Considering how Michael Petroni’s work as a director has shown a tendency to live between the past and the present, the fragility of the latter always threatened to be overpowered by the intensity of continually wounding memories, it is somewhat appropriate that his latest film “Backtrack” is a product of a similar time crunch.
“You know, my writing career kind of trumped my directing career, so I just kind of put [“Backtrack”] on the shelf until I got the right opportunity,” Petroni said recently, alluding to the very successful detour the Australian filmmaker has had writing films such as “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and “The Book Thief” for other directors, following his directorial debut, “Till Human Voices Wake Us” in 2002, in which Guy Pearce starred as a psychologist who becomes entranced by a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) who reminds him of a close confidant from his youth.
Once again, Petroni has cast a psychologist at the center of “Backtrack” who happens to be visited upon by someone bearing a strong resemblance of someone with whom he once shared a strong connection, in this case his daughter, whose name he can’t even bring himself to say after dying in a tragic accident that he’s long felt responsible for. Yet “Backtrack” shows how the loss reverberates not only personally for Peter Bower (Adrien Brody) but throughout generations when a visit from the familiar young patient named Elizabeth Valentine (Chloe Bayliss) prompts him to head back to his hometown to attempt to understand why it continues to haunt him, discovering that his mind may be playing tricks on him and he can’t trust himself, his father (George Shevtosv) or anyone else from the community he grew up in.
Armed with an affecting lead performance from Brody, Petroni invokes ghosts both figurative and occasionally literal to show how Peter’s past trauma threatens to consume him whole unless he can figure out the root cause of his pain, and on the eve of the film’s release on American shores following successful premieres at both the Tribeca Film Festival and in its native Australia, the writer/director spoke about how he seamlessly blended two timeframes into one for his haggard hero, the inspiration of the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel and seeing the film through the eyes of both American and Australian audiences.
Both your first feature as a director, “Till Human Voices Wake Us,” and “Backtrack” posit that the past and present co-exist for the main characters. Is that a coincidence or an idea of continuing interest?
It’s certainly not a coincidence and I think it’s in a lot of what I write. Specifically for “Backtrack,” the whole genesis of it sprung out of my rumination on “Till Human Voices Wake Us.” While I was shooting that film, I was thinking there’s a much scarier version around this theme that I tucked away in the back of my mind. Then a few years later, I had made some time in my schedule to write something for myself and I went through my drawer of ideas and I came across that one. Suddenly, it all just sprung to me, the idea of what that story would be. They are connected.
When the idea came back to you, did it actually change much in the writing of it from when you conceived it?
It did. What made me sit down and write it was that I did like that idea, but I just never knew what the mystery in the past was. Once I came upon that idea of a terrible thing to have in your past that was a great opportunity for the story to have a whole lot of characters that are only related through [something] but are otherwise very distinct and therefore could easily be from all different walks of life, it was around that point that I committed to the idea.
There’s a Bruegel painting, “Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap,” that Sam Neill’s character Duncan, a psychologist who treats Peter, refers to near the beginning of the film. Was actually a point of inspiration for you in creating your own wide canvas of characters?
I often page through art books or listen to a piece of music over and over again when I’m writing a particular thing. For some reason, I kept going back to a book of Bruegel paintings [for “Backtrack”]. I just kept looking at them and I didn’t even know why. Then it occurred to me that there was something in all Brueghel paintings that’s off in them. There’s some awful little thing usually happening somewhere in the detail, which ended up me inspiring the name of the character Peter, just like Peter Bruegel. Then interestingly, it turns out there were two Bruegels – the master Bruegel and then Bruegel Junior, a copyist who basically copied all his father’s masterworks and they became masterworks in their own right, so I liked the idea of a son copying a father’s footsteps in that way, taking on the guilt of the father.
Because there were 10 years between “Till Human Voices Wake Us” and this, with many big writing jobs in between, did it change your approach as a director?
Yeah, I don’t think you can walk out of any film not being affected by it as you go into your next one, even if it’s 10 years later. It was a very clear choice that I made to be very stylistic [on “Backtrack”], so I approached it a little bit like Hitchcock approached his movies, [being] very much about style for me and mood in terms of my direction. I storyboarded the hell out of it.
