While hunters are often perceived to be self-sufficient in order to survive in the rugged wilderness, the human condition can surprisingly change after forming an unexpected emotional bond. In the upcoming action-drama film The Hunter, directed by Daniel Nettheim, the title character, Martin David (Willem Dafoe), makes selfless choices after shockingly becoming protective of his new host family. Martin sees his feelings of isolation and loneliness fade as he learns more about his host family, despite trying to solely focus on his dangerous mission.
The Hunter follows Martin, a skilled mercenary who’s sent into the Tasmanian wilderness for his last assignment. He’s sent to hunt for a tiger believed to be extinct. The anonymous company that hired Martin wants the tiger’s genetic material, leading him to pretend that he’s a scientist while in Tasmania.
Martin sets up a base camp at a broken-down farmhouse near the wilderness. The father of the family who lives there has gone missing, leading Martin, a loner, to uncharacteristically bond with the children. While his attachment to the family grows, Martin is drawn down a dangerous path, complicating his deadly mission.
Recently, Dafoe generously took the time to talk with us and discuss the process of filming The Hunter. The actor spoke about working with real-life hunters to prepare for his role, how he frames shots and why he thinks Martin begins to emotionally connect with his host family.
Check it out below.
Question: The producers of The Hunter have said you were the perfect choice for the role, and you embodied the role so well. Why do you think they said that?
Willem Dafoe: I don’t know, I can only talk about why I was interested, I suppose. They talked about how they needed a guy who was old enough that you can imagine that he’s at the end of his career, doing this kind of work. But he also had to be fit enough to be able to do some of the physical stuff that I had to do.
Also, he had to be a guy that you’re not sure about, you don’t know who he is. He’s a mystery. That’s what they told me why they liked who I was.
But when I read the set-up, I was attracted to it, and the kind of character it is. He’s the kind of guy who was very cut off in the beginning. But he comes back to his humanity through compassion. He’s at the end of his career, and his identity is so tied up in his career, he becomes reflective.
Then these things happen to him, and they open the door to this compassion that he hasn’t felt in a long time. We can all relate to it, because life beats us up, and we close down. We forget that the value of life can be found in what we give to others.
Q: While you were preparing to shoot the film, did you go up to the mountains and rehearse there?
WD: I didn’t do that, but they did set me up with some hunters, some old-fashioned, outback shooting guys that knew how to hunt. They happened to know that environment really well. More importantly, they set me up with a guy who’s a survivalist, who, with very little, knows how to make those flares and traps.
Not only did I learn those things, because I had to, practically-I do it in the movie, and I had to look graceful-but it was also important to learn those things because it’s a key to the character. Also, being with this guy, and his relationship to nature, it was an important thing to explore.
Q: One of the most beautiful parts of the movie was you being alone in the woods, and the isolationism. Did being alone in the wilderness affect you in any way?
WD: Well, one of the key things is that I’m not alone, I’ve got a big crew with me everywhere. (laughs) But I was playing those scenes with nature, which was a character. One of the things about Tasmania is not only is it quite wild, and sometimes we were in quite remote places, but the weather’s very changeable. So you always had to play with a big partner-nature. So that was interesting, and it rooted the movie for me.
Q: Like you said, when you were in nature, you had the crew with you. What was your relationship with the camera?
WD: It changes, depending on the scene and the style of the film. Sometimes I’m very conscious of the camera, and sometimes I’m not. Here, I go in between those two things, because I have very strong, specific actions, and we’re making choices.
In the screenplay, it’s written, he sets a trap. Why do we have to show that, why is it important? So we have to talk and say, what is the shot about? Is it about the trap, is it about the bad weather? You have to consider all those things.
So you become a real collaborator and integral to setting up the shots. So I’m more conscious than I am usually with that.
But at the same time, I have very concrete actions. That always allows you to forget about the camera. You know that the frame’s here, and if you block this, they’re not going to see you tie that knot. So you do have a little consciousness outside the scene. But to some degree, you always do.
Q: How is that different than performing in front of an audience?
WD: It’s not. One of the biggest differences with theater is, regardless of the story, the consistent thing is that you have a score. You have to reanimate something that you scored out to the music. The music is already there. Even if it’s improvised, you know what the parameters are.
Where as in film, you’re always dealing with first impulse. Not with all films, but with almost every film. You visit a location, you shoot the scene and you move on. You don’t go back, and you’re not visiting the same material over and over again. So that’s the biggest difference. It affects what you’re conscious of.
In films, once the shot is set, your concentration is totally there. In theater, you’re setting the scene with the audience reacting. You’re in the scene, but you also have an idea about where it’s going.
Q: Why do you think that even though Martin’s a mercenary, he starts to feel so strongly about his host family?
WD: I don’t know. I think it’s well mixed between his job, trying to find this tiger. But what’s nice is that you have the tightly focused narrative of him trying to find this tiger. With that, you get all the stuff of the missing husband, and it keeps sending him to the family.
He needs something from the family. Clearly, the family needs something from him. He’s also in a very special place. He’s a little bit in crisis. Not only is he pressured to pull off this job, which is difficult, he’s getting pressure from his employer.
He’s reaching the end. He’s in this place where his identity is up for grabs. Then he has a relationship with someone that he’s forced into. He’s only forced into it because of the nature of the job.
He needs a base in order to go up to the bush. He can’t stay in the bush all the time, it’s not practical. He needs to send his technical stuff. We don’t know this, but I always imagined that in a job, he can work solitary, but here, he has to deal with these people. In dealing with them, his humanity is reawakened.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Willem Dafoe for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure to check out The Hunter when it hit select theaters this Friday, April 6.