Mark Lewis on ‘Cane Toads: The Conquest’

Sarah Ward June 3, 2011 0

Twenty-three years after first touching upon the topic, documentarian Mark Lewis returns to explore the impact and aftermath of the introduction of cane toads in Australia. With his first feature Cane Toads: An Unnatural History securing a BAFTA nomination for best short film and rocketing to cult status, his second effort on the subject expands upon the ecological invaders that are commonly reviled around the nation. From the origin of the species to their endless march across the continent, touring toad shows to town icons, and ardent opposition to strong supporters, Cane Toads: The Conquest covers it all. After opening at the 2010 Sundance FIlm Festival and touring the local circuit last year, the film has finally made its way to Australian screens – and we sat down to talk to the director about the humorous and harrowing sides of an animal considered a pest by most, and a pet by others.

SW: First things first – congratulations on the film, and the success that you have had with it so far.

ML: Thank you.

SW: Starting with the obvious question – why cane toads?

ML: I do get asked that a lot. What’s so interesting about the toad is that it’s not a static subject. It keeps on evolving and keeps on moving. Since we made the first film – over the last twenty years – it has moved right across the country, over the sugar cane fields of Gordonvale and Cairns, all the way through to Western Australia. That’s a huge distance – thousands of kilometres. And it has also gone from the 120 toads that were brought here 75 years ago to, well, billions. But I think what is so interesting about the toad is that there are so many contradictions and ironies to the story, and also the fact that the toad has integrated itself into so many different levels of society and culture. We’ve got people that make taxidermy out of them, make hats out of them, use them as golf balls, all that sort of stuff. So it is a great story, and there are great stories for a filmmaker to take advantage of. And the best thing about it is that you can be irreverent and you can be comedic, because it is silly and stupid all in one. It’s not a subject like you see in a worthy issue film, and it’s not what I call a “Mother Teresa” documentary, but it is a great subject.

SW: Can you tell me about your decision to revisit the subject more than two decades after ‘Cane Toads: An Unnatural History”?

ML: There are a lot of different answers to that. It was easy for me, because one of the executive producers basically said “here’s the money, I want you to do this”, so it wasn’t a grind to get up and running. The first film was such an extraordinary – and weird – success, so I was so conscious that to revisit it I was going to be putting my head back up on the butcher’s block to be chopped off. In other words, there was this sort of perverse creative ambition to make another film that was as interesting and idiosyncratic as the first film. I wanted to raise the bar again, and that was partly why I went with 3D as well.

SW: You’ve just pre-empted my next question – why 3D? Why make Australia’s first 3D digital film?

ML: Well, for those innovation reasons really. In the first film we used what became the Jim Frazier Panavision lens system, so we were very innovative. The first film really tried to depict the world from the point of view of the toad, so when you saw the toad you were eye level with the toad – you were toe to toe with the toad if you like. Certainly the 3D decision was to continue that tonality, and in other words, to – and this word is used in 3D a lot – immerse yourself in this world. 3D was used as a tool that was available – it was very early, we were the first 3D film out of this country. So it was a tool that was available, but I also thought the subject matter would suit the toad, suit the film, and enrich the visual experience. I loved seeing it in 3D more than I did in 2D. 3D won’t make an ordinary film good, but it makes a good film better.

SW: Can you tell me about that balance act between the story that you were trying to tell, and the 3D technique?

ML: That’s a good question, and I wondered about that too. The only indication I had about that was an early indication with [James] Cameron when he was making Avatar. James Cameron said that he put the 3D to one side, because invariably, instinctively you try to tell the best story possible with the material. In other words, he was saying that he didn’t want 3D to get in the way of his storytelling. So this film, and the way I’ve told the story – the 3D benefits the film, but I didn’t bend or compromise the film back towards the 3D. It was a balancing act, and it was Cameron’s suggestion to let the 3D people look after that, and then I’m going to tell the story the way I’m going to tell the story.

SW: You’ve touched upon the fact that the film has a humorous, irreverent style. Can you tell me more about why you took that approach to the film and to the genre, and how you made the comic nature documentary genre your niche?

