BEHIND THE MYSTERY ROAD
Interview with Peter Gray hush hush biz reporter.
The new Australian thriller ‘Mystery Road’ brings together a cavalcade of our nation’s finest talents to detail the gripping story of Aboriginal police detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) and his investigation into the mysterious murder of a local Aboriginal girl. With the majority of his fellow officers both indifferent to the crime and hostile towards his exploration, Swan is impeded at every juncture and soon uncovers a dark world of police corruption, drug dealing and child prostitution. Headed by a masterful performance from Aaron Pedersen, ‘Mystery Road’ is a slow-burning Western-themed chiller that sets a new standard in Australian filmmaking. In Brisbane to promote the film, writer/director Ivan Sen and lead star Aaron Pedersen sat down with Hush Hush Biz entertainment reporter Peter Gray to discuss their collaboration and how important it was to both of them.
First of all congratulations on the film! It recently played at the Toronto Film Festival, how did you respond to that?
Ivan Sen: North America have an affinity with the style of the film, being that it’s a Western, or has Western elements, Cowboy elements…so that immediately opens them up. And the response was similar to what we saw in Sydney and Melbourne. And even though there were some cultural specific moments that weren’t as understood as well as they would be here…generally the film has played really well. And all of our sessions were sold out so there’s obvious interest there.
How did the story come about for you? Was it based on true events?
Ivan Sen: Yeah everything in it is true, there are details such as the corruption with the cops that I read about down in New South Wales…and the whole basis of the story about the girl being found under the roadway, that is very similar to what happened to a family member of mine, and also the aftermath of the police investigation being very lacklustre. There was no Aboriginal cop involved in that but that element comes from my own personal childhood growing up in a town where you’re caught between two worlds…the Aboriginal and the white part of town, having connections to both. So that combined with an idea I had about a cop in 2000 that was set in Sydney…I approached Aaron and I didn’t even have anything written down, just a few sentences and about a year and a half ago I got back onto it and wrote the script quickly and started talking about it and here we are.
So was Aaron always the person you had in mind for the role?
Ivan Sen: Yeah I wrote it with him in mind. I guess since that fleeting moment in 2006 he’s been in the back of my mind, and I guess it was a matter of timing from when I finished my last film. And I used this as a stepping stone to where I want to go in the future, introducing generic elements to my storytelling.
And was it something you responded to right away Aaron?
Aaron Pedersen: Oh definitely! Yeah in 2006 we were like two ships in the night, we passed each other and he said he had a project he wanted to talk to me about and I was like ”cool bro, let’s go upstairs and talk about it”. But we just kinda went our own ways, working on our own personal things and then it reared its head about a year and a half ago, he rang up and said he had the script for me…he sent it to me, I loved it, and obviously it went through transformations over ideas, characters emerged, other characters were merged together, titles changed…but you know it always had that strong premise of the cop caught between two worlds and trying to solve the crime of this young Aboriginal girl being killed. There was always this beautiful layer to the script and obviously Ivan saw me play a lot of cops, more in a team environment, but this one was out on his own, he had no one to back him up and he was working off his own instinct. I always saw it as this guy has his ancestors standing behind him.
You shot it in Winton, was it the kind of place you just saw and knew you had to shoot it there or did you have any idea of how you wanted your set to look when you were writing?
Ivan Sen: Initially it was going to be shot down in New South Wales but after going down there I realised I had shot that place before and, to me, I wanted to push the envelope a bit and get things as strong as I possibly could and (NSW) wasn’t doing it for me. So after going to Screen Queensland and checking their location library, Winton stood out…the diversity there and the strength of that desert, it’s so vast and brutal and beautiful. And that’s when it (‘Mystery Road’) became a western.
You have an amazing cast here, how did all of those actors become involved? Did you approach them or did they get a hold of the script?
Ivan Sen: A couple of them were really keen to be involved but after Aaron was involved, just one by one they came and it didn’t stop, and they were all invested in spreading the message of the film around. I wrote some roles with specific people in mind, you know instead of writing ‘gun-shop owner’ I wrote Roy Billing, instead of ‘coroner’ I wrote Bruce (Spence), and at first my producer said “Bill’s not available, Roy’s not available”, and I said “I don’t care I’m going to get them”, so we just changed the schedule to whatever just to get them. I was just as passionate about getting the right actor as I was about getting the right landscape.
So you had Hugo (Weaving), Jack (Thompson) and Ryan (Kwanten) all written down?
Ivan Sen: Hugo wasn’t initially the one I wanted but he came into orbit. Jack was. Ryan wasn’t in my process initially mainly cause I didn’t think we’d have a chance because he’s busy, you know he’s making TV shows but one day the producer told me that Ryan loved it, and he wants to do it so I said to get him out here cause we were already in pre-production at that stage.
Do you see Winton becoming more prevalent now?
Ivan Sen: Well they’re pushing it out there; they’re a very supportive place. It’s a very, very comfortable place to film.
Aaron Pedersen: They’re very proud of this, they had a screening the other night and they said it was better than “The Proposition” (laughs), I think because it was more inclusive.
Ivan Sen: And they know how valuable it is to have a film out there, for their economy…but it’s more than that they’re just a welcoming community.
Aaron, as an Indigenous actor, do you see people looking up to you as a role model?
Aaron Pedersen: I think it comes with the territory. I think I’ve pushed the boundaries a bit in going mainstream, and certainly a lot of people have tried in going mainstream, but I think I just won the lottery in that sense, as has Deb Mailman, and I hope that from now on that’s the norm. It’s a part of a long journey of actors who have fought for us to get here, and there is a responsibility that comes with it but TV turns you into those things doesn’t it? It’s in everyone’s lounge rooms, everyone’s lives. I love it cause it’s academic based, it’s about reading, and it’s about English and comprehension. And it’s different than being a sports person, there’s other truths to it you know there’s other skills you have to acquire to be an actor or storyteller. You have to get an education and if that makes kids change the way they see education, get on top of their writing and their study then good. I just wanted to change the face of Australian television, to have young Aboriginal kids look at me and go “hey it looks like me, maybe I can do that”, and I’ve had the chance to do that. Role modelling was something I never set out to do, I just wanted to put my own soul on television for other people to grow from, and I love my job! It’s hard, but not as hard as it used to be for our people.
Do you see the two of you collaborating again?
Aaron Pedersen: I might be too busy (laughs)
Ivan Sen: Yeah possibly, my next project is such a different piece from this. There’s no Indigenous aspect to it, not that that has anything to do with it really, but it’s a totally different concept.
Aaron Pedersen: We’ll dance again, I’m not holding my breath though (laughs) but yeah I’ve enjoyed this, it’s the role of a lifetime, can’t thank him enough for it. I can’t be too disappointed if I never work with him again and I can’t be too greedy either.
‘Mystery Road’ is in cinemas now
BEHIND THE MYSTERY ROAD