Edition 14: Author Interview: Wolf Creek prequel authors: Aaron Sterns and Brett McBean
Posted by Gerry Huntman
Q. Aaron and Brett, how did writing the Wolf’s Creek prequels come about for you? Aaron, I know you go a ways back with Greg McLean (writer/director of Wolf’s Creek). Is this how you came to writing the novel?
AS: Greg and I shared a writing office before Wolf Creek, actually. We gave feedback on each other’s work (including the script that eventually morphed into Creek), and had even collaborated on a script together before he’d got his first film up. When the film released we idly bandied around storylines for Mick Taylor graphic novels, before coming upon something we thought was actually big enough for the sequel. Great, Greg said—now go away and write it. So I wrote the first draft of Wolf Creek 2 maybe seven years ago now. Greg went on to direct his croc film Rogue (for which I was script-editor) and produced a number of films, but it was only a few years ago that he decided to return to a sequel to Creek. As this was progressing Penguin approached him to publish novelisations of the films, but the idea soon came up that wholly original prequel stories would be more interesting. People often asked about Mick Taylor’s background (he gives hints at being a roo shooter on a station and various other things in the first film), so delving into his past seemed very interesting. Having written the film sequel, and being a fiction writer as well, Greg approached me straightaway and asked me to write the first off the cab—the origin story of Mick Taylor.
BM: I was asked to write the second novel under unfortunate circumstances. Originally Paul Haines was slated to write Desolation Game, and he had written some notes and was close to getting started on the writing, but his health deteriorated to a point where he had to pull out of the project (Paul passed away in 2012 from cancer). So, they needed a new writer to step in and I was contacted and asked if I would be interested.
Q. Are you (Aaron and Brett) two friends from way back, or has promoting the two prequels together been a timely convenience?
AS: I was asked to suggest future writers in the series (there was an insanely-tight deadline for the first two novels, which meant I wasn’t offered both), so I contacted some astute people in the horror community as to who they’d recommend. Brett was consistently at the top of their lists as one of the hottest young writers in Australia. I tracked down The Mother and loved it—and thought it very Creek-like—and recommended it to Greg. Thankfully Brett agreed to come on board.
BM: I knew of Aaron through his writing (having read his story in the anthology Dreaming Again) but had never met him prior to writing the prequel novel. Aaron was instrumental in getting me the Wolf Creek writing gig, and so it’s been great chatting with him over email and catching up in person at book signings, talking about all things horror and writing and, of course, thanking him for putting my name forward for the prequel novel.
Q. How did it work for both of you? I understand Wolf Creek is Greg’s brain child? How did you translate the ideas from a movie franchise to a novel? What were the difficulties with that process? Where do you think you gave Wolf Creek your own stamp?
AS: Well, there are some difficulties with an established character and world, in that you don’t want to resort to clichés or shallow caricature. But I probably knew Mick as well as anyone, having written the sequel with Greg (which no one had seen yet, as it hadn’t actually been filmed). So the more I thought about Mick’s genesis the more the whole thing unrolled in my mind. I knew he’d come from a hellish past with an abusive (or at least domineering) father. That he’d lived in poverty. That he was a self-made, probably self-taught man. That he’d probably had a number of mis-steps on the way to becoming the consummate killer that he is. During a feverishly-quick research road trip to Aramac in central Queensland (John Jarratt’s birthplace in fact), I came upon the idea that a young Mick would be trying to work on a cattle station in a last ditch attempt to make it in the world, but the demons of his past—the gruesome death of his little sister—would return to haunt him. I also took a rather radical step of introducing a love interest—a damaged prostitute called Rose, whose misplaced love might be the only chance of redeeming him. We know Mick Taylor eventually becomes a brutal killing machine, but we don’t know how he came to be one, nor whether it could have been avoided. Hopefully, this potential for tragedy and sliding doors helps to make his journey in the first book interesting, considering the story is so pre-destined.
BM: I was given a two-page outline and the instructions (from Greg McLean) to just go for it. I essentially treated the project as if I was writing my own original novel. I just started at the beginning and built the world, the story and characters like I would any other story. Of course, I was mindful of it being a different beast than my own original work, in that I was following someone else’s basic outline and populating it with an established character in Mick, but the creation of the novel was no different than any other.
Q. What unique challenges did you face with your prose, with part of the original being from quite different media? What were the bonuses of your books following the movies?
AS: Obviously with a movie you don’t have to realise the world to such an extent. You need to know it, but you don’t need (or get) to describe every last detail. With prose you need to live and breathe what’s happening, imagine each scene inside and out to depict it properly. But that became quite fun—imagining the burning wastelands of his killing fields, the dankness of the tunnels, the visceral nature of each death. And with prose you can get inside the head of Mick, which we don’t/can’t/won’t do in the films. I think we’re able to flesh his character out to a much greater extent (without explaining everything about him), and expand the world.
BM: There were two main challenges I faced when writing Desolation Game. The first was the Vietnam War sequences. I wanted to make sure I got the Australian war experience as accurate as possible. I wanted to respect what the soldiers went through over there. So, I read a lot of books and did some pertinent research online. I learnt a hell of a lot about our diggers’ involvement with the most controversial of wars, and I hope I honoured them in my story. The second challenge was with the character of Mick Taylor. I was wary of the danger of creating a caricature. Since Mick was so well-defined in the first movie, with good lashings of black humour, it would have been easy to turn him into a Freddy Krueger-like character on the page: over the top, spouting one-liners. So, I knew I had to be careful: still make him the Mick Taylor the audience are familiar with (although the Mick we meet in the novel is a young man, still decades away from the grizzled older man in the original film), with his unique traits and mannerisms, while creating a fully-rounded character that doesn’t come across as cartoonish or one-dimensional.
