Andrew Traucki

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The Reef writer/director open up about maintaining tension, inter-species love affairs and the Australian film distribution system.

2007 saw one of the best animal attacks movie ever made in Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich's Black Water. Damsels in distress Maeve Dermody and Diana Glenn weren't cardboard hotties we just knew would take their clothes off at some point and end up getting butchered by the ski mask wearing psychopath.

Their terror was palpable, their situation so seemingly real, and Black Water was horror in the true sense of the word instead of a roller coaster-style scare flick. I'm not sure the writer/directors would be happy with such a sentiment, but it's a very harrowing experience.

Traucki's new film The Reef again tells the story of a group of people stranded in the domain of a man eating beast – in this case, a great white shark stalking them as they swim to safety following a yacht accident. Like Black Water, The Reef was inspired by a real case and although he didn't set out to be 'the killer animal guy', Traucki is carving a very distinctive niche.

What was the appeal with another killer animal movie?

I'm attracted to survival stories I love thinking what I'd do in an extreme situation whether it's a plane crash, a yacht turning over in the middle of the ocean, some climbers stuck on the top of Everest or being chased by some big animal. I happened across this story many years ago and it just wouldn't leave my mind. I knew it was a pretty good one and I spent a long time just working out what to do with it.

Did that same approach attract you to Black Water?

Totally, I read that story and I thought how spooky it'd be and what I'd do if I was stuck up a tree with a crocodile at the bottom.

So it was just a coincidence that both stories involved killer animals?

Well, this is Australia and we do seem to have our fair share. Plus the thing about a big animal is that it gives you a big dramatic moment. You have an antagonist who's big and heavy or powerful, so that makes it easier to write.

Did you say to yourself at any point 'if I do this, I'm going to be the crocodile and shark director'?

Yeah, sure, but at the same time I just felt it was a good story. I felt I could write it and that's important because if I didn't feel like I could write it I wouldn't have been able to make it at all.

What convinced you, either in the writing or directing, that a couple of people swimming through the ocean could sustain a 90-minute movie?

That's a good question. It took a long time to convince myself of that. When I started I just chucked a whole bunch of ideas on a page ask myself which one would be the most interesting. And when it was written there was enough there for people to call it a page turner and a good script. We went a raised half a million dollars on print sales on the back of the script, which is unheard of – not many Australian films manage that these days. So what I'd written was enough to convince people there was something there.

So there's already international interest?

We've sold to 106 countries so that's exciting in itself because not many Australian films do that.

The most effective aspect of your films so far is the maintenance of tension. In some cases it's more effective than the scares which is clever in this case as you can only have so many shots of shark fins breaking the surface. What are some of the tricks you used in either writing or directing to sustain such tension?

Doing Black Water was great because it taught me a lot about how to sustain tension. The basic rule of thumb I use is to hold it as long as you can, till it gets to the point where people will think it's ridiculous and then back it off a peg. So tension was what I was after and I'm glad that's what you responded to because you're right, there are only so many times you can have a shark come along and threaten them before it starts to get repetitive. So it's more about where the shark is. For most of us the worst fears are the ones we can't identify rather than those we can. The anxiety and tension can be generated by not knowing where the threat is.

Your movies are a world away from the lyrical dramatic approach of Picnic at Hanging Rock and its more modern contemporaries. Where do you see yourself in the Australian film making firmament?

It's changing. It's unfortunate that people have this perception of the Australian film industry. I know people who work in it and they're trying very hard just to make it a viable industry. It's harder for us to make commercially viable films because we just don't have the numbers. 10 percent of films around the world are going to be commercially viable and we only make 20 or 30 a year, which means 2 or 3 of ours are. Whereas Hollywood makes 300 so 20 or 30 or 40 make money and they're the ones we see here.

I personally see myself at the more commercial end because I want it to be an industry more than just a cottage industry. And that's a conscious decision I've made. But I love a lot of variation. Some of my favourite films are Apocalypse Now, American Beauty and Lawrence of Arabia. I like films that are much more complex but I also like genre.

Talk about the way they mishandled the release of Black Water (the distributor showed the film in Darwin only, bypassing all other Australian capitals) and what you learned?

It was badly bungled, that's true. It showed in Darwin and four regional cities, somewhere out the back of South Australia and Queensland.

But unfortunately it's not in my hands, it's in the distributor's hands. In fact it's not even in their hands, or the exhibitors hands. They have so much American product coming into the cinema with big advertising spend. We went out against Battle: Los Angeles, which is a $200 million film and they would have had about $3 or $4 million to market it. We had a $3.5 million film, with an advertising spend of maybe $100-200,000.

So the people who own the cinemas have to make a choice. Are we going to show Battle LA, which is destined to get millions of people through just from the advertising or show The Reef? It's a gamble and of course, they pick the safe bet. So I think the distributors did the best as they could. We could only get one screen in each capital city, and 36 screens out in the regions.

So it's a bit better than Black Water but not as great as it should be and I wonder if they'll ever be a time when you can make an Australian genre film that would get the screening that an American genre film does, unless you do something like Wolf Creek and get a lot of exposure. And even then it was Roadshow and [the Weinstein brothers] that backed that, it wasn't an Australian company.

The exhibitors do this whole block booking thing where the American studios say 'if you want Battle LA you've got to take this, this and this'. The exhibitors are trying to keep their businesses afloat so you go with these products that are the most marketable.

But we've managed to get some more screens and get one in each major city but you really like your film to be playing in a lot of cinemas in the city, not one in the city and then out at Orange or Wagga.

You're getting a good name though, so it can only get better, surely?

Yeah, it's fine on DVD and word of mouth among the punters is great so I'm happy.

So after two killer animal films what else is grabbing you? Maybe a fluffy romantic comedy?

I think I might, yeah – between a crocodile and shark.

I'm in that pigeon hole but of course I love all sorts of from action and thrillers to romance and comedy. I'm working on a bunch of stuff but nothing's been developed to the point where I feel comfortable to talk about it.

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