Dark Waters: The Making Of Rogue

November 10, 2017
As Greg McLean’s Jungle works its way into cinemas this week, we take a look back at the making of the director’s 2007 under-appreciated cracking crocodile horror belter, Rogue.

Few Australian creatures represent humankind’s uneasy interaction with nature as ferociously as the crocodile. Enmeshed in our cultural psyche, it’s surprising that these brutal and relentless creatures haven’t torn their way through more Australian films.  Writer/director Greg McLean – who delivered a new brand of terror with 2005’s blood curdling Wolf Creek – was well equipped to redress the balance with his follow-up film, Rogue. “I grew up watching classic horror movies like Jaws, Alien and The Exorcist. They were the films that I was in love with,” McLean told FilmInk just prior to the film’s release in 2007. “When I first started writing screenplays, I just thought, ‘I’d really love to see one of those films – a big, old fashioned suspense thriller – done in Australia. Why shouldn’t we have a really thrilling horror story set in Australia?”

Rogue director, Greg McLean.

That long held wish was granted when Hollywood moguls (and now major controversy lightning rods) Bob and Harvey Weinstein (the American distributors of Wolf Creek, which grossed a very respectable $US50 million worldwide) agreed to bankroll Rogue based on a script that McLean had written seven years before Wolf Creek. The Weinsteins kicked in $25 million, a far cry from the previous film’s $1.38 million budget. While much broader in scope, the result was a rollicking thriller, or a “big ride” as McLean aptly coins it. Rogue is just as simple as Wolf Creek in concept: a group of tourists, a travel writer and a tour guide on a river cruise in the Northern Territory fight for survival after a monstrous, fiercely territorial rogue crocodile rams their boat, leaving them stranded on an isolated island as the tide creeps in. The croc then hunts them down…

“Sometimes films try and reinvent the wheel, when in fact situations can be quite fascinating but incredibly simple,” McLean told FilmInk. “The idea of a group of people trying to escape from something – which is all that Rogue really is – can be quite fascinating. Alien is essentially just people on a spaceship getting chased by an alien, and Jaws is three guys going after a big shark.”

The seeds for McLean’s lifelong fascination with the crocodile were firmly sewn during his childhood, as he watched the adventures of filmmaker Keith Adams, who encountered the giant reptiles in his 1960s film Northern Safari. “I remember seeing that at the Town Hall in Bendigo when I was growing up,” recalled McLean. As a teenager, the director recalls watching a news story on a rogue crocodile by the name of “Sweetheart”, which terrorised a Northern Territory community in the late ‘70s. It became a prime source of inspiration when he came to write Rogue. “The story was basically about how this rogue saltwater crocodile was attacking these fishing boats outside of Darwin. It was like a real Jaws story.”

Rogue star, Michael Vartan.

American actor, Michael Vartan, best known at that time as CIA agent Michael Vaughn in TV’s Alias, was tapped for the role of the film’s unlikely hero, Pete McKell, a US-based travel writer who gets much more than he bargained for when he jumps on board the seemingly innocuous river tour. “I’d never been to Australia,” a chatty Vartan told FilmInk from his Los Angeles home. “People often underestimate the power of location, but Australia was one of the main draws for me. For Christ’s sake, I had the Southern Cross tattooed on me! I got it on my right forearm after production. It came from missing Australia and especially missing Melbourne. I was just jonesing hard. You see, I grew up on a small farm in Normandy. Admittedly that farm had cows and chickens, whereas the Northern Territory has tai-pans and crocs!”

 

Local actress turned Hollywood regular, Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Melinda And Melinda), returned to Australia to play intrepid, no-nonsense tour guide, Kate Ryan. “There are certain things about her that I admire,” the straight talking, playfully dry Mitchell told FilmInk from her base in Los Angeles. “It’s cool to think of a girl who’s out there driving boats and hangin’ out with crocodiles and she’s not scared.”

Both leads revealed that they were initially unsure about signing onto Rogue, but were won over by McLean’s charisma, vision and, of course, a little film called Wolf Creek. “The way my agents presented the film to me was the real problem,” said Vartan. “They flat-out just asked me, ‘How do you feel about going to Australia for four months in the outback and doing a giant croc movie?’ and I thought, ‘Well, not great actually. There are a lot of things that I’d rather do than spend four months in the outback’. But all the hardships that my agent warned me about – the month of night shoots, the taipan snakes, the crocs everywhere in the Northern Territory – disappeared when I saw Wolf Creek and spoke to Greg.”

