Damien Power is a Tasmanian-born filmmaker about to startle international audiences with his feature debut KILLING GROUND, a brutal, immersive, haunting survival thriller which breathes new life into the genre, with a non-linear narrative, realistic characters and a less-is-more approach. I spoke to Damien about the factors that shaped the story, his approach to the screenplay, the casting, the challenging shoot, and his hopes for how the film will be received.   

What other films were on your mind when you were writing and making KILLING GROUND? 
I looked back at the classic, character-driven survival films of the 70s. STRAW DOGS (1971) was one. I remember my cinematographer Simon Chapman and I looked at DELIVERANCE (1972), not so much for the content but for how the filmmakers made the daylight look frightening. If you watch DELIVERANCE you'll see there are a lot of long takes in the film, and John Boorman did an amazing job with the blocking of the actors. We also looked at THE VANISHING (1993) and how the tension was created. The French film RED LIGHTS (2004) was another film.

All of the films you mentioned are psychologically terrifying and the audience has to fill in the blanks for themselves about what occured during the most intense sequences. Is this something you were aiming for with KILLING GROUND? 
I wanted to be very careful about how I treated the violence. I wanted to leave the worst of the violence offscreen. When the audience fills in the blanks, it is far worse than anything I could show. I think this approach has more impact and suggests life outside the frame, which makes things even more disturbing.

What inspired the story for the film? 
The germ of the idea started with an image of an orange tent in the middle of nowhere. I don't know where this image came from, but I started thinking ''What happened to the campers?''

When did you hit upon the idea to do tell the story in a non-linear fashion? 
Right from the beginning, actually. When I was conceiving the story I had thought a lot about who the previous campers were and what had happened to them. That story, which might have just been backstory in another film, seemed fundamental to me. I wanted to tell the story of all the events that took place in that space, and the best way to do that seeemd to be non-linear. I would write one scene and then think ''Which timeframe do I want to transition to next for the next scene?'' It probably wasn't the easiest way to write! But it was just the way it unfolded. These kinds of films are usually relentlessly linear. For good reason – they want to throw you into the characters' journey. But we've all seen these films, and I wanted to try something new.

I also aimed to spend enough time with the characters so that we cared about them. And that goes for the antagonists too. We see something of their relationship before we see who they really are. I hope all of this makes the audience more active in the storytelling and has them asking questions throughout about where we are in the story and how all the characters relate to each other. I hope that as the two timeframes converge in the narrative the audience feels more and more anxious. They know that these paths are going to converge at some point, so there's that sense of anticipation. Thematically, the film deals with cycles of violence. There's a reference in the film to a past massacre of indigenous people. I think the non-linear opening creates an air of timelessness. Violence happened 200 years ago, it happened last week, it is happening now and it can happen tomorrow. The structure spoke to that theme.

With your previous short films were you working thematically towards KILLING GROUND? 
All of the shorts came about in different ways, and most of them are different to KILLING GROUND. But with Peekaboo, my producer Joe Weatherstone and I decided to make a short film that could be used as a calling card for me to get a feature financed that had suspense and action. We both had little kids at that point, and Joe said ''How about a film about a mother who loses her child?'' I said ''That sounds terrifying. '' So we made Peekaboo (2011), which is about a mother who loses her child in a public car park. Like KILLING GROUND it dealt with one of my worst fears as a parent – not being able to protect my family if they were under threat. I have lost sight of my kids in playgrounds and it's terrifying each time. The film did very well at festivals and got us international sales agents on board for KILLING GROUND.

A couple of months before we started making KILLING GROUND I shot another short film called Hitchhiker (2015). I was given money from an Australian Film, TV and Radio School Creative Fellowship to make an experimental short. I wanted to make the ultimate hitchhiker film by pulling the genre apart. I thought that the common thread between all hitchhiking films or hitchhiking scenes in films is the idea of danger – either you getting into a stranger's car or a stranger getting into your car. The antagonists are invariably an escaped prisoner or a serial killer. In my story, I have a serial killer pick up an escaped prisoner. All of the dialogue in the film comes from scenes related to hitchhiking in other films. It plays with this idea of genre and repetition. What is the essence of the hitchhiking genre? How can you reuse elements to tell a new tale?

