Federal agent Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to his drought-stricken hometown, opening a decades-old wound, the unsolved death of a teenage girl. We follow the journey of The Dry from Jane Harper’s book to Robert Connolly’s film adaptation with cinematographer Stefan Duscio ACS (The Invisible Man).
By James Cunningham.
Australian Federal Police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to his home town of Kiewarra after an absence of over twenty years to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), who allegedly killed his wife and child before taking his own life, a victim of the madness that has ravaged this community after more than a decade of drought.
Like many small, rural towns in Victoria, Kiewarra is dying of thirst and neglect. The rolling green hills Aaron left behind when he moved to Melbourne are now a sickly, parched brown. The swirling river he and Luke used to swim in has vanished, leaving a monstrous scar across the land.
The journey to adapt Jane Harper’s international bestseller The Dry began even before the now beloved novel hit the bookshelves. It won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Prolific Australian producer Bruna Papandrea, best known for bringing Liane Moriart’s popular novel Big Little Lies to the television screen, snapped up the film rights.
Papandrea was excited at the opportunity to take another Australian novelist’s story to the big screen. “It was her first novel,” enthuses Papandrea. “It’s an amazing story, and it was a story that I felt very passionate about telling, given how we’re seeing more and more how the climate has affected these towns in Australia.”
The next step was to find the perfect director to bring Harper’s novel to life. The producers were thrilled that writer/director Robert Connolly, who was their first choice, came on board very early in the process. Papandrea has a long-standing relationship with Connolly and credits him with her first break as a producer, when he recommended her to produce Jonathan Teplitzky’s film Better Than Sex (2000), starring David Wenham and Susie Porter.
Connolly is full of praise for Harper’s book. “It’s a page turner. It’s exciting. It’s a detective mystery. It’s all of those things. It’s got great characters. But I think, ultimately, maybe what’s elevated it is that it shows a world that people want to see that’s authentic and visceral and real. This is Australia; this is regional Australia. This is a drought-afflicted, global-warming-impacted world.”
Papandrea has been friends with Connolly for many years and has watched his career evolve with great successes such as the critically acclaimed Balibo (2009), the box-office hit Paper Planes (2014) and television adaptations The Slap (2011) and Barracuda (2016), the latter shot by cinematographer Stefan Duscio ACS. Connolly teamed up again with Duscio for The Dry. Duscio had a wonderful time in 2015 working with Connolly on the ABC miniseries Barracuda. “I’d long admired his work, particularly the powerful Balibo, so I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with him on a feature.”
Duscio began his love of telling stories as an illustrator of comic books. After graduating in Media Arts at RMIT University in Melbourne, he found photography and film making to be additional ways he could make the most of his story telling skills. He has since shot feature films, television series, music videos, documentaries and countless commercials.
Connolly’s pitch to Duscio was that he wanted to make a dramatic Australian thriller which would also be deeply personal. Connolly wanted his cinematographer to help him portray a naturalistic, unromantic drought-ridden Victoria as the backdrop. Having grown up in Cobram country in Victoria, Duscio was very familiar with the landscape and people in these communities.
The production team were well supported by both the Victorian Government and the Federal Government in making The Dry. In particular, Film Victoria really pulled out all the stops to ensure that the film would be made in Victoria. It was important to the producers to set the film where the story is actually located and to achieve that level of authenticity. “I can honestly say, without Film Victoria and Screen Australia, the movie would not have happened,” says the film’s producer, Jodi Matterson.
Connolly agrees. “Without Screen Australia there is no Australian film industry. Their work over many years now has been invaluable and I don’t think it’s something that any of us take for granted. For the Australian public too, the great Australian films that we flock to and enjoy have had such wonderful support.”
It was Duscio’s first time working with production designer Ruby Mathers, and he says that he really enjoyed the working relationship. He describes her as having “a considered eye for colour palette and making a space feel lived in and real.” Connolly, Mathers and Duscio spent much time in pre-production scouting locations in the northern Wimmera and southern Mallee districts of Victoria. Duscio explains: “We obviously needed the contemporary story in the film to feel bleached out and dry, and we were keen to highlight the visual difference of the past with using greens.”
For visual references, Duscio reviewed ABC News reports about the drought, as well as local photographers’ work. At times, he referred to No Country for Old Men (2007, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC) to see how celluloid capture would have compared to digital colour space. In pre-production, a huge shared wall of printed references was created that Connolly, Duscio, Mathers and costume designer Cappi Ireland all contributed to.
In terms of casting, Connolly had worked with the celebrated Eric Bana more than ten years ago as a producer on Romulus, My Father (2007, cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson ACS), and the two share an office in Melbourne where they often throw ideas around together. “You need someone to anchor the whole film together, to drive every scene,” says Connolly. “For us, we knew Bana would bring a capacity to play this muscular, visceral kind of journey that the character goes on, coupled with this kind of beautiful humanist quality.”
