It can't be overstated the departure that How to Save Us represents from your films to date. To put it frankly, where did this film come from?
I've always loved The Twilight Zone. Ever since I was a kid watching the marathon's that play on Thanksgiving and New Years. My favorite ones always had that rich quality of one man versus the unexplainable. I Am Legend is one of my favorite books. And I always admired the balls of movies in the 70s to just have one person on screen. It's super interesting to me. It's why I love survival horror video games. One man or woman against impossible odds. I had an idea for this sort of Ghost Apocalypse movie for a couple years but never really cracked it or knew where it would take place. Then as fate would have it, my girlfriend took me on an awesome vacation to Tasmania and I fell in love with the place. It's so pretty and like nothing I'd ever seen before. The geography changes every ten miles. It doesn't make sense. And it has this dark history that everyone whispers about. I just loved it. But mostly I thought, wow there aren't many people here. You could totally get away with shooting a movie here!
One of the many assets this film possesses is the widescreen cinematography. The choice of locations and your character's place within such vastness recalls the films of Terrence Malick or John Ford. What inspired you about these, often remote, locations?
Good Call! Thin Red Line was actually one of the reference films we watched before shooting the movie. I love the vast scope of the movies I grew up on. Today I feel like scope more than anything is being phased out of movies. So many movies are shot in New Orleans or wherever the tax money takes them now but the problem is, the story isn't set in New Orleans, so you have a movie that looks like it was shot in a box while they try to fake wherever they're supposed to be and if you're lucky you get some static stock footage wide shot they pulled off the internet of New York or some mountains or something. I grew up on Indiana Jones and James Bond where when a movie was set in a certain place, they actually went there to shoot it and you could feel it. I love films where I get to actually see a new world that exists here on earth and everything isn't just a bunch of close ups. And Tasmania is such a fantastic place I wanted to shoot as much of it as I could. I wish I had more time because we barely scratched the surface of that place's haunting beauty.
For all the film’s pleasing aesthetic qualities, it is also very effective as a horror film. The ‘ghosts’ are truly terrifying, similar in many ways to the ‘Slender Man’ urban legend. Tell us more about the backstory of these creatures and the techniques used to create them…
That is such a relief. I was super worried about those. I just liked the idea of them being this humanoid electricity thing almost like the essence of a soul, you know trying to throw some science behind the whole ghost thing. That was the idea at least. There was a lot of in camera trickery there. We would shoot the scene once with the infrared camera with the ghost standing there, then pull out the Red, play back the infrared camera in the scene with the ghost , so it would appear that we are actually shooting the ghost live and it only appears in the camera. It was pretty cool. I like doing stuff in camera when all possible.
I don't like to assume that narratives that appear to be very personal are, in fact, autobiographical. But memory and regret are such potent themes in How to Save Us, one can't help wondering how much is based upon your personal history…
There is definitely some personal history injected in there. There is in everything I write. It's hard to just make up how people act if you've never experienced something like it. It's obviously not 100% my life. I've never built a ghost machine or anything.
But I had an interesting childhood like a lot of people have and I thought there weren't a lot of movies about how siblings deal with their troubled pasts. Because every sibling always handles it differently. As dark as the movie can get, I really just wanted to tell a story about hope and leave people knowing that it's okay to talk about your past, we all have problems, you don't have to bury them inside and let them destroy you. My favorite genre movies are where the human element is front and center.
How to Save Us not only redefines you as a writer/director, but demands a lot of yourself as a leading man. Most notably, in an extended monologue that you deliver directly into the camera that evokes very strong emotions. Was it an intention that the lone, wandering hero figure undergoes a certain deconstruction in your hands?
Well thanks a lot. That scene was very hard. But since we only had a four person crew, including myself on this movie, I told the rest of the crew to leave me out in the bush for half an hour and I just hooked up the sound and shot it myself. I think it really helps actually being alone when you're trying to convey that you're alone. That scene for me is the most important of the movie. Not because I'm just a vain actor that was itching for a cry baby scene, but because to me that's when you finally start to understand what the movie is really about, at it's core. Why this guy would keep pushing further and further down this twisted rabbit hole. I was super nervous about that scene, I actually had a lot of people in a test screening telling me I needed to reshoot that scene because, "Action heroes don't cry". But inevitable I just told them to screw off and stuck to my guns, because for me, my favorite action hero is Rambo. And goddamn if the best scene of First Blood for me is when the stoic guy finally loses his shit at the end. And for my money, that's what audiences relate to. Flawed people who hurt and feel just like them, what makes someone an action hero is they can just take more than the rest of us. But everyone has a breaking point and that's what makes them relatable.
Is the passionate JTRO fanbase, those that have supported you through highly energised, darkly humourous films like The FP, All Superheroes Must Die and Wet and Reckless, ready for this low-key, introspective – even, in some ways, ‘arty’ – new direction from you?
Ha! Probably not. In my experience no one is actually ready for anything new. But I think somewhere down the road in my career this movie will make sense. Or my fans can just laugh this one off and can rest assured that I'm going back to comedy with my next film.