Interview: Garrett Hedlund on Swimming with Sharks in “Dirt Music”

When Garrett Hedlund got to Australia to being working on “Dirt Music,” he was in a bit of a daze. He was just coming off another performance with no break in between and a flight that was seemingly without end, changing planes in Brisbane to Melbourne and greeted only with a key and a wi-fi code when he taken to an anonymous apartment building in a nondescript residential neighborhood.

“I was completely delirious. I thought I’d get to a hotel and have a jet-lagged burger or something like that,” says Hedlund, making clear this isn’t a complaint when he punctuates this memory with a hearty laugh. “Very wonderfully posh when you’re working on an independently financed film about loss and isolation and loneliness, so what the hell was I thinking?”

To go by his filmography, one knows that Hedlund wouldn’t have had it any other way, looking for an adventure in any role he takes and he couldn’t have found any bigger one than in “Dirt Music,” playing Lu Fox, a musician who largely puts performing behind him when tragedy strikes. Well before “Ned Kelly” director Gregor Jordan took the production to parts of Australia that had never had a film shot there before in some of the most remote areas of Perth and the Kimberley Islands, the adaptation of Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel had quite the arduous trek making it to the screen, thought to be impossible to do justice to with its elusive poetic prose since filmmakers such as Phillip Noyce circled it after being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002. However, the wait was worth it for Hedlund to be the right age to play one of the story’s two central characters, the other being Georgie (Kelly MacDonald), the disillusioned second wife to a local fisherman (David Wenham) whose sense of alienation within her own marriage draws her to learn more about Lu, who is illicitly fishing in her husband’s territory to make ends meet.

As has been the case in films such as “On the Road” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Hedlund is irresistible in exuding a zest for life on screen, making it ultimately more devastating to watch it being taken from him as it is in in “Dirt Music” where his soul-searching takes on a physical dimension in wandering around the Australian wild for long stretches searching for meaning. While Lu’s path forward is unclear, Hedlund takes audiences into his pain so clearly and impressively keeps his side of the story engaging throughout, surely one of the demands of effectively bringing Winton’s book to the screen that had daunted others with its bifurcated structure that divides its time between Lu and Georgie’s perspectives. He also happens to be pretty damn good on string instruments, having once badgered Jeremy Irons for violin lessons on the set of “Eragon,” picking up how to play the guitar from Terrence Howard on “Four Brothers,” and eventually singing his heart out in “Country Strong.”

With “Dirt Music” making its way out into the world following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Hedlund spoke gregariously about getting into the groove of things with his latest film, embracing the physical challenges inherent in shooting on location and taking inspiration rather than intimidation from working off of great literature.

What got you interested in this one?

It was the story. Tim Winton’s book was so wonderful, and the subject matter — the broken hurt man and how he traverses the terrain to live life, seeking isolation and love all at the same time through the trials and tribulations [with] past trauma, that became something I really romanticized. Also, I was a big fan of Gregor Jordan’s and knew that from his previous work and just through other friends that he’d collaborated with that they just had the greatest time artistically and creatively with him, so I couldn’t wait to explore this journey.

You’ve been involved in so many adaptations of great books. When a project like this comes to you, is the script your only guide or do you go back to the original text?

The book is the holy grail for me. Obviously, you try to encapsulate all the gems [of the novel] — the real spark that creates the whole fire within the story, so it’s wonderful within the book to get all the details emotionally and creatively of what’s happening in between these moments [in the film] – the thought process and the way of speaking. When we were doing the adaptation of “On the Road,” that book and that spontaneous prose inspired me so much in my teens — [how] they’re seeking for adventure and life, so to bring that book to fruition was such a wonderful thing and also a great obstacle with expectations of myself and I felt so blessed to be able to be a part of that. It felt very holy for me and it made up a great portion of my life.

