Trancending the Elements: an interview with Daniel Nettheim, director of The Hunter

Director Daniel Nettheim on location in Tasmania.

Director Daniel Nettheim on location in Tasmania.

At first glance it seems that director Daniel Nettheim has come out of nowhere to direct The Hunter, an ambitious wilderness-set project boasting performances by actors of the calibre and stature of Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor. But Nettheim has been honing his craft for years. After starting out as a photographer, he attended AFTRS, graduating in 1995. That same year his short film The Beat Manifesto won three AFI Awards – including two for Nettheim, for Best Short Film and Best Screenplay in a Short Film. He’s been steadily employed ever since as a director of commercials, multimedia and a raft of terrific television – including Spirited, Rush, All Saints, The Elephant Princess and The Secret Life of Us.

Based on the acclaimed 1999 novel by Julia Leigh, The Hunter follows Martin (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary sent from Europe by a sinister biotech company, to track down the last Tasmanian Tiger and extract its DNA. The search brings him into contact with a bereaved family, and with the competing interests of loggers and environmentalists. Produced by Porchlight’s Vincent Sheehan, with a screenplay by Alice Addison, the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Humphreys. Edited by Roland Gallois, with production design by Steven Jones-Evans and costume design from Emily Seresin, the atmospheric and haunting film features sound design by Sam Petty and Liam Egan, and an original score by Matteo Zingales, Michael Lira and Andrew Lancaster. In other words, it’s a hugely accomplished team, with a raft of credits and awards to their name. Yet as Daniel Nettheim admits, at the end of the day, it’s the director who has to provide answers to the numerous questions that arise as a film is made.

L-R: Daniel Nettheim, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill - on location for The Hunter

L-R: Daniel Nettheim, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill - on location for The Hunter.

In this interview, Nettheim talks about the the experience of shooting in remote and beautiful Tasmania, and explores why he thinks we continue to be fasinated by the elusive Tassie Tiger. He also identifies his most pleasurable and painful aspects of directing films and television, and the difficult art of compromise. He also shares his memories of that distant AFI Awards ceremony, 16 years ago, where he had to juggle his handful of old-style AFI Awards – a collection he was hoping to add to one day, to make up a set of legs for a glass-topped coffee table!

Australian Film Institute: Congratulations on the release of  The Hunter.  Why do you think we continue to be so fascinated with the Tasmanian Tiger? What’s that about?

Daniel Nettheim: It’s an interesting question. To me, and maybe to a lot of people, the Tasmanian Tiger represents the possibility of redemption, perhaps. The idea that if this creature is still out there somewhere, we’ve got a second chance to save it – to do the right thing and redress the wrongs of our colonial past. So I think the myth that it’s still out there somewhere is so attractive because maybe it represents a possibility of appeasing our collective guilt. You know, not just about the tiger, but about the damage we may have done to the environment in our past, when we were less enlightened. That’s one explanation. I also think that there’s just something attractive about the mythology of this creature that’s supposedly extinct, yet there are these intermittent reported sightings.

AFI: Are there really people saying that they’ve seen these creatures in recent years?

Daniel Nettheim: Completely. Oh yeah. We had a guy shooting behind-the-scenes video material when we were down in Tassie, and everywhere we stopped, he would do a little interview with some of the locals. Pretty much everyone had a story. It was either that they knew someone who knew someone, or it was a firsthand account. At the very least, people would have a story of their grandfather, who might have seen one well into the 1950s, twenty years after the last one supposedly died out. In fact, Madman have cut some of this footage together into a little voxpop documentary that they’re putting up on the Facebook page. [Posted below]

Daniel Nettheim: You do sense that there’s not just a hope, but a genuine belief spread amongst many quarters, that the thing is still out there. And the response as to what people would do if they saw one is also pretty telling, because most people say: “I would not say a thing!” or “I would never reveal its whereabouts.” So there’s this great kind of protective sense that’s pervading all these stories.

AFI: The landscape in this film looks absolutely amazing. It’s beautiful. Tasmania is beautiful, but it’s also quite… scary or sombre looking. It’s not really a cheerful landscape, is it?

Daniel Nettheim: It’s a very varied landscape, and we’ve made very conscious choices about how we portrayed it. We chose never to shoot in sunshine, for example. We tried to avoid it – which was pretty easy in the end, because there wasn’t a lot of sunshine! In those conditions it’s a really broody, haunting and compelling landscape. But it can look completely different when the sun comes out. People say that the seasons can change up to four times in any one hour in certain parts of that landscape, and that was true. We saw it. One of the greatest challenges of filming there was just consistency of light, you know. Over the time it takes to shoot one scene, you got clouds, you got sun, you got rain, you got fog.  Vincent [Sheehan, producer of The Hunter] screened the film in Tasmania for some people associated with Tourism Tasmania, and the comment was made that we’ve shown the landscape differently to how many other filmmakers have before.
The joys of location shooting in the Tasmanian wilderness.

