"It’s the Australian West," he said. "We’ve tried to reclaim it for ourselves."
"The Proposition," opened in limited release in the U.S. on May 5 after an enthusiastic response at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals.
In the film, set in the Outback in the late 1800s, Charley Burns (Guy Pearce) is captured by the authorities, and given an ultimatum by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone): if he slays his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) within a week, his younger brother Mikey will be set free. If not, Mikey dies.
"The Proposition" is filled with sharp supporting performances by the likes of Emily Watson and John Hurt, as well as some startling cinematography, a haunting score by Nick Cave (who wrote the screenplay), and fascinating characters, whose capacities for good and evil deeds shift convincingly.
Australia’s colonial history leant itself to a lot of potential for drama, from the harshness of the climate to the settlers’ condescending, often violent attitudes toward the Aboriginal population. Hillcoat said he wanted to make a film that was true to history but also worked dramatically.
"It’s been a dream to do a film out in the elements like that and trying to tackle that part of our history because it hasn’t really been seen on the screen like that," he said.
Hillcoat said he was inspired by revisionist Westerns of the 1970s, and films that displayed a realistic, sometimes harsh frontier, like Robert Altman‘s "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," Sam Peckinpah‘s "The Wild Bunch," and Terrence Malick‘s "Days of Heaven."
"What I loved about Peckinpah and Altman and Malick is there’s a link to reality, and what the times were, a kind of truthfulness about what it would have been like back then," he said.
For years, Hillcoat had wanted Cave to do the score for such a Western in an Australian setting. They agreed that Cave would have a go at the script, but Hillcoat thought it would be a loose outline that would later be fashioned into a screenplay. Over a matter of a few weeks, Cave came up with the scenario.
"Once he started, out it came, the story of the brothers and the central conflict that we could hang all this stuff on," he said. "Nick surprised me and himself."
When Pearce got the script, he thought it was something special.
"It was so beautifully written," he said. "It was so poetic and so evocative, which is very rare. It was very easy for my imagination to be fueled and to get a sense of what it was they were trying to tell."
Pearce was also attracted to the moral complexity of the story.
"Obviously the scenario is quite extreme and rather harrowing," he said. "It almost seems like an impossible task to contemplate how one might choose one brother over another or one family member over another, particularly when it comes to having to kill [someone]."
The moral ambiguity and violence in the script, as well as the plan to shoot the film in the Outback, made the film a tough sell, Hillcoat said.
"It was incredibly hard to finance because of the tone and the script," he said. "The financers knew it was a logistical risk to go out there and build sets in that kind of territory. By the time the money got together and we finally had everyone ready to go, we had slid into the beginning of the summer."
Trouble struck early when Hillcoat and several members of the crew were involved in a serious car accident, in which their vehicle hit some rough terrain and rolled over three times.
"They’d thought I had broken my neck," he said. "Twenty-four hours later, I greeted the key cast that had arrived on a charter flight. I had a neck brace and black eyes. That was just the beginning."
The environment posed many serious challenges; temperatures reached well into the 100s, and many scenes were shot at night because the cameras were too hot to touch. The week after production, fierce winds leveled the majority of the sets. So as rough as the conditions were, things could have been worse, Hillcoat said.
"Luck has a major part when it has to do with the developments," he said. "Those strong winds could have come at any moment when we were shooting, so we were lucky."
And the difficulty of the shoot created both a sense of camaraderie among the cast members and a greater feeling for the material.
"All that stuff adds to what you’re doing," Pearce said "The environment really informs what you’re doing. The environment and the world that these people live in and the level of survival is far more extreme than what we know it to be today, [although] certainly [it is] for some cultures, not for others. It was a real fascinating sort of journey to enter into that."
"It was one of those situations where everyone knew it was going to be quite extraordinary," Hillcoat said. "Everyone kind of bonded rather than tore each other apart."
Much of the good feeling on the set came from Hillcoat’s method of directing, Pearce said.
"He really knows what he wants, and what he wants is very true and honest performances," he said. "He’s very open to having you find that very true and honest place. He certainly doesn’t limit you in your honest interpretation of the work. He’s my kind of director."
And in getting to the truth of the material, the film often depicts some very graphic floggings, shootings, and spearings. But Pearce said it’s the tone of the film, the sudden but inevitable flare-ups, that make the violence seem more shocking.
"Some say, ‘Oh, the film is violent.’ I think on some level, people are inadvertently complimenting the film by saying that, because we’re talking about the fact that it actually is effective," he said. "There are plenty of films out there that are violent, where people run around with machine guns and shoot the hell out of everybody, and there’s no aftermath. To me, that’s disrespectful in film. It’s just like a video game.
"To me, this feels complete in the addressing of violence: You have the lull before the storm, you have the really horrific storm, and you have the cleanup afterwards," he continued. "There’s probably less violence in this film than in the majority of other films. It’s just that when it happens, it feels real."
The violence feels more real because of the setting, Pearce said.
"It’s kind of a looming violence," he said. "We know that this world is a harsh and dangerous one, and it’s one that’s fraught with all sorts of difficulties in regards to surviving. You feel quite troubled at the idea that potentially anything violent could happen. It’s that looming violence that adds up for people when they watch it."
Regardless, Pearce said he feels American audiences will find a lot in the story that will resonate.
"I feel it should particularly appeal to Americans because on some level, there’s a similar frontier environment, [with] people really being out of place and trying to make a home in such a harsh environment that’s not their own," he said. "And really, the story’s about human emotion rather than necessarily a historical document."
Those complex emotions are in some ways incongruous with the idea of the Western in film, with exception of the 1970s anti-Westerns, Hillcoat said.
"Your sympathies keep swinging between some of the characters, and that’s very unusual because normally the American West is put into very black and white terms," he said.
And Hillcoat said he feels that dealing in black and white is a problem in today’s political climate, one that "The Proposition" refutes.
"Life isn’t like that," he said. "I know Bush is trying to tell everyone life is like that. Part of the mood of all that in a political context [is] empire building and the consequences of violence. I’m hoping it will ring a chord here [in the U.S.]."
And it has certainly made a big impression on Pearce; he said the film, from the cinematography to the music to his co-stars’ performances make "The Proposition" a particularly special film for him.
"It’s by far my favorite film that I’ve ever been in," he said. "Look, that’s not to take anything away from ‘Memento‘ or ‘L.A. Confidential,’ because I think they’re both extraordinary pieces of work. But there’s something about this that moves me in a way I haven’t felt before.
"I have to be fair, because I haven’t watched the other [films] for a couple years," he continued. "[But] there’s something so raw. Maybe it means more to me because it’s an Australian story."
Still, Pearce said, "It’s a story about human emotions, so it doesn’t really matter where it’s set."