Swerve, the new film from writer/director Craig Lahiff (Heaven’s Burning, Black And White, etc), is the kind of pacy thriller and crowd pleasing genre piece that Australian filmmakers do not make enough of. There are lots of twists and turns in the formulaic plot that includes the usual tropes of the noir genre – a suitcase full of money, a corrupt cop, a sultry femme fatale, and an innocent man caught up in a web of violence and betrayal. Lahiff has a good understanding of the tropes of the genre, but he also suffuses the material with a strong streak of dark and laconic humour.
“It’s an idea I had some time ago actually.” Speaking from his home in Adelaide, Lahiff explains the genesis of the project. The thriller is infused with the spirit of American crime writer James M Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, etc), Hitchcock, and even the films of John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West, etc). “It comes from that area of noir,” Lahiff admits. “But it is mainly set in broad daylight, and in the middle of the outback, and that gives it a sort of different Australian flavour.
“And I wanted to do something with a very small group of characters. That noir like idea of two men, a woman and a bag of money was basically the source of the idea I’ve had for some time. And of course a number of other films have used it. But this is quite a different style of film than some of the others. It has lots of unusual and unexpected plot twists, suspense, and chases and great locations. And also a good sense of black humour! They are some of the reasons I had such fun making the film.”
Lahiff shot much of the film over a period of seven weeks in the picturesque Flinders Ranges, about five hours drive outside of Adelaide. The small town of Two Wells, approximately 40km north of Adelaide, doubled for the film’s main setting.
“It’s basically a main street town. And one time I went up to do some location scouting it actually had a brass band festival on, which is something I used in the film just to give it a sort of quirky feel. But we also used a little bit of digital special effects to put the backdrop of the Flinders Ranges around the town, so it looks different to the normal Two Wells. It was a great little town to work in. Everybody was really good. I think one of the advantages of filming out in the country is that people are very hospitable and they like to see something happen. City shooting is more difficult. People aren’t as tolerant, and they think more of the location fees they can get.”
The film features a couple of spectacular stunt sequences, including the car crash that sets the plot in motion. “The car crash was obviously difficult,” explains Lahiff. “I’ve done quite a few stunts in various films and so far haven’t had any problems. The director is responsible if anything goes wrong. But luckily all went well. There are a lot of American movies, which have huge budgets, so how am I going to make it look interesting on a low budget? I think it does come across as spectacular.”
Originally Lahiff planned to cast slightly older actors in the key roles, but then he made the decision to cast some up-and-coming young actors who are beginning to carve out a reputation amongst our next crop of top actors. David Lyons has worked on tv series like ER and Sea Patrol. Emma Booth, from Underbelly, is terrific as Jina, the unhappy wife of the local cop, played by Jason Clarke, who appears in three yet to be released films, including Kathryn Bigelow’s big budget Getting Bin Laden, and John Hillcoate’s Lawless, which screened in Cannes recently. There are also appearances from veterans like Roy Billing, Vince Colosimo, Chris Haywood and Travis McMahon in smaller roles. Lahiff had worked with Billing on Black And White, and he contacted him and asked if he was interested in playing the part of a country cop. Even though it was only two day’s work, Billing agreed.
“I think that’s one of the enjoyable things,” Lahiff continues. “You can get people if they suit the characters. And with actors you’ve used before it’s great to be able to use them again, because you don’t have to reinvent a rapport. That’s one of the things I certainly enjoy about making a film. You get to work with all of these really talented people. Nobody’s got too big an ego, and it’s really rewarding, particularly when you see their performances on screen.”
Swerve premiered at The Melbourne International Film Festival in 2011, so why has it taken so long to get a commercial release? “It’s difficult getting an Australian release,” explains Lahiff. “There’s very few Australian distributors. And we’ve been busy with international markets. We’ve sold the film overseas, and the US is getting ready to release it later this year. So we’ve sort of delayed the release a little bit hoping that we could synchronise the two releases here and in America.”
This is also Lahiff’s first film in a decade. His last film was the 2002 drama Black And White, a recreation of the landmark 1958 South Australian Court trial, and a miscarriage of justice in the case involving Max Stuart, a young aboriginal convicted of the murder of a nine-year-old white girl. “I wish I could make one every year,” he laments, “but it’s just hard getting the money together. You spend a lot of time developing projects and it’s not like doing one after the other, unless somebody actually offers you a film from scratch. Things don’t seem to be getting any easier with the finance, what with financial crises here and there. But this was something that we had planned to do straight after Black And White and it has taken a lot of time to actually get it together and raise the money for it. But we’ve been busy during that time. We have four other projects that are ready to go now at script stage, and with partial financing.”
BY GREG KING
Swerve is showing from Thursday June 7 distributed through Jump Street Films.