by GREG KING
Swerve, the new film from writer/director Craig Lahiff (Heaven’s Burning, Black And White, etc), is the kind of pacy thriller and crowd pleasing genre piece that Australian filmmakers do not make enough of. There are lots of twists and turns in the formulaic plot that involves the usual tropes of the noir genre – a suitcase full of money, a corrupt cop, a sultry femme fatale, and an innocent man caught up in a web of violence and betrayal. There are also a couple of intriguing red herrings and the usual McGuffin. Lahiff has a good understanding of the tropes of the genre, but he also suffuses the material with a strong streak of dark and laconic humour. He brings plenty of pace and energy to the material and the film races along at a fast pace that rarely lets up.
“It’s an idea I had some time ago actually.” Over the phone from his home in Adelaide, Lahiff explains the genesis of the project. “And I wanted to do something with a very small group of characters. That noirlike idea of two men, a woman and a bag of money, with the bag of money being a great McGuffin to start the drama off, was basically the source of the idea which I’ve had for some time. And of course a number of other films have used it. But this is quite a different style of film than some of the others. I think for an Australian film it speeds along like a runaway train with lots of unusual and unexpected plot twists, with suspense and chases and great locations. And also a good sense of black humour! They are some of the reasons I had such fun making the film.”
The thriller is infused with the spirit of American crime writer James M Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, etc), Jim Thompson, Hitchcock, and even the films of John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West, etc). “It comes from that area of noir,” Lahiff admits. “But it is mainly set in broad daylight, and in the middle of the outback, and that gives a sort of different Australian flavour to it.”
Lahiff shot much of the film over a period of seven weeks in the picturesque Flinders Ranges, which is about five hours drive outside of Adelaide. Problems involved with such a remote location included the variable weather – one day it was over 40 degrees, and the next cloudy and wet. “It was a bit of a challenge, but it always is with a film and the weather. There are always problems, but you find ways to get around them. You improvise.”
Much of the shooting occurred in the small town of Two Wells, which is not too far outside Adelaide. “Because it’s not a huge budget film, we needed somewhere we could actually drive to each day,” elaborates Lahiff. “It’s basically a main street town. And one time I went up to do some location scouting it actually had a brass band festival on, which is something I used in the film just to give it a sort of quirky feel. But we also used a little bit of digital special effects to put the backdrop of the Flinders Ranges around the town, so it looks different to the normal Two Wells. It was a great little town to work in. Everybody was really good. I think one of the advantages of filming out in the country is that people are very hospitable and they like to see something happen. Whereas city shooting is more difficult and people aren’t as tolerant, and they think more of the location fees they can get.”
The film features a couple of spectacular stunt sequences, including the car crash that sets the plot in motion, and a leap onto a moving train. “The car crash was obviously difficult,” explains Lahiff. “And the director is responsible if anything goes wrong. But luckily that all went well. I’ve done quite a few stunts in various films and so far haven’t had any problems, but it is a worry. I think it does come across as spectacular. There are a lot of movies out there, particularly American movies, which have huge budgets. And you think how am I going to make it look interesting on a low budget? I think we managed to do that. Jumping on the train was tricky. It was a bit of fun, and that involved quite a lot of different locations, and some green screen effects. But it was interesting doing it and we had it planned pretty well before we started in pre-production.”
Originally Lahiff was going to cast slightly older actors in the key roles, but then he made the decision to cast some really good up-and-coming young actors who are beginning to carve out a reputation as amongst our next crop of top actors. Emma Booth, from Underbelly, is terrific as Jina, the unhappy wife of the local cop (played by Jason Clarke). Clarke appears in three yet to be released films, including Katherine Bigelow’s big budget film Getting Bin Laden, and John Hillcoate’s Lawless, which screened in Cannes recently. And David Lyons has worked on tv series like ER and Sea Patrol. There are also appearances from veterans like Roy Billing, Vince Colosimo, Chris Haywood and Travis McMahon in smaller roles. Lahiff had worked with Billing on Black And White, and he contacted and asked if he was interested in playing the part of a country cop. He has also worked with Chris Haywood before. “I think that’s one of the enjoyable things,” Lahiff continues. “You can get people if they suit the characters. And with actors you’ve used before it’s great to be able to use them again in something else, because you don’t have to reinvent a rapport between them. That’s one of the things I certainly enjoy about making a film. You get to work with all of these really talented people. Nobody’s got too big an ego, and it’s really rewarding, particularly when you see their performances on screen.”
Swerve had its premiere at The Melbourne International Film Festival in 2011, so why has it taken so long to get a commercial release? “It’s difficult getting an Australian release,” explains Lahiff. “There’s very few Australian distributors. And we’ve been busy with international markets. We’ve sold the film overseas, and the US are getting ready to release it later this year. So we’ve sort of delayed the release a little bit hoping that we could synchronise the two releases here and in America.”
“It’s good to get the film out for distributors to see it. That’s one of the best ways if you want to sell the film overseas. Get it in a festival so people can come and see it on the big screen in a different country, so yes they are very important.”
This is also Lahiff’s first feature film in a decade. His last film was the 2002 drama Black And White, which was recreation of the landmark 1958 South Australian Court trial, and a miscarriage of justice in the case involving Max Stuart, a young aboriginal convicted of the murder of a nine year old white girl. “I wish I could make one every year,” he laments, “but it’s just hard getting the money together. You spend a lot of time developing projects and it’s not like doing one after the other, unless somebody actually offers you a film from scratch. Things don’t seem to be getting any easier with the finance, what with financial crises here and there. But this was something that we had planned to do straight after Black And White and it has taken a lot of time to actually get it together and raise the money for it. But we’ve been busy during that time, and we have four other projects that are ready to go now and are at script stage and with partial financing.”
Swerve is on limited release from June 7.