The story of Robyn Davidson’s trek across the Australian Outback and desert to the Indian Ocean, a 1,700-plus mile journey, has also had a lengthy trip to the big screen. As a memoir that has been in some form of development over the last 20 years, director John Curran (The Painted Veil) had a lot of history to traverse himself when he came onboard to direct the movie Tracks.
Yet, for any who have seen the film that opened in limited release this past weekend, Curran’s efforts, aided greatly by a staggering performance from Mia Wasikowska as Robyn and a gregarious Adam Driver as the National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, succeeded in crafting an intimate mini-epic that travels through the human need for solitude as much as any sand storm. Curran was kind enough to sit down with me last week to discuss the film, the reactions of real-life Davidson and Smolan to Tracks, as well as how loneliness can be such a challenge in the communal effort of moviemaking.
When did you first become aware of Robyn Davidson and her trek?
John Curran: I lived in New York City and when I was about 24 in the 1980s, I decided to get out of here. I wanted to go live in Australia for a year or something, and it ended up being 18 years. When I got down there in the mid-80s, I was kind of backpacking around, and her book had come out a few years earlier. It was sort of everywhere. It was sort of a cult book, especially amongst backpackers and travelers, youth hostels and stuff. A lot of girls were reading it. If you were new to Australia, it was a really good, popular book that was very contemporary and really a bold voice. I always knew about it, but I hadn’t read it. So, she was kind of an iconic figure in Australia.
Jumping forward to a few years ago when Emile Sherman called me about taking a run at making it into a film, by then it was sort of notorious, because a number of people had talked about making it into a film, and it just never came to fruition.
I’ve heard stories that Julia Roberts tried to make it into a film during the 1990s. When you heard about these reports, did you think back then, “Yeah, I could make this movie?”
I remember hearing rumors. It had a number of different ideas and people trying—I never read any of the scripts. I don’t know what the angles were, but you always hear about actors attached to projects and you never know how serious to take that stuff. Because sometimes it’s just producer bullshitting, you know? But I assume that was real, but it didn’t happen.
But I never thought about it myself, because I hadn’t read it. But when I did read it, it just took me back immediately to being 24 and arriving in Australia around that time. And Robyn kind of decided to do something—I mean, I didn’t do something as crazy as try to walk through the desert for six months. But the spirit around leaving New York for me was that I just felt I needed to do something really outside of my comfort zone. And I really couldn’t tell you at the time why I needed to do it. It wasn’t like I was running from something dark; it was a desire to shake things up.
So on a personal level, I kind of totally related to the book, and being in review after college before reality, and not knowing whether you fit in the world. It’s just like, “Okay, I just got do something a little bit crazy to sort of shake myself out of this rut.”
When did you first meet Robyn?
When we both decided that we were going to do it, I think the first thing we did, before we even got the rights to the book, is we had to have her blessing. So, she flew up to Sydney, and we met and just discussed our hopes for the book. I think she at that point liked our take on it. I don’t think she had much faith that it was going to go anywhere. I think she had been through this before. And it did take us over a year or something to get to a script that we felt was workable.
Then when she read the script, I think she felt encouraged, because it was something fairly authentic to her experience. We hadn’t tried to project our own love story onto the thing or an action-adventure heroine story. I think she felt encouraged, because it reflected the essence of the thing.
Just the way she’s depicted in the film alone, she seems to have a difficult relationship with the press. So, I was wondering if she was a bit cautious working with filmmakers again to get this story put on the big screen.
Robyn’s sort of fiercely smart but very reserved. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So, she’s got a pretty sharp radar for bullshit, and not to a paranoid degree. You sort of have to prove yourself to her. For all she knew, I was just another director talking crap. Until I delivered something like a script to her, it was all just chatter. I don’t think she really engaged seriously until she saw the work.
I think even though she took the journey without any agenda, subsequently the attention she got was international. I think she quickly had to adapt to either ignoring this and running and hiding or capitalizing off it. And I think she did the latter. I think it encouraged her to write the article; I think it encouraged her to write the book. And the book kind of defined her career. She became a writer and she became a traveler, a professional kind of journeyman. She learned to embrace that public side of it.
I know that you’ve been making the rounds with Rick [Smolan] in the last few days. Could you talk about his involvement in the production and whether he came on the set and what he thought of the movie?
Both Rick and Robyn were a resource. They offered themselves to the process whenever we needed them, but neither one of them wanted to impose. I think the great thing is that thank God when I met both of them that I liked them a lot, and they were really cool, and they were really supportive of us doing our own thing. I never really considered when I took the project on, what if you’re doing a story about real life people, and you met them and you really didn’t like them? It’d be kind of difficult to endure the process. But I really loved both of them.
