By Junsui Films | July 2012
The Producer talks exclusively to Junsui Films about bringing Julia Leigh’s acclaimed novel THE HUNTER to the big screen, working alongside director Daniel Nettheim and actor Willem Dafoe, and tells us all about the challenges of shooting in the Tasmanian wilderness…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with how you got your break in the industry.
Vincent Sheehan: I came to producing down a myriad of corridors. I went to art school first and did lots of experimental Super 8 films before entering the world of music videos, as well as bumming around in bands during the late eighties and early nineties.
I then got more serious and went to film school at the University of Technology in Sydney. After which I worked as a professional editor and then various jobs in post production. Slowly I found myself more and more involved in producing, which is what I felt I was good at and also something I really enjoyed too.
JF: As a producer what do you look for when deciding to take on a project and what key factors influence your decision?
First and foremost it has to be a story that I think has cinematic potential. A story that can be told though character and imagery. Character is a big thing for me. A compelling character [or characters] with a moving, emotional journey and one that both touches and asks us questions about who we are.
JF: How much creative input do you tend to have during a film’s development?
I’m pretty hands on. I directed many music videos and work creatively in many positions, especially as an editor, so I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. That said, I am also very director driven, so backing the director is important, but you can only really do that if you understand what they are doing and share that vision.
JF: Let’s talk The Hunter. How did you come to be involved in the project?
I read the book back in 1999 and it was one of those reads where I was totally gripped from the first to last page. Julia [Leigh] is a beautiful writer and it was a combination of her prose and a world and journey that completely seduced me. I thought that the emotional and physical journey of the central character, set against such a spectacular landscape and infused with the myth of the tiger, offered up such wonderful cinematic potential.
[Director] Daniel Nettheim had read the book at the same time and he was interested in turning it into a film too. We were friends, but had never worked together, so after much discussion we decided to team up. There was a bit of heat on the book so we decided to write a treatment and pitch our vision for the film to the author herself.
JF: Did you have any reservations about adapting such a revered novel for the screen?
Absolutely. It was a challenge, but in a good way. In terms of story you can get away with a lot more in literature than cinema. One of the key challenges was that the story in the book was very internalised. The central character was a loner who avoided engagement with others, so we had to find cinematic ways to externalise his journey.
JF: Director Daniel Nettheim makes his feature debut with the film, what made you believe he’d be a good fit for The Hunter?
Strictly speaking, it is not his debut. Daniel did a low budget teen comedy many years ago, but as it was so different in style to The Hunter, not to mention it was a film that didn’t travel internationally, that it was never a project that could be used as reference for us. So essentially, I had the same challenges as with any first time director.
However, from the start I had a lot of faith in Daniel and there was never a moment where he didn’t rise to the challenges of the project and deliver. He had a clear and compelling vision and you could see him maturing as a director all the way through the development process. I knew that I could put him in a room with investors, or even the cast for that matter, and he would deliver. And he did.
JF: How difficult was it securing funding for the film?
With an unknown director it is always difficult. The book had a lot of attention but it was always going to be about a compelling script. Daniel was very involved with the adaptation and he wrote a great director’s statement and when combined we started getting some traction in the marketplace. Distributors had only one question then: Who will play Martin?
JF: Which brings us to casting; at what stage was Willem Dafoe considered for the role of Martin David?
He was always on our list and during various stages of the writing other possibilities were considered but we just kept coming back to Willem. The character of Martin is in every scene of the movie, so we knew that whoever would play the character would absolutely own the film. ”Willem Dafoe is The Hunter” was often said to distributors and there was always a slow and thoughtful nod of appreciation and understanding in reply.
As for the rest of the cast, Sam [Neil] was cast very much against type. He often plays sophisticated characters but Jack is a real bushman. It was scary for Sam, as he often told us, but he really owned Jack.
Frances [ O’Connor] did a film many years ago called, Thank God He Met Lizzy and it was a combination of her performance in that, as well as another more recent film Bliss that convinced us she was perfect for the role of Lucy.
JF: Despite its Australian setting the film tackles universal themes such as survival, grief and isolation; how crucial was it for you to secure international distribution for the film?
It was always important for us to get international distribution. We wanted to make a film that could travel. One that had a distinctive and exotic setting and cultural backdrop but was still very accessible.
Willem plays the outsider and it is through his performance, and because he is an actor that many people are aware of, that international audiences are offered a way into the story. As outsiders they take the journey with him. This was always an important part of the casting for us.
JF: As producer you’re involved in everything from budget to location to casting, but what were the more day-to-day challenges you faced when producing The Hunter?
It was a physically challenging film. In Tasmania you get four seasons in an hour – from piecing sun (which can burn you very quickly!), then sudden snow blizzards. However, it is exceptionally beautiful too. This always offset the difficulties. There were times after a long day shooting where you just had a moment to look around you and the spectacular landscape would never fail to take your breath away.
JF: The Australian film industry is enjoying a real boom period following the success of Animal Kingdom, Snowtown and now The Hunter. What do you put this success down to and how vital is it that the industry continues to build upon it?
All of the films that you mention could only have been made in Australia. There is a truth to the world and to the directorial voices behind the depiction of those stories and characters. I think this is often a key to any great film and for me personally, looking for those directors with distinctive and original voices has always been a driving force of mine.
JF: And finally, what next for Vincent Sheehan and Porchlight Films?
Liz Watts, my producing partner at Porchlight is doing another film with director David Michod who she did Animal Kingdom with. It is called The Rover and should be in production later this year. I have a number of TV projects that are getting closer to production too, but an off-beat sci-fi called Valve with director Andrew Lancaster will hopefully be my next feature film.
The Hunter is out now and reviewed here.