Razorback (1984) Retrospective

SUMMARY
Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) is babysitting his grandson at his house in the Australian outback when a massive razorback boar attacks him, smashing through his house and carrying off his grandson to devour alive. Jake is accused of murdering the child and while his account of the events are met with considerable skepticism, he is ultimately acquitted due to lack of evidence for accountability. The event destroys his credibility and reputation however, and he vows revenge on the boar.

Two years later, American wildlife reporter Beth Winters (Judy Morris) journeys to the outback to document the hunting of Australian wildlife to be processed into pet food at a run-down factory. Beth gets video footage of two thugs, Benny Baker (Chris Haywood) and his brother Dicko (David Argue) illegally making pet food out of animals and is subsequently chased down by them by car. They catch up, force her off the road and attempt to rape her only to be chased off by the same boar that killed Jake’s grandson. Beth attempts to take shelter in her car but the hog rips off the door, drags her out and eats her. With no witnesses, her disappearance is subsequently ruled an accident resulting from having fallen down an abandoned mine shaft after leaving her wrecked car.

Sometime later, Beth’s husband Carl (Gregory Harrison) travels to Australia in search of her and encounters Jake, whom Beth interviewed during her initial report. Jake refers him to the local cannery where he meets Benny and Dicko. He pretends to be a Canadian visitor and convinces them to take him along on their next kangaroo hunt, only to be abandoned by them when he spoils a potential kill. Carl is then attacked by a herd of wild pigs, spurred on by the giant boar, who chase him through the night and force him take shelter atop a windmill. The next morning the pigs knock over the windmill but Carl is saved by landing in a pond at the windmill’s base, in which the pigs fear to swim.

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Once the pigs leave Carl attempts to make his way back to civilization, all the while suffering from dehydration-induced hallucinations, before finally reaching the house of Sarah Cameron (Arkie Whiteley): a friend of Jake who has been studying the local pig population and the only one who believes his story of the giant razorback. While recovering at Sarah’s house, Carl learns from Sarah that something has been causing the wild pigs’ excess stress, leading them into unusual behavior such as increased aggression and cannibalizing their own young. Meanwhile, after learning that Carl had seen the razorback, Jake sets out for the pumping station and manages to shoot it with one of Sarah’s tracking darts. He also finds Beth’s wedding ring in the boar’s feces which he returns to a grieving Carl.

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After overhearing a radio conversation suggesting that Jake knows what really happened to Beth Winters, Benny and Dicko, fearful that Jake is attempting to implicate them in her death, attack him at his camp, breaking his legs with bolt-cutters and leaving him to be killed by the razorback. His remains are later found by Sarah and Carl, along with marks in the dirt made by Dicko’s cleaver. Realizing that the brothers were responsible for both his wife and Jake’s death, Carl attacks Benny at his and Dicko’s lair, interrogating Benny by dangling him over a mine shaft before dropping him into it. As Sarah rounds up a posse to hunt down the razorback using the tracker Jake shot into it, Carl corners Dicko at the cannery when the razorback suddenly appears and mauls Dicko before Carl can shoot him. The razorback then chases Carl into the factory when Sarah suddenly arrives and is seemingly killed by the boar, who continues to pursue Carl even after impaling its throat on a broken pipe. In its maddened rampage, the razorback ends up damaging the cannery’s generator which sends the machines running out of control as Carl lures the boar up onto a conveyor belt that throws it onto a giant fan, chopping it to pieces. After shutting down the machinery, Carl finds and rescues Sarah, who had merely been knocked unconscious, and the two embrace.

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DEVELOPMENT
Based on a novel by Peter Brennan it chronicles actor Gregory Harrison’s quest to find out the truth behind his wife’s disappearance when she goes to cover the kangaroo slaughter controversy for a U.S. television network. As he wanders through this alien landscape looking for clues to why his wife fell victim to a terror that no-one will admit exists, it turns out that fate holds a lot in store for this stranger in a strange land. Within this basic framework, admittedly hackneyed but scripted with verve and sparkle by Everett (Patrick, Road Games) de Roche, Mulcahy astutely comments on Australian culture and displays a visual sensibility that cuts to the quick in his unfailing desire to thrill, amuse and move.

