Grief and desire are central themes in Gregor Jordan’s film Dirt Music, adapted from Tim Winton’s 2008 novel by the same name. Set in the rich landscape of Western Australia, Dirt Music follows Georgie (Kelly Macdonald), a forty-something former nurse and live-in girlfriend of Jim Buckley, West Point’s most prominent fisherman. While reluctantly filling the role of stepmom for Buckley’s two children, Georgie is like a bird with clipped wings.
During a late-night swim, she encounters a handsome, mysterious man named Luther “Lu” Fox (Garret Hedlund) who is poaching her husband’s lobster traps. Lu and Georgie begin a passionate affair.
Lu’s tragic past haunts him and, in flashbacks, the viewers discover that he survived a car accident that took the lives of his family folk band members (played by real-life folk duo Angus & Julia Stone) and his young niece. After Jim finds out about Georgie and Lu’s affair, Lu leaves West Point to find a new home in the rugged Australian outback to escape the ghosts of his past and find a new home. The third act is largely man vs. nature, with cinematic shots of Hedlund in the Kimberly region, a plateau area with deep valleys, watering holes and white beaches.
Hedlund spoke to Observer about filming Dirt Music, living in isolation and being creative during the quarantine.
Observer: What drew you to this script?
Garrett Hedlund: I creatively admire Tim Wynn’s book. There was something in it that spoke to me, specifically the story of Lu Fox. He experienced such a tragic happenstance moment in his life that ultimately led him to live life as a ghost, isolate, and fend for himself. He tries to seek solace and peace. What does the guy do with all that emotion and what happens when he tries to fight it? I thought it was beautiful. I’m a fan of Gregor’s films and I know it would be an Australian production. Gregor is held in high esteem in Australia. I was really looking forward to absorbing the whole vibe of the Aussie land.
How did the rugged, Australian landscape help in getting into character?
It was such an adventure. We shot the third act first, which meant we were up in the Kimberlys. It’s a tough place to get to. It’s very off the grid in a sense. All the cast and crew stayed in tents and the heat was brutal. We’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning and take a boat to these desolate islands and be out in the scorching sun. We were dealing with raising and lowering tides that are massive and you don’t really understand them until you’re there. My experience of being thrown off into the deep end into that environment helped manipulate all the characters.
With the scenes with Kelly, who is such a powerful and instinctual actress, it was great to not necessarily rehearse these scenes but just speak to each other.
You had a handful of emotional scenes. How did you prepare yourself for them?
Lu’s tragic accident forever changed Lu’s life and left him traumatized. He lives with the memories of those he loved and lost and he suppresses his sadness as he attempts to erase the painful images from his memory. I’ve lost many people in my life, so I really related to Lu Fox’s character. In my life, there’s been a considerable amount of isolation and some sense of abandonment. There’s also been a significant amount of trying to find solace and running away. I related to him in that way.
When you find somebody dear, that in some way or another, you can’t have, but it’s one thing that would make you happy, how do you deal with that? With the scenes with Kelly [Macdonald], who is such a powerful and instinctual actress, it was great to not necessarily rehearse these scenes but just speak to each other.
[Eds. note: Above, watch a clip of Dirt Music, provided exclusively for Observer by Samuel Goldwyn Films.]
The film had a couple of musicians in it. Did you guys jam behind the scenes?
We were definitely jamming. There was a decent amount of our pre-production dedicated to the music. I flew right into Melbourne from Los Angeles and arrived at the apartment that Julia Stone, George Mason, and I shared. We investigated, played with the music and formed a bond as this family and traveling folk trio. That was a blast and really got me excited about the film. Julia and I accumulated maybe eight to 12 songs at the end after the production. She remains such a dear, wonderful friend and I enjoy her talent and everything about her immensely.
Music during the quarantine. Are you playing a lot of music a lot during quarantine?
I have a lot of creative people around me. When I was shooting in Nashville for [the 2010 film] Country Strong, I had so many musician pals. We’d love to sit around and jam. It could be scribbling on a notepad, writing in the notes app on the phone or poems we’d written down. It’s such a compulsion for me to do because I’ve been writing ever since I was young. When I work on films, I’m pretty isolated and I’ve used writing as therapy for that. So now to go back with some creative pals and take some of those writings and paint a portrait canvas with them is fun. I never played guitar until Country Strong. I spent months in the studio and been put through the ropes with guitar and now, I thoroughly love it so much. It’s been engraved in my genome.
Dirt Music is now available on demand.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.