The joys of location shooting in the Tasmanian wilderness.

AFI: In what way is the landscape different in your film?

Daniel Nettheim: I think a lot of other filmmakers who travel down to Tasmania are really attracted to the kind of dark, very closed-in forests, whereas we picked out some of those more open, button-grass plains and some of that more sparsely wooded kind of alpine territory.

AFI: Apparently it’s still very easy to get lost there.

Daniel Nettheim: Yes, when you look at the map, something like 33% of the island is either world heritage or protected national parks that can never be built on, can never be developed. And there’s a lot of rugged, thick bush. You can see this huge green swathe with no roads down the entire West coast. There are national park areas that have never had a tree chopped, and never will now. So it’s quite impressive from that perspective. And also, you can see why it can give rise to the myth that the Tasmania Tiger is still out there somewhere in these areas that people can’t access.

AFI: The Tiger could very well still be out there, somewhere.

Daniel Nettheim: It really could, you know. And if it’s smart, it’s going to stay well away from where people go!

AFI: In your film you use an iconic piece of old and damaged footage of the last Tiger in captivity. How did you work with that?

Daniel Nettheim:  There’s something like six minutes of moving footage that exists in the world. And two different bodies that own different section of them. So we had to apply to two different bodies for permission to use it – the NFSA and the Hobart Museum,. [Watch the National Film and Sound Archive’s footage online here on the ASO Australian Screen website.] We were being provided with very kind of low-res, bad-quality digital versions of it. You know, when we went to do our title sequence, we looked at the blow-up for the first time and it just didn’t cut it. And we were asking repeatedly: “Do you have a better version? Do you have a better transfer?” And in the end, they sent us the negative or the original print, whatever they had so we were able to do the first really great quality, high-res version of it. Having worked on those sequences for so long with that low-res digital version, it was just so amazing when we saw it projected for the first time and you could just see the crispness of the fur on that animal’s back. Of course, it’s all scratched and degraded and the temptation would easily be there to clean it all up, which we didn’t want to do, because part of the value of the footage is its age.

Director of Photography Robert Humphreys with crew on location for The Hunter.

Director of Photography Robert Humphreys with crew on location for The Hunter.

AFI: How long was this film in development, from the optioning of the novel by Julia Leigh, until now?

Daniel Nettheim: We optioned it in 2001, so that’s a good ten years before the financing of the film was locked in place.

AFI: Did you think it was going to happen?

Daniel Nettheim: Ah, look, you always keep working on these things as if they are going to happen. You can’t let yourself doubt or you just lose heart. I think there was always enough interest to get it up. From the start, there was so much beauty in the novel and a lot of awareness of the novel and even the early screenplays did justice to that, even when we hadn’t quite nailed the story. There was always enough there to maintain a sufficient level of interest in terms of getting another draft written, getting development funding and so forth. But obviously, Vincent and I were always working on other things at the same time.

AFI: Have you worked with producer Vincent Sheehan before?

Daniel Nettheim: I’ve never worked with Vincent before, but I’ve known him for a very long time. We were at art school together, circa 1984, and I was flatmates with Vincent when he was producing Mullet (2001) and saw how hard he worked as a producer. We talked for ages about the possibility of doing something together, and this book ended up being that project.

AFI: You graduated from film school in 1995, so it’s been a little while between graduating and making your first feature. Did you always want to make feature films?

Willem Dafoe as The Hunter

Willem Dafoe as The Hunter

Daniel Nettheim:  I did. But I also looked at the reality, even when I was at film school. I looked at the reality of the industry and saw that you couldn’t sustain yourself professionally purely by doing features. So I consciously angled myself towards getting work in television drama when I first got out of film school. And for the bulk of the last ten years that’s what I’ve been doing. That really was a very wise choice, because if I’d purely been trying to develop The Hunter and get it funded, I would have been driven insane!

AFI: You’ve done some wonderful television, and from the look of your credits, it’s kept you very busy.

Daniel Nettheim: Absolutely. I’ve kind of been non-stop for ten years and you know, I’ve been privileged that I’ve gotten to work on some of the really quality shows that are being made in this country.

AFI: Is the main difference between working on a feature and working on television the greater pace of television shoots?

Daniel Nettheim: Definitely the pace is the main difference.  I definitely learned a lot of skills from doing fast-turnaround television drama. That helped and informed the making of this film. But there’s a certain kind of onus, a certain imperative in shooting television drama to get the day done. So, you’re constantly balancing compromises that may need to be made. You’re aiming for 100%, but you’re realistically expecting to get 85%. And you just want to make sure that you make the right decisions in the right areas. With television you get used to cutting corners – trying to do that in an effective way. So it was almost a lesson in reminding myself on the film: “Okay, I don’t have to be cutting corners now. This has got to last a long time, so be looking to get the best option, not just the quickest option.”

AFI: “This is Art!”

