A new Australian film that focuses on the horrific escapades of cannibal convict Alexander Pearce is having its desired effect. “We made two people vomit in New Zealand,” gleefully states director/co-writer Jonathan Auf Der Heide. “We have made a few people faint, which is kinda cool, (since) people are so used to seeing Saw these days, and all of that kind of rubbish. So I think it is pretty hard to shock an audience these days.”
The film is Van Diemen’s Land, and it is a chilling account of the moments that made Pearce equal parts legend, monster, and disgrace that haunts the heritage of Australia’s colonial past.
But Van Diemen’s Land offers more than a lesson in Australian history, and cheap thrills will not be found. Rather, this is a film which discovers what man is capable of when his survival is at stake.
“I didn’t want it to be the sort of schlock horror blood bath”, explained Auf Der Heide. “I wanted to make a film that was as close to what actually happened as possible.... I wanted to look deeper to the story of Alexander Pearce.”
A BLOODY GOOD STORY
Alexander Pearce was an Irish convict who was sent to Van Deimen’s Land –now known as Tasmania - for the theft of six pairs of shoes. Repeat offenses saw him transported to the brutal Sarah Island, where he and seven other convicts attempted to escape, the harsh terrain and elements against them at every turn.
With rations quickly devoured, the men turned to murder and cannibalism, with Pearce the last man standing.
“It was an extraordinarily extreme situation which probably reveals something to us about, in our very core, human nature,” states actor/co-writer Oscar Redding, who portrays Pearce in the film. “It is also a bloody great story. I don’t think there is anyone that I have met that heard the story doesn’t remember exactly where they heard it and where.”
For born and bred Tasmanian Auf Der Heide, hearing Pearce’s tale proved to be a turning point in his life: “Hearing about the story when I was 18, and just to think I had gotten to that point and had not heard about the story before, that blew me away”.
Auf Der Heide quickly saw the potential for a film: “There hasn’t been a convict film since 1927 with The Term of His Natural Life. So I thought there was a great opportunity here, and I feel if you have a great story to begin with, then you are well on your way to getting a film up.”
Redding, too, saw potential in Pearce’s story, writing and starring in the one man play Convict 102, which was based on Pearce’s life. It was around this time that Redding and Auf Der Hedie first met.
“We were sort of hanging around, bumping into each other at parties and stuff like that, and at some point we just started talking” explained Redding.
Added Auf Der Hedie: “We just one night over a beer got talking about Alexander Pearce, and both of our eyes lit up and we just connected, like ‘wow, we gotta do this!’”
Auf Der Heide’s first step at making his dream a reality occurred during his final year at the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts, located at Melbourne University).
Hell’s Gates, a short film based on Pearce’s story that would be a precursor to Van Diemen’s Land, would also be used as a trailer of sorts to acquire independent financing for a feature film.
“I’ve always wanted to do it, but I wasn’t sure if I could get the money to do it”, explained Auf Der Heide. “But I scored a job as the assistant editor on Paul Cox’s feature Salvation, and Paul gave me some money to help with the film, because he believed with what I was doing and the way I was approaching it”.
Remembering the conversation he had with Redding years before, Auf Der Heide wasted no time in getting in contact with a proposition to play Pearce on film.
“Once that was decided that he wanted me to play Pearce in that short film it was great”, explained Redding. “I went over to Ireland and learned a bit of Irish and the Gaelic. So that took place and we shot the short film”.
In a matter of months, financing was secured and a feature film was quickly underway.
Said Auf Der Heide: “We had a dream run, and luck just seemed to be going our way, and I think that was because of the infectious enthusiasm of everyone involved.”
Most of the cast and crew from Hell’s Gates returned to the fold, anxious to work on Van Dieman’s Land and make it the authoritative film on Pearce’s story.
“It was all done by a bunch of mates who were tired of doing the odd job on TV, or in the theatre, and wanted to get together and just shoot the film,” explained Redding. “I think the only way this film could be made, or to do justice to the Alexander Pearce story, was for it to be that sort of film, where commitment and authenticity was at the forefront of what this film was going to be.”
Added Aud Fer Heide: “It was very much about finding people who were willing to go to the extreme lengths. Who would sacrifice losing other work so they could have ridiculously long beards, lose the weight, and spend the time on the accents.”
