One of the movies that generated a lot of buzz at the recent Tribeca Film Festival was Cargo, a stellar, truly original zombie film that Australian directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke (also the writer) adapted from their 2013 short of the same name.
The short garnered 14 million views on YouTube and the expectations were high for the feature version debut, with a terrific lead performance by Martin Freeman, on Netflix today. That’s worldwide except for, ironically, Australia, where it will have a theatrical release a day earlier.
The synopsis: In the aftermath of a global pandemic, Andy (Freeman) is focused on keeping his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their infant daughter Rosy alive, but she is bitten by a Viral and begins to turn. After her death, Andy carries Rosy on his back across the Australian Outback. A zombie bite has given Andy a mere 48 hours before he, too, will turn. Andy struggles to both find a refuge for his child and stave off the disease as the clock runs out on his humanity.
On his journey, Andy crosses paths with various people, including the dangerous gun-toting Vic (Anthony Hayes) and an indigenous youngster, Thoomi (Simone Landers), who is alone and watching over her father, a Viral she wrongly believes can be cured. At first Thoomi and Andy are hostile to each other, but eventually she tries to lead him and Rosy to safety with her Aboriginal community.
The directors’ statement: “At its core, Cargo is a dual father/daughter love story, which happens to unfold against the backdrop of a deadly outbreak. The film explores two parallel tales of familial devotion: an infected man’s mission to seek a new home for his infant daughter and a young indigenous girl’s quest to save the soul of her infected dad.”
Watch the trailer:
What impressed me most about Cargo was how much thought and care went into every aspect of the script and direction. It is an intelligent, emotional film. So I really was pleased to have the opportunity to speak to its up-and-coming filmmakers during the festival.
Danny Peary: What are your backgrounds?
Yolanda Ramke: I was born in Queensland, and I went to Griffith Film School there.
Ben Howling: I was born in New South Wales and I went to Southern Cross University, which is a small regional university in Coffs Harbour.
YR: We met on a reality TV show called Big Brother.
BH: Working on a reality show, not starring.
YR: We weren’t in it but were behind the scenes, 10 years ago now. We had very similar sensibilities and became friends. We were making short films separately for a while but always working on each other’s projects, and then when the concept of the short film of Cargo came along, we developed it together.
DP: Were you both into horror movies before making the Cargo short?
BH: We’ve got very eclectic tastes. There’s not much that we don’t like, but genre’s definitely a particular like.
YR: It’s where our tastes really cross over.
DP: For the short and the feature, why did you pick the title Cargo? Obviously, the father is carrying his baby on his back, but why did you pick that word out of every word in the world?
YF (laughing): A good question. From the short film perspective it was just as simple as what the infected father is carrying—this precious thing. That was the scope of our thinking for the short film. When the feature came along, there was talk of other titles but the alternatives were not great, so it just stuck. We thought that it was short, sharp and snappy.
BH: I think our title had the most zing to it. It kind of rolls off the tongue.
DP: Did you make your short with the intention of it generating enough attention that you could expand it into a feature?
BH: That’s become a common approach for a lot of filmmakers today. But it’s now been about six years since we made the short, and back then a short was more of a calling card then a concept for a feature film.
YR: The short film was made purely for Tropfest. That was the intention—can we do a 7-minute version of a zombie film? Could we add something fresh to that genre? That was our MO and because we were very much in the infancy of our career, it just never really occurred to us to start developing a feature because we didn’t really think that opportunity would come around for a while. The short inadvertently became a proof of concept, but initially we didn’t set out with that in mind.
BH: At the time, people asked us what we wanted to do next and we felt that there was a lot in that world we hadn’t explored and we could go back into it quite easily. That’s what we chose to do.
DP: When you got the money to make the feature based on your short, you kept the setting in Australia. It’s admirable because you expanded the Australian element in major ways. Was it part of your discussion to go that way instead of moving it elsewhere?
YR: It was actually. Being Australian filmmakers, that’s what we know for one thing. Even in our early conversations when we first started talking to American producers about the project, the sense that we got from an international perspective was that setting it in Australia would actually make it unique and exotic internationally as well.
We walked the tricky line of deciding to either to make a film with a world that will be accessible to foreign audiences or to make a film with a world international audiences aren’t so used to seeing and hoping that would make it more enticing for them to watch.
BH: Thankfully, District 9 had just come out and it had reinforced the fact that the international market was actually very open to hearing stories from different cultures. If people can deal with a South African accent, they can handle an Aussie accent.
DP: Your setting was Australia in the short as well but we can’t tell where he’s from. Yet in the feature, the actor playing your leading man is Martin Freeman, a Brit, and Andy is British. Was he British in your script?
