Into the woods

Damien Power on the trials and tribulations of making Killing Ground

by Jennie Kermode

Sam (Harriet Dyer) tries to help a lost child in Killing Ground
Sam (Harriet Dyer) tries to help a lost child in Killing Ground

Are you a fan of camping? It remains popular with the general public but films from The Blair Witch Project to Ruin Me may have made the average horror fan a bit more wary. If you haven't yet got the message, Damien Power's Killing Ground may make all the difference. It's the story of young couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows), whose holiday is interrupted when they grow suspicious about a tent that seems to be abandoned - and subsequently find a toddler wandering alone in the woods.

Before I spoke with Damien, I had heard a rumour that the story developed as a result if him finding such a tent himself. He laughs when I tell him this.

"It actually came to me as image of an orange tent. It just popped into my head, this tent out in bush, and I wondered what had happened to the campers. I would have been much more scared if I'd actually found a tent!"

A moment's hesitation
A moment's hesitation

His film also follows in a tradition that has convinced many people outside Australia they can never go into the bush there without disappearing or being brutally murdered. Is he worried about stereotyping his countrymen?

"I think there's a long tradition of Australian films which are about our unease with our own backyard," he says, citing Picnic At Hanging Rock and Wolf Creek as examples and suggesting that it might be to do with white Australians' feelings about how they came to be in the country. Nevertheless, he has been pleased to see that people around the world, and not just in Australia itself, are aware of this tradition.

The film wasn't actually made in a remote place, not for fear of murderers but because of the practicalities of moving cast, crew and gear. "We looked for the middle of nowhere as close to a city as we could." he says, "And we found this place called Macquarie Fields on the Georges River near Sydney. There's a nature reserve and the beach where the tent is. We shot pretty much the whole film in that reserve. It's really beautiful but what we didn't know is that on other side of the river there's an army base and they were conducting live fire exercises. While we were shooting they were shooting too, but with tanks and helicopters and machine guns!"

Despite this misfortune, he maintains that the biggest problem on set was the weather.

"We shot in what was suppost to be the dryest month of the year but we were slammed with rain. Over a 27 day shoot we lost about three whole days. Of course anything that costs time like that, especially when you're a small production, really hurts."

Was he at least able to work with the actors and rehearse when that happened?

"I guess we made best use of time that we could but it was really difficult," he says. "The weather app became everybody's favourite thing to look at."

Not-so-happy camping
Not-so-happy camping

And on top of that, he was working with children and animals. The toddler, a dog...

"And a pig!" he adds. "That thing that they say about children and animals, it's true! But I think if you're patient and you have enough time, and you're not asking a child or animal do something of which they're not capable then you can get what you want. I was careful to write the role so that the child would only have to do what it's natural for a child to do.

"The hardest part was keeping them asleep! A lot of the screen time involved the kids being asleep so I have lots of footage of a big burly film crew walking around on tiptoes trying not to disturb the baby."

And was the dog that errifies the film's main characters as fierce as it looked?

"The actual dog was really friendly," he says. "It was actually quite hard to make bark in a fierce way. I have lots and lots of footage of the dog being friendly and pretty much all the footage of it being fierce is up there on screen."

As for that pig...

"Pigs pretty much can't be made to do anything, they just do what they want to do and that's that."

One thing that stood out to me about the film is that it feels more realistic than most similar stories. Bad things happen and the characters have no idea how to respond to that.

Would you buy a used car from these men?
Would you buy a used car from these men?

"Most definitely," he agrees. "One thing that was important to me was to take a genre story that has a familiar beat because we're all used to movies where people go out into the woods and bad things happen, and I wanted to look at that through a filter of reality, so when I was writing it I kept asking myself what would I do in that situation. What would I do if my family was threatened? I hope that I would be able defend them. You know, movies tell us all the time that we can but I don't know if that would necessarily happen in real life. For me this is not a film in which characters necessarily change and grow, it's more about how their true characters are revealed under tremendous pressure.

"When I was making the film I looked back to films like Deliverance and Straw Dogs, and this film reminds me of those because in the Seventies chars seemed less prepared for violence. Sam and Ian really aren't.

"I think one of the things violence does to victims is to rob them of choice. When it happens you can fight, flee or freeze and those are all animal, instinctive choices... the film is about the way violence restricts choices and it's also about cycles of violence. There are references to a past massacre that happened there so we have the sense that violence happened 200 years ago, it's happening now and it could happen again tomorrow. Australia has a history of violence."

The film has been well received at festivals including Frightfest.

"I'd encourage people to see it in the cinema if they can," Damien says. "I enjoy seeing horrors and thrillers in the cinema. I've seen this film with lot of audiences and people get really vocal, so if you get the chance to see it that way, I recommend it."

Killing Ground will be available on digital download and in select UK cinemas from Friday 29 September.

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