Film directors fretting on the set is nothing new, but David Michod, whose "The Rover" will debut at the Festival du Cannes on Saturday, had a concern that was considerably out of the ordinary: "I worried," he says, "that the actors would die."
Michod's first feature since 2010's knockout "Animal Kingdom," "The Rover" stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson and was filmed in the South Australian outback, where temperatures in the hottest time of the year are literally inhumane.
"We had a technical scout the week before we started shooting and it felt dangerous, the temperature was 50 degrees Celsius, which is 122 degrees Fahrenheit," the director recalled while in the cool interior of a posh hotel bar.
"You couldn't work in that kind of heat, if you stood outside for more than 20 minutes you could start to die. ... The producers [and I] had a short conversation about that, it was short because we didn't want to contemplate that possibility. Fortunately, the temperature during shooting went down to 40 to 45 degrees Celsius [104-113 Fahrenheit.] That sits within the spectrum suitable for human life."
Unaccountably slotted for the midnight section of the festival rather than the main competition, "The Rover" is a most impressive piece of filmmaking, tense and unrelenting, that chills the blood as well as the soul.
It not only features head-turning performances by Pearce as a man ferociously determined to get his stolen car back and Pattinson as someone dragged along in his wake, it is set in a completely terrifying world. It's 10 years after an unnamed global economic collapse, and this part of Australia has become a bleak and hopelessly hollowed-out society that Michod and his team have superbly created.
"I didn't want to do a post-Apocalypse movie, where you're on the other side of a catastrophe so unforeseeable that you can sit back and enjoy your popcorn," the director explained.
"And I didn't want the world reduced to total anarchy, I wanted an infrastructure of sorts, like in a resource-rich Third World country, where financial interests are protected and everyone else is left to fend for themselves. I wanted a world that could be right around the corner, something tense and menacing because of its palpable plausibility."
Writer-director Michod and his story collaborator, Joel Edgerton, came up with the idea for "The Rover" in 2007. "We scratched out an outline and I wrote a first draft when we were in Los Angeles, at loose ends and not knowing why we were there.
"We started out with nothing other than a man and a car in the desert. I always start with something generic and it becomes my goal to make it less so, to make it unusual, detailed, specific. If there are references and touchstones, I try to put those aside and make something you haven't seen before."
The success of 2010's "Animal Kingdom," first at Sundance and eventually at the Oscars (where costar Jackie Weaver got a best supporting actress nomination), was both unexpected and a career-changing experience for the 41-year-old director.
"I went to Sundance without having any idea of what anyone was going to make of the movie, I had totally lost perspective," Michod remembered. "I went bracing myself for embarrassment."
Instead came the exhilaration of success, and with it "suddenly an entire world of possibilities opened for me. I decided to keep myself open to the idea that my next film could come from anywhere.
"So I spent — or wasted — a couple of years reading other people's scripts. But I like building movies from the ground up, and I couldn't wrap my head around movies that were already half made. I wanted to do something of my own on my own terms."
That led Michod back to "The Rover" and the terrifying character of Eric, played by Pearce, "a murderously embittered man trying to track down the people who stole his car. He is a guy in his mid-40s, old enough to remember life before the collapse but young and vital enough to be dangerous. His character is slowly revealed to you, he had a complex emotional life that had just atrophied."
Pearce was one of the stars of "Animal Kingdom" and Michod wrote this part specifically for him, but the director still had to fight to get him, to combat the notion that "to get almost any movie made you need one of the eight guys in the world everyone wants."
"Guy is a lovely, warm and engaging human being, but there is something hidden and mysterious about him as an actor, and he is a master of taking minimal stuff and simply filling it with details," Michod said. "And he's a professional, he's really good at playing the instrument when he picks it up, and he's also good at putting it down, he doesn't need to wear the character when the camera isn't rolling."
Pearce's barely controlled ferocity as Eric is exceptional, but it is not as much of a revelation as Pattinson's unrecognizable work as Rey, a damaged, unfocused individual who is the older man's half-unwilling accomplice.
"I met him in Los Angeles when I was doing the 400,000 meetings I was expected to do after 'Animal Kingdom,'" Michod said. "I've learned not to dismiss actors based on preconceptions, and he was a classic example.
"I understand how young actors can paint themselves into luxurious corners, and I knew if I could get the movie made and Robert played that character, the world would see a skill set he has that I don't think he's previously ever demonstrated.
"Robert and Guy's performances are so extraordinary, I want them to win things," the director concluded, which is another reason "The Rover's" exclusion from the Cannes competition is so regrettable.