The celebrated Australian director revisits the pesky little creatures that helped form his career.
2 Jun 2011 - 12:05 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Mark Lewis is at the top echelon of international documentary filmmakers, with a voice as distinctive as Errol Morris' or Werner Herzog's. In 1988, he wrote and directed Cane Toads: An Unnatural History. He's now returned to the story in 3D.

“The cane toad is not a static subject,” Lewis says with the sense of play and double entendre that infuses his films. He is speaking from his home in Mullumbimby, northern New South Wales, about returning to the story after more than two decades. “The cane toad is travelling and causing havoc in many areas. There were new stories and characters to explore,” he says.

Lewis was encouraged to return to the toads by one of his investment partners, the Discovery channel, which was enthusiastic about making the film. With financing eventually in place from multiple sources, Lewis was determined to tell a story “as distinct and as cutting edge as the first film had been 25 years earlier”. The result is the first Australian 3D feature film, told with Lewis' trademark wit and empathy.

Natives of Central and South America, cane toads were introduced to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 in an attempt to control the greyback cane beetle. Hindsight has proved this to be a monumental error of judgement: the toads didn't eat the beetles. What they did do incredibly well, and without precedent for an introduced species, is breed and travel. Since the cane toad arrived in the lush rainforests and cane fields of far north Queensland, it has advanced as far west as Kununurra, just inside the Western Australian border. This is a distance of about 2,424 km. It is estimated that the 102 original toads have since multiplied to 1.5 billion.

Lewis refuses to pass judgement on the toads and in his hands they are both championed and defended. “They are defenceless creatures that are taking the blame for something they didn't do,” says Lewis. “I think part of the issue with the cane toad, especially in Australia, is that there is abject cruelty directed towards them. People think it's ok to take a cricket bat, and even encourage their children to take cricket bats and clubs, and belt these things over the head because of the perception that they are ugly or bad. I think it's a very slim reason to belt something over the head to kill it.” He adds, “A lot of the characters in my film, despite maybe disparaging the cane toads in many ways, give them great respect. Most of the scientists say that it wasn't their fault and research has shown us that the cane toad is not as evil a creature as people have make out.”

Lewis' egalitarianism infuses all aspects of his filmmaking style and differentiates his documentaries from conventional natural history films. He interviews a wide range of people connected to the cane toads, including: farmers who use military phraseology to depict the invasion of the toads; local residents who keep them as pets; and those who kill them and store them in their refrigerators. In the documentary, their diverse perspectives are given equal weight to the scientists. “It's the people who live in the sugar cane farm or in the suburbs who have a greater ability to observe [them] because they walk out their back garden and see what the cane toads do,” says Lewis. “I'm not disparaging science, I'm just saying that the observations of everyday people are extraordinarily valid when it comes to animals that have some sort of relationship to man.”

Of course, as subjects who appear in a Mark Lewis documentary, all have their quirks and serve to reveal the textures of a story, populated by passionate and unique people. “The animal provided me with the story,” Lewis says. “But I also like the sense that my films are as much about the human-animal as the animal-animal.”

And what an animal-animal it is. As Lewis says, “Here is an animal that you can smoke and get high. You can make a handbag out of, you can eat. Here is an animal that can poison a dog. The wealth of material is what attracted me as a filmmaker. Who could contain their excitement at having the opportunity to depict the world of a dog when it's on a cane toad acid trip?”

Bufotenin, the toxic alkaloid produced by cane toads, is listed as a controlled substance in Australia, alongside heroin, cannabis and LSD. With 3D technology, Lewis puts his audience in the middle of the animal's cane toad-induced hallucinations when the dog, having ingested Bufotenin, becomes addicted to its psychedelic effects.

Lewis also uses the technology to suggest what he calls, “a travelogue from a cane toad's point of view,” part of what he calls his “spin on natural history sequences”. Says Lewis, “What I try to do with my so-called natural history sequences is bring them into a greater story. For example, the mating procedure of the cane toad could be a very dry and boring subject but the wonderful character I used in my film made it into more of a story. People probably don't think of cane toads making love or reproducing, but I did. In terms of creating those sequences, I thought they probably do reproduce in mud holes in the ground, but I'm sure they also reproduce in the most idyllic, beautiful, tropical lagoons. I transposed the natural history sequence and put it in a set that was very idyllic, beautiful and romantic and played romantic music.”

Lewis and his crew worked closely with the toads for the duration of the shoot, keeping several hundred in Mullumbimby. “You can't set up a 3D camera and hope that a cane toad is miraculously going to jump past it!” he says. “We found the cane toads locally at a dam. We collected them. We put them in enclosures where they had fresh water, fresh food and mineral supplements. We looked after our cane toads. It made it easier if we wanted to do a close-up, to grab one and put it in front of the camera. In essence, we were using fictional methods to replicate a reality or a non-fiction scenario.”

To achieve a successful blend of the toads' environment with the production design, Lewis worked closely with his frequent collaborator, production designer Daniel Nyiri. “[Nyiri] is multi-talented in many different areas,” Lewis says. “He is standby props, the production designer, he does storyboards, sets, gardening and he builds things. He's become an integral part of every major film I've made.” Nyiri, who lives in Northern California, travelled to Australia six months prior to the commencement of principal photography. “Daniel and I spent a month just talking through the stories I'd found. We discussed them, we storyboarded them. We talked about alternatives, sets and design.”

Lewis also teamed with Stereo and VFX Supervisor (and former film school associate) Paul Nichola. “When I decided to go 3D, I knew very little about it except that I thought it was an exciting tool to bring to the film,” says Lewis now. “I absolutely remember the day, driving in [the Sydney suburb of] Camperdown, that I called Paul. After reintroducing myself, I told Paul that I wanted him to work on the film and he said something like, 'I've been waiting for this telephone call all of my life.' He was such an advocate, so enthusiastic, about the potential of 3D. Paul designed the camera systems and the rigs. He also had a lot to do with the post-production work. I was so fortunate to work with him.”

Lewis admits that post-production for the feature was an extraordinary challenge. “There was absolutely no precedent.. How do you budget for a 3D grade, a 3D software mix-ups, dirt clearing or a 3D composite work? 3D doubles the image, if you do one image you have to do the second image. We invented a good post pathway. We worked with Cutting Edge in Sydney and we used Peter Jackson's company in New Zealand [Park Road Post] because no one else in the Southern hemisphere had ever done a 3D digital print. The great thing was that Paul worked with the film right up to the end. He came with me to New Zealand when we picked up the first 3D prints of the film. The challenge was that nobody had done this before. It was a challenge for everyone involved and everyone embraced it.”

Cane Toads: The Conquest
is in cinemas now.