Director Patrick Hughes Exclusive Interview RED HILL

     November 27, 2010

Every once in awhile, a movie really surprises me.  It’s not too often. The reason for that is by the time I sit down in a theater, due to watching all the trailers and covering every poster and image release, when I finally see the finished project, I know all the major plot points and characters.  It’s an unfortunate side effect of writing about movies.

Which is why Red Hill came out of left field.  Since I hadn’t seen that much footage and I didn’t know where the film was going, all the twists and turns were a nice surprise.  Also, across the board, from the filmmaking to the acting, it’s top notch and it definitely deserves a wide audience.  So you’re probably asking what is it about and how can I see it?  Hit the jump for those answers – along with my exclusive interview with writer-director Patrick Hughes.

Before going any further, Red Hill is currently playing in limited release and it’s getting released in Australia this weekend.  Here’s the trailer:

Here’s the synopsis:

Red Hill is about a young police officer Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) relocates to the small country town of Red Hill with his pregnant wife Alice to start a family. But when news of a prison break sends the local law enforcement officers – led by the town’s ruling presence, Old Bill – into a panic, Shane’s first day on duty rapidly turns into a nightmare.

Enter Jimmy Conway, a convicted murderer serving life behind bars, who has returned to the isolated outpost seeking revenge. Now caught in the middle of what will become a terrifying and bloody confrontation, Shane will be forced to take the law into his own hands if he is to survive.

A taut thriller which unfolds over the course of a single day and night, and told with explosive action and chilling violence, Red Hill is a modern-day western played out against the extraordinary landscapes of high-country Australia.

As I said, everything about the film is well done.  From the script to the acting, it’s a great Australian western and it’s nice to see another solid film in this genre.

Anyway, I was recently able to get on the phone with writer-director Patrick Hughes.  During the interview we talked about how hard it was to get his first feature made, how they filmed on location and he discusses what he was able to accomplish by shooting there, his other scripts and possible future projects,  and so much more.

As usual, I’m offering two ways to get the interview.  You can either read the transcript below, or click here to listen to our phone conversation.  Again, Red Hill is really worth checking out.  You can also read my interview with Ryan Kwanten here.

Collider: You did a short film in 2008 called Signs. Before that it had been a number of years since your last short. So I guess you should talk a little about what was going on in those years. And could you talk a little about idea for Red Hill and how long ago it formed?

Patrick Hughes:  I’ve been making shorts since I was a kid, and I was fortunate enough to go into film school straight out of high school. I did three years at film school making heaps of shorts – I’ve probably made about 25 shorts.  I’d written a script and it was a big film that got a lot of heat, and I went into development with different production companies and studios. It always eventuated I was writing scripts that were just too big. I felt like my career started when I was working commercials, and I was fortunate enough to have a very successful run at that. You get to shoot all around the world doing commercials, and you get to work with the best practitioners.

In-between all of that time doing commercials I was always writing, and also every couple of years I’d find time to go out and make a short. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing over the years. Red Hill just really came from a frustration. It was probably the fourth script I’d written, and I just said – it happened very quickly to writing the script to standing at the premiere in Berlin was, I think, like 11 months or something, so it happened very quickly – I just said, “Right, I’m gonna make a movie on my own and I don’t care if we don’t have a distributor, we don’t have anything, we don’t have government financing. We’re not waiting for anyone, we’re gonna set a date, and we’re gonna shoot on this date, we’re going to raise the money privately and we’re gonna try to get the best cast that we can, and just go out there and make a movie.” So that’s kind of the mentality. I had an epiphany that every filmmaker has – that frustration, that Catch 22, no one lets you make a movie until you make a movie.  That’s the same old story, because unfortunately you have to commit so many people, and it costs a lot of money.

I actually just wrote down a list of my favorite filmmakers and I realized that every single one of them, all of their first films were made with private money and no distributors and they just went and made their own first film because that’s how you open the door to Hollywood. And how you get noticed and how you get representation. It was kind of like, in a way, like I was going back to film school, and the mentality I had then about when I was making shorts. I was kind of just applying that in terms of we’re making a feature film.

It’s interesting, I’ve spoken to a lot of “up and coming” directors or actors, and it’s the same thing, it’s the same story. You need to, as you just said, show people. You have a very, very strong first feature for a calling card.

