Making Aussie Whodunnits That Peer Beyond the Outback: Eric Bana and Robert Connolly Talk 'The Dry' and 'Force of Nature'
If you loved Jane Harper's Aaron Falk books, the two men bringing them to the screen understand — they were fans of the novels first, too.
February 06, 2024
To everyone who'd read The Dry, or even simply heard about its following and success from a devotee who had, turning Jane Harper's debut novel into a movie seemed like one of the easiest decisions that Australia's film industry could make. More than that, it appeared certain to create that holy grail of Aussie pictures: a guaranteed and widespread homegrown hit. The response to the feature, which reached cinemas Down Under to start off 2021, proved that belief true. Robert Connolly helmed it into the top 15 Australian movies at the Australian box office of all time, on the back of over $20 million in receipts. But ask the Balibo, The Bank and Paper Planes filmmaker if he also thought that it'd have everyone across the country flocking to the silver screen, then ensure that Harper's second Aaron Falk story Force of Nature could get the film treatment, and he's not as definitive as you might expect he should be.
The reason: timing. Releasing on January 1, 2021 meant that The Dry released as the COVID-19 pandemic entered its second year, after cinemas had spent a large portion of the past 12 months out of action and when capacity restrictions were a reality. "We actually weren't sure what was going to practically happen, because it came out as the pandemic was easing off and cinemas had been closed for months," Connolly tells Concrete Playground. "I remember some of the early screenings of The Dry, the cinemas were only allowed to be half capacity," he continues. "Fifty percent, yeah," Eric Bana, aka Connolly's Aaron Falk, also recalls.
"My friends in exhibition, some of them were saying 'we're going to go under, we won't be here in a year'. And so we had a great hope for cinema, and a passion about cinema and exhibition, but not really any idea that it would open up so well," Connolly explains. "We were very proud of the film at that point and had really enjoyed making it, and had finished the film. And we were excited to show audiences. But I think that we'd have to be absolutely delighted that cinema has not only survived but is starting to thrive again. It's amazing talking to exhibitors at the moment, they're all saying that whereas last year there was one big blockbuster, this year there's about ten different films that are playing, and they're enjoying the fact that audiences are coming in to see different films. They might not be packed like a blockbuster, but there's a habit that's reemerging of people going to the movies, which is great for us all."
Force of Nature: The Dry 2 — as The Dry's cinematic followup has been rebadged to ensure that audiences make the connection — hits the big screen with two in-built audiences, then. Folks who obsessed over Harper's Falk tales on the page and those who've only known the federal agent via film, with The Castle, Chopper, Munich, The Time Traveller's Wife and Hanna's Bana in the part, have already been packing theatres before the movie's official release on Thursday, February 8 thanks to weekends of advanced screenings. The first camp share something in common with Connolly and Bana: loving The Dry as a book first. Indeed, it was the strength of the material that got them both interested, and saw a new Aussie franchise come to life in cinemas. This saga has more than a few drawcards, too, from the page-to-screen narratives, its filmmaker and star to the strength of its supporting casts, the fact that it's an Australian whodunnit series and its broader look at the nation's landscape beyond the outback's red earth.
Where The Dry was set in the Victorian wheatbelt, trading ochre for yellow as far as the eye can see, Force of Nature stays in the same state but treks through lush, sprawling, inhospitably dense, vibrantly green mountainous forests. Falk isn't visiting his home town this time. He's firmly in professional mode, on a case that's sparked another. With fellow federal police officer Carmen Cooper (Jacqueline McKenzie, Ruby's Choice), he's been working to turn Alice Russell (Anna Torv, The Last of Us) into a whistleblower against her employer, only for her to disappear on a corporate hiking retreat. Falk is desperate to find her alive — but getting to the bottom of what happened, both from her bosses Jill (Deborra-Lee Furness, Blessed) and Daniel Bailey (Richard Roxburgh, Prosper), and from her colleagues (Homeland's Robin McLeavy, Mortal Kombat's Sisi Stringer and Strife's Lucy Ansell), is hardly straightforward. That the spot where Alice has gone missing is also personal for Falk further complicates matters.
Harper hasn't only written two novels about the determined detective. A third also sits on bookshelves around the country — and whether Exiles might also flicker across the screen was part of our chat with Connolly and Bana. We also asked the long-term friends, who worked together on Blueback in-between The Dry and Force of Nature, about their introduction to Aaron Falk, how Bana steps into his shoes, why the character and the tales he's in resonate so strongly, the stunning surroundings each film has taken them to, and the who's who of Aussie talent among the rest of the casts.
