The names on the marquee may be “Eric Bana” and “Genevieve O’Reilly”, but the biggest star of The Dry might just be the landscape.
“I always want the setting to be part of the story, not just a backdrop,” says author Jane Harper when we chat on the set of Robert Connolly’s big-screen adaptation of her bestselling novel. “I want it to be a factor that drives the action and informs the characters’ behaviours, how they act and interact with each other, and who they are as people.”
We’re in Minyip, a town in the Wimmera that looks on this day in March 2019 like it hasn’t seen a drop of rain in a very long time. On the four-hour drive up from Melbourne, I got chatting to three crusty old-timers sitting in the shade outside the pie shop where I stopped for a snack. “Looks dry,” I noted. “Yep,” said one. “We’ve had 17mm of rain all year.”
That’s not great for the wheat farming that drives the Wimmera. But for the purposes of The Dry, a detective story set in a drought-ravaged rural community, it’s perfect.
The story opens with a funeral, following an apparent murder-suicide. Farmer Luke – driven to despair by the lack of rain, the failure of crops, and the mounting of debts – kills his wife, child and finally himself in a salt-baked paddock.
He had been the best mate of Aaron Falk (Bana), who grew up in the (fictional) town of Kiewarra and moved away to Melbourne in his late teens, and now Falk has come back to say goodbye. It’s supposed to be an overnight trip only, but as he pokes away at the tragedy, Falk begins to sense something isn’t quite right, and his investigations open up new leads and old wounds – and a simmering attraction to Gretchen (O’Reilly), another member of Falk’s teenage friendship group, a former lover of Luke, and now a (relatively) prosperous farmer. Is she somehow involved in his death?
Over it all, the dusty, willy-willy-flicked wheat fields and the tinder-dry bush loom, simultaneously beautiful and menacing.
It’s hard to imagine how The Dry could have worked on screen had the filmmakers not been able to capture this harsh environment precisely as Harper wrote it. But building a film around specific weather conditions is inherently risky. As producer Jodi Matterson notes, “People always say if you want to break a drought, bring a film crew”.
The case that irrefutably proves the point is George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the filming of which was made impossible not once but twice by unseasonal rain in the otherwise parched landscape of Broken Hill (the desert sequences of the film ended up being shot in Namibia, two years later than intended).
“I remember talking to George about it, it’s crazy where they had to go,” says Bruna Papandrea, the powerhouse Adelaide-born, LA-based head of production company Made Up Stories (which she runs with husband Steve Hutensky and Matterson), who picked up the rights to Harper’s novel before it had even been published. “But I’ve done it many times, where you’re chasing a window [of weather, and of time]. We did it on Wild [the hiking film she made with Reese Witherspoon in 2014]. In a way I find it quite exhilarating because it forces you into making the movie. Sometimes if you give people – including the financiers, the actors – too much latitude things can go away, whereas when you’re chasing a window it can be quite good.”
There wasn’t much chance of the actors going away on this one though. Bana isn’t just the leading man, he’s a producer – and a hands-on one, who even drove the bus around regional Victoria when they were scouting for locations. “It was quite hilarious to see him walk into a country general store and the locals do a double take,” says Matterson. “Yes, that was Eric Bana.”
For more than a decade, Bana and director Robert Connolly have shared an office in a Port Melbourne warehouse. One day, Bana asked his mate what he was working on; Connolly told him he and Papandrea – a friend of more than 20 years’ standing – were planning to adapt The Dry (Connolly read the book, at her urging, in one sitting). Bana said he had read the book (at his wife Rebecca’s urging) and loved it too.
“Rob said, ‘Do you want to consider it’,” Bana recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t need to consider it. If you’re doing it, I’ll do it.’
“I inserted myself into the production – I didn’t give him any alternative,” he adds with a laugh. “That’s exactly why we have the office we do. It may not have happened otherwise.”
