to the sky, to everything that’s going on. And it’s connective, we’re all part of it really.
You mentioned Jacob, Witiyana, and Esmerelda, who are acting for the first time. What’s your approach as a director when you’re working with people who have never acted before?
Well look, I think the approach, again, it’s really about working with them and their understand… because they’re in the story, they are the story in a sense. And their grandmothers, their great-grandfathers, they were potentially people who were murdered, or have experienced it or knew about it. So there’s a connection there to the story in that way. And it was really just about understanding the scene and what was happening in the scene, and just allowing them to bring their own truth to it. They’re really just playing themselves in a heightened way within the context of the story. And just have so much natural ability to deliver that truth from within themselves. I mean, they’re acting on their land, they’re kind of playing a character that they know through themselves, that they are themselves. And it’s beautiful. It’s really natural, and it’s an incredibly raw way to work. It’s primal. It’s exciting. And I don’t set too many parameters. It’s about how do we feel here today? This is what’s happening, and let’s do this. And magic happens.
I get the feeling Jacob and Simon Baker got along very well.
They did, mate. And that’s a lovely question you should ask, because it was almost like the real life relationship between those two men was the very relationship that was happening on the screen. There was this young Aboriginal lad who looked up to this white guy because he could shoot this gun, and he was kind of ominous and stoic and all this kind of stuff. And like in real life, Simon was the big Hollywood star on the set. And he took Jacob under his wings and nurtured him and made him feel comfortable and relaxed on set, and then just put that truth to him straight in his eyes. And Jacob had nowhere to go except back to Simon. There was a trust there, there was a place that Simon co-created with Jacob that was safe and special. It was creative, it was real, and all connected to the storytelling. It was very beautiful to watch, actually. I commend Simon for that.
The massacre scene in the film is justifiably confronting. Can you describe the mood on set during a scene like that?
Pretty hectic, to be honest, because as much as we had a reasonable budget to make High Ground, you never have enough money, you never have enough time. So you’re working in a very remote location, you’re working with blood, you’re working with heat, sweat, emotion. You’ve got an enormous amount of things kind of stacked up against you, visual guns and blanks, and all sorts of stuff. So, I mean, just the technical aspect of it all was immensely challenging. There’s water, there’s horses. I mean, you name it. All the ingredients were there to make it difficult. However, the idea with that scene was very much to try, and not make it a cliche. It was more about trying to play it off camera quite a lot with sound. Again, trying to create that sort of atmosphere of how something like that could potentially play out. It’s about stillness. It’s about quiet. It’s about shock. There’s horror, there’s blood, yes. It’s got a whole range of stuff going on. And I was just trying to work within each of those moments with each of the scenes. And so I wrote, “Well here, this is very still. This is energized. And we’re going to go to a bird here. We’re going to go away from this and we’re going to come back to it.” It’s not all action, action, action, action, kill, kill, kill, kill. There’s a lot going on. And I’m hoping I’ve kind of found a way that’s just not too off-putting, not too confronting, but confronting enough to really hit hard.
What was the last new Australian film you watched?
I enjoyed watching Simon Baker’s Breath, because I understood it was his first movie, and I really, really appreciate what he was trying to do with that book and that story.
High Ground is in cinemas January 28.