Specialist radiologist by day, award-winning filmmaker by night, Gold Coaster Dr Angus Watts might be short on spare time, but certainly isn’t lacking in the determination or talent departments. After receiving international acclaim for his first screenwriting efforts, he decided to take things one step further by both writing and producing his own film, ‘Locusts’.
Described as a desert based neo-noir western thriller, ‘Locusts’ had its world premiere at Gold Coast Film Festival in April before premiering in the US at Newport Beach Film Festival, one of the largest in the US, to sell-out houses and great reviews. It’s also been nominated for (and won) several film awards this year.
A five year labour of love, ‘Locusts’ tells the story of tech entrepreneur Ryan Black (Ben Geurens), who returns to his post mining-boom desert hometown for his father’s funeral, where he’s reluctantly reunited with his ex-con brother. The pair become entangled in an extortion scam at the hands of desperate local thugs, and Ryan is forced to resort to extreme measures, exposing the dark underbelly of the sleepy mining town. ‘Locusts’ will get a cinematic release later this year, so we thought we’d chat to Angus before the world press started banging down his door.
What are some of the main themes explored in the film?
The film is set in a fictional post mining-boom town, Serenity Crossing, which is afflicted by unemployment, desperation and a mysterious illness. The central narrative of the brothers’ reconnection explores themes of brotherhood and estrangement, but there’s a background motif of desolation and environmental destruction – the legacy of the after-math of the mining boom. With resources running out, the locals are forced to find new ways to exploit their world to keep afloat.
Why the title ‘Locusts’?
The title is a metaphor for human-kind’s relentless consumption of the world around us without fear of consequences. In a broader sense it relates to the way we’re ravaging our world, and on another level the behaviour of the desperate townsfolk who will stop at nothing to serve their own interests. There’s actually only one locust that makes a cameo in the film – blink and you’ll miss it!
What draws you to filmmaking, and also to the thriller genre?
I’ve had a lifelong passion for genre cinema. I grew up on a property in drought-stricken outback NSW in the 1970’s. With no cinema in my small hometown, Quirindi, my dad would frequently load the family into the car on Friday night and drive an hour to Tamworth drive-in where, with no internet, we mostly had no idea what was playing. So from an early age I grew up on an eclectic diet of classic ‘70’s genre cinema, films like Deliverance, Straw Dogs, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws… too many to count. I’d sit in the back seat mesmerized as a wide-eyed kid watching some of the greatest films ever made unfold on a shabby 40 foot billboard on the edge of town. My brother took me to see Mad Max 2 when I was 10 years old in a cineplex in Sydney. I think that was the first time I’d set foot in a cineplex, and the whole experience made a huge impact on me as a kid from the bush. I guess those moments were where the seed of my passion for genre cinema was sewn.
In terms of the thriller genre, I think I’m drawn at a visceral level to crime and suspense because I’m intrigued by the concept of how far an ordinary person will go when faced with extreme circumstances. I also had a strong interest in psychiatry and psychology in med school, but it wasn’t where my career lay.
When I received OzFlix Awards nominations for my work on ‘Locusts’ for Best Film (under 2m) and Best Original Screenplay this year, I heard George Miller was on the judging panel, someone whose work I’ve studied and admired as an aspiring filmmaker. That was a very surreal moment.
What are some of your favourite thrillers of all time, and why?
There are some great classic Aussie thrillers, ‘Razorback’ and ‘Dead Calm’ were both brilliantly crafted. In general, ‘No Country For Old Men’, ‘True Romance’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Unbreakable’ are some favourites – gritty genre films with a soul. Top of my list is probably ‘The Revenant’ though – it taps into the darkest recesses of the soul of a fundamentally good man under duress. Gritty authenticity on a canvass of some of the most gorgeous landscape cinematography we’ve seen in recent years. I’m a big fan of the flawed anti-hero – ‘Falling Down’, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, ‘Mad Max’ all have some great anti-hero archetypal protagonists.
Were there any unique challenges you faced and overcame during the production?
Shooting a film in remote locations in central Australia posed a multitude of challenges – logistics, transport, a legions of kangaroos wandering on the roads, bringing cast out from LA (Ben Geurens and Jess McNamee both live and work in LA), finding a classic V8 in regional Australia (I was lucky enough to stumble on a rare 1974 Mach 1 Mustang in a local gentleman’s shed), frequent vehicle failures, weapon malfunctions, shooting on remote desert highways late at night in subzero temperatures, and keeping 80-100 cast and crew warm, happy and on schedule. But I never heard a single complaint.
We had a wonderful crew who were excited to be part of this unique project, and there was a great vibe on set despite the adverse and often freezing conditions. We were fortunate to have Line Producer Tiare Tomaszewski (‘Hacksaw Ridge’) and Assistant Director Rick Beecroft (‘Wolf Creek’) on board, both have an amazing depth of experience.
How has the feedback been?
It’s been fantastic, we’ve played to packed houses in Australia and the US, had glowing audience responses and great early reviews, and picked up a handful of awards and nominations out of the blocks including 4 OzFlix nominations for Best Film under 2m, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best VFX. The American audiences loved it – there’s a lot of classic American vehicles onscreen and it has those universal themes of environmental desecration and estrangement.
What is one thing about the film you were most excited about?
The desert landscapes. I love a good yarn and interesting characters, but I’m very visual and love landscape photography and cinematography, and the desert vistas were a key component of the film. I felt passionately about capturing the landscapes around Broken Hill, and our cinematographer Chris Bland was excited for the opportunity. In pre-production I sent him into the desert for 3 days with an ARRI and a LandCruiser and told him to shoot desert vistas to his heart’s content. I think people will see that passion reflected onscreen through Chris’s work.
Keep your eyes peeled for ‘Locusts’ when it hits cinemas later this year.