On First Discovering Jane Harper's Books, and Aaron Falk — and Wanting to Bring Them to the Cinema
Robert: "It's interesting. Bruna Papandrea [The Dry and Force of Nature: The Dry 2's producer], who's a very long-term friend of ours, sent me the book and said 'oh, do you think there's a film in this? Would you be interested? It's incredible'. We work together, share an office, and I literally read it that night. Came in the next day, had a chat with Bruna and said 'I think it's amazing'.
Then I sat down with Eric for our morning coffee and said 'god, I read this book The Dry'. And he's like 'I read it too, do you want to do it?'.
It was so easy. It was one of those effortless gatherings of friends to make a film. And we never imagined that we'd be making a followup film and taking the story of Aaron Falk further. Embarking on The Dry at that point was just incredible adventure, really."
Eric: "Yeah, both just fans of the book originally, and then it all just went from there."
On What Appealed to Bana About Stepping Into Aaron Falk's Shoes
Eric: "I love great dialogue, and when I read The Dry, I wasn't thinking about myself at all. I was also just so taken in by Jane's depiction of the landscape. And as an Australian who who loves travelling through small country towns, I just felt like finally someone gets it — finally someone's nailed it. This is Australia.
And then the way the characters were introduced and evolved, and some of the scenes between Aaron and Gretchen [played by Andor and Ahsoka's Genevieve O'Reilly in the film] — I remember reading and thinking 'if they turn this into a film, these scenes would be just incredible. These things would just be incredible to play'.
And that voice started in my head of like 'great, that would be a great character. This would make a great film'. And then you just sort of park it. It was given to me by my wife, who reads every adaptation I've ever been in. And then it came up between Rob and I.
So I just thought it was beautifully written. I was drawn to the dialogue. I thought it had a wonderful sense of place and had great potential."
On Why the World of The Dry, Force of Nature and Aaron Falk Resonates So Strongly with Audiences
Eric: "We don't have a lot of whodunnits in Australia. The Brits do it really, really well. I think they engage an audience in a different way to a traditional drama. Australians love heavy, dark drama, clearly. Character-driven stuff.
So in some ways, it feeds that beast. But at the same time, I think it appeals to the ego of the audience who want to figure out something. You want to feel smart.
And Jane lays these little, little traps, and Rob lays these little misdirections, and you have to be engaged. There's no leaving the cinema for five minutes when you're watching one of these kinds of films.
So, I think that's part of the appeal. I really do. And they're extremely visual. The location is such a major character, it inhabits the drama and infects the drama in both stories. I think that makes them unique."
Robert: "Landscape is a potent thing in cinema. The success of streaming has thrown down the gauntlet to filmmakers now that we have to make films that are bigger and more epic, and that demand to be seen in the cinema.
And so my last three films — The Dry, Blueback, Force of Nature — have all shot on large-format cameras, and we've got big music and big sound design. I'm trying to lift the experience of the cinema so that it can be all-consuming.
Because I definitely feel in the books. I love the way that they place character in landscape. The landscape in Force of Nature is very different to The Dry, but they're both films that are all-consuming about place, a sense of place."
On Expanding the Cinematic Depiction of Australia's Landscape Beyond the Outback's Red Earth
Robert: "I am fascinated by the different parts of this country, and by landscape. And so I think the films I'm making are a bit of a jigsaw puzzle of portraits of different parts of Australia.
I love going somewhere and then investigating it with the film. So in Force of Nature, I loved going into this subtropical ancient forest that people have never filmed in, with the camera and with the actors, and with this incredible story that Jane Harper had created, and investigating it with the camera — and then taking that to the audience.
I think having grown up in the Blue Mountains and grown up in the bush, I do completely agree with you about showing things differently. Like for me, I had never seen a film about the Australian bush that really transported me into the bush I knew, that I'd been out in as a kid and got lost in and had adventures in.
So I brought very much my own ambition to kind of make a love letter to the Australian bush in some ways as well, and to show it in a way that maybe no one had really done before in an equivalent way."
On How Bana Prepared to Bring Aaron Falk to the Screen for the Second Time
Eric: "It felt like a cheat. I mean, I've never been able to reprise a role before. I had this huge leg up and like 'I've been this guy already'. There's a little less work required.
Then it was a case of, well, 'where's he at now and how much time has passed?'. This is more about policing. So The Dry was like he was in his own personal time, not as a police officer, and gets lured into elements of this potential crime that had occurred — and then is suddenly being taken down the path of investigator.
