It’s been a roundabout sort of homecoming for Australian filmmaker Rowan Woods. The director, who made his name with the critically-praised local movies The Boys (1998) and Little Fish (2005), decamped to Los Angeles to shoot his first American feature, Winged Creatures — together with an ensemble cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Jackie Earle Haley, Dakota Fanning, Kate Beckinsale, Guy Pearce, Jennifer Hudson and Josh Hutcherson. It’s a dark, multi-narrative drama that examines post-traumatic stress and how it affects a group of characters who witness a violent shooting in a restaurant.
Though the film has had a muted response in the US, Woods is relieved — and surprised — to find his film is resonating, he says, with Australian audiences. And, for the record, he’s full of praise for Dakota Fanning, who rumours had that he was feuding with on set.
Winged Creatures is in cinemas nationally on July 9.
Is it strange being back to Australia to promote your first American feature film?
It’s a sort of strangely rewarding feeling. When you come back from overseas, generally my impression is that your first American film, or first outside your own culture, feels and looks different to an audience. But from all responses so far — and I’m glad everyone says this — it fits very comfortably into my oeuvre. That’s pleasing because one of the important things to me about traveling to the US and making a film there was that I be able to make an independent movie in much the same way as I made it in Australia: you know, to have a level of control over casting and crew and post production, and therefore for my voice to come through. The responses are all that it feels like a “Rowan Woods” film, and a very interesting companion piece to The Boys. Which is what one of the things that originally struck me about the script, in that it’s almost a mirror image of The Boys in that both are films that surround a violent crime, and neither film used that violence as a way of raising the dramatic stakes — it was about the violence impacting on real people. This film follows the innocent victims. And both have an interesting time trick within them.
What drew you to this script after your last film, Little Fish?
It came to me in a unusual way. I was on a ‘world safari’ with my wife and children, and in the process of doing that I went through LA on the back of Little Fish and my agent had a stack of scripts ready for me — because Little Fish was quite well received, and gave me an amazing entrée in terms of getting the good scripts. We picked up this bag of scripts and Winged Creatures was one that grabbed me. I just thought it was a very powerful indictment of the lack of gun control in America today. When you’re an outsider and an Australian you really feel it. When you put your kids into a school in America, and immediately you are on edge because you hear gunfire overnight and choppers overhead. Our first port of call in LA was Echo Park, near downtown. This was all something that was very foreign to me. That really sparked me into gear with this story. I think a film like this is important to highlight the plight of real people after a gun incident.
How did American audiences respond compared to Australian audiences? (The film has screened in LA and was recently shown at the Sydney Film Festival.)
There’s shock and anger in the Australian audiences that there wasn’t in the US. I don’t know if American audiences are more tired or browbeaten by the subject. [The school massacre at] Virginia Tech happened when we were shooting this film and there was no public outcry — there was just a solemn response for the victims; except, you would expect more. Anyway, that’s the political realm of it that I found exciting. There’s also the human element where there’s all these weird and wonderful versions of post traumatic stress disorders out there — and they’re all on show in the film.
How did you put together such an impressive — and varied — cast?
I was aided and abetted by the independent producer Robert Salerno, the guy who made 21 Grams. He was an important part of connecting me to the right people. And the script was already well respected before it got to me.
Is it true that some producers were resistant to casting Forest Whitaker?
Quite the contrary. There’s a great love of Forest as a character actor and also, coming into that year with the Oscars, he became a star [Whitaker won Best Actor in 2007 for The Last King of Scotland]. The irony is that in independent producing there’s more of a requirement for full-on stars across the board; and you’d expect in lower budget filmmaking that you could deal with less stars. But because there’s risk reduction going on with pre-selling films, there’s a requirement for as many big name actors as possible. So for a film like this, even though I was only chasing actors whose work that I love, there was also the need for people like Forest and Kate Beckinsale and Dakota Fanning to come on board. It’s really difficult to get any drama going outside of genre filmmaking, so having character actors who are also stars is very critical.
You got an uncharacteristic performance out of Kate.
She sold herself to the film; she really wanted to do the movie. She really was devoted to tearing down her own beauty for this role. She was very brave about it and I was very surprised at how she was really prepared to go there for a role that was am impoverished single mother. A lot of people don’t realize it’s her for a while.
And what of that rumour that you and Dakota didn’t get along at all on the film?
Well, Dakota was great. I’ve already put out a strong public statement on that. Suffice to say her performance, and Josh’s, was great- because they were both transitioning. I actually consider it a privilege to be on the film with them, because they were the actors that had to struggle most to achieve the fantastic performances they achieved. They really did because they had to take a leap up from the sort of kids films and family films they’d done thus far. They had the most difficult roles. The whole film was balanced on whether they could deliver in the final climactic scene — which was bloody difficult for two young actors to do, and they put them themselves under enormous pressure in doing it. If they hadn’t nailed that scene then we wouldn’t have had a movie.