It is a rare zombie film in which the undead are the least of the concerns for the human protagonists, but in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s brilliant “Cargo,” it’s the fear of blood running cold in the name of survival rather than running dry that poses the biggest threat. Set in the Australian outback well into a pandemic that has wiped out all but the most wily, the thriller sets its sights on Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter), who are down to their last three meals – or four, if they go to quarter rations – with another mouth to feed as their baby Rosie is in tow. Although the pair stumbles upon three months’ worth of supplies on an abandoned boat, they also find a heap of trouble that requires Andy to join up with a young aboriginal girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers), who has a stronger sense of the lay of the land yet separated from her community remains vulnerable to the host of rugged individuals who are out only for themselves in the suddenly lawless terrain.
Those who made an online sensation out of Howling and Ramke’s initial short “Cargo,” in which Ramke was the one who had a toddler strapped to her back as she eluded the flesh-eaters, will no doubt appreciate their delightfully queasy sense of humor and skill at creating unbearable tension have not been diluted at feature length, but they may still be surprised at how ultimately moving it is. Produced by Causeway Films’ Kristina Ceyton and Sam Jennings, who previously shepherded Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” to the big screen, the film considers dehumanization well before a virus ever set in, whether it applies to the marginalized indigenous community who thrives more than most when faced with the complete breakdown of civilization or the irrational behavior shown when self-interest takes over completely, making Andy’s quest to find a safe haven for both Rosie and Thoomi both incredibly perilous and exceptionally noble.
Recently, Howling, Ramke and Ceyton made a trek themselves to New York for the North American premiere of “Cargo” at the Tribeca Film Festival in advance of the film’s debut on Netflix and the trio spoke about how the bigger canvas allowed for more resonant storytelling, dealing with the whims of weather and children on their first feature and getting creative in plotting a zombie outbreak.
What brought the three of you together on this?
Yolanda Ramke: We had written a first draft of the script and I had some American producers attached at that time, but we knew very clearly we wanted it to be an Australian-set project, so of course it made sense to pair up with a local producing team. We were just such big fans of “The Babadook” and what Causeway Films were doing and when Kristina and Sam, her partner, came onboard, we couldn’t have been more excited.
Between this and “The Babadook,” do you have a continuing desire to torture mothers, Kristina?
Kristina Ceyton: Well, I’m a mother myself, so I really don’t have anything against mothers. [laughs] I guess there is something so universal and affecting and emotional about the bond between parents and children. In the instance of “Cargo,” it’s one that quite literally transcends death and it’s about survival and what you would do for loved ones, so it’s more of a coincidence that they’re similar themes. But at its core, it’s those deeper themes that really drew us to this story, which I really think sets it apart from other genre films of this kind.
One of the exciting things about this is how the zombies seem to be the least of the threats to your hero, though they’re no less dangerous. Was that exciting to explore?
Ben Howling: The zombies were never really going to be front and center. It was always going to be like a backdrop to this father-daughter love story, but there probably was stuff just through the course of schedule and practicality [where] we’d have to pull away in terms of certain kinds of zombie elements, and even when we went to post, I think we stripped them back even more [because while] zombies are really a big threat, the biggest threat is how we respond to each other and how we treat each other.
Did you have the larger idea in mind from the start or did the success of the short lead you to want to create a bigger story?
Yolanda Ramke: We actually didn’t have it in mind when we made the short. We were actually very focused on just telling a contained story in short form and being at the point we were in our careers, we weren’t just thinking about features. Then when we started to get some traction with the short film and people started asking us about feature ideas, we realized there was still a lot we felt we hadn’t explored in that concept and that world, so we turned our thoughts to a full-length version.
It becomes an unexpectedly socially conscious drama, bringing in the aboriginal community. Was that always going to be a part of a larger story?
Yolanda Ramke: Yeah, just purely in trying to think about an Australian perspective on the genre and what we could do that might feel fresh, the indigenous element just emerged out of that. We were thinking what people would have the potential to flourish in this environment if all of our mod cons were stripped away. It just occurred to us that a culture that is so old and has such understanding of how to survive off the land and to hunt made sense and we also felt surprised that that hadn’t been explored before in this genre in other continents, like [how] Native American characters might respond to an outbreak like this, so it was a natural evolution of the story.
Was it fun to think about things like the emergency preparedness kits you use in the film where it’s part of a much larger world?
Ben Howling: It was, yeah. I don’t know actually at what point that came along in the development process.