“Razorback just seemed to be knocking around for years, didn’t it? I can remember asking you to read one of the early drafts and we all agreed we felt it was a bit TV movie-ish. The choice was that or The Last Starfighter if I remember correctly. The producers of the film, Hal and James McElroy, had made Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave and wanted me to do the film because they saw the video for Duran Duran’s “Hungry like the Wolf” and had liked it a lot. I had met them both years ago in 1978 before I came to London as I was doing a clip at the laserium they own in Sydney. My first reaction to their offer was you’ve got to be kidding. I did take the script with me when we went to Sri Lanka to do “Rio” but I could never get all the way through it. It was my business manager Gerry Laffy who eventually said l ought to do it. I had been editing all night and I had a meeting scheduled with the McElroy’s for 9 am that morning. At 7am I asked Gerry to read it for me and at 8.45 when I asked him his opinion, he told me to do it. I got to the meeting and said ‘I loved the script!’ Really silly, huh? But actually I thought that doing a Jaws-like monster movie may not be a bad idea and I did think I’d be able to give it a new perspective. The thought of going back to Australia, going back to my roots so to speak, was another plus factor.”

Initially Mulcahy wanted Jeff Bridges for the lead role of Carl Winters. “I’m a great fan of his but Gregory Harrison was suggested and although I’d never heard of him it turned out he was visiting Australia at that time. We met and I thought he was perfect and I think he gives a good performance. The two people I had to fight for most were the characters of Dicko and Benny, the two psychopaths who more or less set the story in motion. In the script they were listed as 35-40 year old rednecks, but I wanted them younger and a bit more punkish. Anti-heroes for the younger audiences if you like. It was a gamble but it paid off handsomely and at times they upstage the monster in the repulsive stakes. Equity allowed us only one American actor which is why Harrison’s wife is played by an Australian actress, Judy Morris.”

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Interview Russell Mulcahy/Director

How did you first come across the Razorback project?
Russell Mulcahy: In August 1982 the film’s producer, Hal McElroy, rang me up in London and offered me the job. It was a good reason to come back to Australia and do a film. Hal had seen a number of my clips and felt that there was something in them that he wanted to see in the film. He never exactly defined what, though.

What was it about the screenplay of Razorback that appealed to you?
Russell Mulcahy: Its energy and its agoraphobia; the idea of terror in wide, open spaces. I mean, where do you hide? I also think one should only work on things that one is happy with. My criterion for that is whether I would actually like to see the film myself. So, I shot it as though I were the audience; I created scenes that I would like to see on the screen. I am a great fan of the adventure-thriller genre. I like most films, but musicals and action thrillers are the ones I particularly like.

Had you been offered any other films?
Russell Mulcahy: Before Razorback, I was only offered musicals: “Flashdance 2” (not made) and one called Space Riders (1984). But I didn’t want to do them because I’d been doing music clips for the past five years and to do a musical wouldn’t have been very taxing. The script for Razorback was different and a little more challenging.

What was the budget for Razorback?
Russell Mulcahy: It was about $5.5 million, which was quite heavy for an Australian film, and for a début film. I did a lot of pre-production work on the film because it is quite a responsibility having that much money hanging around your neck.

Did you have much interaction with the writer, Everett De Roche?
Russell Mulcahy: We got along well. We had some great meetings when we were developing the script. He was terrific. The script was taken from a novel but we had to take out a whole part about diamonds being smuggled in the pet food because we didn’t want to make the film too long. A friend of mine, a famous Australian personality called Ian Meldrum, had read the book on a plane and after seeing the film called me up and said ”Where are the bloody diamonds?” To this day he complains about it whenever I see him.

