When you get to be somewhere you sit and listen and be, that has something in common with where I was raised—the well water with which I was baptized, so to speak.
The preeminent Australian novelist of his generation, Tim Winton has published 29 books all told—translated into 28 different languages—which produced four Miles Franklin winners (Australia’s most prominent literary award) and two Booker Prize nominees. By literary standards, Winton is astonishingly popular Down Under—a writer of dark fiction who is known to get asked for autographs on the street. The themes of his books often revolve around damaged men and yearning boys. You will find the latter, for instance, in 2008’s Breath, a coming-of-age novel that was adapted for the big screen with actor Simon Baker at the helm in his feature film directorial debut.
Now comes Dirt Music, the latest film adaptation of an acclaimed Winton novel. It’s a production that had been in development hell for years with no shortage of marquee-name actors circling it. It all started a little over a decade ago when Philip Noyce took a keen interest in directing the film adaptation. Rachel Weisz was in the frame to star for years. Nicole Kidman reportedly lobbied hard for the part. In 2007, with the project still very much alive, Noyce found his leading man in Heath Ledger. With Ledger gone, the director later lamented, “I could never find the same spark for making the film with anyone else. Not with Colin Farrell nor with Russell Crowe.” In 2011, the beleaguered filmmaker asked Chris Hemsworth to board the project, which would have started filming in early 2013. That didn’t pan out either, and Noyce’s option had by then expired. All of this is to say that Winton’s book was hot property. Eventually, it was Gregor Jordan’s opportunity.
In Jordan’s Dirt Music, Kelly Macdonald stars as Georgie, an ex-nurse at her lowest ebb, marooned, loveless and dull, in a picturesque, bougie Australian coastal town. She has been slotted uncomfortably into her fishing kingpin husband Jim’s (David Wenhem) life where she has lost the thread of her own opinions, and that’s left her all but emptied of her once free-spiritedness. In her charge are Jim’s two sons whose late mother she can never replace. She is an interloper in every sense, even in the community that worships her husband while giving her the brush-off. Georgie needs a way to assert her independence again, and she finds out how in a similarly ruined, kindred spirit Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund), an enigmatic outsider whom she happens upon while taking a surreptitious swim in the ocean just outside her well-appointed doors. In this tight-knit community, everyone is privy to everyone else’s business and Georgie knows that Lu once played in a family folk music band. But a tragedy has robbed him of his brother Darkie (George Mason), sister-in-law Sal (Julia Stone), and niece Bird (Ava Caryofyllis). He has since renounced music and ekes out a meager living as an illegal poacher. Georgie and Lu’s bond is immediate, igniting a torrid romance, and inevitably, hurling them both towards love. But when Lu retreats into the wilderness as fast as Georgie found him, hitchhiking toward his doom, she must find a way to bring him back.
Anthem connected with Hedlund via Zoom for an in-depth conversation.
Dirt Music debuts on July 17th on VOD.
Dirt Music is a stunning showcase for Western Australia. I actually saw an interview with you where you had talked about finding some similarities between the Western Australian backdrops and where you had grown up in Roseau, Minnesota. Had you known that prior, or did you discover that when you trekked out there to film this particular movie?
It was once I started shooting this. I’d only been to the Eastern Coast of Australia: to the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Sydney, where we shot Unbroken. This journey took me to Melbourne, where Julia Stone, George Mason and I got to stay in an apartment and work over some of the music we were to play in prep and explore and write some others, which could hopefully sneak their way into the film in one way or another. Then it was over to Perth and up to Broome and the Kimberleys, which is possibly where maybe I explained that reference because obviously for Australians, to get to the Kimberleys is quite hard, especially from the East Coast. You gotta take a flight to Perth, then a flight to Broome—or directly, I don’t know how they go—and then you gotta drive three hours on a red dirt road up to this pearl farm. It was an aboriginal village. It was very biblical and a kind of holy place that I genuinely miss and really cherished when I was there. In reference to getting back to my place, in Minnesota where I’m from, I felt like I could almost get to London quicker because it’s two hours at the airport and a three-and-a-half hour flight to Minneapolis, layover an hour to Fargo, rent a car and drive three hours northeast. So I related to the people in this area of the world, that we’re sort of isolated in one way or another. It’s not that they’re devoid of everything. There’s Wi-Fi and technology and whathaveyou where you could, but it’s a simpler way of life up there. There’s such appreciation for nature, for the tides, for all elements of weather. When you get to be somewhere you sit and listen and be, that has something in common with where I was raised—the well water with which I was baptized, so to speak.
