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Austin Film Festival 2019: Director Zak Hilditch talks “Rattlesnake”

The latest Netflix film, “Rattlesnake,” is the second collaboration between Australian director and writer Zak Hilditch and the streaming service. The first was a little ol’ film called “1922” that was adapted from a Stephen King novella. “Rattlesnake” had its World Premiere at the Austin Film Festival on Thursday, October 24, at 10:10 p.m. at the Stateside Theatre.

“Rattlesnake” follows Katrina (Carmen Ejogo), a single mother driving cross country to start a new life with her young daughter, Clara (Apollonia Pratt). Their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere on a Texas road and, as Katrina changes the tire, Clara is bitten by a venomous rattlesnake. With the help of a mysterious woman, Clara is miraculously healed — but at a deadly cost: Katrina is asked to repay the good deed by killing a stranger in exchange for the life saved by sundown. The clock is ticking. What will Katrina do? The film also stars Theo Rossi (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Marvel’s Luke Cage”) and Emma Greenwell (“Shameless,” “The Rook”).

We had a chance to speak with Hilditch about earliest memories, his journey with writing and directing and “Rattlesnake.” The interview has been edited for clarity.

What’s your earliest film or television memory that really had an impact on you?

Zak: Oh, well, the moment where I realized there were other films that weren’t what I grew up watching as a kid, like “Indiana Jones,” “Ninja Turtles.” It was later in life, at 16 or 17 years old, when I first saw “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” for the first time, it blew my mind apart. I distinctly remember going, ‘Oh, this is different. Why is this different? Why does this feel different? Why is it so good?’ It was literally a light bulb moment when I realized there was another world of cinema. Quentin Tarantino, hats off to him, really did open up people’s minds to world cinema and to the classics and all the things that he references. That was a game changer for me.

I was lucky that my mom was a big cinephile and loved TV and pop culture. Me and my sister were allowed to stay up really late at night watching things that kids probably shouldn’t be watching at such a young age. I distinctly remember watching the ’80s version of “The Twilight Zone” and it freaking me out so much. “Rattlesnake” is no different to a “The Twilight Zone” episode. There is that element to it, that whole ordinary person caught in an extraordinary situation.

What was your journey to directing and writing? When did you know that you wanted to pursue filmmaking?

Zak: Well, you always have this pipe dream as a kid. You don’t really know what you want to be when you grow up. Those two Tarantino movies at 16 or 17 years old really blew my mind apart and got me immediately involved in indie film and watching all the classics. It was that moment where I was going to see what happens if I say, ‘I want to be a filmmaker. Like, what would happen if I’m from Perth, Western Australia? How do I even remotely begin to do that?’

I went to Curtin University and did a four year film course, which was amazing. You meet like-minded people. When you graduate then you’re out trying to get some government funding to make short films and whatnot, and doing things for the smell of an oily rag yourself. I kept shooting and writing and working with actors. Everyone was in it together. It was a real collective. There was no money. Everyone was just like, ‘Okay, I want to act, I want to direct so let’s work on stuff.’ That sort of led to me only ever wanting to be a writer, director and never getting in front of the camera.

I got a screenplay properly funded called “These Final Hours” back in 2012, and that was a game changer. All the stuff I’d been doing for the last 10 years came to that nexus point where I finally got my first funded feature up. And then it’s a high-wire act because you need that thing to work out to open up doors to Los Angeles because you only get that one shot in Australia to make your mark and make your feature film. There’s only so much government money that can go around. Luckily, “These Final Hours” did do good enough for me to come to the states and make some films. I made Stephen King’s “1922” novella into a film. That was my first American film. And “Rattlesnake” is my follow-up, my second American film.

(L-R) Apollonia Pratt, Carmen Ejogo in “Rattlesnake” | Photo Credit: Netflix / John Golden Britt

You’re a writer and director. What’s your process like? As you write are you envisioning how you’re going to direct?

Zak: Church and state. To this day I’ve never really directed someone else’s script when it comes to film. To me it’s just a natural thing when I’m creating it. I’m the God of the thing as I’m sitting there at the laptop creating whatever it is. But in the back of my mind, it can only really go down if I know I can film or just have a semblance of an idea of what visually that might look like. Not even necessarily who might be in it, but just where the people are standing, what the shot might be and just sort of writing that way visually. I cannot write prose to save my life. I can only write in script form. That’s the only form that I know how to do. Whenever I’m writing, it’s always thinking about what we’re seeing on the screen. And that sort of coincides with the other job.

Do you make changes to the screenplay when on set?

Zak: Once you get on set, you’ve got to really throw that thing in the bin because it’s a whole new entity. There’s those scenes where you’re literally throwing the script out because what I’m getting from the actors is so much better or they’ve got better ideas or we’re actually in a different location. Or maybe the actor decided to walk into the kitchen instead of staying in the living room, you know? So you just got to roll with those punches and just not get in the way of the film dictating to you what it should be doing because it’s an organism. And you can get really tied up with, ‘Ahh this is my script.’ I get so sick of it by that point that I’m more than happy to try things out and see what the actors can do to make it sound like I wrote it. Where they are doing all the hard work and I’m getting all the credit. [laughs]

In “Rattlesnake” we were dealing with a six-year-old girl. A lot of the beautiful moments between her and her mom were happening when we were just rolling. From day one, me and Carmen Ejogo, who plays Katrina, were like, ‘Look, this is her first feature, and she’s never done this before. She’s gonna be a little bit overwhelmed.’ And she was. We were always rolling and just getting those little moments where she doesn’t think she’s on camera. It’s the moments between the takes where she’s just on fire and awesome. And we were lucky enough to find those nice little moments.