Razorback Novel Cover By Peter Brennan
Razorback Novel Cover By Peter Brennan

Did you contribute to the screenplay?
Russell Mulcahy: There were two drafts before I came in and about three after. Hal McElroy, Everett de Roche and I formed a threesome and we locked ourselves away, hammering it out and moulding it. I put in qualities and scenes that I could visualize, such as the concept of a guy living underground and a variation of the haunted house on the hill. We wanted to inject a little more humour into it as a relief from the tension, so Everett and I worked out the farmhouse scene. We also decided that the end of the film should be at the Pet Pak cannery. We felt it should end in a kind of ultimate haunted house on the hill.

Everett is one of the best thriller writers in the country and he was a pleasure to work with. I had seen Patrick (1978) Roadgames (1981) and Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981), which I thought was a bit flawed but the script was so good. Everett is a very visual writer, which I like. He writes with shots in mind and you can talk to him and describe other things you’d like to see. Even before I came in, the first draft I read of Razorback was a very visual script.

Was there any improvisation in the film?
Russell Mulcahy: Oh, there has to be. That is one of the delights of the filmmaking process. You organize a shot and then on the day something magic happens. On Razorback, it happened in the shots, the acting, even in the way some of the scenes were written. Everett also came up to Broken Hill and sometimes would rewrite scenes because of the way something was developing. It is a continual growth process.

On Day 1, Scene 1, I had the older actor Bill Kerr and David Argue doing a scene together. David was a more improvisational, spur-of-the-moment stick of dynamite, and Bill was a trained thespian. David was improvising a little and went off on a tangent, and Bill was waiting for his cue. Bill looked at me and said ”When do I say my line?” It was a very quick lesson in collaborating with actors. We came to some understanding that there would be some improvisation but there would also be at least a couple of takes where we stuck to the script. I told Bill ”I’ll warn you when we are not sticking to the script, and you just jump in when you want to. ” That worked out very well.

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What are the major differences between making a feature film and making video clips?
Russell Mulcahy: Razorback was something that I needed to do because I had only done short clips. You can become a little disillusioned with it all, because they are four minutes long, you shoot it in a week and then they’re gone. I really needed something that I could work harder on and grow with. The main difference was the concentration involved in making a one-and-a-half-hour narrative work. Because of the schedule, you are all over the place. You shoot a bit of the end, then a bit of the beginning. I had to concentrate on the story the whole time and know my in and out points of each scene. When I shoot, I am always editing the film in my head, so I had to be totally aware of what was going on in each scene. A lot of that was obviously screwed up when we cut the film down.

The razorback in the film seems to be an enigma. One doesn’t get a good look at it until the end of the film.
Russell Mulcahy: That was intentional. If you show all your cards up front then it is going to be a pretty boring game. It was all designed as a teaser, so you say, “Did I see it or didn’t I?”, and, “Is it really that big?” We wanted to create that feel. It is not a new method; they used it in the 1950s. I wanted to create more a film of suspense rather than horror, so by not showing the razorback one creates more suspense. What you don’t see is usually more frightening than what you do, as long as in the end you get your money’s worth.

I had trouble deciding who was worse, the razorback or Dicko (David Ague) and Benny (Chris Haywood). Was that an intentional parallel: the evil in man and beast?
Russell Mulcahy: Yeah, a lot of people are going to say that. I mean, something inside asks, “Who is the worst: beast, animal or man?” I am not trying to make any heavy statement with the film, but if people want to read that in, fine. It wasn’t an intentional message to mankind.

Did any of the crew on your video clips work on the film?
Russell Mulcahy: Yes, Bryce Walmsley who has done the art direction and production design on most of my overseas clips. He came over from London to do the film. He’d never done a film before. Although a lot of the film is designed, you don’t really notice it when you’re watching the film. Anything, from a bed to a lamppost, is placed carefully in shot. Even the waterhole, for example, was specially constructed, and the cave in which Dicko and Benny live was a set. And the house that is burnt down at the start of the film was actually built because it isn’t easy finding a house like that in a flat, barren landscape.

How did (DOP) Dean Semler get involved in the project?
Russell Mulcahy: I saw Mad Max 2 (Road Warrior, 1981) and thought it was a most incredible film. It was one of the first Australian films that had the guts to say. “We’re an international film with an international look and it just happens to take place in Australia.” They decided to go for a particular look in the film and they held it throughout. Dean and I decided to do basically the same thing: to have an idea of what we wanted the film to look like and then make sure that we maintained a consistent style.