I had a memory lapse while watching this movie because I thought, “Oh yeah! Garrett’s Australian.” You obviously speak in an Australian accent in Dirt Music, not to mention you look totally at home in that kind of landscape—it’s a quality you have, I suppose. But then it quickly dawned on me that you’re actually American. I grew up in Minnesota so that’s something I had always remembered about you.
You know, I feel like between the amount of time I’ve spent in different parts of the world, I somewhat can have a mixture of a mutt in terms of what I sound like. When I left Minnesota, I really had to try and get away from Minnesotan accents as to not be hassled in high school in Arizona. [laughs] I’ve spent a wonderful amount of time in the South and this and that, and then it becomes when you get older that a lot of your friends aren’t around what you’re around. But when I get on the phone with my family, I’ll snap back there in two seconds.
I love accents. It’s who you are.
I appreciate that. Look man, Australia was such a wonderful, holy experience for all of us shooting there. We shot the third act of the film first, up in the Kimberleys, which was a benefit to see the elements of what was so romanticized about in the book and what the characters were kind of daydreaming of. Their experience in this wonderful, ideal kind of place. Where these tides turned and the water felt alive was where we were really shooting. The tides in the morning would recede four, five-hundred yards out and by lunch time where your footprints were looking in that receding tide are now 20, 30 feet underwater. I’d never seen anything like it. Where we got to shoot some of those moments of in the raft, where it’s all those whirlpools, was this area that’s quite infamous in the visuals of Australia called Hell’s Gate. There’s all of this mythology around it, that these whirlpools can suck you down and we’ll never see you again. When we were filming there, there was something wonderfully dangerous about it, mythological, and built a wonderful amount of wonderment. Also, all the stories about how these rocks for some of these islands were some of the oldest in the world, something like 8 billion years old, which then I just imagine, “Well, aren’t all rocks 8 billion years old?” These people had their own stories and appreciation. Shooting within this aboriginal village, they would give us a welcomed country in the mornings. It was something that was quite tribal and unique. They expressed to us, “Please do not take the rocks. Every rock has a story and you will hurt our Mother’s heart—our spiritual Mother’s heart—because these rocks have stories and you will deprive anybody else of their stories for the rest of your life.” So it was a wonderful spiritual atmosphere.
Dirt Music is quintessentially Australian. It made me remember Simon Baker’s directorial debut, Breath, which was also adapted from a Tim Winton novel. Winton is beloved over there. I wonder if literature has a sizable role to play, at least in your initial attraction to a project, because I read that you’ve always been a voracious reader. It’s part of your lore.
I was a wonderful fan of the book. In terms of American literature, I really felt Tim Winton was our Cormac McCarthy in a way, about these strong, hard, broken men in these desolate environments. There’s something I romanticize about that so greatly. I’d done the film adaptation of On the Road. Growing up, as well as now, I was such a fan of Jack Kerouac. They’re writing about these men yearning for exploration, love, loss, and about living life to the fullest—the extremities and the trauma all at once brought together in one big cheer of every breath. So you’re dealing with the ‘40s and the ‘50s in America. Being able to be involved in an adaptation, something that I’ve done as well with Unbroken or Mudbound, there’s something so visceral and holy to it. To be chosen to bring these books to life is something I feel so honored about continuously. I geek out more because they are books that I admire or they have inspired me so much. There’s so much heart and soul, tears, journey, love, life and expression put into them that to be able to be fortunate enough to bring these to life on screen, I just feel so honored.
Going back to something you mentioned earlier, it took me a second to realize that it is in fact Julia Stone in the film. I recognized her singing voice before her face. At the Toronto International Film Festival last year, she also mentioned that you guys were housed together for a week to “become a band.” I’d imagine that’s super helpful and inspiring in the process. What did you get out of doing that? What do you remember most about that chapter?
