'Killing Ground': Damien Power's 11-Year Journey to Make Sundance's Most Radical Horror Film
Here's why making your genre-heavy indie in Australia might not be such a bad idea.
Killing Ground is an unorthodox movie in every sense of the word. Audiences will think they've found themselves in very familiar territory as the opening credits roll off the screen over a happy couple on their way to a romantic getaway in the Australian bush. If it wasn't for the fact that the film was premiering in the Midnight Section at Sundance this year, they might even mistake it for a romantic comedy of sorts. Then again, even with the expectation that something very bad is about to happen to this seemingly idyllic couple, there's no way you can really prepare yourself for what happens next.
The film, recently purchased by IFC Midnight, begins its structural spiral into madness as the couple arrive at their isolated campsite, only to find they have neighbors: a deserted SUV and tent. After a night's stay, they begin to realize something is terribly, terribly wrong with this place. The sentiment is, indeed, further confirmed once they discover a dirty, half-dead baby wandering a trail by their site. Through a lethal combination of non-linear storytelling, gender reversals, and Deliverance type thrills, director Damien Power successfully toys with audience expectations all the way throughout The Killing Ground's hour and a half run time.
What was most surprising for me, however, was just how normal a guy Power turned out to be when I sat down with him the next day to discuss his twisted-ass film. He is a typical filmmaker who worked incredibly hard to tell a story that had been festering in his brain for a lengthy eleven years. Joining us were two of the film's stars, Aaron Glenane who played the film's terrifying antagonist, and Maya Stange, victim to one of the film's most brutal plot twists.
We discussed how Australia's film scene helps to foster artists who take greater risks, the lengths Power went to to get his film made, and the strategies he put in place to create the script for Sundance's most mind-bending horror film.
"We're not as beholden to box office numbers. I have a feeling that that's kind of encouraged us [Aussies] to reach a little bit and to explore deeper themes."
No Film School: Could you tell us a bit about the Australian film scene and what it's like making films there?
Damien Power: I think making films is hard everywhere and I don't think it's any less hard in Australia. I feel that Australians punch above their weight in terms of the size of the place and the scale of the industry. I also think you see a lot of Australian talent migrate to America and the UK. There's a credit card film sort of scene as well there, but that's pretty small.
NFS: I found your film to be very boundary-pushing though, so I was wondering if that scene is, indeed, more progressive or is it more "credit card" as you would say?
Power: I think it's a challenge to make genre cinema in Australia and I'm so grateful that we had the support of the agencies Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales to make this project. But I think genre cinema faces the same, certain, low budget challenges wherever you are.
NFS: And maybe there's a deeper appreciation here in the States for that?
Power: Yeah, I think so. You see a lot of those films coming out here and playing at Sundance, for example, so maybe that's true.
NFS: And how about for acting? Did you go to acting school Aaron, or was this something you just fell into?
Aaron Glenane: No, I got into acting because I was really shy as a kid and mom was like, "You need to learn how to talk to people." So, she sent me directly to a speech and drama teacher. That's kind of how it started and she randomly said, "You're going to an audition for a musical." And I was like, "Why? I don't sing or dance or act." And she was like, "You're doing it." I went in and somehow got into it and then here I am today. So, I mean I wanted to be an NBA basketball player, but it turns out I'm 5' 11", white, really skinny, and that was never gonna happen.
Maya Stange: And completely uncoordinated.
Glenane: Exactly. But I feel like the Australian industry is really exciting right now. Especially television, because of all the streaming networks that have popped up here in the last five, ten years. It's kind of forced Australian content to get really exciting. So, it's a great time to be working in Australia.
"I think one of the important things in the business is finding the right mentor. "
Stange: Yeah, it's interesting because we're such a small country and there's not a whole lot of money circulating through our industry. We do have a lot of government agencies who finance films in conjunction with independent finance. It's thin on the ground, financially. So, in a way we're liberated by that because we're not as beholden to box office numbers that you are here. There's such a pressure in America, I think. I have a feeling that that's kind of encouraged us to reach a little bit and to explore deeper themes, which I think is a really good thing about the Australian industry.
Power: Also, a focus on talent escalation with the agencies as well. So, there's support for up-and-coming filmmakers, which is great.
NFS: How does this "talent escalation" work?
Power: Well, they support short filmmaking and writing courses. So, it's all about developing talent. Actually, there's been a series of director's attachments so that up-and-coming directors can get attached to feature films that are about to roll, and quite high-end TV series. That's a great thing because I think one of the important things in the business is finding the right mentor. That's really hard and I think it's really beneficial to find someone who you can learn from.