Connolly and Duscio early on discussed shooting The Dry with the Panavision DXL2 after they had attended a demonstration of the camera by Panavision technology developer Michael Cioni. Says Duscio, “His presentation really hit a nerve with me and I was keen to break out of my ARRI Alexa ‘comfort zone’ and experiment with other camera systems.”
“I shot a few basic tests in Panavision before taking it out for a full day of intensive tests with my first assistant camera Chris Child and some stand-ins,” the cinematographer explains. “I like to shoot a visual proof-of-concept before every film, to try instinctually to put down some visual sketches of what I think the movie could look like.”
Duscio shoots, edits and grades these images himself. It’s one of the only times as a cinematographer he feels ‘sole ownership’ and ultimate control of footage. “It’s almost like a photographer playing with their photos in Photoshop. It’s become a really important part to my creative process, to have this time to play and experiment without the pressure of a full cast and crew, and to be able to play with these images in DaVinci Resolve.”
Duscio recalls an unfortunate experience years ago at a post-production house where he felt he was rushed out of a suite when he was testing different camera and lens packages for a feature. He felt he and the director had only minutes to make a crucial decision that actually needed intense discussion and analysis. Subsequently, the cinematographer learned how to use Resolve and so could ‘take control’ of his footage again. He could now analyse footage in isolation, or with a director, when making the decision about format.
“One of the great things about the DXL2 was its ability to manage multiple formats easily,” says Duscio. “Connolly and I spoke a lot about how to give the parallel stories and timelines different looks. We ended up deciding to shoot the contemporary scenes on the Panavision Primo Artiste large-format lenses, and our flashbacks on Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses.”
Duscio had a great experience using LiveGrain film grain simulation on Judy & Punch (2019) and thought it would work well on The Dry to help differentiate the timelines. Connolly, being a lover of film, was also very keen on this. “He even initially spoke about using 16mm film for our flashbacks,” says Duscio. “We ultimately decided to simulate a 35mm grain for our contemporary scenes, and a 16mm for the past. This, mixed with juxtaposing spherical and anamorphic, felt right.”
Connolly elaborates: “Through older lenses and the use of grain and handheld, we were able to make it feel rougher and visceral in a different way, then the present is sharper. We use these beautiful large format lenses, big, epic scale. It’s sharp to the corners, it can play in the biggest cinemas in the world. So, you see the detail of this world in the sharp, brutal honesty of it.”
The intersecting timelines were brought together beautifully in the edit, as Bana explains. “There’s almost too much to choose from in terms of when you dip back into that period, when you come out and how long you’re there for. It’s probably one of the parts of the edit that Connolly’s been toying with the most, experimenting with how we use flashbacks earlier or later. He’s done a really great job of calibrating that, and what excites me is that it really has an emotional impact on the present.”
The cinematographer generally operates A-camera himself. Justin Besser, with whom Duscio had worked on many television commercials, was a triple-threat Steadicam operator, B-camera operator and splinter unit cinematographer. Duscio says he did a fantastic job of collaborating with himself and Connolly on The Dry.
For the most part, Duscio employed a single-camera approach to The Dry. The first week of filming was mostly flashbacks with improvised handheld work, and the crew moved quickly. Duscio kept reminding them that once they reached the contemporary scenes in the following week, they would need to change their style into something more traditional. “Contemporary scenes were shot classically and simply, generally on a head with minimal flair. Flashbacks were shot very loose, and exclusively handheld. This also heavily influenced the blocking and way we would work with actors and crew.” Child was A-camera first assistant camera on The Dry, with Matt Dobson as B-camera first assistant camera and Michael Taylor as playback operator.
“Christopher Reig was our on-set digital intermediate technician (DIT) and I spent about an hour each evening with him going through the day’s footage,” says the cinematographer. “This enabled me to check my exposures and finesse the grade on the dailies.” Reig would apply the chosen LiveGrain looks to the corresponding storyline, meaning that the director and editor would get used to cutting with coloured, grain-filled footage.
“I once heard somebody say directors suffer from ‘offline syndrome’ where they fall in love with the look of their footage, for better or worse, after months of cutting with it,” explains Duscio. “It then becomes very difficult to convince them to consider other options in the final grade. I consider it very important to have those discussions about the look during pre-production and production, and boldly embed those ideas into the dailies. Of course, the director ultimately still has raw camera files to revert to if it’s decided that our instincts were off the mark, but I think it’s important to aim high during production.”
Producer Jodi Matterson considers that the environment plays a very important role in the book, so when the team were deciding where to shoot the movie and they saw imagery of the Wimmera Region, it was just as they had pictured it in their minds. They knew they had struck gold. “The landscape is such an important character in this story and it’s something that really resonates with people in the book, so it was very important for us that we really went out into remote Australia to film this story,” Jodi says.
