Interview with Damien Power – Killing Ground
Killing Ground is the first feature film from director Damien Power. Damien has directed several award-winning shorts that have screened at festivals worldwide including Venice and Busan, Sydney and MIFF. Killing Ground had its world premiere at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival and its international premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in the iconic Midnight Section. The film will be released in Australia in 2017 by Mushroom Pictures and sold internationally by Films Distribution.
I watched your film last night and it was really horrific. Thanks very much.
Sorry about that.
I cancelled my camping trip.
I’ve had a few people say that.
Your thriller, Killing Ground, is a modern camp story about fear, violence, heroism with the limits of courage that take place around a deserted campsite. It’s certainly intense. You’ve said that the writing was inspired by your own anxieties for your family. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process, how you came up with the idea and what convinced you that it would be a good film for an audience?
Yeah, sure. The kernel of the idea was actually the image – the image of the orange tent in the bush with no sign of anybody. I don’t know where it came from, but the image stuck with me. I thought ‘what happened to the campers? Where are they? And then I started thinking, what’s the worst thing that can happen to them?’. That thinking suggested the antagonists, and then I thought ‘who finds the tent?’ And that suggested the protagonist. From this image came a very kind of basic idea of a scenario, and the more I thought about it, the more I kind of wanted to invest it with that feeling that I think we’ve all had - when you’re kind of camping out in the middle of nowhere - that sense of isolation and being miles from civilisation and help.
I also have two kids and I invested a lot of my own fear for my family in the story – would I be able to protect my family if we were threatened? I hope so, but I’m not so sure. Films usually tell us that we can be heroes, that we can find some reserve of strength to call on and save the day, but I think real life is often not like that. I was very conscious in telling this genre story that I wanted to try and make it as realistic as possible, and that was not only the treatment of the elements, but also in who these characters were, that the characters were plausible people, including the antagonists. When we meet them, they could be people who you’d meet at a pub and not know who they were. But do they also make realistic, plausible decisions and choices.
You’ve dealt with a lot of dark content in your short films. It seems to be a genre that you’re very attracted to. What is it that appeals to you about horror and thriller and realism?
There is a lot of me working out my own anxieties through these films, also when I was writing Killing Ground, I thought about what I would do in that situation. And I find that as a film watcher, I’m drawn to those kind of films where I’m put in the character’s shoes, and I try and work out what I would do in that situation. Thrillers are a great genre, really, because you can take the audience on a really intense, visceral ride, but also leave them with something to think about at the end. It’s also a genre that people still go to the cinema to see. We all like turning up in a crowd to be scared witless, whereas a lot of great drama, has migrated to TV.
On the topic of bringing in a crowd – Killing Ground certainly brought in healthy crowds when it screened at Sundance, where it had its international premiere.
Yeah, we had great screenings at Sundance. We had four public screenings scheduled, and they scheduled a fifth screening on the opening weekend, which was fantastic. We were playing as part of the midnight section, and if the audience is lining up through a blizzard to see a film at midnight, you know they’re keen. It’s a film that gets a great audience reaction – people get very vocal while they watch the film. We had one screening at Sundance where a guy actually leapt out of his seat – he was on the aisle, luckily – and he couldn’t contain himself. He couldn’t stand still, but he couldn’t look away, which was amazing. There was actually a short interview with this guy on the Killing Ground Facebook page afterwards – he talks to actor Aaron Glenane.
Aside from that one guy, are there some other reactions that have stood out?
Yeah – people get very worked up when they’re watching the film. I remember when we were in Sundance, we were doing Q&As afterwards, so there was no chance to be in the foyer to see what people were saying as they came out. We actually sent a friend out into the audience, into the foyer, and he said he was standing there watching people come out, and as a guy comes out, there’s another guy waiting to go into a different film. And he says, ‘So how was it?’ And this guy’s like, ‘Man, that was brutal.’ And you know, he’s right. So yeah, you know, people – it gets under people’s skin, which is great.
I get a sense that you enjoy giving people a fright.
It’s not so much giving people a fright. I think I want people to have a similar experience to the protagonist; to feel like they go on this journey, which is a very intense, very visceral experience. How do you compete with massive blockbuster films? You have to try to give people an experience in the cinema, and I think The Killing Ground does that – you know, that people watch it and they feel for those characters. That’s the most rewarding part. It’s not even necessarily giving them a fright.
Did anything come out of all the buzz at Sundance?
Most definitely. For me, there’s life before Sundance, life after Sundance, and those are two entirely different things. While I was in the US on that trip, I signed with CAA and Brillstein; with the festival comes opportunities to sell, and we sold the film to ICA Midnight, who released the film in the US about two weeks ago. Because of those opportunities, I’ve made the choice to quit my day job. I had a day job when I made the film – a 9-5 job outside the film industry that I took leave from to make the film. I was still working there all the way up to the festival. I got to quit the day job and focus full-time on filmmaking.
