How David Michôd escaped ‘the heat’

The Australian filmmaker talks through the anxiety of directorial expectations and avoiding the R Patz paparazzi frenzy

Arts+Culture Q+A
Guy-Pearce-and-Robert-Pattinson-in-The-Rover
Still from The Rover courtesy of Entertainment One, 2014

Four years ago, Aussie director David Michôd wowed critics with the gripping, grim Animal Kingdom. Written as well as helmed by Michôd, the bleak thriller about a family of criminals in 1980s Melbourne marked the Sydney-born film-maker's graduation from shorts to features, and earned him a slew of awards at home and abroad.

Michôd found himself inundated with offers to direct, but instead of jumping into someone else's project, he waited patiently and worked on his own original screenplay. The result is The Rover, in which Guy Pearce teams up with Robert Pattinson on a grim road trip through the Outback after some kind of societal collapse to track down a stolen car.

This time, Michôd has swapped the sprawling style of his urban debut for a leaner, meaner, pared-to-the-bone narrative pitted with violence, moments of elemental beauty, and a performance by Pattinson that puts the ghost of Twilight to rest.

Your first feature, Animal Kingdom, was a big hit. Did you get lots of offers on the back of it?

David Michôd: Yeah, it was a lot of scripts and a lot of attention. There were a lot of meetings, blind dates in Hollywood, working out methodologies. I felt like I had a lot of sifting through the new bits and pieces of my life to do, and I wanted to take my time and do that at my own pace, not panic.

Is there a temptation to jump into something right away and was that something that you had to consciously resist?

David Michôd: If I was a director for hire, then I would've felt a clock ticking. People talk about capitalising on heat. But all that really means is that for a period after you've made a film that's gotten some attention, your name keeps coming up in studio meetings. It keeps coming up in the meetings of production companies that have projects in development. If you wait too long, your name starts to slip off those lists. As soon as I had worked out that that's what 'the heat' means, I realised I didn't have to care. I knew deep down that I would always write whatever my next movie was, and so I could actually let that stuff die away a bit and come back when I was ready.

I had better ask about Robert Pattinson. This is one of a number of challenging roles that he has done since Twilight. What made you think he was the guy for this film?

David Michôd: I had never seen him in anything prior to this that made me think, 'he's the guy'. I hadn't seen the Twilight films. I had seen Cosmopolis and Water For Elephants, and even in those films saw that what he was giving was a performance. I had met him personally and I knew that he wasn't those characters.

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Still from The Rover courtesy of Entertainment One, 2014

So you thought of him for this then?

David Michôd: When I met him, I really liked him and thought he was a really interesting guy, but I was never going to cast him in The Rover without seeing him audition – I didn't know if it was there. He came in and auditioned and instantly was showing me the character; and really beautifully. I realised very quickly that he's actually a really incredibly talented actor who has painted himself into a very luxurious corner, and he needs to work hard to get out of it.

Actually, it's not even that. It's not like he's desperate to shed Twilight. It's just that that franchise has ended and he wants to do interesting films now. He wants to work with filmmakers he likes, and he knows who they are. He has good taste and he's got the chops to do what he needs to do. The camera loves him. And he's very, very talented.

Was his fame a problem when you were filming? Were you besieged by paparazzi?

David Michôd: Not really. There were maybe one or two moments, but we were out in such weird places. I didn't know what to expect. There was a part of me that feared us having to deal with helicopters flying over the set, and that didn't happen. There was a couple of moments where someone with a camera turned up and snapped a couple of shots which were instantly in the newspapers. But it didn't take much to defuse those situations. Generally for Rob, I think the experience was an incredibly relaxing one of him getting to wander around by himself in a way that he is never normally able to do.

You have said filmmaking is “emotionally volatile” for you. How so?

David Michôd: It's volatile because so many stages of it take place in a kind of panic, and because it feels very exposing. As the director you are more naked and vulnerable than anybody else on the project. I know this to be true even of those actors that I know who have dipped their toes into directorial waters who all say, without exception, that nothing feels more anxiety-stricken and exposing than showing something you've made. When you're watching yourself giving a performance you can hide behind other people's mistakes, if you think the end result wasn't great.

You have actually seen it from the other side of the camera as an actor yourself. Then you're having to put your faith in the director and trust that he or she will show you at your best. So does the fact that you don't have complete control as an actor also create anxiety?

David Michôd: Well, the acting I did was only ever fooling around in the kiddie pool, you know? I never felt like there was really much at stake. It did give me, hopefully, a solid sort of empathy for what actors are being asked to do. In order to get the best out of them you are asking them to surrender themselves to you. I totally understand why actors slip into a self-preservation mode when they feel like they are at the hands of a director that doesn't know what he or she is doing. I try to put actors at ease by being honest with them and being clear with them, and being available to them. But also by trying to communicate to them, wherever possible, that they can relax because I have good taste. I mean just to hope that they feel that too and they can let themselves go.

“It did give me a solid sort of empathy for what actors are being asked to do. I totally understand why actors slip into a self-preservation mode when they feel like they are at the hands of a director that doesn't know what he or she is doing” – David Michôd

Does knowing that you have experienced that other side of the process mean that actors are more likely to trust you from the get go?

David Michôd: I don't get the impression that any actor I have ever worked with as a director has taken comfort in knowing that I've acted myself. I don't think any of them would have considered me to be an actor of any repute. All they're really concerned about is, 'What are we doing today? What are we going to be doing for the next eight weeks? What kind of a grip do you, as a director, have on it? Can I trust you to monitor my performance?' As soon as they are comfortable in knowing that you're going to be there watching and monitoring their performance, they can then free themselves of the need to monitor it themselves. That's what you want them to do. You don't want them monitoring their own performances because then they're not in it. They're not losing themselves in it.

Can you always be certain – when you embark on a film – that it's something that will sustain your passion?

David Michôd: No, you can't be sure. I usually walk into projects thinking, 'Ah, don't know about this.' But after a while I realise I have to walk into something because otherwise I will never work again. Then I grow to love it. I start to feel it in my bones. I know that that is much more likely to happen if it is something that I have built myself from the ground up. It's one of the reasons why I find it difficult to engage, professionally, with other people's writing. It's not that I don't think the writing is good. It's that it doesn't feel that it's of me. In order to make something, I need to feel it in my bones.”

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Still from The Rover courtesy of Entertainment One, 2014

You filmed in Maree in the Outback, which is, weirdly, where they shot part of The Inbetweeners 2.

David Michôd: Did they!? Wow.

What it is about Maree that says 'The Outback' to film-makers?

David Michôd: Maree is just a fabulously strange town because it's in the middle of the desert. It's not a farming town. There used to be a train line that ran through it that doesn't run anymore. It almost feels like a town that has no reason for being. And that makes the people who are drawn there fascinating. The people who live there fascinating. There's something incredibly awe-inspiring and intimidating about being out in a place where you never forget the fact that if you just suddenly walked off that way for an hour, you would probably die if you didn't take a week's worth of water with you.

You started reworking the script in 2008. Did the financial crisis and your feelings about the world at that time feed into the screenplay and the tone of the film?

David Michôd: Yeah, all of it is. Around that time when I started redrafting the script I was feeling a genuine despair about the state of the world: about the intransigence of the government and about our seeming unwillingness to do anything to fix the problems which threatened to tear us asunder. That weirdly bubbled into a rage which I funnelled into the world of the movie, and specifically into Guy's character. You know, I remember a time when I used to just feel chipper about the future and I don't feel that any more. It's not a good feeling.

The Rover is out Friday, August 15

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