Stephen Maxwell Johnson talks history in ‘High Ground’

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Stephen Maxwell Johnson brings us an entertainingly deep and immersive look at Australia’s history through High Ground.

High Ground stars Simon Baker (The Devil Wears Prada, “The Mentalist”), Callan Mulvey (“Rush,” Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Aaron Pedersen (Mystery Road, Killing Ground), Ryan Corr(Packed to the Rafters), Caren Pistorius (Unhinged, Slow West), Jack Thompson (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, ‘Breaker’ Morant) and introducing Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Witiyana Marikaand Esmerelda Marimowa making their feature screen acting debut. The film was directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson making his feature directorial debut, and written by Chris Anastassiades (Yolngu Boy).

Synopsis: Gutjuk teams up with ex-sniper Travis to track down the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, who is also his uncle. As Travis and Gutjuk journey through the outback they begin to earn each other’s trust, but when the truths of Travis’ past actions are suddenly revealed, it is he who becomes the hunted.

Check out my Q & A with Stephen Maxwell Johnson!

How did you get to be a part of this project?

Stephen: My friends, my associations, the stories and things that I’ve grown up with have very much been connections to the oldest living culture on earth,  here in Australia. So it’s really been a part of my life. It’s been a learning process and about bridging that bridge between two cultures. We are all about that idea of two cultures coming together and learning and growing from sharing knowledge in connection to the fact that we have the oldest living culture, the oldest language, the oldest songs, the oldest everything human here in Australia is a very beautiful thing. And it’s been a big part of my life so it’s really been about working and creating with some of my oldest and dearest friends.

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
So it was a group effort to put this film together?

Stephen: It took many many years to be realized. It took so long in fact that, you know, I sit down with an old man, a long, long time ago, 25 years ago, talking about the idea of telling the story of the resistance. He just wanted it to happen, as with all the old people. More than anything because it’s the great untold story that’s always being swept under the carpet in this country. Since that conversation, that old man’s passed away as many dear friends of mine and people I’ve learned from and known in my time. And Jacob, the lead actor in the film, was the grandson of that old man. Jacob was born during the whole process of this discussion, and has ended up playing the leading role in the story which is something his grandfather would be very proud of. So there’s, you know, deep connections and a long time coming, sitting and talking country with country, singing, learning, listening and sort of extracting the best way to tell this epic story. Not necessarily focusing on any one incident, but to be inspired by pensive characters right across the land, and to create a fiction in order to tell a deeper truth. For that to be supported and kind of aerated, with the countryman and the elders, drawing inspiration from the very source of history has been a wonderful journey. And as I said, it’s been a bit of a life journey for me so I don’t see myself outside looking in, I’m very much in it. It’s been my life story really.

So, there is a lot of history behind everything that’s going on in the movie?

Stephen: Yeah, very much so. Every incident with these characters has actually taken place. When I was growing up in school, I just found myself just constantly dismayed at the fact that I was being told about our history, which is 200 odd years old. This happened and that happened, yet, I’ve heard so many more stories that were infinitely older. And the fact that you’re meeting people who were not recognized as citizens of this country is a disgrace. It’s unimaginable, really, what’s happened in history and how this is the oldest human connection on earth. The stories, the songs, the art, the connection to country is profound. It’s so deep and so old and has so much knowledge we can all learn from. The fact that it hasn’t been embraced and nurtured and looked after or respected in the ways that we need to respect ourselves is just a stain, it’s a stain on what’s happened in this land. We just want to try and help contribute to the conversation of setting the story straight and really taking a big look at all of ourselves.

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
What was it like incorporating these two cultures together and making sure things stayed true to history?

Stephen: We were dealing with people, old men and old women, who saw this stuff happening. They were still murdering people up until 1935, so it’s not that long ago. There’s characters and people in the story, there’s old men and women who were involved in research who were actually survivors of massacres and have stories about losing their grandparents or their father or mother to a massacre. It’s all completely real and right there, you know, you can go to waterholes, you can go to places and are told the exact story about what happened in a particular place, It’s still there, I mean, it’s not that long ago. So, the truth of the census is coming from the families and the people who were impacted and affected by these activities that took place. It’s very moving, it’s kind of hard to take that stuff. You see it in their eyes, and that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s such a beautiful portrayal, from the indigenous cast in the story, because they really are telling their own story, it’s very real to them. They put themselves in their country and into the land that they are a part of and they are being part of the storytelling and the sense of country in place and the sorts of things that have happened.