ML: It came about by some degree – well the subject matter of course lends itself to it – but it came about to some degree at a time when I was pushing against the conventional notion of a natural history film. The beautiful photography of birds or what have you, classical music, and some sort of scientist we never see waxing voiceover lyrical. To some degree I just thought that was a really didactic, banal and pedestrian way to tell these stories, as I didn’t find them very entertaining. So it came as a result of pushing back in contrast against that approach.

So it was just some sort of instinct that I had at the time, but at the same time subjects I choose lend themselves to being irreverent. Let’s face it, it was a monumental blunder, so let’s see the comedy in that. Or there are all these ironies, so let’s see them. Again, it is not a “Mother Teresa” film. It’s not a film about some major issue like climate change, or some worthy worthy worthy film. I’m not diluting the issues, but I’m just saying that I found a different way to tell the stories. And I don’t know how I arrived at that balance, but the balance is hard science, comedy, tragedy, horror, all of these things. You have to be careful when you juxtapose all of those different stories that it’s not too funny or too scientific, and some weird juxtapositional balance is arrived at. But there’s no formula, it is all instinct.

SW: You’ve been described as “well connected in the cane toad world”. How does did you earn that reputation?

ML: Oh really, I hadn’t heard that. It’s not so much that I’m well connected in the cane toad world, but fortunately or unfortunately the role of a non-fiction filmmaker like myself is that you have to explore the subject. You throw the net wide, you talk to the scientists, you talk to the people. In other words, you’re imbibing all of the individual and separate experiences of a multitude of people. I mean a scientist has a very specific point of view. He might have researched the visual coordination of a cane toad between red and green., or what stimulates a cane toad to go in one direction or another. What they’re looking at is very specific. And obviously there’s then the combination of all of the characters and individual people’s observations of toads, but you imbibe all of this stuff, you take it in. You end up becoming the authority, to some degree, just by your combined knowledge of everyone else’s experience. So I’m definitely well connected in the cane toad world. How can I put it? I’m over connected in the cane toad world.

SW: How did you go about finding the more colourful characters in the film, and getting them involved?

ML: Finding them is one thing, and all I can say is that I’m diligent with respect to research. And they’re good characters because they’ve got to carry the story – I’m not using voiceover, so I search high and low for a long, long time. I mean, we spent years researching this film in one way or another, not just myself but Ben McNeill and Peta Ayers. You might talk to ten different people, ten different scientists, but you go with the person that’s the most colourful. It is like casting a fiction film and I consider it like that. I’m not happy to take the first scientist that comes along, I want the funny, weird – well not weird, but colourful – scientist that comes along. So it is like casting a film.

The second part of your question, how do I get their trust, well I guess that’s the craft. To have these people reveal themselves I need to gain their trust, just like we’re doing here. I try to charm you, look you in the eye, and I get you to tell me your story again and again and again. From that I think about the key elements that I want to go back and capture, then we talk on the phone, and they get comfortable with me. But also, I place them in a situation where they are comfortable with themselves. I always go to them. Mostly, we always try to interview them in their own homes, at their coffee tables, with their coffee cups, where they are comfortable. And by virtue of doing that I like to show how the surroundings of their house or their office also reveal something about themselves.

SW: Going back to the cane toads themselves, what were some of the challenges that you faced in working with an animal cast – particularly with an animal that doesn’t really do much in the way of activity?

ML: Well, it’s called editing – juxtaposition editing, quick editing. The cane toad doesn’t do much, but the job of a director of animals is to find out what motivates it, and unfortunately the only things that motivate cane toads are food and sex. Actors, we have food, sex and money, and sometimes drugs – but cane toads, there’s nothing there. Knowing that they’re motivated by the sole pursuit of food and sex, they still don’t do anything. So you can put one down and they do nothing. I treat each one like little stars, and through editing and creative construction of the sequences, we create sequences that suggest that they’re all going in one direction, or they’re mobbing here, or what have you. It’s a question of knowing the animal, and having very good people on board. I had what I called a toad whisperer on the film. It is a question of having very good people on board that can help with that sort of stuff.

SW: You’ve spent much of your career making animal documentaries. Did you plan to go down that path?