Remarkably, The Dry is the first film Bana has made as an actor in Australia since Romulus, My Father in 2007 (though he has directed a documentary here, Love the Beast, and was an executive producer on Connolly’s Paper Planes). And it’s one he hopes will travel – not in spite of its very Australian themes and settings, but because of them.
“This is a version of Australia that’s slightly different than what they’re used to seeing overseas,” he says. “It’s not often we have this landscape associated with this genre.”
There’s no hint of Dad and Dave about this depiction of rural life, he adds. “The temptation with a lot of cinema is to depict outback Australia with characters who are generic for that type of landscape, to over-Aussie it, and we’re trying very hard not to do that. The country has a lot of really interesting characters in it who aren’t all about jumping on the back of a kangaroo.
“We’re at pains to depict a realistic version of country Australia, not a cliche, and hopefully not one that we’ve seen before. It’s not a heightened version. We hope people from the country will watch it and say, ‘yeah, they got that right’.”
Shooting so far from Melbourne, the cast and crew had no choice but to embed themselves in the communities where they filmed – 25 towns in all, ranging from Castlemaine to Warracknabeal and beyond. And for Genevieve O’Reilly – born in Dublin, raised in Adelaide, based in London – that created an opportunity to get to know the “hardworking, grafting, spirited people” who live there.
Gretchen, she feels, would be right at home among them. “What I love about her is that she’s a strong woman who, with all the hardships of that farming life, decided to stay, not to walk away, to invest in her community,” she says. “She wasn’t burdened by the experience of staying – that was her life and she was proud to live it. And that’s what I felt when I met those people there – as hard as it was, it was their life and they were proud of it and they worked for it.”
The country has been kind to Robert Connolly’s movies – the adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning that he produced toured extensively in special event screenings, and Paper Planes was a hit well beyond the capital cities – and he hopes The Dry will continue that relationship.
“I grew up in the bush and I just didn’t want the film to feel like it was judging that world,” he says. “It really is such an important part of our national identity – that’s our food bowl, and often those parts of Australia don’t feel seen.
“We worked hard to create a complexity that wasn’t just about archetypal villains and the harshness of individuals. A fundamental idea in making the film was that this [Kiewarra] was a damaged town that we will depict with great compassion.”
If the mood among the big crowd of locals who have been roped in as extras for the funeral scene on the day I visit is any indication, they’ve hit the right note; there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the production and the people making it. A couple of nights earlier, the shoot took over the Minyip pub – long since closed – for a scene, and again the locals flocked in as extras. “It was like bringing back to life something that was part of the town,” says Connolly, his voice catching a little with pride.
Traditional wisdom would have it that all this striving for local authenticity might work against a film’s potential to reach international audiences. But if the rise of Netflix has taught us anything it’s that hyper-local, if done well, can travel a long way.
Scandi Noir is perhaps the most pertinent example of a genre rich in local flavour (and even local language) finding a global audience. And Harper’s novel – which similarly marries the crime genre with a very specific sense of place and culture – has done likewise, selling more than a million copies in more than 40 territories worldwide.
I grew up in the bush and I just didn’t want the film to feel like it was judging that world.
“I wanted to capture something that was very recognisably Australian, that Australians would feel they recognised,” says Harper. She did worry, she says, that pulling that off might mean “alienating” readers in other countries. “But it’s been absolutely embraced overseas, they’ve absorbed the Australianness of it.
“That small tight-knit community under pressure is something people all around the world have been able to relate to,” she adds. “The way people are forced to respond and rely on each other is very universal, and people who live in such far-flung different places from here have been able to tap into and see something of themselves and their own communities in it.”
In taking the story to the screen, Connolly is hoping he has captured enough of that lightning-in-a-bottle essence to help the film travel similarly beyond its homeland.
“I’ve tried to reach for this large-scale Australian story that would have international potential, but not at the expense of it being a big Australian story,” he says. “I’ve tried to reach for a story that Australians would feel was us.”
The Dry opens nationally on January 1.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.