Eric Bana: Hit Aussie Thriller The Dry Will Transport Audiences to An Australia Rarely Seen On Screen

Bana's first Australian movie in more than a decade has been a monster hit back home. Now the actor is betting its dark twists and unique tone are just what mystery-hungry American audiences are looking for, too.

by | May 21, 2021 | Comments

The Dry

(Photo by Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.)

When the team behind Australian thriller The Dry – which includes its lead star and producer Eric Bana – decided to release the film into cinemas there on January 1, it was a risky call. While the country has been largely spared from the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (one of the reasons so many Hollywood productions have set up shop there), audiences were still cautious about large indoor gatherings, and snap lockdowns to snuff out small COVID-19 outbreaks – even in the low single-digits – were a regular occurrence in major cities. But Bana, his fellow producers, and distributor Village Roadshow felt sure they had something special in their adaptation of Jane Harper’s hugely popular book of the same name, the kind of Australian movie that might just bring Australian audiences back to cinemas in big numbers. And it turns out they were right.

The Dry follows Bana’s Melbourne-based detective, Aaron Falk, who returns to the rural town in which he was raised to attend the funeral of a childhood friend who appears to have killed his wife and child in a murder-suicide. Reconnecting with friends and sparring with enemies from his youth, Falk becomes sucked into the case which, it turns out, has links to another mystery from 20 years ago – one in which he may have played a part. These dual twisting threads, Bana’s stoic and layered work as Falk, and an incredible look that splays the baked Australian landscape across the screen to stark and arresting effect, made The Dry a hit in Australia. In January and February, it became the movie to see there, a might-have-been-indie-thriller that tapped into the popular consciousness like a big-budget Hollywood action flick, and it now ranks as the 15th biggest Australian movie ever at the local box office. (Fun if unsurprising fact: Crocodile Dundee is number one.)

Talking with Rotten Tomatoes, Bana is clearly chuffed with the film’s success Down Under, and excited for American and international audiences now to be transported to Kiewarra, the fictional farming community in which The Dry‘s twin mysteries unfold. The movie opens in theaters here on May 21. From his home in Melbourne, the star of Troy, Munich, and Romulus, My Father – his last Aussie film before The Dry – opened up about the sudden popularity of Australian movies in Australian cinemas (The Dry was part of a high-earning crop of recent films including High Ground and Penguin Bloom), scouting the perfect locations to bring Kiewarra to life, and what he hopes will be the impact of so many overseas productions shooting in his backyard. Plus, he reacts to discovering that The Dry helped get this author’s mother a date. Really.

The Dry

(Photo by Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.)

Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: I actually had a chance to see The Dry in theaters when I was back in Australia for two months over Christmas. It was a great experience and I have to let you know that you’re actually responsible for getting my mother a date: we were in the lobby before the movie and I’d gone to get popcorn and when I came back a man had come up to her with a notepad. She introduced me, and she said, “This is John and he’s giving me his number.”

Eric Bana: This might be my favorite theatrical story yet from The Dry.

Rotten Tomatoes: She took the number and he walked away, but he also said, “I had to say your mother was beautiful and I had to shoot my shot.” And mom hadn’t been to the movies in 10 years! There’s not really a question there, but I guess: How do you feel making love happen?

Bana: That is pretty spectacular. I love that story. It’s in a lot of ways symbolic of, as you mentioned, so many people going back to the cinema for the first time. Not only I guess regular cinema goers, but we’ve found that there are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, just really felt compelled to see this film on a big screen, which is so rewarding for us because it’s exactly what our intention was. The way that that energy was picked up on by the Australian public was beyond what we had obviously expected, so it was amazing.

Rotten Tomatoes: It was a very strange thing to be back in Australia and have the likes of network morning TV talking about this Australian film as a phenomenon. Our films sometimes struggle to cut through the clutter back home. And at the same time as The Dry, cinemas were filled with more Aussie films: Penguin Bloom and High Ground and Rams and all these other films were out. Was it a kind of exciting moment to see Australians going to the movies to see Australian films?

Bana: Yeah, it was. It was exciting because it was a deliberate thing. We wanted the film to be commercial. We knew that it had the hallmarks of an indie – with dark themes. But on top of that, there was a potential to try and lure people in with a more commercial sell, which is why [distributor] Village Roadshow were such good partners for us.

