My favourite magazine in the world Rue Morgue recently interviewed Greg, Brett and I for their online site, the first (and only?) time I think all three of us have been interviewed together. Read on:



Hell’s Shelves: Greg McLean, Aaron Sterns and Brett McBean on the Wolf Creek novels

Interview with Alan Kelly, Aug 4 2014

Alan Kelly sits down to talk with with Greg McLean, Aaron Sterns and Brett McBean on the WOLF CREEK series’ expansion into the world of literature.

Tie-in novelizations often gain credibility only by dint of their association with a well-received pop-culture property; in the case of Penguin Books Australia’s first two Wolf Creek novels, though, readers are in good hands. Penguin has commissioned a six-part fiction series based on Greg McLean’s acclaimed 2005 horror-thriller, with McLean serving as co-writer on the first two installments.

In Wolf Creek: Origin, McLean teams with Wolf Creek 2 co-writer Aaron Sterns to explore the early days of budding psychopath Mick Taylor. As a young jackaroo driven by bloodlust and haunted by the spectre of his father’s brutality, Taylor is pitted against the Others, a collective of equally nasty outback psychopaths; a tag-team of snuff movie-making brothers who prey on couples; a mine-dwelling, paedophiliac child-killer; and a corrupt cop who proves to be the most dangerous adversary of them all. In The Desolation Game, written by McLean and novelist Brett McBean, Taylor has honed his murderous skills during the Vietnam War and, at the apparent behest of an outside force, leaves a trail of carnage across the Australian outback.

The first two prequel novels are brutal origin stories with a take-no-prisoners approach to fleshing out McLean’s iconic bogeyman, but they retain the ambiguity of evil that made Wolf Creek so compelling. They are every bit as harrowing as readers would expect. We recently caught up with the writers to discuss origin stories, the nature of evil, and Wolf Creek’s singular psychopath.

At what point did you decide to explore Mick Taylor’s background?

Greg McLean: Wolf Creek was always intended, if the movie worked, to be the creation of an Australian “Bogey Man” type of figure. Primarily I was just really focused on making as good a movie as possible, but at the same time I was very aware we did not have our own homegrown figure like that. We certainly had enough basis in reality to draw from, but the dots had just never been joined in a way that was really cohesive. So in that sense, from the writing of the screenplay for the first film there was always the notion of a continuing story following this character. It took some time to flesh out just what that journey would be, and personally I find the character pretty fascinating. Plus his world – Outback Australia – not just at this time period, but over 50 or so years, is great to be able to explore.

Aaron Sterns: Actually, back when the first Wolf Creek started screening, Greg and I were sharing a writing office and we’d idly bandy around storylines for Mick Taylor graphic novels. It was then, I think, when we realized the mythic potential of the amazing character Greg had created, which was confirmed soon after as the movie started worming its way into the cultural consciousness.

We agreed, for instance, that he would’ve grown up in a small town with an abusive, or at least domineering, father. And that he’d probably had a number of nascent years of mistakes and missteps growing into the consummate murderer he would become. We actually came upon an idea during this brainstorming that Greg thought was so strong it could be used for the film’s sequel, so, being the horror guy, he sent me off to write it. Flash-forward a few years following Rogue and other projects, and when Wolf Creek 2 came back on the radar Greg let me know about a potential fiction series he was setting up with Penguin.

We mapped out a general arc of six books together, knowing that the first book would be his very beginning, the second book would be his Vietnam experience, and so on, but at this stage I was only intending to help curate the series, as I was working on my own material. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized I knew Mick’s genesis – having read studies on serial killers for so many years and always intending to write my own take, and having also co-written the sequel script – and that this was an opportunity to write not only the origin story of perhaps the most iconic Australian horror villain, but also attempt what could be a great Australian gothic story: depicting in some way how this vast, uncaring landscape can either kill us or turn us mad. Greg gave me the broad brief that the first book would see Mick wandering the desert when he’s taken under the wing of a serial killer who trains him to clear the Outback of rival serial killers, but apart from that I had carte blanche to create the entire story.

Did you ever have any worries that by fleshing out Taylor’s background, he might become less frightening? How did you avoid this?

