by director Daniel Nettheim
When I first read Julia Leigh’s novel The Hunter back in 2000, I was struck by its exquisite literary qualities: the language, the poetry, the unsettling atmosphere, the pared back minimalism of her style. These were not the elements, however, that convinced me it could work as a film. What I most strongly responded to in cinematic terms was a unique premise, a compelling central character and a powerful use of the natural landscape.
On the surface, the premise seems straightforward enough; a ruthless mercenary approaching the end of his professional career is sent to a distant land to search for an apparently extinct creature. From this pitch began a story that resonated for me on so many levels—a gripping contemporary thriller with strong environmental and human themes, embracing biotechnology, corporate greed, love, loneliness and the resilience of the human spirit.
The creature in question is the Tasmanian tiger, an animal now firmly entrenched in contemporary Australian mythology. Tasmania is a large island off the south coast of mainland Australia, and until colonisation by the British in the late 18th century, the animal roamed the island unchallenged. Resembling a large dog with a striped back, the ‘tiger’ was neither canine nor feline. Rather, it was a carnivorous marsupial, more closely related to the kangaroo than any dog. Early settlers feared it as a threat to their sheep, dubbing it the ‘hyena’ or ‘Tasmanian Wolf.’ Hunting was encouraged, with the government offering a bounty for each kill.
By the early 20th century, the animal in its natural habitat had been brutally hunted to near extinction. The last captive specimen died in a zoo in Hobart in the winter of 1936. Most Australians have seen the poignant black and white film footage of this forlorn beast, pathetically pacing out its existence in a wire and concrete cage. We were fortunate enough to licence some of this material to use in the film. It’s there under the opening credits.
By the time this old footage was taken, a slowly dawning environmental consciousness was too late to save the creature from its demise. However, despite being officially declared extinct, or perhaps because of it, there have been regular reported sightings of the animal ever since. There has never been any concrete evidence, yet the sightings continue. There was even one reported during the time of our shoot.
Over the years, the creature has become Australia’s equivalent of the Yeti, or the Loch Ness Monster, except for the fact that it actually existed. The question of whether or not it still exists is greeted with passion and enthusiasm by many of those who live on the island. Perhaps it's merely wishful thinking: the chance to redeem ourselves from the mistakes of our past. Perhaps it really is still alive. There is certainly enough unchartered wilderness down there for it to hide in.
Over the past few months I’ve been travelling with the film to various festivals, and have been both thrilled by the debates this story opens up and excited by how much the film resonates with audiences across the globe. I am now extremely proud to be presenting it to American audiences, and sharing what I think is a gripping and moving story set amongst some truly unique and spectacular scenery.