As an actor Kieran Darcy-Smith announced himself to audiences with roles in great films such as the award winning Animal Kingdom, The Square and the thriller The Reef. Then in 2012 Darcy-Smith ventured into a new side of his career when he directed his first feature film, the crime thriller – Wish You Were Here which starred Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer.
The film received rave reviews from critics and even saw Darcy-Smith nominated as Best Director at the AACTA Awards. Flash forward to 2017 – Darcy-Smith is now living in L.A. and his new film The Duel, starring Woody Harrelson and Liam Hemsworth has just been released. He caught up with Heavy Mag’s Dave Griffiths to talk about his journey of becoming a filmmaker on the other side of the world.
Darcy Smith is quick to admit that everything started with the succsess of his first feature film. “It all started with Wish You Were Here which got into Sundance,” he explains. “Then even more fortunately it was chosen as the Opening Night film there. SO many crazy things happened on that night and subsequently when we got back to L.A. that it really was a game changer for us and we realised that we had to come back here and take up the opportunity that had just been gifted to us. So we went back to Australia and did the tour for Wish You Were Here and then headed back to L.A. with a one year old, a three year old, six suitcases and a massive credit card debt. We rented a little house and just got on with it. Initially I was shopping around a script that I had written which we weren’t able to get finance for because it was a tricky one to cast. In the mean time I was being sent a ton of scripts and it was quite remarkable the core quality of some of the scripts that were being shopped around here, so it was really surprising. I think if you just wanted to make money as a director you could just take one of these scripts, Saw 15 or Final Destination 35… something like that, make the movie, be a director for hire and just keep making movies and just make some money. But I really wanted to retain the integrity that we had gained with Wish You Were Here so I wanted to be really careful. Then this script came along which was called By The Way Of Helena back then, that was something we fought Lionsgate about because we really didn’t want them to change the name but we couldn’t do anything about it. It was a Black List winner over here, meaning that it circulated all around town and people were aware of it and loved it but it was a tricky one to make.”
“So then I spent two years with Matt Cook the writer developing the script to turn it into the film that we really knew it could be. When I first got the script it was loaded up with characters and themes, both political and social and cultural… things I was really attracted to and it had this big grand sensibility about it, it was like a parable. But it was also very untraditional and it would have been hard to get going so we had to work on it for a long time to find a narrative that we thought we could finance. That took a long time, so in that time I was also looking at other scripts and i got some writing work at Warner Bros. to get us through. Then the finance came through and two years after reading the script I finally found myself on the set making the movie.”
With Kieran reading so many scripts I asked him what made The Duel stand out to him as the film that he wanted to make. “Just the integrity of the writing,” he says. “It was a unique story to me. There’s a huge theme about immigration and race which is a very hot-button topic right now. I’ve always found border-regions very interesting and I’ve always been drawn to them and this was set on the border between Mexico and Texas and it was about the border and it was about Mexicans crossing over the border. I was also having my own experience of coming into a new country and discovering what America was which was quite disenchanting. SO I was going through this new cultural experience and discovering that America is very different to Australia and then American society turned out to be something that I was really fascinated by and I thought I could express my opinions and observations on that through this film so it just gave me a vehicle to express myself.”
When you consider that the final cut of The Duel stars Woody Harrelson and Liam Hemsworth it came as a bit of a shock when Kieran told me that they weren’t the original choice for the film. “Casting is really a tricky thing here (in L.A.) because so much of it rests on actor’s availability. Ultimately you go to one actor and they aren’t available so you go to another one who may be available but then they have issues with this and that and then there schedule changes so this had gone through that process and to be honest we had cast the role of David first and Emilie Hirsch was attached to play David. I loved Emilie, loved his work, he was happy and he was right into it and we were going down that road and then we got Vince Vaughn attached to play Abraham and it really was him coming on board and his enthusiasm that triggered the finance ultimately and then at the last minute Vince had to bail and go and do post-production on another film he was attached to so the producers said to put everything on hold and come and re-visit it later on and I said ‘no let’s go right now, Woody is available, please.’ When Woody had read the script he had rung me from Berlin and he had just watched Wish You Were Here and he was like ‘no let’s go with it.’ And that was still with Emilie but then we went through this awful time where people weren’t prepared to pay the money for the film with Emilie attached in the lead role and it was nothing to do with his talent or anything like that it was just down to that simple thing of does a Grandmother in India know Emilie Hirsch’s name? No probably not, but do they know Liam Hemsworth’s name? Yes because of The Hunger Games franchise… that is how it works. It all comes down to international sales, so if you can get somebody like Liam who has enormous foreign sales value because of the franchises that he has been in then the financers will okay that. But I wanted to look into his work and after I had watched a couple of his movies I could see that there was something in him and I knew that I could draw something really solid out of him. I ended up going over to his house and talking to him and he came on board and when he came on board I said ‘I need somebody that will jump off a cliff for me’ and he said ‘I’ll jump off a cliff for you’ and to his credit he did. Not only can I not speak highly enough of Liam, I think he and his brother get a bit of bum wrap around town because people think they aren’t really actors they are just pretty boys who made it because they are good looking but I defy anybody to watch Chris in Rush for example and then Liam in this movie. Because in this movie he holds this movie in the palm of his hand from woe to go, and he is commanding. To me it was like working with a young Clint Eastwood, he just has that incredibly heroic strength and also vulnerability which is just so beautiful. And he had that gaze and that sort of Western hero stuff which isn’t easy to do. I jsut think he is amazing in this movie, there is one movie where he holds the room for eight minutes and there aren’t many actors out there that can pull that stuff off… it is really hard. Full credit to him, I love him.”
So that leads to another big question what was it like working with Woody Harrelson who appears to go into a full-on method-acting persona as Abraham the cult leader. “He was fun,” says Kieran. “IF you go back to movies like Rampart or Natural Born Killers this guy has so many different shades within him. Look Woody Harrelson is like Vince Vaughn they aren’t movie stars by accident. They walk into a room and you are immediately drawn to them – it’s that X-factor that only movie stars have and Woody has that charisma but he is also funny and whip-smart. He and I just played around with the character and I had a bunch ways I wanted to introduce his character. I was inspired by Apocalypse Now. I went through that with him and a bunch of other references and then he read about ten books for me which was great and then just before we were heading down to do pre-production he rang and said ‘I shaved my eyebrows off but I’m not sure I like it’ and then I did see him the next day and while it looked really weird it also looked really cool so we played around to find what his character would do and we came up with the idea of Abraham painting symbols onto his eyebrows for different occasions. So yeah there is that whole physical and external side to his appearance. Woody really got into the role and it really shows. These guys did this film we about $60,000 where normally they warrant millions of dollars but they did it because they liked Wish You Were Here and I find that really humbling.”
The Duel is available now on DVD and VOD.