It’s a dream come true.
You’ve actually been to the US three times this year, can you tell us what you’ve been up to?
I’ve been to the States three times, so once in January for Sundance, where I signed with CAA, and then another trip back to take meetings with producers, production companies. This last trip I went for Talent LA, which was a program for directors run by Screen Australia with Jen Peedom, some other great directors, and that was a series of workshops and networking opportunities, which was great. While I was there, this last trip, I also took meetings to coincide with the film’s release in the US, and I was able to do publicity at the same time. I think I ended up doing four Q&As in Los Angeles and New York for the film.
You’re starting off with a couple of Q&As with producer Lisa Shaughnessy – are you having a theatrical release after that?
I’m doing Q&As with Harry Dyer here in Sydney on the 23rd of August, in Melbourne on the 24th of August and Brisbane on the 25th of August, and then two more Q&As in Melbourne with editor Katie Flaxman on the 27th of August, so a little whirlwind.
For more information on screenings: http://mushroompictures.com.au/killingground/
And after that, what are your plans for the film?
It’s come out in the Middle East already; we’ve sold it to most overseas territories. There’s still a couple of big festival appearances coming up, and the UK release. It’s playing in the UK, Fright Fest London, on the 27th, and then it’ll open in the UK later in September , its theatrical release is still rolling out around the rest of the globe, and then it’ll become available on VOD and it’ll have a blu-ray DVD release in the US and other territories. It’ll keep going.
We might see a dip in visitor numbers to national parks in the next few months.
Well, maybe. I don’t think they’ll be making it available on the inbound Qantas flight, that’s for sure.
Back to the film: you attracted a killer cast with Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows and the two Aarons. Can you tell us about casting, particularly with the fact that you wanted that realism to film; and can you tell us how the actors came onboard?
Yeah. I was funded without cast attached – it’s probably the first and last time that’ll happen in my life, but it was great, because it meant I could go out and find the best actors for those roles. In terms of approaching cast, some cast I approached and offered directly –people whose work that I knew beforehand. Other actors I met through an audition process. I feel really blessed to have the cast that I do, actually. I think they all do an amazing job.
The film itself plays out over 24 hours, can you tell us how long the shoot went for?
The shoot was initially scheduled for 27 days; we shot September and October in Sydney, supposedly the driest months, but we were slammed with rain. The shoot ended up being 29 days, and then I think we had two days of pick-ups a month later.
One element of the film that stood out was the film's strong use of contrasting colour – light and day and also the colours of the bush contrasted against the symbolic orange tent. Can you tell us a bit about the film's approach to lighting?
The Australian bush is itself just beautiful. A lot of the story happens in the daytime, and there are some scenes at night, so we were able to have quite a sharp contrast between those two moments. For a survival thriller, where a lot of the scenes are actually set in the daytime, the effect is that there’s nowhere to hide, in a sense. I worked closely with DOP Simon Chapman, who I think shot five of my shorts, so I probably owed him a feature. We have a great creative shorthand, and we revisited films like Deliverance, not so much for its content but to look at how they treated the daylight; how they made those scenes scary.
We were working with a fairly natural talent for that, but you’re right – I had a very clear idea of the orange tents, what that colour was and what kind of tent it was.
What are you working on next?
A couple of different projects. I’ve got two features in that I guess you would call ‘thriller’ space, and another feature that I’m working on with producer Joe Weatherstone, who did Killing Ground, that is, I would describe as a teen horror thriller with a supernatural edge.
As well as directing you were also the scriptwriter for this film, and you’ve written quite a few shorts. Now that you’ve quit your dayjob will you be focusing more on scriptwriting, directing, or both?
I’m writing a couple of projects, but also as the director, and reading stuff that’s coming to me through my agent. One of the great frustrations I’ve had as a director, or as a writer-director, is that it takes a long time to get on set when I should be directing. If a script comes to me that I think is great, speaks to things that I’m interested in, scenes that I’ interested in, is something that I think will be challenging and fun, and something that maybe I can elevate with my voice, then sure, I’m going to look at directing that. At the moment it’s sort of a juggle between those things.
We look forward to seeing what you do next.
Thanks. I’m really looking forward to doing the Q&As around Australia– it’s always a long journey, and I’m really excited for the film to be coming out in Australia and seeing Australian audiences watch it.
Killing Ground is in cinemas nationally from August 24 with special Premiere screenings and Q&A's with the director and cast members in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. For more information on screenings: http://mushroompictures.com.au/killingground/