Rogue star, Radha Mitchell.

“I’d just finished a genre piece called Silent Hill, and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do next,” Mitchell told FilmInk. “But Wolf Creek had a really original style and a naturalism in the acting which was compelling. It also had this wicked sense of humour, which you see again in Rogue. Rogue is Greg’s original vision and his pet project. He was very passionate about it, and I responded to that. This wasn’t just a script that he was given to direct – he’d wanted to make this for years.”

Also in the cast are Sam Worthington and Damien Richardson as rough edged locals; comedian and actor Stephen Curry as a snap-happy tourist; Geoff Morrell as a concerned family man; and industry icon John Jarratt (in a nice about-face from his now legendary turn as vicious killer Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek) as a grieving widower. Incidentally, Jarratt had previously starred as a ranger hunting a giant crocodile in 1987’s local horror flick, Dark Age…now famously touted by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favourite Australian films.

While the Top End locations appear as pristine as a postcard in the film, the thirteen-week shoot was highly challenging. The production successfully dodged the wet season, but the cast and crew (which was scattered across a flotilla of seven boats) couldn’t escape the incessant 50-degree heat, not to mention the ever present crocodiles. “It was pretty hardcore,” recalled McLean. “It was just so unbelievably hot that by 6 o’clock in the morning the sun was literally belting down. By 10 o’clock you felt like you’d just run a marathon because you’d been sweating for five hours. Also, the real crocs were everywhere. We had a couple of rangers with guns who were basically hired to protect people from getting killed. It adds an edge to the shooting when you’re looking over and there’s literally three or four crocs just staring at your boat waiting for someone to fall off.”

A scene from Rogue.

The cast were taken to a Darwin crocodile farm as research prior to the shoot. “The cast spend a lot of time afraid, wondering where this creature is, and I thought that if we introduced them to real crocs, it would help them imagine what’s out there,” said McLean. “It worked, because as soon as you see how big and powerful these creatures are, you realise that you don’t want to be stuck in the dark with them!”

Radha Mitchell had the hands-on opportunity of operating the boat seen in the film, and acted as chief crocodile spotter. “My job was to find crocodiles so we could shoot in front of them; we were literally on this river looking for the crocodiles that we were going to work with that day,” Mitchell told FilmInk. “We’d been totally primed for how dangerous these creatures are. They can jump seven-foot-high, they can swim at thirty kilometres an hour, and they’re killing machines. Our little boat was one foot out of the water, so we were all freaking out. We eventually became very casual with our attitude, but at first no one was putting their hand in the water!”

At Red Lilly, an Aboriginal sacred site in Arnhem Land – one of a group of sites that the filmmakers were given permission to shoot in by the traditional owners – filming took a surreal turn as the boat carrying the cast became bogged and surrounded by crocodiles, echoing a major scene in the movie. Depending on who you speak to, there were anything from two to fifteen reptiles waiting for an easy feed. “John Jarratt and Steve Curry had umbrellas ready to poke the crocs in the eyes,” laughed McLean. “It was the most ridiculous scene!”

A scene from Rogue.

Despite Rogue’s magnification of the drama, news reports of crocodile attacks in the Northern Territory re-enforced the chilling reality of its premise. “As we were shooting stuff, you’d then read the papers in the Northern Territory the next day and see a story that was eerily similar. There were a couple of true cases of shit going down with real crocs,” McLean told FilmInk. “A guy snorkeling was killed by a crocodile, and another guy was killed after a crocodile overturned his canoe.”

The most amazing report, says McLean, was one that echoed the plot of the film, as a man stranded on a sand bank was stalked by a five-metre crocodile. “This croc was just coming up every half hour to have a go, and this guy barricaded himself in this little tree. This happened while we were up there, but that’s an everyday thing in the Northern Territory.”

In order to bring McLean’s vision of the stealthy, rampaging crocodile to life, CGI was deemed the most effective tool, with a complement of animatronics and puppetry created by the Academy Award winning John Cox’s Creature Workshop. For McLean, complete realism was paramount. To that aim, the effects team also travelled to a Darwin crocodile farm to record the movements and complicated skin tones of the reptiles. “The brief to everybody was, ‘This has to look better than any crocodile I’ve ever seen in a film before.’ I’ve never really seen one that’s any good. The filmmakers always try and characterise the crocodile with a sense of evil, which is just ridiculous. The crocodile is a phenomenally well evolved creature that’s just really good at doing what it does, which is killing. People try and make them look mean and nasty. Those qualities happen by virtue of what they actually do, so if you can just create it realistically, it should be really scary. For all the crocodile sequences, we did extensive storyboarding and animatics. We spent several months in pre-production trying to get the crocodile to move and behave in a way that was consistent with their mentality. We had very funny conversations where I’d be saying, ‘Let’s all just get into the mind of the croc’,” laughed McLean. “It sounds so wanky, but it was important to do it. There were times where I’d go in to review the digital effects, and I’d see that the animators had been a bit too enthusiastic with making the crocodile move in a cool way, even though a croc wouldn’t do that. So we had to say, ‘Just go back to the videotape that you took at the croc farm. The rule is: this croc can’t do anything that a real croc can’t or wouldn’t do’.”