Here, it's pure policing, 100-percent policing, him in his natural element. And that leads him into a personal investigation of himself and where he's at in his life, and what does policing mean. What does it mean to ask things of informants? And what are the moral ethics of that? And how does that clash with where he's at?
Much to my shock, he's actually quite an experienced older officer in his early-to-mid 50s. There's a nice pension waiting for Aaron. So it's quite a different approach, because he is the vet in his professional environment, which was much different to The Dry."
On Balancing the Professional and Personal Parts of Aaron Falk's Story, Helped by the Collaborative Approach to Making the Films
Eric: "I think it comes down to what the material is asking of me and of the audience. And conversations that Rob and I will have about what this scene is potentially going say about Aaron, and how can we expand on that when Richard Roxburgh's character and Aaron come together, and what changes we can make to to enhance that.
A lot of it is evolving when you're in the film as well, and that's why it's great having that collaborative approach, and that things aren't just locked in that — we can move, and we have the luxury because we've worked together and we're friends, we can navigate that stuff really easily."
Robert: "It's a really interesting evolution, probably, in my approach to directing. There's one approach where you turn up on the day and you know what you want, and you've got a plan and a structure to get it. And there's another one, which is to turn up and work and collaborate with people that you have a great creative dynamic with, and use the day to explore the material and discover things in it.
It took me a while. My earlier films, I was more anxious, probably, and they were a bit tighter because I was. But as I've got deeper into my career, I've wanted to almost call action and not quite know what's going to happen, be surprised by it. And create a situation, particularly with those five women lost in the bush, take them into a remote place, make it an incredibly tough location — they're out there — and then create situations where the camera is capturing a very real, visceral dynamic between them.
So that's probably a great passion of mine — and Eric's right, we've been on the set exploring the scene.
It's an evolution that happens on the page. I remember someone said that a script is written three times: on the page, during the shoot and in the edit. So when you have best screenplay awards, what are you judging? Are you judging the script on the page at the beginning, or the script you had at the end of the shoot, or the one at the end of the edit?"
On Building Such Spectacular Australian Casts Around Bana as Aaron Falk
Robert: "I think I've been very lucky across my career. My wife Jane Norris, one of Australia's leading casting directors, she has helped Eric and I on both these films with the casting. And she very much has an aesthetic, a casting aesthetic, which is that a film can be bedded down with a big actor like Eric playing a big character like Aaron Falk, but that Australian audiences also like seeing some of our great actors we haven't seen for a while — like Deborra-Lee Furness, Jacqueline McKenzie. In The Dry, someone like John Polson [who hadn't acted since 2000's Mission: Impossible II].
But she's always really big on new talent. She said Australians love it. She said 'let's go back to Muriel's Wedding and how we all felt seeing Toni Colette and Rachel Griffiths for the first time, who went on to become massive actors'.
She's big on making sure you are championing new talent in the in the aesthetic of the ensemble, which is where The Dry had those great young actors who've gone on to have massive careers. And in this, Sissy Stringer and Lucy Ansell, playing Bree and Beth, have brought this absolute energy.
So I think that that combination of experience and new talent, it's just so dynamic. It feels dynamic on set, doesn't it?"
Eric: "Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it definitely does. It was amazing. I mean, we were always really excited by the premise. It was one of the reasons we wanted to make this film. We kept talking about how amazing it would be to have five incredible actors in those roles, and that was going to really carry the the the story.
Then Jane's first suggestion was was Deborra-Lee Furness, who's a very old friend of both of ours that we've known for a long time. And we just saw 'oh my god, if we can get her to say yes, we're on our way'. And she did, thankfully.
And so it was amazing. They were incredible to work with, all of them. And just sitting in the edit and watching all those scenes — because as the actor, you're not always there on the day — just watching what the women were doing because they were so well-written, but then they were elevating everything and it was just so exciting."
Robert: Anna Torv, I mean, we both loved her from Mindhunter. And it's similar, it's like 'do you think she'll do it?'.
The excitement of casting is palpable, like when Eric and I — because Eric is producing partner on this as well and across everything creatively — and so as a team, we're all deciding on someone, and then arguing the case to them of why they must do our film."
On Potentially Following Up The Dry and Force of Nature with Exiles
Eric: "I really can't answer it. We never spoke about Force of Nature whilst we were making The Dry. It was never a conversation, and same with this one. We just wanted to make the best film we could, and for Australian public who gave us that opportunity by championing The Dry to the extent they did.
So yeah, there is a third book there. It's Thursday, we're going to try and get through Friday, then Saturday, and then next week — and we just hope this film does well.
And then we'll sit down and work out what to do next."
Images: Narelle Portanier.
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