Van Diemen's Land is the dark and disturbing “true” story of Australia's “most notorious convict”, Alexander Pearce, and his survival in the Tasmanian forest.
The film is a portrait of moral degeneration that is sure to lead to much soul searching for audiences rocked by the revelations about Australia's colonial past.
The independently-financed feature was shot over six weeks in both Tasmania and the Victorian Otways; the grueling production process echoed the ruthless conditions of the story, which had captivated Auf der Heide more than a decade ago. He says that he first heard the story of Alexander Pearce as part of a guided tour to Sarah Island and the Gordon River when he was 18, and he describes his first-hand experience of Pearce's world as "stunning but also terrifying.” He immediately set about cultivating the environment to make the film. The actor-turned-director enrolled in film school and surrounded himself with creative talent. He always knew, he says, that “what was always going to make this story special was commitment from the actors and the crew. We had to go out into the wilderness and be cold, wet and miserable for six weeks, grow big beards, lose the weight, learn Gaelic, learn the accents and those were all things that money can't buy.”
Auf der Heide enlisted most of the same team that made his 2008 short film Hell's Gate (which won the director a Melbourne Film Festival 'Emerging Filmmaker' award), and all of the actors were attached for the 12 months between projects. The young director jokes that by the end of the process, cast and crew were calling him 'Auf der Herzog' - understandably, he “quietly enjoyed” the comparison. He admits to drawing on the German auteur's infamously resolute production style in Fitzcarraldo (1982). “It's definitely the one where you think that you don't want to go that far – people died! I was also very, very careful and I had Maggie [Miles, producer] there and others who were keeping a watchful eye.”
While the actors willingly subjected themselves to the harsh conditions, Auf der Heide says that “what I put those guys through was just inhumane. The hardest thing as a director was seeing these people I really care about suffering such extreme pain. They were in freezing cold water for hours and they couldn't feel their feet — [it was impossible] to not let that impact the way that the film was being made. If we ever had a discussion about it I would say to them “you can't feel your feet now but in two years' time when you think 'I wish that scene was just that little bit better' – do you think your feet will be that important then?”
“It was really brutal but it had to be because to tell this story and to do it justice, you had to see these characters going through absolute hell. The actors were pushing that even more than I was. One day it snowed and they were up there with busted up shoes and really thin costumes. They went through a blizzard mid-take. I ran up there with tea, biscuits and hot water bottles thinking that they would beat the shit out of me or walk off set... but they were up there having snowball fights.”
Oscar Redding plays Pearce and also wears the hats of co-executive producer and co-writer. While he denies that his preparation for Pearce is “method”, Redding starved himself, camped out in the middle of winter, worked on a farm to build up the strength to play the role, and went to Ireland to learn Gaelic. He and Auf der Heide wrote the script in three months. “It almost wrote itself,” Redding says. “By that stage it was enough in our imagination so that the characters weren't just factual parts of the story but they were living, breathing people.”
The distinctive look of Van Diemen's Land was also established through the extended process with the development of an aesthetic that is exceptionally painterly. Auf der Heide engaged the experienced cinematographer, Ellery Ryan (Death in Brunswick, Cosi, Angel Baby), who became “a rock on set” (Auf der Heide was a student of Ryan's at the Victoria College of the Arts Film School).
“How I saw the film was that every single shot needed to be a like an old painting. I wanted to reference painters like (Frederick) McCubbin, and even certain campfire scenes by Caravaggio. I wanted to parallel Pearce's journey into the heart of darkness of what it is to be someone who would kill in order to survive with Dante's decent into hell in Inferno. Pearce is going into his own journey into hell. The mouth of Macquarie Harbour is called 'Hell's Gates' and “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” was written at the Harbour's mouth as a warning to all who entered.”