Horror gets under the skin
William Yeoman takes the scalpel to a truly terrifying new Australian film.
The audience’s imagination is far more powerful than whatever we can put on the screen. Damien Power
Damien Power’s Killing Ground eschews the graphic violence of previous Australian horror films set in the outback, such as Wolf Creek. But it’s probably even more horrific.
“The audience’s imagination is far more powerful than whatever we can put on the screen,” says the Australian writer/director, who for his debut feature opted for off-camera or long-shot violence.
Killing Ground, which Power describes as “part of a long tradition of Australian cinema exploring our sense of unease in our own backyard,” is a multi-layered, non-linear film in which past and present run parallel to each other before converging in an orgy of violence.
“That layering was important,” Power says. “I didn’t want this separation between the past and the present. I wanted them to coexist.
“And that point where they come together, that shot has been the one people talk about the most. It took just three takes, but it really is incredible.”
Killing Ground finds young professionals and city dwellers Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer) off for a camping holiday in the remote NSW bush.
Somewhat ominously, the camping ground is also the site of an historic Aboriginal massacre. When they arrive, they are disappointed to find another tent already erected.
Simultaneously, we follow the stories of camper family Rob (Julian Garner), Margaret (Maya Strange), their teenage daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland) and toddler Ollie (Liam Parkes) and larrikins German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane).
The three separate strands overlap and intersect in an almost formalist, intellectual way, in keeping with Power’s seemingly clinical, matter-of-fact approach to the terrifying subject matter.
And yet Killing Ground is still rooted in the ordinary.
Collie-born Meadows, who plays the somewhat naive young doctor Ian, says he felt right at home in the bush when shooting Killing Ground. What really interested him was how normal people react under pressure.
“Ian’s had no experience with guns,” he says. “He’s had no experience with this kind of extreme situation. Who really knows what any of us would do when put in that position?
“That’s what I wanted to register on his face in those scenes. That indecision, that internal struggle.”
It’s an approach Pederson, more accustomed to playing cops than psychopaths, took to heart.
“That was the great challenge with German: I wanted him to be a human being before anything else, ” he says.
“The example I use is Tony Soprano. He’s a sociopath. But don’t you love him? How is that possible?
“German has got to be someone’s son or nephew or whatever. Somebody must love him. His dog certainly does.”
The acclaimed Australian actor, whose previous credits include Water Rats, The Circuit, Blue Heelers and Jack Irish, has been working with Judy Davis and Colin Friels on the six-part TV adaptation of Ivan Sen’s film Mystery Road.
He feels the new series will be one of his career highlights. But he was equally delighted to receive Power’s script for Killing Ground.
“I don’t mind if I get to play cops for the rest of my career, ” Pederson says. “What matters is I’m working. But it was great to get this chance to play German, who’s on the other side of the law. I read the script and thought ‘Whoa, this is insane!’ I loved it and said yes straight away.”
Pederson says the relationship between German and Chook was “deep and layered in so many ways”. The two Aarons deliver such powerful performances it’s hard to believe they had very little prep time.
“It was basically three hours the night before over take-away meals,” Pederson laughs. “But we talked at length, about history, about personalising it. Then on the set, some days I’d say ‘Azza, I feel like I’ve got a front-row seat to a brilliant performance!’ He really let himself shine.”
Pederson agrees everyone felt the weight and seriousness of the material, especially the violence.
“There was that heaviness, ” he says. “So when they said ‘Cut!’ you’d laugh and joke and carry on. Then when they said ‘Action!’ you’d quickly go back into that different headspace again.
“And you’d always switch off at the end of the day, and never take anything home with you.”
That’s not to imply Pederson’s German isn’t a considered performance, one that may turn out to be career-defining. The trick was to discover a possible reason for German’s behaviour and ultimate fate.
“The camping site was on a massacre ground,” he says.
“They weren’t acknowledging the illness coming out of the ground and into them. They were sick because the land was sick. That was my starting place, that was the primer for it, and I just coated it in other colours.”
Aaron Glenane and Aaron Pedersen in Killing Ground.
Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows.