The Hunter: Dafoe vs Tasmania

Hunting the mythical existence of an animal declared extinct, the filmic adaptation of Julia Leigh’s novel, The Hunter sees Willem Dafoe turn in a tense performance while showing off Tasmania’s striking landscape. Colin Delaney spoke with director Daniel Nettheim and producer Vincent Sheehan.

Set in the wilds of Tasmania, The Hunter follows the covert operation of an international mercenary on the trail of the extinct-turned-mythical Tasmanian tiger. Played tempered yet tense by Willem Dafoe, Martin David is the mysterious hunter, under the guise as a university researcher, seeking the animal for its paralysing poison to use in bio-weaponry.

Based on a novel by Julia Leigh published in 1999, the reclusive tiger represents a catalyst for hope and change. The aging David seeks redemption out of his kill. Lucy, the hillbilly single mother (Frances O’Connor) of two who David stays with, sees a new father-figure for her children, while the greenies who once looked to Lucy’s husband, hope David’s discovery will save their forest.

Not far behind David however, is a younger, rival mercenary looking to poach his treasure as local loggers threaten him should he find the tiger and the forest be turned into a reserve.

Source material to screen
“The Hunter was Julia’s first novel,” says director Daniel Nettheim (Angst). “It was enormously successful all over the world with a really big following. It didn’t lend itself obviously to a film but many aspects of it were begging to be filmed; the epic scenery had to be filmed; this foreigner confronted; and the grieving family – there was so much that was incredibly filmic from the start. [However] Julia’s novel was very internal and able to rely on the beauty of the prose. We had to find dramatic and visual elements to depict that. We had to invent stuff the novelist had the luxury of leaving unsaid.”

“There wasn’t a whole lot of backstory – who he was working for and things like the political backdrop of the film was stuff we had to expand on and elaborate to raise the stakes for the character and maintain tension. I suppose it was always a latent thriller and we had to draw out the thriller quality of it.”

The first couple of drafts of the adaptation were written by Nettheim and Wain Fimeri but it was Alice Addison’s addition that brought a lot to the script, says producer Vincent Sheehan (Animal Kingdom). “As an adaptation there are parts you want to be true to it in theory and in the essence. She’s a beautiful writer and had a lot to do with the Lucy character and the ending.”

Lucy softens Dafoe’s character. There’s a spine-tingling moment between the two of them using Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ and a tree full of speakers. “That’s a script invention,” says Sheehan, noting that it wasn’t written into Leigh’s novel. “It’s been in the script for a long time and it was always ‘could we ever get the song and what other tracks could do it’.” Neither Nettheim nor Sheehan would divulge what they paid for the track, but they believe it was worth it. It builds personality around Lucy’s husband Jarrah, who we never see. “Springsteen helped to make him rounded and real,” says Sheehan. “We just had to approach Springsteen himself. We described the scene and he was supportive of it. It was well worth getting.”

Waiting for Dafoe
Developing a character with a specific actor in mind can be dangerous to a director’s ego when you get knocked back, so securing a big name like Dafoe is a coup for any independent filmmaker. “When we started developing the film,” says Sheehan, “and as we got closer to it, he started to be more appropriate than anyone. He is an amazingly fit man for his age, but the hunter can’t be a young 30-something. He had to be at the other end of the career. It’s about that last bit of redemption as a hunter to prove himself and as a person to prove himself. Willem has that presence. It became a natural fit towards the end.”

“We managed to get Willem a copy of the script via his manager,” explains Nettheim. “You never know what you have to do to attract people of that calibre.” Nettheim’s experience, beyond his first and only other feature film Angst eleven years ago, lies in local television drama. The script script however, was enough for Willem to want to meet with him. In October 2009, Nettheim made a trip to New York. “I got a call on the last day of my stay saying Willem would like to meet me for lunch. They suggested I see his latest film which was in the cinemas, so I went to see Antichrist before meeting him – fortunately it never come up. He was very friendly and inviting and we had a chat about many things. I wasn’t there to pitch the project but for him to meet me and see if we were on the same wavelength.”

“He was such a team player,” continues Nettheim. “You hear stories of experienced actors not wanting to connect with the crew but he was always there. I get the impression Willem loves filmmaking. He got involved on many levels and didn’t create any artificial hierarchy. He was very interested in his props. The props in this film are really about understanding his character. He was involved in picking out the backpack, and belt and how dirty they’d be. That level of engagement to be absolutely authentic was very impressive.”

Obviously a name like Dafoe is going to be good for sales but Sheehan and Nettheim agree, you can’t go shoe-horning in a big name into a little picture. “It’s got to come from an organic place,” says Sheehan. “It’s got to be the appropriate way. Australian films fail greatest when we try to be too commercial. The work suffers and it becomes a mimic, we can’t let it slip into that.”

An internationally-known actor “would be beneficial to funding and selling, which is critical,” says Nettheim but, “the script has to make the film good, a foreign actor won’t.”

The film, Sheehan says, “is undeniably Australian. But what Willem brings to it as a foreigner is more weight to sell it internationally. That’s a really strong point. It doesn’t take away from the attractiveness or mystery. And Willem softens the accent of the film. It’s not a conscious thing by us but it’s something the marketers or buyers have said.”

Entertainment One (eOne) have announced strong international sales across all major regions, Magnolia in the US, eOne in Canada, Artificial Eye in the UK, Pictureworks in India and others across Greece, Germany, Vietnam, Indonesia and Eastern Europe. Locally the film will open on more than 50 screens via Madman Entertainment.

The apple isle and pinot noir
The Hunter was made with the finance of Screen Tasmania as well as Screen NSW and Screen Australia, some private investment and from Madman and eOne. The spectacular Tasmanian scenery plays an impressive supporting role to Dafoe, like a femme fatale, beautiful yet dangerous with stunning landscapes and savage wilderness. If Australia sold the NT, The Hunter will sell the Apple Isle.

“Shooting in Tasmania was spectacular,” says Nettheim. “When we visited, we walked and hiked into some spectacular places which you’d never get the cast and crew into. We had to find visual equivalents but be able to park a truck and see three different locations and views. Tasmania was able to offer that and convey you were in the middle of nowhere.

The real life rivalry between the greenies and the loggers is well documented and film crews in the past have come with certain intentions. However Nettheim and Sheehan’s team came without agendas. “They were very welcoming once they realised our intentions were straight. Each are protecting their interests and each have valid opinions,” says Nettheim. “We weren’t depicting that story from one way or the other, so we were welcomed by both.”

“The local [film] industry was also very supportive… and we drank a lot of nice pinot noir. I’ve heard stories of filmmakers going down for a shoot and ending up with a block of land. Although there’s been some work, I think it’s still under-utilised as a filmmaking destination but I think they’re doing a lot to encourage more down there.”

The Hunter is in cinemas now.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.