Strangerland – Interview with Irish writer Michael Kinirons

For budding Mullingar movie mogul Michael Kinirons, getting to write Nicole Kidman’s latest movie has changed everything.

I’ve long been fascinated with the often sudden fall of major movie stars.
It’s almost as though overnight the likes of Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman go from The Power List to poison. To find out why, just take a look at these fallen box-office giants’ CVs. The turning point always comes after a string of Really, Really Crap Hits.

Loving a star is like loving a real person. Initially, they can do no wrong. Until they do. Not once, not twice, but three times. Sometimes more. Eventually, when this person asks you out on another date, the very idea of spending time with them instinctively turns you off. And so it is with the likes of Roberts, Hanks and co. A run of unforgiveably bad movies, and that happy, loving, lucrative relationship is over. To the point that, putting one of their big, happy faces on a poster will do more harm than good at the box-office.

For Nicole Kidman, it’s been a long, cold winter of box-office discontent. Her last bona-fide hit was 2002’s ‘The Hours’, for which the Aussie actress won an Oscar. Since then, nothing – big-budget, panto, arthouse, family drama, nudity – has worked. And it’s a long list.

Since ‘The Hours’, Kidman has appeared in – in chronological order – ‘Dogville’, ‘The Human Stain’, ‘Cold Mountain’, ‘The Stepford Wives’, ‘Birth’, ‘The Interpreter’, ‘Bewitched’, ‘’Fur An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus’, ‘The Invasion’, ‘Margot At The Wedding’, ‘The Golden Compass’, ‘Australia’, ‘Nine’, ‘Rabbit Hole’, ‘Just Go With It’, ‘Trespass’, ‘The Paperboy’, ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’, ‘Stoker’, ‘The Railway Man’, ‘Grace Of Monaco’ and ‘Before I Go To Sleep’.
Holy. Moly.

Kidman’s latest attempt to crawl from the wreckage sees her going back to her Oz roots, for the low-budget drama ‘Strangerland’, the debut feature of director Kim Barrant. And once again, Kidman buckles the boat.

A drama set in a small, fictional Australian desert town, as the repercussions on the already-soured marriage of Catherine (Kidman) and Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) when their two kids go missing lead to some ugly truths being revealed (just about), Strangerland unashamedly follows in the bare footsteps of such Australian classics as ‘Walkabout’, ‘Wake In Fright’ and ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’. It also stars perhaps Australia’s finest and certainly most likeable character actor, Hugo Weaving. Not that such a plus can save ‘Strangerland’ from playing out like a pale imitation.
Still, for writer Michael Kinirons, making ‘Strangerland’ has opened a heck of a lot of doors. So, when we sat down together at the offices of Wildcard Distribution in Dublin, he was one happy Mullingar man.

Your first big movie, and it’s all about a parent’s worst nightmare – their kids going missing. So, a hard day’s night, or a lot of fun to write?
MICHAEL KINIRONS: Oh, lots and lots of fun. I came to this story after the initial film with writer Fiona Seres and director Kim Barrant just fell apart. Luckily, I was considered a good fit when it came to taking another stab at the script, and I spent about a year and a half working away on it, checking on with Kim on Skype.
It was a Last Chance Saloon kind of deal, getting the script right…

So, what was the turning point? Getting Nicole? Hugo?
MK: I think Hugo was a big part of it. He had worked with Kim before, and told her he was always available, should the film come together. As for my input, I convinced them that this had to be set in Australia – they had been toying with France – and that would have opened it up to Nicole too, I guess.

When it comes to the big screen, if you’re going to get lost, you should always aim to lose yourself in the Australian outback. Were you intimidated by the likes of ‘Walkabout’ and ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’, given that they deal with very similar territory, both in plot and geography? Avoid or embrace…?
MK: Yeah, you obviously want to avoid apeing these great movies. Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of my favourite films of all time, so, I was very aware of how they’d put their story together. You just want to be inspired by a film like that, and you certainly don’t want to simply repeat any of their tricks.
You have to be aware of the cliches that are out there, but you also want to celebrate the strengths. Australia is an incredible backdrop for a film. It’s a character onto itself.

The fear every parent has when they see their teenage daughter becoming sexualised is tapped into here. Was that a major part of your plot motivation here?
MK: At some level, the film is about mystery – the mystery of this place, the mystery that people put between them in a relationship, and the mysterious power of female sexuality, and how it affects family dynamics. How it affects the world, as we try to oppress it, control it. Kim was very keen to explore that as much as possible here, and echoing it in the mother’s story too brought another level to it.

Mystery is a key part of Strangerland – you don’t reveal all the pieces of the jigsaw. A tricky task, satisfying audiences without giving them everything..
MK: Massively tricky. Again, we spent hours on Skype working out how much we reveal, and when. For me, closure is massively important. Nothing worse than being dragged along on a journey that doesn’t have a destination. What we wanted to capture here though is that worse kind of fear when a loved one goes missing – not knowing what happened, or why. It was important to tap into that, but also give a sense of closure with this couple who have been struggling to be close.

Some choice casting here – Hugo’s always a joy to watch…
MK: No one ever has a bad word to say about him. Such a wonderful guy. Could walk into any bar, and just get on with everyone there. We were shooting in Broken Hill, a proper old mining town, and everyone wants a pint with Hugo. Because he does all these small independent films, and he just connects with everyone.

Beautiful man. And a stark contrast alongside someone like Joseph Fiennes, the Andrew Ridgely of cinema. What fascinates me most is how a former box-office champ can become complete poison within two or three films. Nicole Kidman is one such example, and I did feel she buckles ‘Strangerland’ here. The woman is crawling from the wreckage, and extreme roles can look more like career desperation than great dedication to your art.
MK: Nicole came in just having finished Werner Herzog’s movie with only three weeks rehearsal – the Herzog movie, ‘Queen Of The Desert’, ran late – and she was just so professional. She had all her work done, and right from the first day of shooting, when she’s in the police station with Hugo, it was incredible to watch. She was just Catherine in that moment – bang. That’s when you realise you’re dealing with a real actor.
But you’re right, the whole star system puts a very distinct slant on the work itself, and how it’s perceived…

What about Michael Kiniron’s career? Four shorts, two TV episodes of ‘Blood & Ink’, and now this. Is your masterplan all coming together, now that you’re playing with the big boys?
MK: It’s certainly opened a lot of doors, making ‘Strangerland’. I’ve always wanted to be an Irish filmmaker – I trained to be a director – and now it looks like I’ll have my chance. I have a script, ‘No More Shall We Part’ – it’s a Nick Cave lyric – that I should be getting finance for by the end of the year. Watching Kim direct made me realise, okay, I can do this. Her process is very similar to mind. As well as my own scripot, I’m also working with Danish director Jonas Alexander Amby, who made ‘When Animals Dream’.
So, it’s all good right now. Really good…

Words: Paul Byrne

‘Strangerland’ hits Irish cinemas February 5th 2015. Watch the trailer below…