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Time spent deep in one of New South Wales’ most beautiful yet misunderstood eco-systems can mess with a young man’s mind, if Roger Scott’s debut film is any indication. The Marshes is a psychological eco-thriller, brought to malevolent life by a new kind of mythological Australian killer, The Swagman. Ahead of the World Premiere of The Marshes at A Night of Horror Film Festival, Scott (pictured, below) spoke at length to SCREEN-SPACE about conjuring menace and mayhem from Australia’s dark past and stunning landscapes…

SCREEN-SPACE: When did the mythology of The Swagman, Australia's most iconic bush figure, strike you as the inspiration for a horror film?

SCOTT: Ten years ago, I was working in the Macquarie Marshes as a research assistant.  I had been struck by the landscape’s filmic nature and that it was an Australian environment that audiences never see. I had a fair amount of discontent with how we manage our landscapes, which fed into the story process. From local level water resource management through to global level climate issues, you could say I was gripped by fatalistic sense of horror. [So] horror was the only genre in which the narrative symbolism would have the power and plasticity I desired. And the fact that it was a landscape of billabongs and Coolibah trees brought Waltzing Matilda to mind. Once those elements had come together the story took on a life of it’s own.

SCREEN-SPACE: You pull a skilful bait-&-switch on your audience; the film opens with familiar genre tropes but then begins to deconstruct its own reality. What influences and inspirations did you draw upon?

SCOTT: My observations of the difference between people’s perceptions of the world they inhabit and the reality helped form that structure. To capture that, I drew upon films such as The Cabin In The Woods, Deliverance, 12 Years A Slave, The Descent, Onibaba, The Shining, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Upstream Colour, Under the Skin, Walkabout and Sampson and Delilah. Also non-film sources such as the art of Alexis Rockman, The Yellow Wallpaper and Terra Incognita. (Pictured, above; the the three leads of The Marshes, on-set) 

SCREEN-SPACE: One way you defy horror traditions is by finding terror in broad daylight. What specific challenges did that hold?

SCOTT: Trying to create tension and horror without darkness meant we were relying more heavily on performance, pacing and psychology. Deliverance is a film that does this particularly well. Lighting was still an issue, of course. Giovanni (Lorusso, DOP) is experienced at shooting against the light, aided by Andy (Robertson, gaffer) who has decades of experience lighting in tricky locations, so he was able to create great images despite the limitations. Once the characters became lost in the reed beds I wanted the light to remain ‘mid-afternoon’ for the entire time they were lost. It reinforced that sense of being trapped in a maze-like timeless limbo. This added a scheduling headache for Elisa (Pascarel, 1st AD); there was a lot of ‘cheating’ of shoot times to achieve this. Going into the grade I was hoping for enough latitude in the images for our post team to balance. Thanks to Giovanni’s skills, we were able to balance them. (Pictured, above; Mathew Cooper, left, and Sam Delich)

SCREEN-SPACE: The Marshes continues our strong cinematic tradition of being fearful of the 'The Bush', of city folk being at the mercy of the mysteries of this huge land. How did the location influence your storytelling?

SCOTT: It is common for directors to say that the location was one of the characters in the film, but this is only true when changing locations changes the story. This landscape is entwined in the story. The physical features of the land effect the movements and decisions of the characters. It provides both ‘Pria’s world and the socio-political context for the story. It also gave us a beautiful sort of eerie Australian gothic. Audiences have come to expect that when characters in an Australian movie drive inland that they will arrive in a dry red environment, so being in the marshes immediately confounds those expectations. In some ways, the story continues the cinematic tradition you refer to, but in other ways, less so; it is more about being at the mercy of the mysteries of the mind. I hope that different audiences view it in different ways.

SCREEN-SPACE: Does The Marshes further demonise country types? That the 'hillbilly horror' genre takes a condescending 'city-vs-country' approach?  

SCOTT: The fact that The Swagman is a 19th century symbol makes it harder for audiences to draw parallels between him and country people today. A character such as [Wolf Creek’s ]Mick Taylor looks and sounds like people you can find in any small town. What is unavoidable is the idea that the bush is full of monsters, but then so too is the human mind. What is so great about The Swagman is that he is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. Demonising The Swagman makes it more difficult for people to use him as a lazy stereotype to refer to the bush or country people or nationalism or any of the purposes for which he is invoked. I wanted to disrupt the familiar symbols and structures people use to think about these things, to challenge their perceptions. (Pictured, above; Scott directing actress Dafna Kronental)

SCREEN-SPACE: 'Pria' is an unconventional female horror lead; from the first scene, she's a strong, determined, intelligent woman that clearly won't be a victim easily. Tell us about creating her and what Dafna Kronental brings to the role?  

SCOTT: I spoke to a lot of women in science to develop a character formed by the wealth of her experience, providing her with particular strengths and weaknesses. I was cautioned a number of times to maintain her likability in a way that doesn’t happen for male characters. I needed a very knowledgeable person at the heart of the story that wasn’t fearful of the bush. Dafna brought her own strength and intelligence to ‘Pria’ and worked hard to define the character’s vulnerability, because her failings and vulnerability are just as important to the narrative arc as her strength. And Dafna showed great physical aptitude, performing as she did day after day in the waders, the reeds and the cloying mud. Just traversing that landscape was no mean feat, let alone performing too. (Pictured, above; Kronental, as Pria)

SCREEN-SPACE: The opportunity exists for your villain to spawn a new horror franchise; were you conscious of the 'origins' factor in your narrative? 

SCOTT: We actually joked about it a bit as we were making the film, about what The Swagman’s next “adventure” might be but there was no grand plan in terms of a franchise. Telling this story well was my primary concern.

Read our review of The MARSHES here.

THE MARSHES will have its World Premiere at A Night of Horror Film Festival. Ticket and session details are available at the event's official website)

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