Yolanda Ramke: I can’t think of a specific moment, but we really liked the idea [where] you get the sense that these characters have been living in this scenario for a little while now and to drop the audience into the middle of it and they have to play catch-up, coming into a pandemic partway through, where the government has actually had time to issue these emergency kits. And they presumably went through a few steps before that where it’s like, “Well, we’re screwed” and there’s nothing we can do, so maybe just be considerate of your neighbor and contain yourself and use these kits.” It was something that we thought was funny and ironic, but it’s also ticking clock element that’s a narrative device, but [becomes] a physical thing in the film for our characters, so it came in handy in different ways.
Ben Howling: Plus, the fun of the brutality of that you can design.
The design of the zombies is very subtle yet effective, like scar tissue or pus. How did you figure out what they’d look like?
Ben Howling: This was a very organic process [where] we went through a lot of iterations, in terms of what they could’ve looked like. Once we just really started to nut out the manifestations of how it would [transition from human to zombie], we wanted something really organic as the basis for it, so we’re using references like tree sap and insect chrysalis, so it was testing and play, then finally generating a look that’s where we got to. And the pus-like stuff is there to seal everybody up like a chrysalis and marks the end of a human and the birth of a viral.
Did you have a particular place in mind to shoot? This seems like a very specific area.
Ben Howling: Not that particular piece of land. Once we locked in on this shooting location, it just happened to be very convenient that it was like the perfect location to set the story. But we probably could’ve found a way to set it anywhere in Australia if we really wanted to because there’s strong aboriginal culture all around and there’s always somewhere you can find as a safe haven.
How did the legendary David Gulpilil get involved in this?
Kristina Ceyton: He’s such an iconic actor [from] films like “Walkabout,” and for us, it was a real honor and privilege to have someone like him be a part of it. He was the first person we approached and thankfully he was interested and he really connected with the story. [I think he] felt it was refreshing to see the aboriginal people represented as the winners in the story, so it was just a matter of reaching out, and thankfully, he was available.
On the other end of the spectrum, what was it like to find an actor to play the young Thoomi? Simone Landers seems like quite a discovery.
Yolanda Ramke: Yeah, she was. It was a bit of a process. We had a lot of self-tapes that got sent in from kids all over the country, through our casting director. We narrowed it down to four girls that we worked with over a weekend workshop, just to put the kids through their paces and see what individual qualities they might bring. Simone was the standout for us and that didn’t really change over the course of that weekend. She just had such a lovely presence on screen and she was cheeky and she was soulful. She just ticked all the boxes really and then a lot of credit [goes] to Martin as well because their dynamic onscreen is very natural and a lot of that comes down to their rapport and the way that they worked together.
Ben Howling: Finding her was a big reach, and a big credit to our casting agent Nikki Barrett, who fortunately had contacts in a lot of really remote communities. We had people who would go nowhere near a main city filming little auditions on their phone just to be a part of it, so we had to really reach into some hidden corners to find her.
Did Martin Freeman have any idea what he was getting into with this, with Rosie on his back and everything else?
Yolanda Ramke: I don’t think so. [laughs] I don’t think so. In a way, none of us did because the weather in particular on this shoot, it was the desert and it was a time of year when the weather should’ve been really lovely and mild and dry. Much to all of our shock, they ended up having the wettest weather in 70 years. We were getting flooded out of our sets…
Ben Howling: We had a real shortage of wet weather cover, so we had a real limit [where] we couldn’t afford for it to rain too much more than it is and stop us from filming, otherwise we’d just have to stand in the rain and wait for it to stop.
Yolanda Ramke: We had crazy storms…
Kristina Ceyton: And gigantic mosquitos. [laughs] But I think [Martin] always knew and we always knew it was going to be a very challenging role. It’s set in a pretty unforgiving landscape to a degree with a baby on his shoulders, so we tried to mitigate wherever we could to find a way as easy as possible. It was physically really challenging, but he’s such a professional…
Ben Howling: I mean, he’s been to Mordor.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Kristina Ceyton: Yes…
Yolanda Ramke: [laughs] Which one were you thinking of?
Kristina Ceyton: I’m thinking the state emergency where basically the whole state lost power. We were shooting in a tunnel and it was a stunt of a burning man running down, which didn’t end up in the film, but the police department literally came and said everyone has to go home. And there we were just in this tunnel, going, “Just give us another hour to shoot this!” It was pretty horrendous.
Yolanda Ramke: It was pretty crazy. It was a hurricane that day [with] 200 kilometer winds and right as we were about to call “Action,” the scrim that was putting the light through into the tunnel — this massive frame — just buckled in the wind and snapped in half and we just had to shoot through it. So it kept us on our toes.