Greg McLean is not a director that likes to hold back. From his vicious feature debut Wolf Creek to his most recent film The Belko Experiment, the Aussie director’s films always pack a nasty punch. Or stabbing. Or shooting. Or most likely all of the above. The Belko Experiment is an adults-only version of The Hunger Games with a corporation full of workers trapped in a tower block and forced to kill each other, or risk being killed by explosive implants in their heads.
Greg McLean talks directing the film from the script by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, as well as his next film starring Daniel Radcliffe, and his return to the horror franchise that made his name.
Starburst: It seems like you had some real alpha-males on set amongst the cast. Guys like Tony Goldwyn and John C. McGinley. Which of the actors would have come out on top in a real version of The Belko Experiment?
Greg McLean: I think Tony Goldwyn would have a pretty good shot. Tony is an incredibly fit guy. He may be the guy who comes out on top I think.
It’s a great ensemble with a lot of speaking parts... how was it directing such a large cast?
I come from a theatre background originally, so the idea of working with a big cast was one of the things I was attracted to. It’s a challenge but it’s a fun challenge. It’s really fun to work with that many actors in a movie. I love working with those guys. And also working with a cast like that, it was a treat to have that many amazing actors who were very well cast in their roles. To me, it was a complete hoot. It was great.
And how involved were you in casting? Were you on board at that stage?
The process was basically James Peter Safran had worked out a deal to make the movie with the studio MGM. Then they went after directors and ultimately I was the person brought on to direct the movie and then from there we pretty much design everything together. So myself and Peter and the studio worked out our wish list and we’d all put our ideas in the hat. We actually managed to get an incredible cast together. The weird thing is we kind of managed to get our first choices every time. Usually you don’t get that. We managed to pull together an amazing bunch of actors for the movie which was so thrilling for all of us.
I’m not surprised you got your first choices. There are some great scenes for the actors. One of our favourite scenes is where they decide to start separating the people in the building and deciding who should potentially be killed first. Do you empathise with the character’s choices? Even those that make the toughest decisions?
I felt that in order for the film to work, I had to present, as a filmmaker, everyone’s point of view without judgement. I didn’t want to make a movie where I was saying these are the good guys and these are the bad guys. To me, real horror is watching people in an impossible situation. Watching this corporate construction that they’re in forcing them to become monsters. These are reasonable people. They’re all reasonable people in regular circumstances. But in this circumstance, certain personalities become monstrous. I think that’s a metaphor for politics, for society, for corporations. We see regular people forced to become monsters because of scenarios. Every day we read about people doing terrible things and think how could that person do that? I feel like the film is about exploring how people do come up with those personal justifications for doing horrible things.
Your films often find beauty in amongst real ugliness. And particularly they find beauty in nature and landscapes. Was it difficult to find the beauty in such a sterile, corporate environment?
It was a challenge. And that challenge was one of the main reasons I wanted to make this movie. To me, the idea of making a film whereby I had to talk about the character transformations and the thematic transformations just by looking at how the environment changes in an office building, that was a huge challenge. It’s much easier to do that when you have a landscape and when you have different weather going on. When you’re in an office building, it’s a bigger challenge. That was fascinating to me. I was compelled by how you would do that. But also the moral conundrums of these characters within that context was fascinating. This Lord of the Flies-like experiment in this context. I hadn’t done that before.
And so what was the decision behind shooting the film in Colombia when it’s mostly set inside the building?
The film was set in a Latin American country. By the time I came on the movie, it was already in pre-production in Colombia. So it was already set to be shot there. I think the reason we shot there was I believe there was a good rebate in Colombia. It was just an easy place to shoot it. Plus they have good crews and great casts. So there was a bunch of reasons why we shot it there. By the time I joined the movie there was a moving train to shoot in Colombia.
It’s interesting that you’re next film Jungle takes you back into nature again. What can you tell us about Jungle?
I shot Belko and then my next movie was Jungle which was a different kind of story. It’s based on a book about an Israeli backpacker who gets lost in the Amazon jungle. And it’s his survival story. There’s an amazing book written by the guy who survived the experience and then it was turned into a great screenplay. Then it came to me and we also cast Daniel Radcliffe as the main character Yossi Ghinsberg. So I went back to Colombia to shoot that movie even though it’s totally unrelated . Again, that was a very different kind of experience because that was all about being on rivers and in jungles and the big wild of that landscape. It was about going back to do an action adventure film using that environment in a different way to Belko.
You seem to be moving away slightly from Australian stories. But what is the situation with the Wolf Creek franchise now? Is there going to be a second series of the TV show? Will Wolf Creek 3 happen as a feature?
Ultimately, I just look for amazing stories that I think will be a challenge for me as a filmmaker. Also you’re interested in doing different things at different times in your life. You’re drawn to different things at different stages of your career. Right now, I’m actually directing the first episodes of the new Wolf Creek TV series season 2. And then beyond that I’ll be looking for another filmmaking challenge. So I’ll be looking for a film that stretches me into an area that I haven’t done before. Because for me it’s all about expanding as an artist and filmmaker and trying to find something that really scares me and I don’t know how to do it and then that makes it more exciting. Something that’s a great story that moves me that I want to put my 100% into.
You also executive produced Down Under which was hilarious and one of the best films we saw at the London Film Festival last year. Would you ever direct a full-on comedy yourself? If not, we know you’re a big Star Wars fan, would you consider pitching a Star Wars stand alone story inspired by the horror genre?
Yes and yes. I love comedy and comedy filmmakers. I agree Down Under is a genius film. Abe Forsyth is a fantastic writer and director. I’m nowhere near as talented as he is with that kind of comedy but I’d love to try it one day. A Star Wars horror story? I’d have to get it passed by Kathy Kennedy and I’m not sure my Star Wars inspired horror pitch would ever get past the gates of Lucasfilm. But I’d love to give it a shot. I’m such a Star Wars nerd, I would do the Blue Snaggletooth prequel story. I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’d do anything.
Finally, the ending of The Belko Experiment sets up the possibility of a sequel. Would you be tempted to return to direct?
Never say never. I know James has some thoughts on where the story goes. We all talked about it while shooting, about the different ways it could go. Ultimately sequels come from fans’ desire to see them. So if the movie gathers enough fans and it’s certainly got a lot of fans so far, there may be more Belkos. If there’s an appetite, the makers of the film would be happy to come back and make some more.
The Belko Experiment is available on DVD & Blu-ray 21st August 2017