NFS: Let's talk about your own journey for Killing Ground. You said it was an 11-year process. How did that start? Take us through it step by step.
Power: I had been working with producer Joe Weatherstone on a particular project. We were actually in an agency script lab. In script labs, you pull the thing apart and put it back together. So we were working on that project, and during that process, I had this idea. It kind of occurred to me as an image. This image of this tent in the bush and no sign of anybody. And that started to suggest a story to me. What happened to these people? So, I came up with this idea quite quickly and said to Joe, "I've got this great idea. I think we could make this fast and cheap." And here we are 11 years later.
We felt it was ready to go about five years ago, but none of the shorts that I'd made at film school were of a similar kind of genre so we decided to make a short to work as a calling card. We made a short film called Peekaboo. Which is about a woman who loses her young daughter in a car park and thinks her daughter's been abducted. So, plot-wise nothing to do with the feature, but tonally and thematically and in terms of showing that I could direct some suspense and action, it was really effective. That film did really well for us. Traveled to a lot of festivals. We had our international premiere in Busan and that's where I pitched the feature to our international sales agent, Films Distribution. They came onboard at that point. Then, it was another few years of trying to raise that money and get a local distributor onboard. Those two other pieces of the puzzle that you need to trigger agency investment in Australia.
NFS: So, you made the short but you had the script for the feature before. What you did was make a "spiritual prequel" in the sense of tone?
Power: Yeah. The whole purpose was to show that I could direct this script that required a lot of action and intensity but also suspense.
NFS: I won't spoil anything for our readers, but how do you use those tropes to create something so unique? Was the film's non-linear structure something you had in mind from the beginning?
Power: Yeah, I think because the idea came about thinking about who the occupants of the tent were, it was important to me to tell the whole story of the events around the incident. So, that meant telling not only the story of the occupants of the tent, the family, but also the antagonists and our protagonists who stumbled across the scene. The idea of doing it as a non-linear piece came to me pretty much right at the beginning, actually. I think if you're gonna take a genre story with those familiar beats and tropes -which is great beause then you create expectations for the audience - you want to do something new with it. Survival thrillers are usually relentlessly linear. For good reason. You want to be sewn into that journey with those characters.
"Set your highest goal and then little goals along the way and how you're going to get there. Then, you've got to be disciplined and work at it every day."
In many respects, this film starts out as a suspense sort of thriller and a mystery. What happened here? How are these characters involved? What are they doing? Where are we now? What is the relationship between these things? And I think that's kind of unsettling for an audience. They don't know where they are. I think as the film progresses, as it goes on, there's a more and more sense of, "Okay, they're kind of throwing out the rule book now. I don't know what's going to happen and I don't know who's going to be safe."
NFS: Right. And that's some of the progressive nature of the film that I was talking about. Do you have any advice for emerging filmmakers who are just starting off on their own 11-year journey?
Power: I think you've gotta have talent and you've gotta have persistence and that will bring you a bit of luck but if you can also find a mentor. Someone to help and guide you through that process. I think that's a real advantage.
Glenane: I watched a great video on Facebook the other with Denzel Washington. He was talking about having dreams and going for your dreams. In the video he talks about, to get to where you want to achieve, your full potential, you've got to have really clear goals and you've got to be disciplined. Which I think kind of ties into what you were saying. Set your highest goal and then little goals along the way and how you're going to get there. Then, you've got to be disciplined and work at it every day. That's one thing I'm really proud of myself on as an actor, that I haven't been handed anything along the way and I've worked really hard to get to the point where I'm at now. I'm gonna continue doing that so I can, hopefully, get some really complex and compelling roles and tell great stories. Because that's what I'm excited about.
Stange: People ask me that question, "Should I get into acting? I really like it. What do you think? How's it been for you?" because I've been doing this since I was teenager. I always say, "Do you feel like you can't do anything else? Do you feel called to this? Or do you just think it would be a fun career cause you get to have your face on the magazine covers or whatever?" And I really encourage people to think before they sign up for this job because it's not always easy and you have to love it with such a passion that you really have the grit to stick with whatever comes down the line.
NFS: Same thing goes for filmmakers I think, too. You really gotta be 100% committed to it.
Stange: Yeah, believe in what you do, love what you do, and focus on that. Don't measure yourself and compare yourself to what's going on around you because you can just psych yourself out. You gotta keep the faith.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.