BH: That was actually something Martin asked us in one of our first discussions with him about coming on board. He was like, “Is the character British just because you want to cast me?” And we told him, “No, it was actually something Yolanda had painted into the script very early on.”
YR: In trying to expand the film from short to feature, we tried to dig into additional layers and deeper undertones thematically in terms of social commentary. Having an indigenous component in the film—incorporating that culture—we thought having an Englishman coming into the orbit of these thriving indigenous survivors would add an interesting layer to the story—a reflection of Australia’s own colonial history, which is all quite dark and unresolved and ever-present. We never wanted to get preachy or didactic or exploitative, but we liked the idea of that just sitting in the background for viewers to pick up on or not. That was our thinking.
DP: In this world that your characters live in, is The Walking Dead on TV?
YR: An interesting question. I’ve never considered that before. You’ve stumped me! That’s always the thing isn’t it, when you see characters walking around in a zombie film, you’re like, “Well, do they know what a zombie is?”
BH: We actually don’t refer to them as zombies ever, so I imagine that zombies don’t exist in this world because if it was in the zeitgeist they’d probably be saying the word zombie in reference to these beings. So, yeah, they probably don’t have any kind of zombie experience. They use the word Virals.
DP: Even in The Walking Dead, no one uses the word zombie because the “walkers” aren’t what zombies are supposed to be like. By definition, zombies don’t come back from the dead but are still alive—maybe like your Virals. One of the most interesting things about your film is that characters who get the virus don’t immediately become zombies. It happens in stages. How did you come up with that new concept? Did you just wake up one day thinking that?
YR: There was a lot of thought that went into it.
BH: Several ideas were discussed for how we could make our Virals, our zombies, different. A lot of what we thought of fed into what we’d already been thinking about in terms of presenting the landscape in a very Australian kind of way. We started grabbing hold of things in Australia. For example, the goo that seeps out of their faces was inspired by the look of sap. It was sealed up and we made a cocoon that was kind of like a chrysalis, like what insects make back home.
DP: In the press notes, you have a good description of it: “Like a butterfly transforms into something beautiful, we were going for the opposite—something disgusting.”
BH: Yeah. Once we had our makeup artist on board, every decision we made was rooted in story and detail and stuff that fed back into the world.
DP: The whole sad process of one turning into a zombie, including Andy’s wife and then Andy himself, is what makes the film really emotional.
YR: That’s what we hoped for. I think we’ve all seen it done before with the shuffling zombies and sometimes they can be really sad, too. We looked at Japanese butoh and other sources with people being silent but having screaming faces and being in pain as they go through this kind of experience. We just felt it would be a lot more relatable and sad if our characters still had some glimmer of humanity about them and aren’t completely gory and rotting.
BH: We wanted to still humanize them.
DP: The fear of being alone is a theme of your movie. That’s all we can relate to with the otherwise villainous Vic who may be the most interesting—as in complex—character in your movie. People like Vic’s Lorraine [Caren Pistorius], who may or may not be his wife, almost become property—you can’t take her away because then I’ll be alone. Vic even hopes Andy will stay with them permanently in his compound because there’s always the fear of being alone. So talk about what I think is a major theme of your film: loneliness versus being part of a community?
YR: We were interested in exploring how the indigenous characters in the film operate as a community, working together and creating a new safe haven for themselves. Our non-indigenous characters choose to isolate themselves whether it be on a houseboat or in a compound. There is a dichotomy between those approaches to surviving. Vic represents the second approach. He has a need to possess, to own things and people, which is so opposed to the indigenous approach to take care of the land and be its custodians rather than to dig it up and take from it.
DP: Andy, to me, has modest expectations of himself. He tries to be a protector with varying degrees of success, but doesn’t see himself as a hero although his final act is certainly heroic. Do you see him as a hero?
BH: He is modest in his own expectations of himself. He doesn’t see himself as someone that’s going to storm in and save the day but at the same time he’s also not afraid to take a risk, such as exploring the abandoned yacht on his own rather than waking up his wife Kay [Susie Porter] so she can go with him. The moment he makes that decision, they stop operating as a team, as opposed to the indigenous people who see the strength in numbers. It leads to the downfall of his family.
DP: He doesn’t protect Kay afterall.
YR: Yeah, ultimately, it’s a huge miscalculation.
DP: In the early scenes, he is usually cheery, trying to make things less scary and normal, as if they have nothing to worry about as a family.
YR: We wanted to give him somewhere to go as a character even if it is just in increments. He makes mistakes, he does screw up and it costs him. And his path through the film is learning to become a father to his child and a parental figure to Thoomi [Simone Landers]; and learning how to accept outside help. Then at the end of the film, we see his resourcefulness with the contraption device he builds, and there is an element of heroism in that.
DP: You two were the resourceful ones coming up with that device!