Shooting on location in Tasmania, the cast and crew worked in harsh conditions to bring Pearce’s story to life. But according to Redding, it was all done with a smile on their face and pride in their heart.
“It was always extraordinarily great fun, in the sense that it was unbelievably freezing cold,” explained Redding. “The water temperature was like 4 or 5 degrees, it was freezing. And often we would be standing in these rivers all day, waist deep or ankle deep, or whatever. It was snowing... but there was great commorardity with the crew and the cast and everyone who was there. We were all there working for pretty much nothing, or our rent. We were all day giving it our all, so we are standing waist deep in the water and shivering uncontrollably, and the camera was 40 metres away and action is about to be called, and you just think: ‘Fuck, this is gonna be a great shot!’”
For Auf Der Heide, it was imperative that his affection for his cast not distract him from his vision and duty to the film and the men who were a part of it.
“That was the hardest thing as the director, was to not let that influence the making of the film,” explained Auf Der Heide. “Because to see someone that you care about screaming and yelping with pain because of how cold the water is, and then to say we need to go again because I want a close up of it, you just feel like such an asshole (laughs).”
“But you’ve got to be ruthless, and they all thank me for it, because they wanted that.... they wanted to be tough and to get through it, because they know that, sure I can’t feel my feet now, but in 10 years time when I am looking at this film, I want to be proud of it.”
A DARWINIAN HORROR FILM
Van Dieman’s Land is a film which transcends the horror/thriller genre it is associated with. The brutal nature of convict life is looked upon without the romanticism often given to Australia’s colonial past, and that will leave some with an uneasy feeling.
“I think it is important to throw out those questions, and probably understand ourselves a bit better,” said Redding. “We tend not to look at the dark past of Australia....and for me there is an extraordinarily large amount of bloodshed that took place with people who were sent out here.”
Auf Der Heide takes it further, adding: “I think there is something ingrained in our culture about sweeping the convict stain underneath the carpet. Tasmania was named as much from Van Diemen’s Land in 1856 to get rid of that stain...so they were quite embarrassed by that heritage, although back in Tasmania you drive around, and there are roads and bridges and places that were all built on convict sweat and blood. They are the birth of this nation, in a way.”
Even more important was to break the Pearce myth, in the process proving that the truth is much more horrifying than the myth ever was.
“I didn’t understand why you would want to go that way into the myth”, states a clearly befuddled Auf Der Heide. “Alexander Pearce, the blood thirsty monster! Why do that when the reality of the story...it’s really a great story! Why mess with something that has already been fodder for so many books and songs, and conversations at the bar.”
For the man playing part of Pearce, delving underneath the surface of the notorious convict brought with it some disturbing truths about the nature of humanity.
"I think the story that we tell is that he becomes a person who, it seems, almost sits in the middle of nature, in the sense that violence and death are as much to do with one's experience and one's life as birth and happiness", explained Redding. "Pearce seems to get to a point of absolute stillness within whatever that might be, and that this is beautiful, and I think that this is an extraordinary thing".
When it is stated that Van Diemen’s Land was a Darwinian horror film of sorts, Auf Der Heide takes on the description with open arms.
“It is kind of the natural selection of these guys,” says Aud Der Heide. “What we were interested in the story by just going deeper than being a horror film, is that...I once heard a lecturer at VCA tell me how we are here today because we stood on our hind legs and had our arms to make tools to kill things, and in a way that is the birth of civilization. Because we had the intelligence to be able to kill something else, and to make tools to do so, we have now become this dominate species who have this civilization.”
But is violence necessarily what makes us human?
“No, it’s definitely not” clarifies Auf Der Heide. “It’s just part of what it is to be human, I think. That is what I was kind of saying with the film. Because there is a real beauty to humanity, obviously, and we do touch on that in the film. But I just wanted to explore that kind of violence that is sort of suppressed within these men, and that is sort of around today.”
And for Auf Der Heide, that exploration has taken on a more personal meaning.
“Early in the year I was walking home and 8 teenagers with clubs tried to beat me to death. So my face was fractured in 12 places, and I was knocked unconscious, there was blood everywhere, and I thought that I was dying. The idea that these 8 kids, with none of them over 18, did it for kicks is terrifying. So I think it is important to look at these stories, and try and get a deeper meaning out of it”.
Van Diemen’s Land will be released on the 24th of September through Madman Cinema.