How was working with Dean Semler?
Russell Mulcahy: He was such a gentleman and a genius with his lighting. One day an assistant cameraman had a Panavision Gold camera on a tripod and hadn’t set it up properly. The camera fell on the lens and destroyed it. The kid broke down in tears and Dean just said ”Just get another one. It’s called insurance. It was an accident. ” Dean was very much a man of the moment as much as I was. I remember I was shooting a night scene and I was trying to shoot it in order. I would shoot in one direction, and then turn the other direction for the next scene. He taught me that you shoot everything you need in one direction, and then turn around. You save yourself an hour. He taught me a lot.

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You seem to imply that there is a particular way some Australian films are shot that might hinder them from being sold overseas.
Russell Mulcahy: No, I think it is the story content which does that. I don’t think Australians can make an international film without paying attention to that.

Some of the tracking shots in the film arc particularly impressive. Did you use any particular camera system, such as the Panaglide or Steadicam?
Russell Mulcahy: We tried using a Steadicam. I am not convinced Steadicam is definitely a good machine. I always find that to get a lighter camera and hold it in your hand can be just as effective. We did use a Steadicam up to a point but then we gave up. We ended up hanging the camera basically from two bits of cloth. Dean and I found that much more effective. Steadicam has worked successfully in Wolfen (1981)  and a few other films, but I don’t think Australian cameramen have the hips to use it. I mean, it is all in the hips, isn’t it?

Razorback (1984)

Many compositions in the film have remarkable definition. What stock did you use on the film?
Russell Mulcahy: The latest fast stock from Kodak. We got one of the first batches of it. It is an incredible stock: you can shoot in such low light.

The lighting in Razorback is very striking. What was the style you went for?
Russell Mulcahy: I have never been concerned about where the light is coming from. I don’t think you have to tell people what the light source is. Dean and I were lighting for emotional effect only, so there was light coming from behind people and trees. Some might say, “What the hell is a light doing out there?”, but I don’t think the audience is wondering why. They are actually looking at the image. It is the same with the smoke, too. There is smoke where there shouldn’t be, but it is there because it works emotionally.

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Did you have much to do with the engineering of the Dolby Stereo sound in the film?
Russell Mulcahy: We really fought for the Dolby Stereo. It pinched the budget but the sound mixers, the editor, Bill Anderson, and I were convinced that it should be in Dolby Stereo: we just needed that level of sound. What Dolby Stereo can give you, apart from being able to spook somebody by having sound come from one side or from behind, is an incredible sound level. You have extra decibels, so when the razorback screams you can make it howl on the bass level. On a mono track, with all the music and the sound effects, the boar screams would have become very muddy.

You have obviously paid considerable attention to the locations in the film.
Russell Mulcahy: Hal McElroy, myself and a few other people probably made about five trips up to Broken Hill. First we went to Bourke and various other places, but when we saw Broken Hill we fell in love with it. There is such a variety of locations and landscapes there. Unfortunately, you can’t shoot everything. The sun is going down and you’re losing time. But the scene where we tracked across the car and the tree, and the truck is coming through the kangaroo hunt, for example, was worked out on the location scout.

Razorback is edited in a powerful fashion: there is a strong style in the way it cuts from scene to scene. Was that your idea or something editor Bill Anderson devised?
Russell Mulcahy: It was a combination. Many scene changes were shot that way and Bill really enjoyed cutting it. He worked very hard. The first cut came off very quickly: he had cut nearly half the film before I had even finished shooting. The fine work then took some time. Many of those scene changes were pre-planned. I wanted to have a pace to it. If you dwell too long in a film like this, the audience starts thinking too much. You should just go with the flow.

How much of the budget went into the special effects?
Russell Mulcahy: The creation of the boar by Bob McCarron cost a lot of money because it was a complex creature, and six of them were built. It ate up a lot of money, not only people!