Hughes:  Yeah, well look, it’s opened every door possible that I could ever imagine. Once we finished the film we didn’t have a distributor, and I mortgaged my house, and put in a lot of my own money into it, and I had a lot of private investors that had put a lot of money into it, and we had the world premier in Berlin. Literally 48 hours after our world premier we pretty much sold every territory around the globe. That was a huge sigh of relief at that point. It was really exciting. I had a lot of fun in Berlin.  We were all happy if it’d ended there, but then, of course I’ve got really great representation now, and then showing the film and having Strand releasing it.

Opening in the states too before we opened in Australia, because we were due to open in Australia November 25.  So it’s really exciting to have this, in its essence, a small little film. I don’t like to sell it like that because I think that, because my career in commercials I was able to work with the best crews and the best practitioners, and you create these relationships, and you’re able to bring … I don’t think the outdoor budget doesn’t represent up there on the screen. It feels like a big movie, it looks big, and you know …

I completely agree with you.

Hughes:  Yeah, yeah I just know that’s why Sony won’t let me say how much I made it for. (Laughs) If you watch the DVD commentary I’m going to reveal everything, because I’m so proud of it. You know, I sat down and wrote this thing, I thought I’ve got to write a tiny note, because I knew it was a country town story, and shooting in the country doesn’t cost a lot of money. You can do a lot of stuff, so we had shoot-outs on Main Street, and we just blocked traffic, because there was no traffic. It was no big deal. The council was on our side, all of the town’s community came out to help. It kind of felt like we were on a mini back lot, you know what I mean? It felt like we could put the camera anywhere – oh, let’s put the camera on that roof and get the shot from up there. Let’s do this, let’s do that. You know, it wasn’t like, if you were shooting in the city, you were gonna go through a lot of red tape. You know you gotta get location permits for everything. You would literally go into people’s stores and say, “Do you mind if we shoot in your property and use your yard?” “Oh sure, why not – great.”

I have to ask you, does that mean you’re having a mini premiere in the town you shot in, and what town did you shoot in?

Hughes:  We are indeed really excited about that. We shot the movie in a town called Omeo. That was the biggest gold rush town in Australia. Back in 1890 its population matched Melbourne with forty thousand people. You know when you watch a show like Deadwood that’s exactly what this place is like. Beautiful old photographs and drawings and sketches of that bygone era are hanging on the walls of the pub there, because they found one of the biggest gold nuggets in Australia was found in this small town, Omeo where we shot it. And that’s where the National Australia Bank started, because some guy found this huge gold nugget and said, “Can someone look out for this for me?” And some guy put up his hand and said, “I’m going to be called the National Australia Bank.”  I was drawn to this town, because (Red Hill) is about old and new. It’s about the changing of the guard. And it’s about a town that is, at its core, is rotting, and it’s dying. And you get a character like Old Bill that’s protecting this town. He’s sort of like a corrupt king, so to speak. And he’s clinching to the past, he’s refusing to let go of that.

And then you take Shane Cooper, who is a representation of the future, and you place them into this environment, and of course Shane becomes our moral compass. But, you know, that town has all those old western frontages, and, you know, because it used to have a population of over 40,000 people, there’s all of these empty houses everywhere. I guess I was looking at all of these small towns and there’s something really creepy about them, because on a Saturday night you could hear a pin drop. You know what I mean? Because everyone lives on these farms outside of the town, and you’ve just got empty Main Street. You’ve got this infrastructure that was built for all of these people, but no one is living there anymore. So it really did kind of feel like a back lot. It felt like, you know, the biggest thing we did art direction-wise was the council let us chop down all of the street signs, and the stop signs and stuff like that. So we just chopped down any of those signs. We had this beautiful sort of Western town.

I know, it looks it on film. I definitely want to ask you, you mention this was your fourth script that you were working on, and the first three you wrote, and no development. Is it sort of nice now that you have made your film, it’s really great, you can sort of say I have these three scripts that are sort of ready to go?

