Willem Dafoe as Martin standing in a temperate forest in a still from 'The Hunter'
The Hunter (2011) Madman Entertainment
Stories & Ideas

Sun 03 Apr 2022

"Nature was my scene partner": Willem Dafoe on filming The Hunter

Australia Film Interview Retrospective
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

We spoke to the legendary actor about shooting The Hunter (2011) in the wilds of Tasmania and the legacy of the film more than a decade later.


Maria Lewis: Hi there, my name is Maria Lewis and I'm an Assistant Curator here at Australia's national film museum, ACMI, and I'm the person behind this program Yeah Noir which is looking at a 10-year period that birthed some of Australia's great neo-noir films including of course The Hunter.

I'm so honoured to be joined by the star of The Hunter and one of the most renowned stage and screen actors of his generation Mr. Willem Dafoe. Thank you so much for joining us.

Willem Dafoe: Thank you for that introduction and happy to be here with you.

ML: Oh, it's like truly, honestly so thrilling to have you. The first time I interviewed you about this film 10 years ago, I was a baby film reporter, most definitely not very good, but one of the things that really stayed with me was how generous you were with your answers and also how passionate you were about this film and I was wondering how do you feel about The Hunter now with a decade's worth of distance?

WD: Well, I remember it happily. I really enjoyed shooting it and I think it's an interesting film. Not only did I enjoy shooting in Tasmania which is quite a particular place and was a great adventure, but also I learned a lot of things, particularly some of the bushcraft stuff. A guy by the name of Lee Trew taught me how to set traps and all kinds of things, and I always find that when you learn something you have a shift and you sort of become a new person, and it opens up you to think a different way. So, I had that kind of experience and Tasmania was like a place that I've never been before. It was thrilling. I remember it quite fondly and I remember my cast members fondly. I had worked with Sam Neill before and I love him. He always tickles me because... I don't know, something about his dry sense of humour. When he's serious I think he's joking and when he's joking I think he's serious. Maybe I'm just an earnest American and I miss something there but he makes me laugh and he's good, he's a good partner – and all the other cast. So, I have fond memories. Also Daniel [Nettheim] – this was a passion project for him. I liked the script. It comes from the Julia Leigh book of... I think it's the same name, yes?

ML: Yeah.

WD: I liked the script very much. I'm very particular about filmmakers that I work with and I didn't know Daniel Nettheim's work. He showed me some stuff and it was fine, and I don't mean to diss anybody but he showed me like some of his television work that was like cop shows and stuff like that. And it's funny, I started talking to him. I started talking about what I saw and then he said, "well you know actually would you like to see some of my student films?", which kind of were a little closer to my heart as far as experimentation and what I dreamed about, and he showed me some very early student films. It's kind of funny – and I remember it – but that's kind of what won me over because I saw him as a filmmaker better in his student films than I did in some of the TV work that he was doing. So, I was on board.

It was a great experience; the fact that it's filmed with long periods where I don't have text and I'm doing things. That's very close to my heart. It becomes more lived. It becomes more experienced because it's just me in the landscape doing things and that is a pleasure to do. It makes the pretending a little more available because you're not dealing with certain kind of dramaturgical things that you're weighing.

ML: Yeah, I did want to ask about that because I think some of your most recognised-on-the-street roles are these scene-stealing supporting turns and I was wondering if you felt like your experience in the theatre really helped with The Hunter, where you're not only oftentimes the only person in a scene with no scene partner but you really are in almost every scene of the film.

WD: Nature was my scene partner.

ML: That sounds like an Australian tourism ad but all right.

WD: I was dancing with the camera.

Sure, I mean, I still continue to work in the theatre and that really shapes who I am as a performer. As I was growing up that really formed creative tendencies that I have about pretending and doing things, and task-oriented things rather than maybe more psychological or interpretive kinds of things. Taking a score and living inside of it, collaborating on that score and then once you get that score, having an experience and hopefully it's transparent enough that people can experience it with you. That's the idea, doing as opposed to showing which is the big lesson that you learn in the theatre – at least the theatre that I grew up in. It was never about indicating things or interpreting things. It was always about making things and doing things in front of people.

ML: I was wondering, the archetype of the reluctant hero is one that's very familiar to audiences and especially very familiar to fans of the noir and neo noir genres. How did you go about colouring Martin with so much nuance so that he didn't feel just like a stereotype per se.

WD: Well, thank you, if that's true. I had nothing to sell. Once again, he is a mysterious character and he's a private character, and there's not really a backstory. You don't know who he is. He's a mystery man. That's kind of his role. He's like a secret agent in the respect that he's supposed to be mysterious. So, the experience was my experience doing these things, so I didn't have to point to anything. I didn't have to pay off anything. It was sort of like me in a situation. As I said, I like to pretend, so I can only say I didn't feel the obligation to pay off things because he's a screen for the audience. He does what he does. You don't know quite why and you go along with him. I am conscious that he has a shift in his feelings but that's very clear and given the progression of what he does in the movie, you hop on board and you'd have to be dead not to make that shift.

ML: From memory you really relished working with the then child performers in The Hunter: Morgan Davies and Finn Woodlock. What was it about their performances that you thought really added something to the film and helped humanise Martin?

WD: Well, they were just sweet kids and smart kids, and I enjoyed them. We were shooting in not the most hospitable places and not with a huge budget. We had enough to make the movie. The producers were very good. I was happy how production went... we made a little family. We were sort of out in the wilderness.

They were sweet and Daniel is a very kind and very gentle man so he really made it comfortable for the kids so they didn't feel so much pressure to perform. As I remember, Finn was younger and he has basically a mute role and Morgan was a chatterbox and they were very charming and and sweet, and they were both very clever so I liked them. They weren't like the usual trained child actors. They were kids and I enjoyed that. Although they had skills. I mean Morgan had skills. They had made other films... I don't know how much they were experienced before but they had stuff. Whereas Finn was younger.

ML: It comes across as really sincere and authentic which can be a tricky thing when acting is sort of about tapping into your lived experience, and as a kid you don't have so much lived experience yet to tap into.

WD: Well, we were making it and as I said we became like a little family.

ML: Yeah, exactly that makes a lot of sense. It really comes across, I think, in the film. I was wondering if you had a – we are Australia's national film museum after all – favourite Australian filmmaker and please feel like you're not obligated to say Daniel just because this is about The Hunter.

WD: You're gonna put me in trouble because I've worked with a lot of Australian DPs. I've worked with some Australian actors – the Australian invasion of North American cinema is well known. I'd be hard-pressed to say. I'm never good declaring favourites anyway; it's not just to be polite, it's like, I don't like the finality of kind of that kind of statement, and I may make a terrible mistake because it might be it may not be from the heart, and I may be dissing someone that I am forgetting, but listen, I've made three films in Australia. I've been there with the theatre and I always enjoy it when I'm there, and it's kind of amazing how strong Australia's presence is, not only in their homegrown stuff but how many Australians are working in cinema in other countries.

ML: It's reverse colonialism, you know, we're trying to take it back one thing at a time. Mr Willem Dafoe, thank you so much for joining us and thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

WD: Well I hope people see the movie and you know, hope the program goes well.

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