GM: I think this is a concern in one sense, as this was a large part of what was so exciting about the first movie – there was little to no mention of who the hell this guy was… the lack of  backstory was kind of shocking. However, these novels are much more character based drama that horrific things happen within than specifically simple horror stories. So in that sense they’re very much stand alone stories following the development of the character in a very detailed and dramatic way. Also, its important to remember you can only do the first story of a character like this once. Once you see Mick in the first movie – everything before and after that story is kind of anchored by his appearance is that tale. Also, the cats out of the bag in terms of what he’s capable of. So the fear in stories before and after that have to be based upon different things. Having said all that, and as I frequently say, you can never really know the mind of a madman. No matter what you know he’s always got something else up his sleeve you would NEVER expect in a million years. That’s why he’s an interesting character I guess — he’s finally unknowable.

AS: I don’t think we remove any ambiguity. I think if anything we complicate it. The first novel explores the question of whether Mick eventually becomes a serial killer because of his brutal upbringing, or whether it was a trait inherent within him, but I think leaves it up to the reader to decide. It even gives some grounding to his psychopathology to suggest why he might kill people in the sexualized way he does, and that maybe he continues to do so to suppress the demons of his past. The slightly supernatural tinges to his abilities hinted at in the first movie – his preternatural ability to second-guess his victim’s actions, the metaphorical fading into air in the end frame – are also explored in both books, and might be the result of the survival skills ingrained in him by his father, or possession by the spirits of the land during a near-death experience alone in the Outback, or might just be as a result of his stark-raving madness. Again, it’s up to the reader. But to me, it freaks me out a little more to know what he’s done in his past (and I wrote it!).

Were there a lot of intense plotting sessions? Did you start with a broad outline of the story and go from there, or was the writing process different with each book?

Brett McBean: This was my first time writing in someone else’s universe, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect: a detailed twenty-page synopsis of the story and detailed character notes that I had to adhere to, or carte blanche. As it turned out, it fell somewhere in between. I was given a three-page outline, which contained the basic plot and characters, but was told it was only a rough guideline, and so, other than not making it a romantic comedy or changing the setting to space, I had plenty of room to move, creative-wise. This was an ideal situation: I knew what Greg wanted, yet I had the creative freedom to write a novel that both satisfied the brief as well as my own sensibilities.

GM: Brett and I meet a few times, I read his work and could see where his own sensibilities lie and thought he was a terrific storyteller and a really gifted writer. The rest really was sending drafts over email and sending notes but it was actually a pretty smooth process, I have to say. I think that’s what happens when you both have very clear ideas about what you want to achieve, as it turned out really well.

Wolf Creek: The Desolation Game suggests there might be an external force in control of Taylor. Will future instalments have a supernatural bent?

BM: I can’t speak to future installments, but there is definitely a supernatural edge to the second novel. We had to be careful, however, not to lay the supernatural on too thick, as Wolf Creek is reality-based horror. So we made the supernatural unreliable; is it real, or only in Mick’s mind? I think it plays well, as the character of Mick Taylor already skirts that line of being slightly beyond normal human capabilities when it comes to hunting and killing.

GM: As Brett says, the stories are very reality based; we’ve kept that important tonal quality from the films. But having said that, we do explore it more deeply in Brett’s book. The concept of some external or cosmic evil guiding Mick is woven into the Wolf Creek mythos. It’s implied in the first and second film and is certainly a concept that I’m very interested in exploring because at the heart of the question is: Is there an evil beyond what human beings are capable of? And where does evil come from? From within a single individual? Is it collective? Is it learned or just innate in some incredibly evil personalities from the beginning? It’s an interesting theme to ponder and explore, and one we’ll perhaps never have an answer to.

Other novels that take place in the Wolf Creek universe have been commissioned. What other authors will you be working with?

GM: At this point I’ve plotted out the books and we’re in the process of thinking of great writers who might be interested in the character and the story world of Wolf Creek. So no names as yet.

Was it daunting, writing a story involving a character as iconic as Taylor?

