Q&A: Daniel Nettheim, Director of ‘The Hunter’Published April 4, 2012
Australian Director Daniel Nettheim spent many years creating a movie based on the novel The Hunter about a mercenary (Willem Dafoe) sent on a hunt for the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger. Nettheim described it as “a highly focused narrative with a strong emotional core, exploring the themes of isolation, loneliness, grief, survival and compassion.”
Did you feel a personal connection to the extinct Tasmanian Tiger?
Daniel Nettheim: The Tasmanian Tiger has become part of Australian national mythology. There is a great sense of guilt about its extinction [since 1936]. The myth that goes on that it may still be alive is dangerous in a way because it lets people off the hook for that kind of destruction. It has also become symbolic of the way progress can decimate nature.
Was it difficult to film in that part of the world? Was the terrain challenging?
Nettheim: People had warned me that the weather in Tasmania changes abruptly—you can get four seasons in one hour. The cinematographer had worked there before and told me I could forget any continuity of light across a scene. For that reason we didn’t have long dialogue scenes. You could start in the sun and finish in the rain. The snowstorms that you see in the film—I mean we were hoping to get snow but that snuck up on us—that morning was sunny.
We saw the clouds come in at lunchtime and a half an hour later we had snow. So I had to say, ‘Okay, guys. We’re gonna scrap this afternoon’s plans and shoot the snow scenes.’ As a crew we had to be very adaptable. As filmmakers we try to control as much as we can but the weather is one thing you can’t tame. For that reason, when we talked about Willem’s wardrobe we decided when he was up doing his hunting he was only going to have one outfit. That way, not only could we quickly change what we meant to shoot, you know, in response to the weather, but once I was in the edit I could move anything anywhere and it would fit.
Was Willem Dafoe the only actor you had in mind for the role of Martin?
Nettheim: He’s the only actor we approached. I had envisioned him in the part from quite early on in the writing because it’s helpful to have a face in mind when you’re writing. Fortunately Willem said yes. [laughs]
Did you see this as a man vs. nature story?
Nettheim: You know it’s interesting. It starts off as a man vs. nature story and it ends up as man vs. himself. This is a man whose work as a hunter involves trying to be at one with nature. As part of Willem’s training for the film we learned techniques like how to move across the landscape so animals don’t hear you, how to use what’s around you to build traps and snares so it’s kind of paradoxical. He is one with nature, understands nature, but his business there is very destructive.
What we wanted to speak about was the uneasy relationship that has always existed between mankind and the natural environment. This story about what happened to the Tasmanian Tiger is also a great historical case in point about the continuing battle to save the forest—the conflict between loggers and environmentalists.
Was it difficult to get permission from the zoo to use that 1933 footage of the last Tasmanian Tiger?
Nettheim: It wasn’t difficult to get hold of. It’s quite famous. There’s like eight or ten minutes in existence in the world of the filmed Tasmanian Tiger when it was alive. That footage was partly owned by the Hobart Museum and partly by the National film and sound archives. One frame belongs to someone and one frame belongs to someone else, so we had to go to both parties for permission.
When they sent us, what they said was the best quality master available, it was of really bad quality. It was a very low res digitized image so we actually—and this was the coup—we got them to send us the original 16 mm print and we made a new high def digitized version of it.