Hitchhiker starred Aaron Glenane, who plays Chook (one of the the bad guys) in KILLING GROUND. In Hitchhiker he played the escaped prisoner, and Julian Garner, who plays Rob (the Dad who likes hiking) in KILLING GROUND, played the serial killer. If someone ever did a double bill of Hitchhiker and KILLING GROUND it would be strange because they would be watching KILLING GROUND just waiting for the Dad to go bad!

With KILLING GROUND were you trying to subvert expectations audiences might have for an Ozploitation film? 
If you're making a genre film you have got to be aware of people's expectations going in. For me I wanted to bring a level of realism to the characters and their choices. While I was writing the script I just kept thinking ''What would I do in this situation?'' I also wanted people asking themselves that same question after they saw the movie. Movies teach us that we can all be heroes, but life teaches us something different. Every time you inject a bit of real life into a genre story you can take it to an interesting place.

Being that the film was inspired by your nightmare scenarios as a parent, did you manage to work through any of your fears making the film? 
To be honest, I was too busy working through my own nightmare and survival story making the film! Logistically we didn't have a lot of time or money. We shot almost entirely outdoors, in supposedly the driest month of the year in Sydney and we were hit hard by rain. We lost three shooting days and were only able to reschedule an additional two. I was working a 9-5 job at the time and basically took leave to make the film. They wouldn't let me take five weeks off in a row, so I had to shoot for four weeks and then go back to work for a week and come back for a week and finish the film. We had an arsonist stalking the set trying to burn the bush down where we were filming. I think the only thing that stopped him was the rain. And of course you have all the regular things that are difficult to do, like working with kids and animals! It was a tough shoot, but we made it.

It was a real coup getting Aaron Pedersen from MYSTERY ROAD (2013) and GOLDSTONE (2016) in your film, and as an evil character as well. 
He's a national treasure in Australia. I loved him in those films you mentioned. He was the only actor I made an offer to. At the time I thought he would never do the film. He was known for playing cops. But I think that's why he did the film – he never gets offered roles like German. One of the reasons I really wanted Aaron was that German had to be this guy who had this charisma that could mentor someone into murder. I feel really blessed to have gotten the cast we did. We were funded without a cast attached so that gave me the licence to try and find the best people for the roles. It was important having experienced actors because we didn't have a lot of time and we were dealing with very tough material. They have to go to a pretty dark place.

What are your hopes for how KILLING GROUND will be received all around the world? 
We've sold it into almost every territory in the world, so I hope it's seen as widely as possible and enjoyed and appreciated by audiences. The response so far from festival screenings has been great, which has been gratifying. Aaron Glenane told me he was at a festival, and after a Q and A a woman came up to him and said ''I used to work as a homicide cop and I worked on some of the worst cases. I sat across from some of the worst people in the world. You and Aaron Pedersen took me right back there. You captured something of those guys. '' I think Aaron was a little freaked out by that. I consider what she said to be high praise and signs of a job well done. I didn't base KILLING GROUND on anything, but while I was writing it I did read a lot of true crime stories that focussed on cases where there was more than one perpetrator. Often I think crimes might have not happened if not for the bad combination of two individuals. Separately, they wouldn't have done anything. There was an evil chemistry between the two people, and opportunity resulted in shocking crimes.

JAWS (1975) is famous for scaring people so much that many people never wanted to go into the sea again. How much was that on your mind regarding KILLING GROUND affecting the Australian camping industry?! 
We actually joked about having a tagline on the poster saying ''This film does for camping what JAWS did for swimming''!

What will be your next project? 
I've been developing a few projects. One of them is a feature version of Peekaboo. I would say these projects are all in the thriller genre. I love the genre. For me, thrillers are dramas with high stakes, and you can take the audience on a wild ride and give them an intense, visceral experience, but also give them something to think about.

KILLING GROUND is in theaters and on VOD from July 21st, through IFC Midnight. 

The trailer to KILLING GROUND. 

Damien's website. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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