And they’re both creative people, so I think they felt like, “Call me when you need me, but I’m not going to impose myself on this. And I’ll answer questions about details and things and help you out.” Throughout if I had any questions for Rick, or I had questions for Robyn, I’d email them, and they’d get back to me. But they were kind of hands off, as much as possible. They both came on the shoot for a couple of days apiece and that was it. They felt somewhat respectful of the actors’ privacy. They knew their presence would make the actors feel weird, because they’re playing them.
So, they came out and were discreet about it. And they saw the finished cut, and they added a few comments and stuff. But they were always very supportive and very happy with the film. We took liberties here and there, and they accepted the liberties as abstractions of their own truth.
For me this story talks so distinctively about loneliness, but it finds that more as a virtue or a gift. How as a storyteller do you approach a narrative with so much desolation—and treat that with optimism?
Well, I think that was the challenge that really attracted me. I sort of came from a big family, eight kids, and I guess I always more than most people really revel in privacy and solitude, sometimes. As I’ve gotten older, it’s less and less. But I still like getting away and camping, or going away to my cabin and turning off my phone, or reception, or electricity. I personally think that’s incredibly therapeutic to just be alone in your own thoughts and not be freaking out. Some people can’t deal with it, but I find it a therapeutic state, especially now when we’re connected all the time. It’s amazing how often when you think you’re alone that you’re not alone. You’re talking to 15 different people by texting them or emailing them or whatever. To really be tuned out is really special. It takes a few days to get yourself out of the rhythm of day-to-day life in communication. I think that’s a very positive thing.
I wanted to try and portray that in some way and have a character who sort of wrestled with the need to explain that. And I knew it would be hard, because you think, “Oh it’s just going to be a lot of scenes of solitude.” But the reality is in her journey, a lot of her biggest character development moments were through interaction with people. So, even though she was aspiring to be alone, the journey took on bigger and deeper dimensions through her interactions with Mr. Eddie, and Rick, and the old couple that she meets. That sort of interrupts the solitude in a way and enhances it.
What was the worst challenge you faced shooting in the desert? Did you have to worry about feral camels like in the movie?
No, there’s stuff out there, but we had a pretty big circus of people in four-wheel drive and clonking around. I think the wild animals were well and truly gone by the time we got out of our cars. But the hardest part of the shoot was the distance. It was getting out every morning to really remote locations and then having enough hours in the day to shoot what we needed to shoot before the sunset. It was an incredibly fast-paced shooting process where we were racing from moment to moment. And very little rehearsal. We’d kind of shoot the rehearsal and refine it in subsequent takes before moving on. It took a while for the actors and all of us to get comfortable with that process.
How many takes were you averaging during shots in this process?
Once in a while for some emotional stuff, I’d go 10, 12, 15 takes, tops. But in general, it’s kind of like three to five shots. Again, I’m shooting on film. If it’s digital film, you leave the camera running and do as many times as you want to. It’s a different kind of process. But film has a different rhythm, and there’s a preciousness to each take. So, it demands a different discipline with the actors, but they’re good actors. So, really a half-a-dozen takes is the average for the way I like to work anyway.
Speaking of acting, this is a very fearless performance for Mia. How did the two of you prepare to create such an understated performance?
I think Mia’s a lot like Robyn. When you meet her, your first impression is someone who is very quiet and reserved, and gentle. But she’s really fiercely intelligent and has really great opinions, so I think as creative people, to get her to a place where she’s combative or resisting people, that’s whatever she needs to get to that place. Whether we’re challenging each other or working through different takes or what not. But I think Mia knew what she wanted to do with this character and she came onboard very protective, and knowing of what she’s going to do.
She didn’t need a lot of guidance. This wasn’t this process where I was giving a lot of notes. If I was doing anything, it was helping her to get to a place emotionally. That is what I considered my job. She was very protective of what she needed and very knowing of what she needed to get for her take on Robyn. So, the process was one where there wasn’t a lot of rehearsal. It was sort of improvising through a number of takes to give color to a scene, and when we both felt we had exhausted our respective ideas, we’d move on.
How much of the physicality of the performance was hers? Was any of that her real sunburn or blisters?
No, it’s like smoking. You can’t ask the actors to damage themselves. The sun is brutal in Australia. You’d get skin cancer in like three hours if you didn’t have sun block. That’s all make-up. I don’t think she even got a shade darker on that film! [Laughs] There was always sun block or an umbrella or something. That was just an amazing make-up job.
I really enjoyed the movie, and thank you for talking to me today.
Thank you, man. It’s been a pleasure.