Oh it was so wonderful, you know? I was essentially shipped right to Melbourne from Los Angeles. We were staying at an apartment. George, Julia Stone, and I just got to work on the music. It’s a big part of the book. The music was always such a big thing in all the previous machinations of the attempts to make Dirt Music. In the book, Tim talks about the Fox family’s inspirations of being old Willie [Nelson], Hank [Williams] senior stuff. That’s something I related to: A sort of Americanized inspiration of folk music, country at its root and core. We just had the greatest time. It was a wonderful bonding experience for all of us playing this family. The vibe was so infectious that I just wish we had more and more of it in the film. There’s something so nourishing, having the experience of being out there in the complete open vastness, being able to play this music, singing the harmony and laughing, enjoying life in all these wonderful places. It was quite holy.
And you bring up On the Road. You’ve certainly explored music in film previously, also with Country Strong and Lullaby. From the former, you even drew comparisons to Charlie Robison. Didn’t you also write and perform a song for that movie Mojave?
Ah, you did some research! For Country Strong, I’d never really played or essentially sang before. I was in choir in high school just trying to get an easy A. I had some friends in it and I goofed around. I was a deep baritone doing a cappella, the doop-doop-dah-dah-dops. For Country Strong, it was a whole new terrain. I had worked with Tim McGraw before on Friday Night Lights playing father and son. I grew up listening to him in Minnesota and he was such a hero of mine. When I was in the tractor playing his music, “Don’t Take the Girl” was my favorite song of all time. He asked me when we were shooting the film to get up and sing “I Like It, I Love It” with him onstage in Austin. It’s a funny inside joke between us that I was so mad I couldn’t sing “Don’t Take the Girl” with him. Then going to Nashville and staying at his cabin way out on this Civil War property and sitting on a rocking chair going over this music, going over to the studio three, four times a week to chart progress, singing, getting braver and braver, getting more creative and more creative, writing more, playing more, and just living and breathing country music was such a wonderful, life-altering experience for me. It’s really addictive. I got to meet so many creative artists through just Nashville alone that they’re my nearest and dearest friends today. So I thank the experience of that film immensely for my aspirations creatively. What really just truly pleases me today is a lot of music and writing and getting friends together and just exploring, sitting down and having a great song to encapsulate the times.
Lullaby was another kind of particular story of this man striving to be a musician, but really, it was much more about the relationship between this man and his father that was dying of cancer, and the dreams and the hopes of the father when he passes that this son will really realize who and what he can be and go be it. That the son will be sort of loyal to their religious tradition, their ancestry and their genome, and go out and make the visions of his father proud and also himself at the same time. With the Mojave stuff, there’s funny little coincidences in that. Since we were shooting out in the desert, before production, the director, William Monahan, who’s a dear friend, was going out with camera guys to do a little scout and maybe get some bonus footage. I said, “What if I ‘happened’ to be out there at the same time, to proceed about avoiding insurance risks and producers getting involved?” I said, “If I ‘happened’ to be out in the Mojave at the same time, what if I camp with you guys? We’d set up campfires and tent out in the desert.” Monahan is such a fan of music as a person that when we would grab a guitar and start playing, he just wanted to throw some of that into the film. In my experience with someone like [Steven] Soderbergh, he had come to me about popping some music in the background of some stuff on Mosaic. So it’s always been, “I’m so happy to.” I love any chance I can get to getting up and playing with dear friends, be it Tennessee or now with dear friends from Aussie like Julia. She’s a wonderful talent and a wonderful person. I really cherish those times we had in Australia so genuinely.
Don’t you also have a musical connection with Terrence Howard?
[laughs] I do! When we were shooting Four Brothers, even in that, the character—I don’t know how much was cut from the film—was struggling to be a punk musician/artist in the early manifestations of the script. So they got me a guitar out in Toronto where we were shooting. With a big ol’ amp, jamming out in the apartment carelessly, unconcernedly about my neighbors. But Terrence was the first one who showed me a little kind of fannish number on the guitar, which is pretty much the only thing I knew how to play up until I did Country Strong. [laughs] Terrence is such a wonderful musician. I mean, he taught himself the guitar. He can play flamenco guitar with the best of them. He’s a through and through artist when it comes to charting the thought process, and how his mind works. I genuinely cherish Terrence off-set just playing chess and the mathematics and everything that’s seamed into that, to reading and writing, to him going off talking about Dorian Grey and whathaveyou. When he jumped onto On the Road to play a sax musician, he practically learned how to play the fucking sax in three days. The guy is a genius if there ever was one. That’s why it was sweet as well when, coincidentally, on Lullaby he had come on to play the doctor and created his wonderful unscripted dialogue with Richard Jenkins prior to the scenes, and this and that. I cherish that man. He’s really a tender soul in my life.
