Tracks: John Curran
Interview by Holly Grigg-Spall
Portrait of John Curran by Marshall Kappel
Images of Robyn's Journey by Rick Smolan
Images of Film by Matt Nettheim
“I think the strength of Robyn’s character
—John Curranhere is in her mystery.” — John Curran
“Tracks” is a movie based on the real-life story of Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who, in 1977, walked 1,700 miles alone across the Australian outback. Her story was documented by National Geographic magazine photographer Rick Smolan (played by Adam Driver).The movie is directed by John Curran.
John Curran is an American writer and director known for his work on “The Painted Veil” and “The Killer Inside Me.”
Rick Smolan is a Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer and creator of the “Day in the Life” photography book series. His photographs of Robyn Davidson’s journey were a National Geographic cover story and became a book, titled “From Alice to Ocean.”
Robyn Davidson is an Australian writer who walked 1,700 miles alone in the Australian outback in 1977. Her memoir, “Tracks,” details her journey. She has spent much time documenting nomadic peoples around the world.
Mia Wasikowska is an Australian actress. She is best known for her starring roles in “The Kids Are All Right” and “Alice In Wonderland.” In addition to “Tracks,” she also stars in the soon to be released David Cronenberg movie “Maps To The Stars.”
Adam Driver is an American actor who first appeared on the scene in HBO series “Girls.” He has since starred in “Frances Ha” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He also has a role in the upcoming J.J.Abrams’ “Star Wars” sequel.
“Tracks” tells the incredible story of Robyn Davidson, a 27 year-old writer who, in 1977, crossed the Australian outback alone save the company of her dog and a train of camels. She later wrote a memoir detailing her journey. The trip was partly sponsored by National Geographic, requiring that a photographer, Rick Smolan, visit the otherwise determinedly solitary Robyn a few times during the trip to capture her experience. John Curran directs this beautiful feature, with Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver as Robyn and Rick.
We spoke with John Curran about the making of the movie.
HOLLY GRIGG-SPALL: The film doesn’t reveal too much about Robyn’s past way of life or her motivations for the journey. Was this a deliberate move to make her more relatable?
JOHN CURRAN: When I read the book what struck me most was that Robyn doesn’t reveal much about her past or delve into it, nor does she talk much about why she is doing the trip. As a filmmaker you become more fascinated with what is between the lines of type – what it is that she isn’t saying. I liked the idea of doing a story that’s kind of like a Western, and with Westerns you meet the protagonist and you don’t know about their past at first, you just learn a little a long the way. The Western character is reductive. I think the strength of Robyn’s character here is in her mystery.
“As a filmmaker you
become more fascinated
with what is between
the lines of type – what it
is that she isn’t saying.”
— John Curran
HGS: The movie alludes to the fact that Robyn’s choice to take this trip provoked a lot of questioning. Do you think people would care about her motivations as much if she were a man?
JC: I came out to Australia for the first time in 1985 and I went out to some of the more rural country towns. Back then, the men were pretty rough out there. Particularly when you take a woman like Robyn, there’s going to be the question of why she is there. Yet she was so resentful of that question, despite the fact that everything about her provokes that question. If it was a man, then you’d accept it wholeheartedly.
Robyn wasn’t really involved in the movie. She didn’t really want to psychoanalyze herself, and so I knew I would have to do my own research. I found a news clip from six months after she returned and she looked tougher and was smoking a cigarette. The reporter was asking her about her motivations. He asked her whether she was ever afraid. She threw back – what would I be afraid of? Like…a pack of men coming up out of nowhere and raping me? She gave him a hard time. She was irritated and impatient with that line of questioning.
HGS: There have been several previous attempts to translate Robyn’s book to film. Why did this one take off?
JC: I don’t think they ever got the scripts right, to be honest. You never know why a project doesn’t go forward, it’s all rumor and conjecture. Robyn had gotten jaded about it. At a certain point though, with our project, she saw that what we were doing was something authentic. We didn’t want to create another story to impose on top of her own. We just wanted to find a cinematic way to tell her story. She trusted us then and gave us her blessing.
HGS: How did you come to cast Adam Driver?
JC: I was in Australia when I was looking to cast for Rick. “Girls” had only just come out and I hadn’t seen it, but some critic was writing about “Girls” in a newspaper I read. The critic described Adam as one of the most interesting, strangest creatures they’d ever seen on camera. There was a picture of him and he just struck me as exactly the kind of guy I was looking for. He’s got dimensions of Rick Smolan, but I pushed him beyond that.
HGS: How did Mia Wasikowska respond to the role of Robyn? It’s a rare female role that is so independent.
JC: Mia liked the challenge of doing this movie and she liked that it was an Australian iconic figure for her and for her parents. She was interested in pushing herself outside of certain boundaries. And for a long time she hadn’t done an Australian film – she’d left pretty much when she was a teenager and done movies elsewhere.
“The movie is set in the ‘70s,
so I looked at films
like “Walkabout.” I was really
looking to recreate the
film aesthetic of that time.”
— John Curran
HGS: Were you inspired by any other movies about journeys or about Australia?
Walkabout is a 1971 movie set in Australia, directed by Nicholas Roeg , and loosely based on the novel of the same name.
JC: The movie is set in the ‘70s, so I looked at films like “Walkabout.” I was really looking to recreate the film aesthetic of that time, to make the movie look of that period. Everything from the music to art design needed to reflect the ‘70s. Anything that I could look at that would give me a sense of the aesthetic of the ‘70s, I was drawing upon. It won’t be obvious, but it is in there.
Wild is a movie based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, detailing her experience of trekking the Pacific Crest Trail alone. The film stars Reese Witherspoon in the central role.
HGS: What do you feel about the inevitable comparisons that will be made to “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon, the other movie about a solitary female traveler on a journey of discovery that is out this Fall?
JC: A good friend of mine is producing that film. I’d say it’s more travel for your money with “Tracks.” Robyn walked some 700 more miles, in the desert. Our movie showed at festivals last year and it seemed like there were a lot of movies around at that time about people dealing with situations alone – “Gravity,” “All is Lost.” It was a trend for a while.
Original images courtesy of Rick Smolan, ©2014 Rick Smolan/All Rights Reserved
“Tracks” film images courtesy of John Curran ©2014 Matt Nettheim/See-Saw Films
Images of both Robyn and Mia holding “Diggity” courtesy of Rick Smolan ©2014 Rick Smolan/All Rights Reserved