Speaking of country, the locations in this film was just beautiful. Where did you film this?

Stephen: We shot on Arnhem Land in the Kakadu National Park, which is actually a stunning wilderness. It’s one of the last great wildernesses and has been protected, and it is home to people who still live a semi traditional lifestyle in lots of ways, they still go out on country and care for country, sing country and practice ceremony. Obviously, all of that is sort of disappearing. Languages die, cultures die, as all people die culture dies because things aren’t being handled in quite the same way but it still is happening. It’s stunning landscapes and you’re getting people who don’t see themselves as living on or above, land they are the land. They’re part of it, and that’s all we wanted to do to try and hear all those trees, hear that water, hear those birds. Let the audience be immersed in the entire moment which is obviously very human but everything connected and all contributing. They’re all seeing that kind of somber life, the birds, the bugs, they’re all being impacted by what’s going on. We’ve tried to capture that in soundtrack as well as in the landscape.

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
The imagery was beautiful. The one that stands out to me is the bugs on the plant, I think they were ants?

Stephen: They’re called green ants and they nest in the trees. They’re actually used for many things, like in a drink that makes you feel better if you’ve got a cold. Every little creature has got its place in the world and there’s a connection there, but no it’s about trying to just have that awareness of the world that we’re all a part of and to give that sense of those connections that help Gutjuk, you know, reconnect with his identity and his roots of who he was as a person, so hopefully it was part of that journey of bringing that realization together.

What would you say was your favorite scene to shoot.

Stephen: Each scene was special and beautiful, however, I think my favorite is the scene that, I really enjoyed actually doing the scenes between Gulwirri and Gutjuk, the cave scene with the two of them around the fire. The reason why I think it was special for me is because knowing who they are, what they’re family connection is and what they’re communicating to each other in real life- and the elders in the family will agree that they were the two appropriate people to tell this love story in this condition and reconnection. And to get those two young people that never acted before in their lives, to look and listen and to be in a moment together, I think, really resonates with anyone who watches the film. It’s beautiful, it’s gentle, it’s visceral, I’m just so proud of what they did and what we collectively achieve with those scenes. You know there’s little looks and nuances around the fire between the two of them. I just thought it was an extraordinary thing. I also think that the meeting scene was an incredible scene to shoot and was quite challenging. There were things that were improvised despite the fact that we set that scene because there was so much truth to be told about that divide and the assumptions that were made. So, the film for me is full of so many special moments. It’s all kind of connected and one thing leads to the other, but I’m particularly proud of what Jacob and Esmerelda were able to do with their characters and they were able to put themselves in the story.

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
How did you decide on High Ground to be the title?

Stephen: We had a working title but couldn’t kind of figure it out. We came up with so many names but we didn’t stress out about it because we always had this sort of idea and it’ll come, it’ll just happen and it always just happens. You kind of just go with the flow and High Ground started to come out when writing the script, the idea of taking the high ground, looking down and looking across country, and the whole perspective on the world. And obviously, you know, you can dive into it and think about the moral high ground but it counters the idea of a perspective. Takeaway what they will but it sort of came around because the actual words started to appear in some of the dialogue and didn’t one day we just sort of went, ‘well, that can work.’

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Stephen: We are blessed with the fact that this is the oldest living culture on earth, here for all of us and that’s pretty damn special and I can only hope that this film resonates with the audience over there in America and that people respond to and are able to take in and be entertained by the story. I’ve never wanted it to be a lesson. It was more about creating a story that was entertaining, engaging, immersive and you go into it and you come out the other side. Perhaps it causes us to think a little bit more about our own story.

Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
High Ground is now available On Digital and On Demand TODAY!