YR: Thank you. We were trying to keep Andy as being relatable and fallible as possible. Even what happens is more subtle than having Dwayne Johnson run in to save everybody.
DP: In the short, the father, who had turned before being killed, is buried by a group of white strangers because what they did to save his baby. That shows the respect they and you have for him.
YR: That was something we wanted to replicate in the feature. But we have it done in a traditional indigenous way by the community, which we feel is even more of a gesture of respect for what he has done.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: One of the most interesting aspects of your film is the shifting of the characters’ roles, with adults becoming like children at times, and Thoomi taking on an adult role at times.
BH: There are reflective, parallel storylines—Andy with Rosy and Thoomi with her father. Then stories come together and Andy at first thinks of Thoomi as a child who needs fatherly protection but learns to follow her lead at times because she knows how to survive in this land better than he does.
DP: How are Andy and Thoomi alike?
BH: They’re both stubborn and determined.
YR: This is very obvious, but they are both driven by love for their loved ones and have a desire to protect them even though they fail to do so. Thoomi feels guilt that she wasn’t able to fix her infected father and Andy is trying to make up for being unable to fix Kay when she was infected—in fact, the actions he took caused her demise.
He’s now also infected and worries that he’s going to leave his child without a parent. There’s also a redemptive quality to their joint journey. They are each trying to make up for where they went wrong before and hope that by working together, they can at least make sure that the children will survive.
DP: I think they are also similar in that they are reluctant to admit that they have a real need for people, or connection, or just help.
BH: They both push away outsiders at the beginning. Thoomi is trying to protect her father and is very single-minded. Andy, at the same time, is fixated on protecting his family on their boat. But then they both need each other’s help.
YR: We didn’t want it to devolve into the white saviour thing, with him saving the young indigenous girl. In the last stage, it’s the two of them working together.
DP: Walkabout, made in Australia in 1971, is one of my favourite films of all time, and in that a boy, played by David Gulpilil, takes two white kids who are lost in the Outback back to civilization. Here you have an aborigine girl taking two white people away from civilization and toward where her people are in the wilderness. What I find interesting is that Australia is being returned to the Aborigines in your film.
YR: There is that practical element—these people understand how to live on the land, using spears in hunting rather than guns that make loud noises and attract the Virals. We are conveying the theme of reversing the wrongs done to the Aborigines and asking, “What would happen if the land were returned to these people?” How would it be different if we could start from zero and have much more of an understanding of how to take care of our country? That was something that really interested us as well, and it was something we knew we had to try and handle as subtly as we could, working with indigenous consultants and elders.
DP: The baby Rosy serves as a metaphor for a promising future but is the baby also the bond between the two cultures?
YR: Absolutely. The representation of a new hope.
DP: And Thoomi as well?
YR: Yes. We really liked the idea of reconciliation and two cultures moving forward together. We looked to Australia’s past when white people took indigenous children away from their parents and sort of reflecting that in reverse.
DP: Did you have to explain these things to Simone or tell her to act naturally?
BH: It was interesting because she wasn’t an experienced actor and so we had to bring her up to speed and teach her some kind acting shorthand that we all could work with. At the same time, we were also very fortunate to have Martin on board. He was almost like a third director.
We could obviously explain to Simone what was going on in a scene, but Martin was the most effective person in actually getting a performance out of her because he was there playing opposite her and could make everything feel real for her in that moment. That allowed her to then buy into it and invest in it more and give a better performance.
DP: Talk about your use of the landscape and why you shot in southern Australia as opposed to northern Australia, where Walkabout was filmed.
BH (laughing): Because that’s where we got funding! The thing with Australia is that wherever you go, if you’re not in a city, the landscapes are vast. And it’s particularly vast where we shot. It’s just so stark without much going on, so that landscape really helps reinforce the isolation that Andy struggles to overcome. We filmed it from above by using really high wires and drones in order to convey that he’s fighting against not only his own disease and people with other agendas, but also a landscape that is unforgiving and won’t allow him to travel anywhere quickly.
DP: You have someone from every age in your film, from the baby to children to mothers and fathers to the elderly Cleverman played by David Gulpilil. Was that intentional?
YR: I didn’t even think of that. I guess we’re trying to hit all those demographics!
DP: Was it exciting having Gulpilil in your movie?
YR (smiling): Yeah, very exciting.
BH: We were very blessed to have two iconic indigenous figures involved. On screen we had Gulpilil, who is one of our classic indigenous actors. And doing our score was Dr G Yunupingu, who was one of Australia’s most renowned Aboriginal musicians. To have had the influence of two leaders of their community was really special for us. Sadly, Dr G Yunupingu passed before the film was completed.
YR: We dedicated the film to him.
***I hope everyone will pick up a copy of my new book with Hana Ali about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes: Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It. (Workman Publishing)
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.