Q. Aaron, I noticed you co-wrote the script for Wolf’s Creek 2, sequel to the highly successful Wolf Creek. You’ve also worked with Greg McLean on previous movies. What’s the main difference you find between horror of the silver screen and of the written variety?
AS: With script-writing you have to be ruthless with story. You have 90-120 minutes (equal to 90-120 pages of script) to everything in. There’s no way you can fit all the meandering paths of any novel into a film (unless it’s a damned short novel). Films are more akin to short stories or novellas then, in that they take one idea (generally) and pursue that to the end. Working on scripts has helped my own novel-writing, I feel, in that it’s made me appreciate structure, and the value in getting to the point. You shouldn’t really muck around in a novel either, though that can be part of the pleasure in reading/writing one.
Q. Aaron, what did you like and loathe about working with the Wolf Creek story as a novel, in comparison to building that story on the screen?
AS: Well, the deadline for the novel was a killer. I was basically given four months for conception through to a finished first draft. Apart from a basic logline Greg gave me when I started writing (a young Mick Taylor’s wandering the desert when a serial killer sees his potential and grooms him to clear the outback of other killers), I had to feverishly construct a plot, and trust my gut once I’d planned it out that it would work. With the film it’s a much more singular story—a chase movie basically—so we just had to make sure we followed that one line and put as many cool moments and twists to it as we could.
Q. Brett, you’re an established horror writer with several books published with nominations for some prestigious Australian writing awards. What do you have to say about working with others on a setting and characters begun by someone else versus working on completely independent work? Is it a process you have a lot of experience with?
BM: This was my first time writing a story set in someone else’s world, and it was certainly an interesting challenge. There’s a different set of pressures when dealing with a tie-in as opposed to an original work. When writing your own creation, the success or failure is entirely on your shoulders. You have to first come up with the concept, plot and characters and then write the story. So there’s always that concern present: is this idea any good, will the story and characters work, will it resonate with the readers, etc. When writing from an outline, in a world created by someone else, these issues aren’t nearly as pressing. I knew the basic concept and main character worked because of the success of the first movie, and the plot and characters of the novel were already sorted, and as I was given free range by Greg to make any changes I felt necessary, my main job was to simply flesh these things out and give life to the story. So in that way, it was a liberating experience. However, I still had to be mindful that I was playing in another artist’s sandbox, and so for that reason, I was concerned. I didn’t want to mess up Greg’s baby, bring him a story that didn’t meet his expectations and not do justice to the character of Mick Taylor.
Q. How do you both feel that your novels have been received by the fans of the story, movies or otherwise?
AS: As far as I can tell, the reception’s been very good so far. We’ve garnered some great reviews (including the premier horror magazine in the world Fangoria recently), and the feedback I’ve had at signings and online has been very generous. Hopefully that means we haven’t stuffed things up then.
BM: Almost all feed-back to my novel has been positive. Readers seem to really enjoy reading about Mick’s past. I think (hope) we’ve struck that balance between keeping the spirit of the movies, while creating interesting works that both develop the world created by Greg McLean and John Jarratt, as well as stand on their own as compelling works of fiction.
Q. What aspect of Mick Taylor do each of you think that you’ve really brought to life? And why should fans and readers want to get to really get to know him?
AS: That’s probably more up to readers to determine. With the first book I concentrated on Mick’s internal struggle, and the choices he makes where another person might have chosen a different path. It skates the line about whether he becomes a serial killer because of his brutal upbringing, or whether it’s a trait inherent within him, without definitively answering. Hopefully it’s up to the reader to decide. However I did have some fun seeding elements of the films in a bit of reverse-engineering I’m hoping people pick up. I think Mick Taylor’s one of the great horror villains, let alone just a great Australian horror villain, and perhaps stands apart from other killers such as Jason and Freddy and Mike in that he has a very real, gritting grounding. He’s rooted in the dirt and baking sun of the desert, and there’s a raw believable quality to him (particularly with John’s performance). To be able to explore what the character’s been through (and done) in the past—and help build his mythology—is quite a privilege, and I hope those who loved the film/s want to immerse themselves further too.
BM: If you take the Mick Taylor of the first movie as being a killer at the peak of his powers, then I thought it’d be interesting to show how certain incidents in his past led him to become that cunning killer of the future. For example, when watching Wolf Creek, I noticed that the victims, upon waking from having been drugged, had been stripped of their shoes. I took this as a deliberate act on Mick’s part to assure his victims, if they did happen to escape, would have a hell of a time running through the desert barefoot. Taking this idea back, I thought: what if there was some instance in his past that led him to start taking the shoes off his victims. So, I wrote a scene in which a character manages to escape from Mick, and afterwards, it occurs to Mick that if the man had been barefoot, he wouldn’t have made it very far through the scorched, rocky desert terrain. I included a few such instances in the novel, nods to the future Mick, because serial killers evolve their process as they go, refining their M.O and getting more efficient and confident the more they kill.
Humans are fascinated by people who do bad things. As a race we love reading and watching horrible people do horrible things. Why? Because we all have a dark side, it’s just some people’s dark side are a lot more developed, and ultimately we want to know why: how is it possible that people of our own race are capable of such atrocities? What makes them different from most other ‘normal’ people, what makes them tick? It’s no different with the Wolf Creek movies and novels: it just so happens that Mick Taylor is an entertaining, darkly humorous character, which makes him all the more fascinating. It’s the road-accident syndrome. When we pass a horrible accident while driving, we’re both sickened and fascinated: most people slow down and try to see what has happened. Why? Because we’re fascinated by what repels us, it’s just human nature.