ML: No, not at all. Yes, I make films about animals, but I like to think – and reviewers have said – that my films are often as much about people as they are about animals. I’ve done many other films that aren’t about animals. I did a six hour prime time series for PBS about people following funny sports – The Pursuit Of Excellence we called it – about synchronised swimming and things like that. So I think, all I can say, it’s not so much a pursuit of animals but a pursuit of the filmmaking craft.

SW: Can we talk more about that, in terms of the humanity you see in the cane toad’s story, and the universal nature of their journey, and of reactions to them?

ML: Well, it’s sort of two different things. The humanity or what you get out of it depends to some degree on the audience, and there are many answers to that. For one thing, we parodied other well-known cinema icons. You could say that the toad was like Alien or The Terminator. You could say that the dog tripping sequence was like The Trip or Easy Rider. You could say the spearing sequence where the man kills himself is like CSI: Mullumbimby. So when we go to these sequences, I quite often have an icon – a cinema icon or TV icon – in mind, and you don’t hit the audience over the head about it, but they get a connection.

But there’s a greater connection made, by virtue of the fact that the toad is a metaphor or an instrument that can suggest a greater humanity. What I mean by that is that when we dealt with toads being euthanised, we called it Schindler’s List, and the reason we did that was because it reminded us of a holocaust scene. Here was a mass of creatures shoved in bags and poisoned, by gas. So very much in respect to that sequence I’m thinking of that, and we sort of played it out like that. We had the little toad up on the hill looking down, and the toad looks sad, and all his buddies had been killed. And these things raise greater questions, and the greater questions are about man’s cruelty to animals, bigotry, racism and sexism. I mean, people say things like “the toad is ugly, we have to kill it”. So I think it brings light to our response, and an ugly side of Australia, it really does. The fact that we go out belting the living daylights out of them is abhorrent, utterly abhorrent, it really is. And the irony is that we wax lyrical about the whales and the dolphins and the cute little animals, but I’m sorry, more dogs have mauled children to death or disfigured children, yet we don’t go out and bash dogs over the head. Why perpetuate such misery and cruelty on an animal that I think is innocent, and misunderstood?

SW: What do you want people talking about, questioning, wondering when they leave the cinema?

ML: Well, they are only going to leave the cinema after the film if the film is entertaining. So I want them to think it is a good film, an enjoyable film, and an entertaining film. Next I want them to feel like they’ve been informed, and I want to them fee like the issues that I’ve raised brings up questions in their own mind that they’re going to think about later. So the next time some chump politician gets out there and says “let’s have a toad day out” or “let’s go and kill as many toads as we can with spike axes and picks or something like that, they think “this is bullshit, this guy is a vapid idiot who has nothing better to do than incite people to kill a defenceless animal”. In other words, entertainment, enjoyment, information, and also to highlight these greater issues that the film raises.

SW: You’ve made two films about cane toads – can you see yourself coming back to the toad story again?

ML: I hope not! I said that at the end of the first one as well, so you never know. It’s a gift that keeps on giving in storytelling terms, what can I say? It’s going to travel, and keep on travelling. It’s sort of structured around the way the toad keeps on going – it evolves and adapts. And while it does so, I can’t help but think that there will be greater stories. When it hits Melbourne, it is going to be met with horror, and when it gets into the river system north of Adelaide. So, I think I’m going to leave it for at least another twenty-five years, but then I’m not going to be around. It’s going to kill me before then. I hope that the baton will be passed.

SW: To finish up, what are your plans for your next project?

ML: Hard to say. I’ve got two films I’m interested in at the moment. They come to me through my own reading or various methods, but I get interested in so many things and then I lose them, or they go away and then they come back. At the moment I’m interested in doing a film on electrical pylons that cross different countries, the architecture behind them, and how electricity is transmitted. I bet that sounds wonderful! And just in the last week I have been talking to an author in New York about ants, and the name of that project is “How Ants Define The World”. It’s about how ants are populous in the way that we are populous, and how there are, I think, social morays and conventions that are created in the ant world that imitate and duplicate our society. In other words, it’s about how ants have slaves, ants have wars, and that sort of thing. It’s really about learning about us through what ants do. And I have a final film that I want to make, which I haven’t even sat down to think about. It’s a film called “Why Birds Sing”. It’s a good title, but it’s a greater thought behind the title.

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