The crocodile’s lair in Rogue.

The giant crocodile’s dank, cavernous lair (which was created in a shed in Melbourne), however, was much more a figment of his imagination. “I don’t know that they actually have lairs that are that extensive. It’s like the Playboy Mansion of crocodile lairs! It’s pimped out! We used to joke about the croc bringing lady crocs back to that place because it’s such a cool lair. I just thought, ‘If I was the biggest, baddest croc in the Northern Territory, I’d want to live in this place.’

McLean actually revealed that the inspiration for one major man-versus-crocodile sequence in the film was in fact the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between underdog Muhammad Ali and the behemoth George Foreman, which was chronicled in the documentary, When We Were Kings. “The structure and the psychology in that fight was actually what I was trying to replicate. You’ve got this much younger human being versus this incredibly old, violent survivor, a 120-year-old crocodile.”

For Michael Vartan, that meant three weeks wrestling animatronic crocodiles while drenched in putrid water. “Hands down, that was the hardest three weeks I’ve ever had in my life,” the actor recalled, noting that his years on the action-heavy Alias served as good preparation. “It was the most intense, gruelling experience. I was wet for three weeks with mud and blood. It was just absolutely non-stop; it was fourteen hours a day of rolling around in freezing water. I wouldn’t change a thing, but my god, was it hard! But it’s very fulfilling in a weird way. It’s the only time as an actor where I’ve come back to the hotel after shooting and thought, ‘My God, I’ve actually earned my keep for a change!”

Michael Vartan in Rogue.

Radha Mitchell didn’t get off lightly either. She too had to endure long, water-drenched stints “covered in prosthetics that took two hours to apply, with all these sticky bits of broken skin and bones hanging out. I was covered in sticky blood, and lying in this water with bones floating around in it. It smelt like a public toilet. It’s a bizarre kind of work!” The actress even relished the chance to play the damsel in distress. “It might be a particularly female fantasy, but I liked the fact that even while being a damsel in distress, I wasn’t a glamourous damsel in distress. I’ve got scratches, my nose has been chewed off, and I’ve got half a leg.”

So how exactly does an actor conjure up the fear when there’s really nothing there? “As far as acting goes, it was one of the hardest things I had to do,” Vartan replied. “There were several shots where I’m supposed to be freaking out and I was actually reacting to a stick with a tennis ball stuck on it. It’s quite hard to imagine your life is about to end when you’re staring at a Wilson Number 3 tennis ball!” he laughed. “You have to find a way to do it. I’m sure there were several takes that were absolutely shithouse, but hopefully Greg found enough decent stuff to use for the movie!”

For McLean, maintaining a strong sense of Australian identity in the film was paramount. “I most definitely didn’t want it to be a homogenised version of Australia,” he says. “If you’re gonna do a movie here, then you may as well do it in the voice of this country. Why should we hold back on actually being as Aussie as we can? Why shouldn’t we use an Australian sense of humour and an Australian dryness and wit? That’s something to be proud of.”

A scene from Rogue.

When watching Rogue, it’s hard to ignore the fact that McLean is openly tipping his hat stylistically and thematically to Jaws, the mother of all monster movies. He wanted to reflect that film’s “great characters and believable relationships”, as well as its creature mythology and heart-pounding suspense. “It’s one of my favourite movies. It’s such a phenomenal piece of filmmaking, and a masterful piece of screenwriting and acting. It’s rare that a film of this genre can be watched twenty years later and still completely work on every single level. If people comment that Rogue reminds them of Jaws, that’s a huge compliment.”

It wasn’t until Vartan saw the first cut of the film that he saw the similarity. “A lot of the beats are similar; there’s a lot more of a build up than you would find in a traditional Hollywood movie. Greg gives you a chance to care about the characters before they’re snatched away. It’s not just non-stop violence and action like we get here in the States.”

