Bone-dry, brutal and so slender it’s almost emaciated, Australian director David Michôd’s second feature, after his terrific debut “Animal Kingdom,” premiered in Cannes to high anticipation and ultimately mixed reviews. We really liked “The Rover,” which stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson as unlikely companions on a bleak road trip across a collapsed and exhausted near-future Australia (review here), but can understand how Michôd’s vision of a hellish ruined world, in which the first luxury to disappear is human kindness, might have proven simply too unrelentingly bleak for some; it’s the type of film into whose deliberately empty spaces one can read everything, or nothing at all.
We got to sit down with Michôd in Cannes on a day as rainy and windy as the film is parched and baked for a very enjoyable, in-depth talk about the casting process and his future projects, but mostly about the film itself—how he thought originally he was writing the script for Nash Edgerton to direct and how it’s different from his much-lauded debut. And we also talked quite a bit about the social and philosophical questions that “The Rover” raises. It’s a film that describes an unusually tiny but fascinating arc from nihilism to a kind of existentialism in which a man goes from believing that life is essentially meaningless, to understanding that meaning can be found but you have to make the hard choice to create it for yourself. But if that kind of chit-chat isn't your bag, then perhaps you may enjoy the interview on the basis that, hand on pounding heart, Robert Pattinson was in the room the whole time.
“The Rover” feels like a much sparer film than your first. Is that because, as I’ve heard, the script predates “Animal Kingdom”?
Well, it predated me shooting “Animal Kingdom.” I wrote “Animal Kingdom” for eight or nine years, while I was learning how to write and making short films and writing other things for other people. And one of the things that I wrote during that period was “The Rover.”
Was that first script very different from the one that went into production?
Yes and no. I had always set out to make something that felt very elemental, very lean so in the course of me trying to work out what my second movie would be I ended up coming back to “The Rover” because I loved how it was tonally speaking the same language as “Animal Kingdom” but was formally very different.
I didn’t want to make “Animal Kingdom” again, and I didn’t want to make a movie that was bigger and more complex than “Animal Kingdom” either, even though I would like to still do that at some point. I wanted for something that was a lot leaner in narrative, more muscular, more...
Mmm, sinewy. Yes.
And was there anything specific that you learned during the intervening “Animal Kingdom” years that you brought back to “The Rover”?
I discovered when I was editing “Animal Kingdom” that stuff that I had written that I thought was necessary was actually extraneous. And even things that I thought I knew like “get into a scene late and get out of it early,” I discovered when I was cutting, you could start even later ... And one of the upsetting things was that very frequently I had started scenes with some of my favorite pieces of dialogue. So actually a lot of what hit the floor in “Animal Kingdom” was my favorite stuff.
So you learned to put all your favorite bits of dialogue into the middle of the scene?
Ha, yeah, or to just think really hard and rigorously about when I was entering that scene. Other than that I felt like I have over the years and years since I finished film school been honing my writing craft and this was just an extension of that. So the next draft of “The Rover,” those passes felt more mature.
Having said that when I originally started “The Rover” I thought I was writing it for someone else to direct—my friend Nash Edgerton, who’s a great director of action, so the original draft of it was far more of a car chase movie. And when I knew that I wanted to make it which happened very quickly.
You had a massive falling out with Nash Edgerton?
No, no! I actually felt kind of lucky, because when I showed it to him, he was busy so we both just sort of put it aside. And then when I looked at it again for myself I looked at all these car chases and thought “this isn’t the movie that I want to make. This isn’t even a movie that I would want to see.” So I stripped a lot of that stuff out and drew it back to what it was always about for me which was the strange finding of human connection between these two very different characters.
And now do you consider yourself a writer who directs or a director who also writes?
If anything I’d say “filmmaker”—they all feel like parts of one big process to me. After “Animal Kingdom” I did a lot of reading of other people’s scripts because I wanted to stay open to the possibility that I might do that, partly because it would make the movement of my career a lot easier—the movies would happen a lot quicker. But I realized quite quickly that I like building the projects from the ground up. I was reading other people’s screenplays and very often really enjoying them but feeling like I was being asked to make a movie that had already been half made. For me being on set is just the next stage of the writing process and that process continues right the way through editing and post. And when I’m writing, that’s the first stage of the directing process as well.