It’s the last day of shooting on Melbourne-based director Tony Ayres’ taut crime drama Cut Snake and there’s a crackle of electricity on set as the cast and crew of around 80 folks ready themselves to say goodbye.
It’s been a full-on six weeks of 12-hour shooting days, but Sullivan Stapleton, the upcoming star of 300: Rise of an Empire perhaps best known for his disturbing turn as the aggressive Craig Cody in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, is in a playful mood as he sits in the passenger seat of a ‘70s car parked in front of a green screen in a South Melbourne studio.
A big guy rotates a strip light on a helicopter stand to recreate streetlights passing overhead, while another crewmember sprays the dashboard with some magic solution to dull the reflection.
As Ayres leans in to direct Stapleton and his co-stars Jessica De Gouw (These Final Hours, Arrow, Dracula) and Alex Russell (Carrie), Stapleton lunges in and chomps on his elbow, prompting uproarious laughter that breaks the spell of what has been a tense scene.
“Sullivan hasn’t worked in Australia for a while, but he knows all the crew, so he brings a level of comfort and fun to the shoot,” Ayres says later.
Cut Snake got a cash injection from the Melbourne International Film festival (MIFF) Premier Fund, as well as Screen Australia and Film Victoria, and it will debut at this year’s fest. A darkly tense thriller, it’s loosely based a real life event. Russell plays Sparra, an ex-con who’s attempting to go straight after time inside. Now engaged to De Gouw’s Paula, everything seems to be going well for the young couple until his former partner in crime, Stapleton’s Pommie, turns up to put paid to his best efforts.
“Pommie is such a large than life character,” Ayres says. “He’s a charming psychopath, someone we’re both terrified of but also feel for. That in itself is a complicated emotional response.”
Ayres attaches a ‘mood’ to each of the scenes on any given day’s call sheet. This one’s labelled ‘disconcerted tension,’ with Paula beginning to realise the danger Pommie poses to her relationship with Sparra. “It’s just a way of keeping us all on the same page in terms of feeling and meaning,” Ayres says. “I’m not always as strict about sticking to exact dialogue, but the mood needs to be right.”
It’s been over five years since the release of Ayres’ last feature, 2007’s The Home Song Stories, though he helmed the ‘Cockleshell’ segment of last year’s The Turning and two episodes of the hugely successful ABC adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. He’s also the creator of ABC’s teen fantasy drama Nowhere Boys. Cut Snake, written by Blake Ayshford (An Accidental Soldier, The Straits) is Ayres’ first foray into the crime thriller genre.
“It’s a real meld of big, emotional drama and tense genre, and I think that if we can make both those elements work, that’s a really worthwhile experience,” he says. “I love thrillers when they work well, but I also love films that have heart. That’s what we’re going for.”
The ‘70s setting allows for rich detail, including a big wad of period-specific notes I see being counted out in the props department, but it also creates headaches for a film that’s involved a great deal of location shoots around Melbourne. Location manager Pia Emery and production designer Josephine Ford have been working flat out.
“People have an unconscious radar for what’s real and what’s not,” Ayres says. “Something doesn’t have to be strictly period, but it has to feel like it comes from that world. My focus is to catch the things that would pull the audience out of the film.”
De Gouw starred in last year’s MIFF Premiere Fund film These Final Hours, directed by Zak Hilditch, which has been snapped up for release this year by Roadshow. She’s glad to be back in Australia for Cut Snake, with Ayres a major drawcard.
“Tony is the best of the best and someone I’d always wanted to work with, but always assumed I’d never get the chance to,” she says as they crew breaks for their last lunch. “It’s very hard to break into film in Australia. It’s all about getting bums on seats with bankable names, and I don’t think I’m one of those yet, so I was very lucky for him to give me a shot.”
An effortlessly engaging presence, De Gouw’s humility comes across as extremely genuine and her enthusiasm for the role of Paula is obvious. “Paula thinks she’s on top of it, but she’s never been thrown any real difficulties in her life,” she says. “There’s something not quite entirely open about Sparra, but she just accepts it, then Pommie comes along and throws it all into a tailspin. When she’s put to the test like that you see her strength and she really comes into her own.”
De Gouw says Cut Snake’s script was the first in a long time to really surprise her. “I thought it was one thing, then it hits the second act and evolves into something else, and it shocked me. I thought ‘this is something Australian audiences need to see and something I’d desperately love to share with them.’ Lucky me, Tony let me.”
She points to both The Slap and The Turning as projects that had the pull to bring Australian talent home after successful stints overseas. “I’d love to be able to do that throughout my career.”
For now, she’s waiting to hear if Dracula will get picked up for a second series before deciding on her next move, and there’s bound to be more of DC’s wildly successful Arrow. “I’ve been very lucky going from comic books to corsets and gowns and then Australian drama,” she laughs. “It’s amazing.”
As the call goes out for the crew to pose for their end of shoot group photo, De Gouw says she can’t wait for audiences to see Cut Snake at MIFF and repeats that she can’t rate Ayres and her co-stars highly enough. “To be standing opposite these boys is mind-blowing. It’s been wild, and it’s a gag a minute. It’s so nice working with an Australian crew. There’s all kinds of shenanigans and naughtiness.”
Stephen A Russell