But you’re right, it was the beginning. The release date was really scary when we got it, January 1. [Editor’s note: COVID-19 cases were down in low single and double-digits in Australia at the time, but cinemas were only newly operating at capacity and snap lockdowns were regular occurrences in Australian cities.] It was sink or swim. But we felt really confident in the film and that it helped set up this trend of people going, “Yeah, we really want to get behind these Australian films.”

It has changed the language around theatrical releases for Australian films, which is the thing that I’m most excited about and that all the producers are excited about: That we can start seeing the potential for Australian films and think about them differently.

The Dry

(Photo by Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.)

Rotten Tomatoes: It’s exciting to be here back in America now and seeing these films being released and embraced here. The Dry struck me, though, as quite particularly Australian in some ways – it deals with issues that we face, I think, more acutely than some other nations, like the drought and the problem of gambling; and it also gave me a lot of Wake In Fright vibes with the aggressive macho-ness that your character faces at the pub. But in what ways do you feel the movie is universal, and what are you hoping that international audiences are going to get from this film?

Bana: Look, we were really lucky that Jane Harper chose to set the story in a fictitious Victorian town of Kiewarra. The key elements of the thriller/whodunit would have worked in any country, in any landscape, with her writing. But we felt like the worst thing we could have done was set this film in Texas, because the hyper-Australian-ess and the attention to detail of the characters and locations are what makes it so specific and is what makes it unique, and that’s what made the book unique.

That was playing to our strengths, because it was language we understood, it was characters we understood, it was locations and landscape that we understood. It enabled us, in terms of producers, directors, actors, crew, cinematography, to elevate our game to the highest possible level in a local landscape. By making it hyper-Australian in terms of its detail, I think it helps amp up all those other aspects of an already completely solid story and whodunit, which would have worked like I say in any landscape around the world, but fortunately for us it was set here.

To answer your question, I hope the audience enjoys being transported. We’re really excited about the idea that Americans will feel like they’ve spent two hours in Kiewarra at the end of the film. I’m really, really excited to see Americans’ reactions, because it’s a depiction of – as you know – rural Australia that we don’t always get in cinema. It’s usually quite a caricature. It’s usually the Outback. It’s not usually these towns, which is how – I don’t know about you – but how I identify with rural Australia is through these little country towns.

Rotten Tomatoes: And they’re towns that are changing, they’re affected by a number of impacts. I found the choice for John Polson’s character to live in that isolated McMansion/new monstrosity very interesting.

Bana: Yeah.

The Dry

(Photo by Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.)

Rotten Tomatoes: That said, we do also get these amazing vistas and we do get this beautiful – somewhat despairing if you think about the drought that underlies it – striking imagery. From what I understand, you were part of the location scouting for this film. What was that process like and visually what were you going for in terms of the locations?

Bana: We really wanted to try and capture the essence of what Jane had written in the book. We knew that area, the Wheat Belt of Victoria, which is about five hours away from the city in which I am now, Melbourne. There was no one town that could do the job so we based ourselves in a place called Warracknabeal and then we had about an hour-and-a-half circle from there that we could cherry pick all these tiny little towns to stitch together our Kiewarra. So, we use the pub from Minyip, we’ll use the main street from Beulah, we’ll use the house from here, and so forth.

It was a lot of different locations to get the greatest possible visual consistency with what was in the book. Stefan Duscio, our Director of Photography, did an amazing job. He is from the country and really understands that landscape. Because you had to believe that the dryness and the tension and the mental scarring that comes from people not only living through a severe drought, but also being dependent upon rainfall in order to survive financially and emotionally as well.

We shot the beginning of 2019, at the peak of the drought and just as the bush fires were starting. It just felt, it did, it felt like it was never going to rain. It did rain after we left, which is traditional for film crews, of course, but it was very important to us.

Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve spoken about what was important to you as the producer of this film. I’m wondering, as you look at what you’re going to produce next, and as you develop a body of work that you’ve produced, is there a guiding principle or something you’re looking to do with the projects that you want to shepherd now?

Bana: They tend to be projects that I want to be very closely involved in myself. I don’t want to be someone who just attaches their name to things for the sake of it. So, it will generally be stuff that I’m intrinsically involved with. I was fortunate enough that in this case, Bruna Papandrea, the producer who acquired the rights some years ago, was someone that we knew well and wanted to get involved with. That was wonderful to learn from her and my co-producer, Robert Connolly, who is our director as well, who is just so experienced and fantastic.

I guess, yeah, it’s stuff that I really feel that I can have a solid contribution to and have a voice in. The Dry was a “gimme” because it was in my backyard. I knew the area; we were working out of our office and post-production was just a two-minute walk away, so it was fantastic in that sense.