BM: Oh, absolutely. Your gut-thought is, “Christ, I hope I don’t screw this up.” Because you not only have to capture the character, but you have to be careful, especially with a character as evil as Mick, not to create a caricature. That was the real task of writing this novel: making Mick a real, fully-rounded and believable character, while staying true to what was laid out in the first movie and not to tip over into cartoonish excess.

AS: It should have been, but I didn’t have time. I wrote the first draft of Wolf Creek 2 soon after the release of the first movie, so although we were beginning to see its rise in popularity, I had a clear vision in my head, based on a great premise Greg and I had come up with, and my own knowledge of the Mick Taylor character, having read and given notes on the screenplay that was the precursor to Wolf Creek — and was able to get the script out before I had time to worry about its reception. The Origin novel proved a bit harder, in that it came some years afterwards, and Mick Taylor had become part of our cultural consciousness. But I was also given a pretty crushing deadline of about four or five months to turn in a first draft, with only the general logline of the story Greg provided me with – that a young Mick is wandering the desert when a serial killer takes him under his wing and trains him – and my own ideas about Mick’s past coupled with a lifelong fascination of serial killers. (In fact, when I was younger I used to write first-person one-page monologues of John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein and John Haigh in an attempt to understand their psychology, but then it depressed me too much and I had to stop!) From there I was given free reign to imagine Mick’s upbringing, so I put all thoughts about what the huge amount of Wolf Creek fans might think about my take, and followed the story unrolling in my head. It was only after I emerged after a breathless four months that I stopped to think about the weight I’d taken on my shoulders, and whether I’d done the series justice. For me, I’d seen the opportunity of Origin as a way to write a great Australian gothic novel on a big stage, channeling the likes of Cormac McCarthy or Jack Ketchum for an Australian audience. It was only later that I realized people might have their own view on Mick’s past, or that they might expect a more conventional ‘slasher’ novel, and that I’d been quite ambitious in thinking I could pull this off. I can only hope we’ve succeeded.

Did the fact that the character already exists make it easier or more difficult to write?

BM: Thankfully – and perhaps a little scarily – I found I slipped easily into Mick’s skin. It was a blast to write that character’s voice. I think this largely had to do with how well written and acted the character was in the first film. When you have a character as well-defined as Mick Taylor, it makes the job a lot easier when it comes to fleshing out that character in prose form.

AS: Having an already an established character to work towards meant that a lot of the little decisions about voice and motivation and attitude were already done for me, so what I could do is have fun building their foundations in the novel (some little antecedents for his attitudes towards foreigners, for instance), that can bog you down when you’re trying to develop an original character. But there’s definitely a potential for mimicry or fan-fictionalism (if that’s a word) when approaching an established character. I guess that’s why superheroes and characters like James Bond are rebooted so often, because after a while the character becomes just a series of bald traits or catch-phrases. The thing in our favor is that there’d only been one movie depicting Mick Taylor, and he’s actually not on-screen for a lot of it. There’s only a few extended dialogue scenes, such as the great campfire scene. I know, because I went back through the movie in minute detail to capture Mick’s voice. John (and Greg with his great script) managed to nail the character in very short time. But when it comes to Wolf Creek 2 Mick is on-screen doing his thing for far more of it, so the fact I knew all this extra material having co-written the script meant, I suppose, that I was an obvious choice to write the prequel story. I got to fill out both timelines, and I took it as a great privilege and tried to reward Greg’s faith in me.

Can we expect to see a film adaptation of these books one day?

GM: At this stage I’m really just focused on successfully telling the prequel stories as novels but you never know. Casting the young Mick would be seriously great fun as there’s some amazing young actors coming out of Australia right now. We’d be spoiled for choice so time will tell. Maybe when the whole series is finished so a few years away yet.

Given the choice, what other movie madman (or woman) would you pit Taylor against?

GM: That’s a funny question but we seriously joke about this question on set while shooting. Mick VS Predator? Mick VS the Alien Queen? Mick VS Hannibal Lecter? Mick VS Leatherface? All I know John Jarratt assures me Mick Taylor would gut each one of them and shove their spine up their arse before they could make their first move.


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