Who designed the razorback?
Russell Mulcahy: Bob. I worked on a few sketches with him but he basically did the design. I think he had actually designed one for himself years ago. He is fascinated with them. The design is based on fact and enlarged from that. When you talk to a razorback hunter in the outback they have horrific stories of confrontations with these things. I think our final product is quite malevolent.

Did you make any major casting decisions in the film?
Russell Mulcahy: I worked very closely on the whole casting with Tim Saunders, Associate Producer and Hal. Warner Bros also had a few suggestions. The major casting decision was to make Dicko and Benny younger characters than those in the book (by Peter Brennan). Casting Chris Haywood and David Argue together as brothers was an incredible coup.

When did composer Iva Davies start working on the soundtrack of the film?
Russell Mulcahy: Iva came in pretty early, actually. He was the only choice I could think of in this country. He was perfect because his style of music is just right for the film: a mixture of the primitive and the modern. He saw some storyboards, read the script and worked out a theme from that. I then showed him a rough cut of the film and he used a Fairlight computer to do the rest of the score.

Do you have any future film projects planned?
Russell Mulcahy: I want to do another film now, but during the shoot I thought, “Bugger this for a life!” It is fucking hard work.

Several years later while shooting ‘Young Guns’ in New Mexico, the assistant directors who run the set, were all very serious Hells Angels… the real deal from the headquarters in Oakland California. As it turned out Razorback was one of their favourite movies, it did become a cult film with lots of fans. So I arranged a screening for the Hells Angel’s boys … we drank lots of beer, ate pickled pigs feet, pork rind and chips and everyone had a great old time. The next night I felt in my canvas bag something wet and fleshy … it was a freshly killed pigs head …. the boys saying thanks for the screening. They were going to place it in my bed but decided my wife wouldn’t like it…. I tell you they would have met their match! End of pigs stories I promise. – Dean Semler (Cinematographer)

SPECIAL EFFECTS
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Bob McCarron recalls. Through under the influence of the producers, who insisted on only filming the pig briefly in tight close-up, with its mouth open and lunging at the camera. The cinematographer, Dean Semler, actually approached producer Hal McElroy at one stage and cynically inquired whether the film was titled Razorback or Outback. Of course, this ploy to get more pig on screen was to no avail. “We built seven pigs for Razorback, including one with 32 different facial movements and another which had a completely computerized body that was worth over $100,000. All of the computerization was donated by an Australian company, who just wanted to see how it would work. Unfortunately, they didn’t build a big enough set, and we couldn’t use it.

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“They had already started building this computerized running pig which I told them from the very start wouldn’t work. Look at King Kong and The White Buffalo for good examples of that waste. I knew it could never simulate the correct movements and I stated point blank that it wasn’t going to be in the film. We shot it and it looked predictably awful. The best shots we did of the pig – and we should have done more of them in retrospect – was with a real large pig in a suit. If I had had the choice I would have done a scaled down model of the pet food factory in the climactic scenes and had some Harryhausen type stop-frame animation. I think that’s what you miss most in the film, the hooves and the dust. Most of the time we used a cable controlled head for the close-ups and for some other shots we had something which was called the Two Man Boar which to my knowledge only ever had one man in it! I knew we were running out of money at that point in the film. It was useless anyway as the back half was totally rigid. We had a ramming pig on rails too that was like a 5 o’clock special which we used for the scene at the beginning where it decimates the house.” – Russell Mulcahy

POST PRODUCTION
Some of the money for Razorback was put up by Warner Brothers in return for the US distribution rights but after an infamous preview in Los Angeles they demanded cuts and have since dropped the film altogether. “We thought the preview had gone extremely well until we read the report cards which were about 20% favorable and the rest were along the lines of ‘This is the cruelest, most evil film I’ve ever seen – and I’ve kept your pen, you bastard!’ This freaked Warners out who felt the plot had got lost. My original version was a lot gorier. All the deaths were dwelt on in the most obvious places. There really isn’t any blood left now in the film which in some ways heighten its impact. I’ve kept Bill Kerr’s death in the hut at home because it went on for about two minutes as he is thrown around by the pig and has his face bitten off. I think it’s a shame, but there you go.”