Apollonia Pratt and Carmen Ejogo in “Rattlesnake” | Photo Credit: Netflix

What was it like going from “1922” to “Rattlesnake”? Where did the idea come from?

Zak: “1922” came and did its thing. And then a year went by, and I basically had the concept for “Rattlesnake.” I had that in my head for two years, but I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t know how it was a movie. I didn’t know the mechanisms of it. And then, just before our firstborn arrived, he was a month and a half from being born, and it just clicked one day in my mind exactly how to write it.

And I was like, ‘Well my brain is going to be mush when he’s here so I better quickly smash this script out.’ And that urgency — me knowing that I needed to get this down because I was not going to be in the right headspace when he was here — sort of found its way onto the page; that immediacy, that ticking clock element is all there. I was thinking very situationally about what would you really do if you’re in a town you’ve never been to before? What would you really do? And trying to always keep it realistic because it’s already a heightened situation. You’re watching a genre film about this supernatural curse, but at the same time it is grounded in this gritty, real-world reality.

Yeah, I think it was interesting to see the tension build up as a viewer. You’re thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’

Zak: I just loved subverting everything you thought you maybe knew what was going to happen, like zigging when we should be zagging. There’s many films like this that would probably have had her one-up the entity and not kill anyone and figure out how to get out of it. But that just does not interest me at all. I was more interested in the psychology of her as she figures out just enough of this thing, but she knows she still has to do it and knows there’s no way out. She has to appease whatever this is and give the offering.

Given that this is a horror/thriller, what are some of your favorite horror films that maybe you took inspiration from or just love?

Zak: Stephen King’s DNA is running all through this movie. It was a big inspiration on this. I feel like it’s based on a Stephen King novel that Stephen King never wrote. I get “The Twilight Zone” and Stephen King’s writing. There’s just been so many great horror films recently. I’m still really haunted by and love “It Follows.” That was a legitimately scary movie that had some really unique scares in it. That one that’s really stuck with me.

Did you film in Texas?

Zak: We actually shot in New Mexico. It’s the rule where if you say anything’s in Texas, you better believe you’re shooting in New Mexico for the tax incentives. But no, we didn’t get to set foot in Texas, unfortunately.

Why did you want to set the story in Texas?

Zak: I needed it to be big Americana with widespread desert roads and blue skies. I thought Texas is the absolute perfect location for this. And then it snowballed from there, like what town should it be? I was looking at town names and I loved the the name Tulia. It sounded like a beautiful flower. I looked into the town of Tulia and it’s actually got a really dark history. There’s a documentary about what a corrupt town it was. There was already a mythology and a darkness to this place. So I was like, it’s going be Tulia. So then, where is she coming from? And figuring out those logistics once you lock into those it’s great because then that informs your backstory. Why is she coming from there? It’s about playing that game of shading it in bit by bit.

(L-R) Carmen Ejogo, Spencer Mabrey in “Rattlesnake” | Photo Credit: Netflix

Funny how she couldn’t make a gun purchase in Texas.

Zak: When I Googled that I was like, ‘That is actually awesome.’ We all think, especially in Australia, that you’re just walking around buying guns anywhere, in a Wal-Mart or whatever. But you’re actually not allowed to buy a gun in Texas if you’re not a resident. I was like, ‘I’m putting that in the script.’ Once I figured that out I could say she’s now got to go somewhere else. It was a nice bit of zig-and-zagging instead of just easily buying a gun. It’s like, always make things hard for your character and don’t go easy on them. And it’s going to help add to that tension.

And what was it like working with Carmen Ejogo?

Zak: Amazing. She’s so good and talented and easy to work with. And she really, really dug the script when she read it. She was the first actress we went out to and in two days we were Skyping. And she said yes! And that was it. It was just a great collaboration.

(L-R) Ross Dinerstein, Apollonia Pratt, Zak Hilditch | Photo credit: Jack Plunkett

What’s it like being here at the Austin Film Festival? What was it like watching it with an audience?

Zak: Great. We had really great reactions from the crowd. It was pissing down with rain and I’m just amazed that anyone came at all. It was a really good turnout. And people were reacting in the right spots, and that’s always good to hear.

You were here with “1922” at Fantastic Fest in 2017. Do you like coming to Austin?

Zak: It’s my second time. I love it here. It’s great. I eat all the meats when I get here. I’m a pescatarian in real life. I always go on a meat embargo when I’m here. I’m getting some meat sweats already. Time to slow down. [laughs]

“Rattlesnake” is now streaming on Netflix! Tell us what you think of the latest Netflix original in the comments below. Read more reviews and interviews from the 2019 Austin Film Festival.

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Featured image credit: Jack Plunkett

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