Interview: Director Sean Lahiff on new environmental horror film Carnifex; “I wanted to create a myth around these tree hollows and create a dread for the forest.”

As the Australian survivalist thriller Carnifex continues to terrify audiences across the country (you can read our review here), director Sean Lahiff is already hard at work in the editing room of another feature.

Taking some time out with our Peter Gray to talk all things Carnifex – an original new environmental horror/thriller set deep in the Australian outback, exploring the impact of catastrophic environmental events and the threat posed by the largest known carnivorous Australian mammal; the carnifex – Sean touched on the reaction from international audiences so far, how his background as an editor assisted in his direction, and what film introduced him to his love of the monster movie.

Carnifex premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival.  What’s the reaction been from Australian audiences so far?

It’s been a really positive response.  The film is so unapologetically Australian, and I always wanted it to play that way.  Just to be real and to be proud of (our) place.  That film festival response was great, and we also had our world premiere at a film festival in Spain.  It’s like the Sundance of horror movies (laughs) and it was amazing.  People cheering and clapping in all the right places.  It was such a great response.  They play films late at night there as part of their midnight horror shows, so it was really fun.  It was an international audience but it got through to them.  They were just mesmerised by the Australian forest.

Going off the Australian forest mention, was there any inspiration specifically behind the conservation plotline in the film?

We’re having more and more of these big fires and I wanted to show what goes on behind the scenes.  I wanted to look at the scientists and the conservationists that go out there afterwards.  Forests eventually re-grow, but animals can be displaced forever.  It was just an interesting idea for characters to go out and do that.  Interestingly, the production designer’s sister is an ecologist.  She does what the characters in the film do.  We had a direct link and source of guidance for what these characters do out there.  That was really cool.  But, you know, there’s fires all over the world.  It’s a global issue that I thought could be a relatable point for other audiences to flow to.

Was there anything specific for you in wanting to direct this film?

I love the outdoors and survival films.  I edit films, and I spend a lot of my time inside (with that), so it was a call to adventure for me to get out in the wilderness.  I love the forest and I love the water.  I’m a big animal person.  I love camping and four-wheel driving.  It was just a great first film to sink my teeth into.

Did having that editing background, especially within the horror genre, help you in formulating the film? I do have to quickly say the jump scares you executed here were brilliant.  One of them in particular scared the shit out of me, so congratulations on that.

(Laughs) Yeah, it helped.  Having edited films in the dark genre space was a huge help when directing.  I knew the minimum of what I needed to get to draw out the tension and the jump scares.  Sometimes you need to just let go and see what happens out there.  You go in with a plan, and you have storyboards and a script, but when you’re out there ankle-deep in the mud, with the elements, things just change.  It was a more organic process than I had expected.  I was really excited by what the actors brought when they were out there.  We shot in winter, it was raining every day, it was long nights, we were surrounded by animal carcasses that had been chewed out…(laughs) it was quite a good setting.  Having edited a lot helped immensely, but I needed to let the environment guide me a bit when I went out there.

It’s funny, with those jump scares there were deliberately a couple that I made to ease you into it, but you knew they were coming.  But then, yeah, obviously a few that were quite a surprise (laughs).

As you said, you have that background in the genre.  Was there a particular film for you – whether it’s a horror or a thriller or a survivalist film – that stands as the one that introduced you to appreciating such a genre?

My dad showed me Alien at probably too young an age (laughs), and so that’s always been a big inspiration for tension and horror.  A more recent film that I took inspiration from was The Ritual.  It’s a Netflix film, again, set in a dark forest with a unique creature.  That felt real and was classily put together.  That was a good one.  I wanted to create a myth around these tree hollows and create a dread for the forest.  Not to not make people go out there (laughs) because it is so beautiful, but just to incite the fear of the unknown.

It definitely brings an awareness to animal extinction, and that notion of just respecting the land, respecting an animal’s territory.  I liked that animal kingdom way of thinking.  We’re the guests here.

Yeah, yeah.  That was important to me.  I know it’s a “creature feature” or a monster movie, but it’s an animal at the end of the day.  I wanted it to be not too “monster” like.  We made sure it fit in the space of what a megafauna species would look like.  It has offspring.  It has a family.  I’ve always called it an animal.  I’m glad it made an impression on you.

The “drop bear” myth almost comes with a comedic element at this point.  So it’s great that the film really puts into perspective just how terrifying this animal truly is.  It’s always a pleasure to watch an Australian film that doesn’t feel like a typical Australian film.  This isn’t a depressing, tragic storyline.  This embraces a genre that I feel we are great at executing, but we don’t always get the chance to do so.  I hope audiences embrace this and see it in the cinema.

Yeah.  Wow, very well said.  It’s not a straight-out-horror film.  I liken it to Jurassic Park in some ways.  It’s a bit more of an adventure that goes wrong (laughs).

You said that you liked the water.  Are we going to see that be explored next?

(Laughs) I’m not sure what my next directorial feature will be.  The water is a very calming place for me (laughs) so I don’t know if I could combine my safe haven with anything too nasty.

Carnifex is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.