Daniel Nettheim: Yeah, well television is art as well. There wasn’t even that kind of differentiation of quality. It was really just about the differentiation of working practice.  I guess I’ve become skilled at certain working practices required for TV, which is to really kind of, you know, make good decisions very quickly. And you know, the film was more like making good decisions with a little more time for reflection and little more time to think about how we can push to do better.

AFI: What are the aspects of directing that you enjoy the most?

Daniel Nettheim: What I love is being surrounded by a bunch of people who are really excelling in their craft. I find that really inspiring. When I started out at film school, I would have loved to have pursued cinematography or editing or production design. But you know, pursuing one would have been at the exclusion of all others and what I’ve realised about directing is that I get to keep a finger in the pie of all those areas. So that’s inspiring, being able to talk to a bunch of different creative people in a bunch of different languages, but all telling the same story. I actually do enjoy the on-set work. I like that kind of pressure-cooker situation where everything’s about exactly what’s happening in the moment. And I enjoy just the craft of working with the actors to bring that story alive and seeing those characters kind of lift beyond what’s on the page in front of your very eyes, and what these actors bring to it.

A kind of alchemy - characters made flesh. Frances O'Connor and Morgana Davies in The Hunter.

A kind of alchemy - characters become flesh. Frances O'Connor and Morgana Davies in The Hunter.

AFI: It’s a bit like alchemy or magic, seeing those written characters become flesh?

Daneil Nettheim: It is! It really is, because when you’re making a film or a television program, what you’re aiming for is for the sum of the parts to be greater than the whole. That’s the kind of thing that you’re hoping for as a director. It’s not just to deliver an audiovisual version of the source material, but to transcend it and combine the elements into something that can really, ultimately, move audiences.

AFI: It’s a truism that the most difficult thing about working in Australia is the low budgets and the difficulty in raising finance for films, but apart from that, what’s the hardest or least pleasurable aspect of your working life?
Daniel Nettheim: Hmm, the hardest…? Having to compromise is hard –  it’s the least pleasurable. I remember working with a First AD (Assistant Director) who does a lot of films, and he said he’d given up doing television, because he was sick of telling everybody they couldn’t do their job well. You know, like telling people: “No, you don’t have time to do that. You’ve got to compromise, you’ve got to deliver something that’s not as good as what you’re capable of.” So, look, you know, it’s not pleasurable telling people: “Near enough is good enough.” You know, you’ve just got to accept that and move on. Also, another aspect which is the least pleasurable – and it’s not just local to Australia, but I think it’s universal, is the long hours you’ve got to put in. Shooting days are really exhausting, and everybody – the director probably no more so than anyone else –  has to maintain a very intense level of focus from the start of shooting in the morning until the end of the ten hour day. As a director, you’ve then got to go home and prep for the next day. And you’ve got to be completely on your toes and ready to answer the hundreds of questions. It is exhausting. You get to the end of a shoot and you’re just shattered.
Sam Neill and Frances O'Connor, The Hunter

Sam Neill and Frances O'Connor in The Hunter.

AFI: One final question. You won two AFI Awards back in 1995 for your short film The Beat Manifesto – Best Short Fiction Film and Best Screenplay in a Short Film. What can you remember about receiving those? Were you at the Ceremony?

Daniel Nettheim: Yeah I was there! Absolutely. It was really exciting. What I remember particularly was that, because I co-wrote the screenplay with two other people – one was Tony McNamara, who’s a pretty prolific television writer, and the other co-writer was Matt Schulz, who’s a novelist – neither of them were there to collect their Awards. So, I walked away with four statuettes. There was an afterparty and we had to stand in a queue with a whole lot of other people, holding statuettes and waiting to check them in, so we could go in and, you know, have a dance at the party. And then when the afterparty closed down, we went on to some bar somewhere in Melbourne and so, you know, I was clutching these four statuettes all night!

AFI: They’re heavy too! Have you seen the new golden AACTA statuette that we have just unveiled?

Daneil Nettheim? I’ve seen pictures. It looks really pretty. I’ll tell you my only disappointment: it’s that the previous statues made great table legs! And I was hoping to collect four in my career so that I could prop up glass-top tables with them! But I’m happy to have them on the shelf. And look, receiving those awards was such a boost. The Beat Manifesto was just my film school short, and I think those awards really kick-started my career. I’m sure it got me in the door of the first TV producers that I worked with.

AFI: Thanks for your time, and all the best with The Hunter in this year’s AACTA Awards!

Daniel Nettheim: Thanks!

The Hunter released nationally on 6 October, and was opening night film for the Samsung AFI | AACTA Festival of Film. It is one of the 21 Feature Films in Competition for the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards.

Extra Reading & Research:

Watch the trailer for The Hunter, below:

Watch behind the scenes of The Hunter, below:


Watch Nettheim’s AFI Award-winning 18-minute short film The Beat Manifesto, or read an excellent Senses of Cinema essay on that film here.