After the blood and cruelty of Wolf Creek, McLean was surprisingly economical with his horror scenes in Rogue, opting for naturalism and character development over extravagant, gratuitous splatter. “Unless horror’s happening in a context that’s real, it doesn’t really have any impact,” the director said. “It’s definitely a conscious thing to create a context of reality before you do anything that’s out of the ordinary. You always hear movie producers saying, ‘Can we get into the action quicker?’ Ultimately what they fail to realise is that it’s all about context. As Orson Welles said, ‘All the greatest stories are told through implication.’ The monster that you can imagine is always worse than the one you can show, but you’ve got to pay off the expectation in some way or the audience will feel ripped off.”

Greg McLean and his biggest star.

Radha Mitchell admitted that she wondered after seeing Wolf Creek and appearing in Rogue where the twisted horror sensibilities of the seemingly well adjusted McLean come from. “His movies are so dark and twisted and strange, and yet as a person he’s a very moral, ethical, sweet guy,” she mused. “Where does this stuff lurk? What does it say about him? It’s like the sick side of Greg…”

McLean told FilmInk that his fascination with horror comes from “an interest in pushing the edges of things into a taboo area, which is what horror films allow you to do. It’s a pretty anti-social thing to kill someone and it’s also pretty confronting to watch someone get eaten alive by a crocodile, so I guess making stories that allow audiences to be confronted by ideas, images and scenarios that encourage reflection upon one’s own real life is an interesting exercise. Fear is a very primary emotion, and it’s very interesting playing in that realm as a storyteller.”

And despite being made under the auspices of two of the most notoriously intrusive (and now just plain notorious) producers in Hollywood, McLean was thankful on the eve of the film’s release that he was able to maintain control of his vision, and avoided the horror stories of filmmakers who suffer in the face of studio interference. “It’s pretty much exactly the film that I’ve always wanted to make,” he told FilmInk.

The crocodile in Rogue.

Though true to his vision, Rogue – which boasted scares aplenty, nicely etched characterisations, and bravura filmmaking – failed to replicate the success of Wolf Creek, only making a minor dent on the international box office. It didn’t feature in The AFI Awards, but the film did pick up a gong at that year’s FilmInk Awards. “Yeah! Best Blow In for Rogue! That was amazing!” Michael Vartan laughed to FilmInk upon the film’s DVD release.

For the uninitiated, the FilmInk gong is bestowed upon the best overseas actor who “blows in” to an Australian film, and then heads back home. “How did it go? They actually played my acceptance speech clip?” Vartan wondered of his highly self-deprecating spiel, which played out in its entirety at Sydney’s State Theatre. “I was in LA when I heard about the award. I was told that I needed to go to a hotel so I could thank the voters from Australia. I was still trying to figure out what the award meant!”

“Michael was initially a bit thrown by the FilmInk Award,” McLean revealed to FilmInk with a laugh, “because in the states anything with the word ‘blow’ in it carries negative connotations. He called me asking, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Once I explained it, he was relieved!” While extolling the virtues of Rogue’s technical crew and extending his thanks to McLean, Vartan found the time in his speech to take a big swipe at his own career, mentioning that he’d come to Australia for the opening of an envelope, which could be an inevitability given the “way my career is going.”

FilmInk Awards Best Blow-In Winner for Rogue, Michael Vartan.

It turns out that the acceptance speech wasn’t just false modesty. “I don’t care about my career,” Vartan said cheerily. “What am I working on at the moment? Currently, I’m working on my tan. I just feel incredibly lucky if I get work. As an actor, ninety per cent of the time you have no control. All I can try and do is not suck. And anything else is completely out of my hands. So I don’t worry and I just go for it. And if it doesn’t work out – hello Melbourne!”

As a parting shot during his chat with FilmInk, Michael Vartan had something pretty surprising that he needed to get off his chest about Rogue, insisting that he’d never mentioned it until our interview. “I just want to say on record that when I first saw the movie I felt really bad for the crocodile at the end. This needs to be published because I feel strongly about it,” he said, his voice fluctuating earnestly. “That crocodile was so hard done by. It was just minding its business for seventy-five years, and then these fucking tourists arrive on the scene and their fucking boat breaks down. That poor, poor thing ended up with a spear in its head. It just wasn’t fucking right. I shed a tear…”

Rogue is available now on DVD and on various streaming services. Greg McLean’s Jungle is in cinemas now. Additional reporting by Julian Shaw and Erin Free.

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