How did you guys end up working together so often?
It was happenstance. It’s funny how that happens. There’s certain people here and there that you wish you could shoot every film with, and you go away and you either still communicate or you don’t. When you feel like it’s not gonna happen again, these are the ones you end up working the most with, coincidentally, somehow. Some stars align and make it the script, and you either see their name or they see your name. You conjoin forces. I hope to have many more of those in my life. On Triple Frontier, it was Charlie Hunnam. We’ve been best friends for 15 years. We’d been searching for a damn film to do together for so long and that’s kind of the reason we did that. J. C. [Chandor] had said, “What if I switch a couple characters around to make you and Charlie brothers?” So that became a wonderful dream scenario. Then Oscar [Isaac] came onboard, and then that became Oscar’s and my third film together. We’d been wonderful friends as well. Oscar is such a musical prodigy as well. Every time we would meet up, if we were working on a film or around the same location, we would always be somewhere playing the same Blaze Foley song on guitar. Quite a few of them are recorded. So it’s the same with Oscar. We jumped on and were honored to work with the Coen brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis, and then we worked together two more times with Mojave and Triple Frontier. These are the wonderful relationships that you hope down the road—in 10, 15, 20, 30 years—amounts to a great catalogue of wonderful art you’ve been able to create together. That’s what drives me.
After Dirt Music, you have The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which you worked on with Lee Daniels. Terrence has worked with Lee before on Empire and The Butler. So do you ask Terrence what Lee is all about going into that project? Actors do that, right? Friends do that.
Well, I think it’s something if you can do, you do. I think both of them, within Empire, had a wonderful amount to be appreciative of each other for. I want to grab onto that appreciation chain. I think Empire has been so wonderful to the both of them. Lee approached me with The United States vs. Billie Holiday before the script was written and really just gave me all the history of the character, which hadn’t had the opportunity before to be expressed out there—the real story and journey of Billie Holiday, and of Harry Anslinger, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, back during that time and extended on through Truman, Hoover, Eisenhower, Kennedy. I think it’s the first glimpse into the detriment that he played within the life and the existence of Billie Holiday and the dark avenues of which he tried to destruct her. I haven’t seen the film, but I have a wonderful feeling that I’m going to be proud of it. Lee’s a true artist of a director. He was living and breathing this project for quite some time. He gave me a massive amount of material to sort of investigate, including Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream. Then there’s also much more, extending my love and fascination with Billie Holiday. I listened to her nonstop when we were shooting On the Road. I cherish getting to be a part of her story coming to fruition. For a whole new generation to get to experience and see how this incredible artist’s life was unfortunately stripped from us way too soon. The beautiful music she created and the life she lived. The pain and torment she went through within the abuse of drugs and alcohol. It’s something that I really hope makes an impact on a lot of people that are struggling in their own lives right now—this particular story about the journey of one insanely strong human being during this drastic time of measures.
Do you remember that time you were on Larry King?
He asked you if you had a hidden talent.
The bird whistling. I think we had just wrapped Triple Frontier or something. We’d been all around, going from Columbia and then I had to go to the Cayman Islands for a screening at a festival there. I had literally just landed, straight to going to that interview just beat from a long shoot. Then literally, I had to shoot straight to the Nantucket Film Festival for the premiere of Burden, then straight to Australia to lay up in the ol’ bush with the Kimberleys. When he asked that hidden talent question and all I could go to was the whistling of the birds, it’s one of those dear regrets. I’d met Larry before and he was really actually very sweet when Country Strong had come out. His wife and I had worked with the same engineer in Nashville for music and he’d called us as soon as he finished watching the film. He was so sweet: [Hedlund does an immaculate impersonation of King] “Garrett, Garrett, tremendous talent! Please come over for dinner!” Then at that interview, all I could do was whistle a bird.
I think it’s wild! I was actually just hoping to hear it again.
Even with what’s going on in the world and everything, a guy can still whistle. [Hedlund bird whistles] I appreciate you, man.