The Dry

(Photo by Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.)

Rotten Tomatoes: It’s great to see Australian movies at the cinemas, but the other thing that’s happening in Australia at the moment is that it feels like every American production in the world is currently based there on the Gold Coast or in Byron Bay – largely thanks to COVID being fully under control and some generous tax incentives. I’m wondering, what do you hope the impact of all this activity that’s happening now will be for the local industry? There is a fear I see when speaking to some people that everyone is going to pack up once the pandemic ends and things settle back to normal, and tax incentives won’t be enough to keep this level of production in the country. Is there a hope you have or something you’re thinking about in terms the impact of all this production happening right now?

Bana: I think the volume is such that definitely there will be a slight legacy there – that more people will feel comfortable traveling to Australia to film. I’m confident that there will be some kind of continual, residual value in people being comfortable with Australia as a shooting location, even when we lose our ultra-competitive edge due to COVID and the situation being back to normal. Obviously, the UK is a long way off being back online in that strong production sense. We will lose some production, eventually, so hopefully we can regain some of that.

But it’s really important that we strike the right balance and that we make the most of the theatrical energy that came out of this year with Australian cinema. We’re starting to get government to really pay attention now, which is great, both on a state level here in Victoria and on a federal level with the offset remaining at 40% – which was super, super important.

I hope that there is a long tail. I think we have to be prepared for that drop-off that you talk of, when the rest of the world goes back to normal and every other shooting location becomes available. But hopefully there will be a bit of a legacy here and people go, “Actually, it was great shooting down there. Studios were great in all the different cities. Australians made us feel welcome.”

You’d like to think it’s not just a tax break that lures someone to a shooting location. And I’ve been on the receiving end of that myself. I’ve worked in a lot of international cinema that’s shot in tax-break locations, so I get it and I’ve benefited from that, so I can’t criticize that process too much. But at the same time, what makes those locations something that you want to go back to are the crews and the conditions and how great those cities are to be in – it makes a really big difference.

Hopefully, we can get our way into people’s hearts and all these directors, producers, actors want to keep coming back here. That’s what we have to try and concentrate on.

Romulus My Father

(Photo by ©Dendy Films/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Rotten Tomatoes: You hadn’t made an Australian film for quite some time before The Dry. Are you focused on staying there at the moment and working on Australian stories? Or are you still open to what tickles you, wherever it happens to be?

Bana: It’s not a driving principle for me. Since Romulus, My Father (pictured above), Rob [Connolly, who directed Romulus and The Dry] and I have been looking to find something to do at home because this is where we live and it’s obviously hugely advantageous. I don’t have to fly 24 hours to go to work; it was novel to shoot something at home!

It has to compete with everything else on the pile. I don’t feel like a patriotic sense of “I must do this many Australian films.” I’d much rather do the greatest work I can possibly do here when it comes along. That, I think, is a more important contribution. I don’t have a personal quota or anything like that. Obviously, if I found something else to do here that was of that quality, I’d do it tomorrow.

But the pool is much smaller here, obviously. The Australian pile is much smaller, and it’s much harder for me to find films of that quality here at the same frequency as I do. So, there’s no real priority given to it, but obviously it’s hugely rewarding when it does come along.

Rotten Tomatoes: And just finally, I know you said it’s a very particularly Australian story and that’s what elevates it. But also because of its interesting structure, this dual mystery, it has a hook where I can see it could be remade. They could take this idea and set it somewhere else as a remake. I’m not saying that anyone’s suggested that, but it did pop into my head. How would you feel about potentially having a remade version of this in another location or country?

Bana: I’m good with accents! [Laughs]. I’ve had people ask me about a sequel; I haven’t had people ask me about a version in another country. I’ll just go play Aaron in Denmark or Germany! That’s not something I’ve heard, yet. Let’s hope that the specific nature of this one means that people would rather experience the original and not have the accent subtitled even in English. Let’s hope they can understand what the hell we’re saying and enjoy. Enjoy our wonderful Australian accents for a change. It’s not often Australians get to play Australians in international cinema. I’m happy for them to get a real taste of Australia through this film.

Rotten Tomatoes: My favorite accent moment in any film, by the way, happens to be Leslie Mann making fun of how you say “No” in Funny People.

Bana: [Laughing] Yeah, it was pretty special. Gosh, she’s funny.

The Dry is in U.S. theaters May 21, 2021.

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