Other changes in the film concerned the ending. “We had three endings at one point. Razorback was made on a very tight 8 week schedule and fortunately – or unfortunately really as I still quite haven’t made my mind up – Thad all the backers and the completion guarantors breathing down my neck while I was shooting the final scene which also so happened to be on the last day of the film. I did it in one hand held take and it was atrocious, just laughable. Warners though were willing to stay with that end mainly because I reckon they didn’t want to cough up any more money. So I decided to finance an alternative end to the tune of 20 grand because no-one else sure as hell was! Even though it was my money they refused to let me shoot it as I wanted the two survivors to think they had killed the razorback only to find out that it was in reality one of a family. I was aiming for the feeling you got at the climax of The Birds. Now I think it was better for them to get away but I really did want to get them out in the fresh air at least. The ending now is at least 100% better than the one we had originally.

DISTRIBUTION/RELEASE
I didn’t like it.” As to be expected, a lot of the preview cards in America indicated that the audience felt Razorback was like a two hour music video. Mulcahy himself isn’t quite sure if that is indeed a valid criticism in these days of vast changes in the film world and our perception of it. “In some ways I take that as a compliment. I don’t call it video imagery as it is my imagery belonging to me whether I do videos or films. It’s what I’ve always been doing and always will do. If that is what people want to call it, then fine. I know I’m always going to be categorized by working in pop promos and there really isn’t much I can do about that. It will be like a millstone around my neck for the rest of my life. Razorback didn’t look like a lingerie department advertisement to you, did it? I’m a great fan of fantasy films and what I did try and put in the film were touches of Kubrick and Hitchcock along with all the more obvious influences. When I told Tobe Hooper about the film I had his mouth watering with my description of the abattoir and all the carcasses hanging like choirboys in a giant cathedral! My other major influence is from the painting I used to do before I got into the industry. I got my color sense and composition from that. The most astute criticism I’ve had about Razorback came from Keith (Williams) who said that the film looked like someone had told me it was to be my first and only film, so sling everything in you can. And in some ways he’s quite right. Although I do promise you cars do end up in trees because of the flash floods there. Maybe not quite so high. . . but there has to be a certain element of artistic license, doesn’t there?” In Australia, where the film premiered earlier this year, the reviews were very mixed. The cheap tabloids loved it but the highbrow ones said words to the effect that it was the greatest Australian embarrassment and one that would put the industry back 10 years. A sample review said, “It looks like Poltergeist wandering around a Top of the Pops set”. Comments like that meant Razorback didn’t fare too well at the box-office although Mulcahy still sees one major problem at the root of this failure. “It stems back to my one nagging doubt about the project. Who really wants to go and see a film about a killer pig? It is a lot more than that, of course, but it is difficult to put that across. The poster in Australia didn’t help either. It was a full color portrait of the beast himself with that quote from the film, ‘It has two states of being. Dangerous or dead. Dreadful! I think they should play that down here and bolster up the stranger in a strange land aspect as it is more Gregory Harrison’s story than anything else. The pig is just a part of that.

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“Perhaps another reason why it didn’t do too well is the fact that the Australians are too familiar with events like kangaroo slaughters. It isn’t anything special to them. Why would they go hunting kangaroos in the desert where there is no grass? That, of course, is correct and if they are looking for things like that then something is definitely wrong.

CAST/CREW
Directed by  
Russell Mulcahy

Produced by
Hal McElroy

Written by    
Everett De Roche
Based on Razorback by Peter Brennan

Music by      
Iva Davies

Cinematography     
Dean Semler

Gregory Harrison as Carl Winters
Arkie Whiteley as Sarah Cameron
Bill Kerr as Jake Cullen
Chris Haywood as Benny Baker
David Argue as Dicko Baker
Judy Morris as Beth Winters
John Howard as Danny
John Ewart as Turner

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinema Papers, No. 46, July 1984, pp. 138-41.
Starburst Magazine 077
omkaralife.com
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