As The Dry prepares for a new year’s release, our own Peter Gray was fortunate enough to chat with the film’s director, Robert Connolly. Excited to finally have his film seen across Australian cinemas, Connolly discussed if he felt any pressure in adapting such an acclaimed novel, how instrumental he was in casting, and what he looks when making a film.
Congratulations on the film. I’m probably one of the few people that hasn’t read the book so it came as very much a surprise, which was a great way to view the film.
That’s great to hear. Not having read the book you worry about making it for people that have read it and those who have no idea what it’s about.
How did you go about adapting (Jane Harper’s novel)? Did you feel much pressure given the books accolades?
I think there’s definitely a pressure that comes from a book that’s so loved. I think rather than being scared of that, I met Jane Harper many times and we talked it through. I looked at why so many people loved the book. Obviously it’s thrilling in its plotting and it’s a page turner…but I think people really love the world of it. People love the landscape of all those really interesting characters so rather than being intimidated I thought let’s see if I can find out why this book is selling millions of copies around the world, and make sure the film does exactly the same. Jane Harper has been so supportive. She saw the film and loved it, and thank God cause I would’ve been mortified if she hadn’t, but she really did give me a lot of freedom to explore.
Given that there is that risk when adapting novels, did you ever tinker with adjusting certain elements of the book?
It was a massively long edit. There were some inevitable things in the book that had to investigate in slightly different ways, in the process of collapsing it. It’s a small challenge cause the book is so good at interweaving all the plotting, and I just took a slight haiku approach to stripping it back. That was a fun journey.
You did well to place an equal emphasis on both aspects of the story, the past and the present. It was really well constructed.
Oh good, yeah it’s always a challenge to move between the two. It was a very complicated edit. It took 6 months. The longest of any film i’ve done in 25 years. I think also because Australia isn’t known for doing detective thrillers, it’s a genre that we aren’t familiar with.
On mentioning that, I know that one of the producers on this worked with Reese Witherspoon on Gone Girl. Was there ever any discussion on this being adapted for an American market?
It was always going to be Australian. I know it could’ve been adapted and set in Middle America, but I think it’s such an Australian story, and such an Australian world, I think it would’ve been a pity to lose its Australianness.
You shot across, I believe, 15 towns in Victoria. Some of the locations are stunning, in spite of how drought ravaged they appeared. How was the process of scouting locations?
Epic! The first trip where Eric (Bana) and I drove out there, we had a look around and scoped out the general area. There was so many trips. It’s just a massive jigsaw puzzle of locations right across the Wimmera. I think 90% of pre-production was spent trying to piece this world out there into the film, which miraculously we did.
This is Eric Bana’s first Australian film in over a decade. How instrumental were you in his casting?
He and I are mates. We share an office together. I produced his last (Australian) film (Romulus, My Father)…it was just one of those things that he was there with it from the word go. He’s an amazing person to work with. Such a generous actor, and a good friend…I really can’t imagine the film without him.
The whole cast really do feel tailor made for their roles. Did you have any names specifically in mind?
It took a while to work through the cast. It’s a very complex ensemble, and you can’t have people looking the same. And everyone’s a suspect so you need people to be complicated enough that you might believe and suspect them. I’m really proud of that cast, especially the four young teenagers.
I was going to ask about that. Did Eric and Joe (Klocek) collaborate on forming their character? Obviously getting the young Aaron would’ve been one of the most important casting decisions.
Yeah, Joe’s a bloody great actor. They’ve got certain mannerisms that are the same, but they didn’t spend too much time together. They’re both smart actors so they were just looking and observing what the other was doing, finding a path to form that link.
All of your films have always had something to say. Has that been a conscious decision when choosing projects?
Yeah, it’s always a puzzle of something that creates a portrait of something that’s been my experience of Australia. Some stories are more political than others. The Dry looks at environment and climate change, but it’s also a very commercial thriller, and I love that diversity. I love being able to explore something different.
The Dry is screening in Australian theatres from January 1st, 2021.