With films like “Unbroken,” I felt so honored to be a part of that, because that book spent a long time trying to get made, and I was taken by Louis Zamperini’s story even before I was a part of that, and “Mudbound,” to bring that to life was such an amazing adventure and turned into such an incredible film, and like [“Dirt Music”] was the journey of a broken man in that Delta Jim Crow era, so I always just feel honored to be in there and the books just give such visceral detail into the lives of these characters and the mind of the author.

Before getting into the proper shoot, I’ve heard you spent time a week before filming in an apartment with Julia Stone and George Mason working on the music and getting that family feel that’s ultimately reflected in the film. What was it like being that apartment in Melbourne?

But to be in this apartment with Julia and George and work over some of this music was just extraordinary. It’s unfortunate because when you get into the musical side, you just wish there was more and more and more of it within the film, but I really cherished that time and the creative collaborations within that. The three of us really couldn’t get enough of each other and we made wonderful music, and even when we went to Perth, we were always hanging in our hotel rooms and when we were in our trailers making music. And I think that’s why everybody gravitated towards the book was relatability of song — in somebody’s tragedy, trauma and torment, the lyrics they can write so simply [can be] relatable to such a vast multitude out there and I feel that’s what we did through song – it was a reflection of these [characters], but [as actors], it really threw us off the deep end into a zone of comfort and creativity so quickly, it was just such a wonderful benefit.

Once you get to the Kimberleys and these other extraordinary locations in Australia where you’re in the water and doing the walkabout, was being in these places inspiring for you?

It was. We shot the end of the film first and that obviously doesn’t happen often. Most productions are striving as much as they can, if possible, to shoot everything sequentially, but there’s been a mass amount of times where I’ve shot the first and the last scene on the very first day of shooting, which is its own obstacle. This film, we got thrown right into the desolation up there in the Kimberleys, and the whole cast and crew stayed in the tents shooting. The heat was immense — it was amazing for me to have one fan in my tent. [laughs] You’re surrounded by the mangroves, the water and the red dirt and it almost felt unfair how much we were being thrown into the environment and letting that envelop our souls. I couldn’t really communicate with anybody back home well. Service, reception, wi-fi – all of that was minimal if not obsolete, so it was just a thousand percent focus on the story and the journey.

We had to overcome a lot of obstacles to do that with the weather and tides changing, and with the minimal crew [that could shoot in such a secluded setting] acting like a chaingang where there would be a lot of time on these islands where we’d all line up four feet away from each other, passing equipment up the cliff – the producers, all the actors, no matter what their age was, pretty much rock climbing throughout. It’s almost like our whole crew became part of some sort of “Free Solo” conquest.

Gregor has said even the grass could be spikey.

It was! It was funny because especially in Australia, you know the threats — the insects and all the animals — but jumping in those waters for those swimming shots out there in the open, you get back on the boat finally and the skipper would have a Magellan [to locate the fish], and obviously you can see what’s down there [immediately] below, but when I’d get up, obviously referring to sharks, I’d say, “How many? More than three?” I obviously couldn’t see and he’d say, “I’ll tell you what, mate – less than six.” [laughs] Even where we would get into the boats to get out into the islands every morning at 4:30, there were a slew of sharks swimming by our feet. So that was interesting, then sleeping in the tents was very close to the mangroves and the old mythical mystical homes of the crocs, being on these small islands and dealing with some of these bugs. One time this centipede was crawling right by my head and everyone came running up, said “Don’t let it touch you, they’re so venomous! And they’ll kill you.” And [I’m thinking], “Let’s just use it for the scene.”

But all of that made it…I can’t say enough that the whole shoot felt so alive. We were on the go so much between Melbourne, Perth, Broome, up to the Kimberleys, and back to Broome and Perth, down to Esperance, and seeing the sights and having this whole crew and cast bonded in this very, very vagabond and ragamuffin excursion was the true joy. It’s what I hope all films to be like. They squeeze the creativity out of you like a nectar and you’re living. You’re really captivated in the moment and the surroundings and your company and you rely on each other and you’re so thankful for art and for film and for being in the moment.

“Dirt Music” will be available on digital, including iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and YouTube, and on demand on July 17th.

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