Bana, who also plays Aaron Falk, agrees, and hopes the locations do justice for audiences who have read the book and pictured the landscape in their minds. He was also excited to showcase a different side of outback Australia on local screens, as well as to the rest of the world, a part of Australia that Australians relate to very well, in comparison with the desolate, red-earth outback that is seen a lot of cinema and is the picture the world has of Australia.
The Dry was a thirty-four day shoot, done entirely on location. The first week was in Castlemaine, where they mostly filmed flashbacks. Then they moved to their main base in the Wimmera region, a small town called Warracknabeal, about four hours north-west of Melbourne. The crew shot locations within one or two hours of the main base, their last week of shooting being in and around Melbourne.
The production ultimately needed to sacrifice shooting time to accommodate a vast amount of travel time across the schedule. The cinematographer and crew were tasked with nine-hour shooting days. “At first, Connolly and I were pretty down about this, but it ultimately ended up being quite exciting to work at that pace,” says Duscio. “I really noticed the difference in mine and the crew’s energy levels. We are so used to shooting ten or twelve-hour days, and that lethargy inevitably leaks into the atmosphere of the set. By capping the days at nine hours – a normal day in many workplaces – our crew were able to have back some personal time.” This also meant Connolly and Duscio had more time in the mornings and evenings to plan their work. Now, in this COVID-19 era, many producers are considering how to look after their crew’s health during production. “I think working hours should really be key to these discussions,” says Duscio.
Mathers and her art team went to great effort to design many of the interiors in The Dry, which were most often empty shells. “They always felt dusty, lived in, and rich with detail,” remarks Duscio. They used an empty pub and old farmhouses, and the art department were also tasked with de-greening locations to enhance the feeling of drought. Alternatively, in the flashbacks, a heavy amount of green was utilised to make it feel like a time before drought ravaged the area.
Colour was a key part of the process for costume designer Ireland as well. Apart from the big challenge of removing all green from the present day scenes, she says she deliberately avoided any high-vis, particularly for the famers. “That’s something that came out in the early 2000s,” she explains. “The costuming is very simple, and we blocked it out a lot so it wasn’t too busy in present day, whereas in the 1990s, we could do a lot more with patterns, colours and textures.”
The cinematographer’s approach to lighting, alongside his gaffer Ruru Reedy, with whom he worked on Galore (2012), is what he terms ‘heightened naturalism’. “We always attempted to shape the light beautifully, but then sometimes let the harsh exterior sun hit our cast, to highlight how brutal it can be,” says Duscio. “We didn’t always want it to be romantic, as it would obviously feel fake out there to have an actor standing under a scrim in the middle of a paddock or field.”
An interesting feature Duscio remembers from being a kid in country Victoria in the summer was that curtains and blinds would be closed during the hottest days. “Interiors would be dark and moody, and we leaned into that idea for some scenes, like a church interior in the beginning,” he says. “Mourners shelter inside the church from the blazing sun, and we sliced intense highlights through small gaps in the blinds to hint at the heat outside.”
Duscio supervised the grade with Connolly and colourist Olivier Fontenay, who the cinematographer worked with previously on the films Backtrack (2015), Acute Misfortune (2018), and Judy & Punch (2019) as well as the upcoming Lunacy. “Connolly is a fan of ‘humble’, honest images and always reacts when things become too stylised or call attention to themselves,” says Duscio. “Fontenay and I worked hard to find a genuine look for the film that bleached out the contemporary scenes and filled the past with lush colour and enhanced contrast. He also polished the LiveGrain application throughout the film, which required a delicate touch.”
Looking back at The Dry, the cinematographer says he really enjoyed shooting one particular scene with actors Eric Bana and Genevieve O’Reilly that begins with warmth and ends with dread. “I worked hard to make sure the director and the actors had the freedom to run very long takes, and with the help of dolly grip Justin Sykes, we were able to hit many marks over approximately eight-minute takes,” he says. Bana and O’Reilly could then lose themselves in the scene. Duscio says he always feel satisfied when he can facilitate this without compromising the look of a scene.
The overwhelming consensus among the cast and crew of The Dry was that Connolly was the perfect director to bring Harper’s much loved book to life. For Bana, what stood out most about Connolly as a director from the start was that he had a very clear vision for the film as a big, genuine cinematic experience for the audience.“I remember the first conversation we had, the way he articulated how he wanted the film to be was exactly how I would have envisaged it, and why I was really excited to work with him on it,” says Bana.
The crew agrees that, despite the harsh conditions on location, there was an amazing sense of community spirit among the locals, who would come up to them at lunchtime to say how pleased they were to have the film crew there. They were all delighted that the production of this film was taking place in their towns.
Stefan Duscio ACS is a multi-award winning cinematographer who won the AACTA Award for Best Cinematography in 2020 for his work on Leigh Whannell’s ‘The Invisible Man’.
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.