FANTASIA 2017 Interview: KILLING GROUND Director Damien Power Talks On Screen Violence, Tension And Camping in Australia
Damien Power’s horror thriller Killing Ground pitched its tent on American shores on today. The film also played to a sold out crowd here in Montreal last Friday, July 14th. Screen Anarchy was invited to toss some questions his way about his debut feature film, which he graciously answered for us below.
We asked him questions about Australia's camping horror film legacy, his depiction of violence on screen and the big scary Australian Outback. You will also find a link for Peter Martin’s review in the links below.
SCREEN ANARCHY - As this is your first feature film what was the learning curve like moving from the short film format to feature length for you? It can be a hit or miss experience, one I believe you did successfully. If you had any advice for other filmmakers making that transition to feature length what would it be?
DAMIEN POWER - The job is the same. It’s no different directing a short to a feature. But nothing can prepare you for the endurance test that is feature filmmaking. It’s hard to sustain the necessary focus over such a long period of time. Make sure you have plenty of physical and emotional support. We had a tough shoot. At times it felt like our own survival horror.
SA - I think the most harrowing image in your film is when we see the first survivor. The silence of that moment is simply devastating.
DP - Thanks. When I conceived of that shot during the writing I knew I had a movie. The fact that it plays in near silence compounds the horror. You can hear the audience gasp in the cinema. Silence, or near-silence is a great way to underline a visual moment.
SA - You shy away from depicting very specific acts of violence in your film. Still, even the other violence your audience will see is moderated. Discuss your decision making behind that, please.
DP - I’m more interested in tension and suspense than the shock of gore – as a viewer and a filmmaker. It was always my intention that the worst violence be left to the viewer’s imagination – which is more powerful than anything I could show. I also wanted the violence to feel real – which is very confronting – and so felt there was a limit to what I could show before people turned away.
I also used to be a member of the Australian Film Classification Board (the Australian equivalent of the US MPAA’s ratings board or the UK’s BBFC), so I’ve had a long interest in how we watch violence.
SA - Your film has and will play at some high profile film festivals (Sundance) and genre film festivals (Imagine, Overlook, and Fantasia) with genre savvy audiences. Have you been able to travel with the film and experience those audience reactions to your film?
DP - I saw the film at Sundance and recently at a few preview screenings in LA and New York (at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre’s Fear X festival). I love watching it with a midnight or genre-savvy crowd. The Sundance Midnight audiences were great – anyone that queues through a blizzard at midnight is committed! People get very vocal watching this film: audible gasps, even yelling at the characters. In one screening we had someone leap out of his seat, unable to contain himself, but unable to look away. It’s a great film to see with an audience if you get a chance!
We had our LA premiere outdoors in a canyon. It was an unforgettable experience. The film seemed to bleed off the screen. Apparently a coyote wandered down to check it out – probably confused by the Australian bird song. I hope get a chance to hold more outdoor screenings.
SA - Advocacy or special interest groups always seem to be on the lookout for something in a film that goes contrary to their own mandates. They proceed to speak very loudly about such offenses which only draws more attention to the offensive material. Have any of the camping associations approached you and said something along the lines of, “Stop it. We *want* people to go camping. You’re just ruining it for everyone”?
DP - When I started writing the film I had married Rachel. By the time I stepped onto set to shoot it, we had two kids and we had become a family who goes camping. Though I have to say, we only go to very well-populated campsites! So far we haven’t had any backlash from camping associations, but I can’t see the film playing on the inbound QANTAS flight.
SA - On that note. Australia has a pretty good legacy of camping horror films. Have you ever thought about why that is? Do Australian filmmakers hate nature and fresh air? Is it the sunsets? It’s the sunsets, isn’t it?
DP - It’s what happens after the sun sets! You’re right – there’s a long history of Australia cinema about white Australians feeling uneasy in the bush – from PICINC AT HANGING ROCK (which has been remade as a limited series and features Aaron Glenane who played Chook) to WOLF CREEK. Because we don’t understand it, the outback feels hostile and inhospitable. I tried to tap into that anxiety.
SA - Was that history of Australian camping horror films always in the back of your mind when you were writing and filming The Killing Ground? What did you intentionally do to recognize that legacy and set your film apart from it?
DP - A tent is a pretty thin barrier between you and the rest of the world. I certainly had those camping films in mind when I made KILLING GROUND. We’ve seen plenty of stories about bad things happening to people in the woods, so I knew I had to bring something new to the table. For me that was the non-linear structure and a sense of realism (both in treatment of the story and the characters choices).
SA - I want to discuss your management of ‘time’ in your film but in doing so my fear is it would give away what you have done. I will say that it definitely holds our interest more so, for the first few moments I was putting together the pieces of the puzzle. And it helps set apart your film from other films of its ilk.
DP - Thanks. There’s been plenty of discussion of the film’s non-linear opening so it’s probably no longer a spoiler. My intention was for the audience to be more actively engaged in the storytelling, and to steadily tighten the screws: you know these people will meet, you just don’t know how – or when. It seems to have worked!