Was this a difficult film to figure out visually? You seem to get to that subconscious place, particularly with the camera movement, where there’s a fluidity that would resemble how a character might think.
I wanted the camera to be involved and not just documenting something, which is something I think Australian film crews aren’t used to, so it took a bit of convincing to use the camera so self-consciously. But I was very clear and again, I had a very good storyboard artist, so he worked hard at all that stuff.
Since this did shoot in Australia and Adrien Brody is not from there – but pulls off a very strong accent – why did you think of him for the part?
To qualify this answer, there’s about two actors in Australia who could have financed the film and neither were suitable for the role or available anyway, so I knew I needed to get a Hollywood star. But Adrien was perfect for the role because he lets you into his interior world, and not many actors have that quality as strongly as he does. It is a very psychological piece, and that really helped in terms of exactly how I was using the camera and how I was inviting the audience to enter his psychology. I also knew I needed an actor with a lot of chops because he’s in just about every scene of the film, so it had to be someone who you’d never lost interest in. Adrien fit that bill perfectly.
There’s a scene early on where you learn of his heartbreak when he can’t even summon the strength to say the name of his dead child, and you just keep the focus on Brody’s face to see his anguish. Did that take a while to get to on set?
Adrien just gave that to me. It was very early on in the shoot – it might have been day three. Unfortunately, that was the availability for that location and we had to shoot it. Adrien literally had only been in the country for maybe just over a week and we were suddenly jumping into this very big scene. It was a bit nervewracking, but we only did maybe three takes, and it was excellent. He gave me everything [in that scene] and gave me great things in each take. At that point, I really relaxed because I thought he’s worth his weight.
And it’s your real-life wife Jenni Baird, who plays his wife Carol in the film. Did you actually write the part for her?
Yeah, we shared wives for a while there. [laughs] I always wanted to work with Jenni. She’s a good actress and when I wrote the piece, it was quite a while ago and when the opportunity [to direct] came up a few years later, I thought, “Oh, Jen’s really great for that role now,” so it was a good upshot of it all. She was really comfortable with Adrien and they had a great chemistry together, so it was really nice.
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?
Our schedule was so tight, every day was a challenge. What also made it a challenge for me but also for the crew was I didn’t want to ever compromise on shots. I had such a specific idea for the film, every shot is so considered. You can’t really wing too much stuff, so we just had to achieve what we set out to achieve every single day.
Did that make it an easy film to edit? Because of how much cross-cutting there is between the past and present, I wondered how prescribed that may have been before shooting?
It’s tricky because you always get into the editing suite, then everything you had in mind just goes out the window and you’re having to write the film again. Scenes changed order and some were dropped. We realized at some point that it was so important to keep the pace, and the film does have this insistence in it. Once it gets on that track, it’s like, it seems to pick up intensity and once we found that in the film, that dictated the timing of the scenes and what stayed and what went. Once we put it together, we found that rhythm to the piece.
Was there a moment where it all clicked for you?
In shooting, no. In the editing, yes. The moment in the film where that happens is the moment where [Brody’s character] gets on the train and he goes to his childhood town. In the script, that felt like a bit of a bump, oddly, but in the movie, it feels like now we’re going somewhere. That’s the beginning of the mystery. Once he gets on that train, the audience doesn’t know what he’s doing or why exactly, or what’s even there. That’s when we knew that we were telling a mystery with an underlying detective story.
After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, what’s it been like taking it around the world?
Literally, people jump in their seats, then they kind of laugh in an embarrassed way, and then get back into the story and it’s fun to know that something we made creates that response in an audience. It is different from audience to audience. Australians seem a little more embarrassed that they get scared by things, so there’s a little more embarrassed laughter whereas American audiences just tend to laugh more like they enjoyed the scare, so it’s been really interesting to watch the differences internationally. It’s been a real pleasure.
“Backtrack” opens in limited release and will be available on demand on February 26th. It is now available exclusively on demand through DirecTV.