Hughes:  Yeah, look, I think there’s certainly a couple of them that shouldn’t ever be made, but I think that’s the process of a writer too, you have to go through that process. There’s certainly stuff in my drawer, there’s one in particular that is awesome now, since I’ve opened every door that I could imagine in Hollywood, and now I’m able to say, “Well I’ve got this.” And fortunately the first script that I wrote was a big, fat movie that is a big action thriller that needs 40 million dollars to make. Don’t ever write that is your first script. At the time I wanted to write that story, and that’s what I wrote. But I think it’s such a learning product that you’re learning everything. People always say, “Well what do you think of film school?” And I say, “Film school is fantastic, because I spent three years and all I did every day, nine to five, was wake up and breathe movies, and live filmmaking from every process  – you know, producing, writing, directing, DOP.” So you’d learn every sort of aspect of it, and at the same time you’re able to turn around with some of these short films, and at the same time you’re not being judged. Which, I think is really important early on. When you’re making short films you don’t want to feel like, oh my god, people are overly criticizing your work, because you’ve got to go through this incubation period where you’re trying to find your voice, and you’re trying to hone your craft.

Could you talk a little bit about the editing process, and obviously when you’re doing this indie, you’re trying to cut corners as much as you can and make sure you’re not, you know, filming what you don’t need. Did you end up having a lot of …

Hughes:  You know, ultimately I wanted to, in terms of the way I was shooting the film, I wanted it to be very lean, sparse, raw and mean. Like as big of influence as films like Deliverance where you get that sense of isolation, and there’s such simplicity to them. And High Plains Drifter, and so, it’s sort of a simple story, but it sort of unfolds like that idea that Shane’s putting together a puzzle. And throughout the course of this day, this boy’s day, and it’s the history of policing that he goes through. He’s able to learn and grow from this situation and something good comes from it. Certainly, I was going for that lean, smart sort of execution. And, you know, I was hopefully trying to bring a lot of film craft to it, and make the experience highly cinematic. If you’re gonna make a movie, you don’t just want to end up making a TV movie. You want to make something that you want to see on the big screen that you want to experience. And I think the atmosphere and everything was really crucial.

It certainly was difficult because of our schedule. We shot the movie in four weeks. We had to shoot five and a half pages a day. If we weren’t shooting five and half pages of script a day, we weren’t gonna get the movie. It’s really difficult on everyone involved because it was just really grueling, and we were doing 10 hour days, because I felt like if I’m gonna have people up here busting their gut, I’m gonna respect the time constraints, and not make people work sixteen hour days. No one wants to do night shoots, but we just had to be really, sort of, specific about knowing exactly what you want, exactly what you need for the edit and move on. As soon as you’ve got the right take, just move on. And, you know, thank god with the caliber of actors that we had, we were able to rehearse the scenes. A lot of the time we would just shoot one take and move on.

I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about how did the movie change at all, whether it be through a test screening, through a friends and family screening? Did you have your first cut and say there was an aspect that needed some work, or was the version that you first cut the version that you ultimately released?

Hughes:  No, the first cut was two hours long so (laughs), it was really sort of, you know you have to go through that process as well. I look at it, and when we set out to make the film, and it was like going back to people like George Miller – you know, Mad Max – and the Coen brothers who made Blood Simple, and get that mentality. I don’t know if you’ve seen Knowing, Chris Nolan’s first film where he shot on weekends and 16 mm camera and stuff like that. It was that mentality, it was sort of like there is going to be a little compromise and you grow to accept that. Nothing’s gonna be perfect, especially on this budget. And the aim is to tell the story. That’s the goal. And if you can get the story on the screen – I feel like it’s kind of like warts and all filmmaking. And to a certain degree I feel like I’ve made one big sort of show reel. This is to open those doors so that you can turn around on the next film and get a real budget, and get a real sort of studio behind it.

My last question for you, so you can go and talk to other people: do you envision that your next thing is going to be back in Australia again? Or are you, while you’re here in the states and taking all of those meetings, trying to drum up financing for something else?

Hughes:  Well, I’ve moved here now, and the script that I’ve got in the drawers is set in LA. It’s a big action thriller and the other scripts that I’m working on doing a trilogy of modern day westerns called Three Killers Vengeance, Red Hill, Black Valley, White Mountain. Its three modern day revenge stories set in 24 hours in three separate towns in three different countries. So Black Valley is the next one and it’s set in a sort of lawless border town in Mexico – a fictitious border town. And it’s about a drifter that walks into this town, and it takes place in one day. That’s sort of what I’m working on at the moment. And then obviously just taking meetings and pitching a whole bunch of stuff at the moment.

Well, listen, I wish you nothing but the best. I really thought your film was great, and I hope that everything works out for you.

Hughes:  Thank you very much, I really appreciate it, and thanks for coming to the film.

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