An address in Lewisham, Sydney, is an unlikely one for a Hollywood film director, but Damien Power, whose first studio movie was released internationally in February, is where he wants to be. It's handy to Sydney Secondary College, where his two kids go to school, and to public transport.
He doesn't go to cafés or restaurants, so the city's inner west's wealth of both is not a drawcard. The community is, though. They're his sort of people.
If he could, he'd shoot all his future films in Australia. No Exit, a 20th Century Studios suspense thriller, is set at night in a visitor centre in the mountains, somewhere between Sacramento and Salt Lake City, in the middle of a blizzard. Yet it was shot in a studio in Auckland in the middle of summer, using 20 different kinds of artificial snow on set, and digital special-effects in post-production to create more snow. It augurs well that Power may never have to move to Los Angeles for the sake of his burgeoning career.
"We managed to shoot an American studio film in New Zealand and do the post-production in Sydney, so if I can keep doing that, or shooting them here, I'd be happy," Power says. "I like it here."
Like a growing number of studio films, No Exit, co-starring Dennis Haysbert (who played the president in 24) and Dale Dickey (Winter's Bone), was released as a streaming service original, in this case for Hulu (Disney Plus in Australia), where it launched on February 25.
It's an adaptation of a novel by Taylor Adams, and its plot pivots on the heroine Darby's discovery of a kidnapped child in the back of a van outside the visitor centre where a small group of strangers have been stranded by the bad weather, roads closed and no mobile phone reception. Darby, a recovering addict played by Havana Rose Liu in her first lead role, must figure out who the villain is and how to save herself and the child - cue an edge-of-the-seat 95 minutes of twists, turns and horrors-with-nail-gun.
"I think she is amazing in the film, and I hope it is a breakout role for her," Power says of his young American star. "As soon as I saw her on the Zoom audition, I knew that she was special ... it's very rare in casting to have that experience, where you think 'it has to be her'."
The filmmaking process for Power was radically different to that of his first feature, Killing Ground - the low-budget survival thriller that he wrote and directed and which brought Hollywood knocking. That deeply horrifying film starring Aaron Pedersen took 11 years to get to the screen. It is set in the Australian bush, where a young couple on a camping trip come upon an abandoned orange tent, and discover a toddler wandering alone in the bush.
"It took five years to wrestle that script into shape, to a point where we could try to finance it. Then it took another five years to find the money." No Exit "has happened somewhat quicker," Power says. Even with COVID and other major delays it took only three years to realise.
"Killing Ground played at Sundance Film Festival in 2017, and was pretty successful. We were well-reviewed, sold to international territories, the film screened theatrically here and in the US and the UK, and I got US representation - and that meant I was reading scripts sent to me through my reps, and developing my own stuff at the same time.
"And that's how No Exit came to be; my agent sent me the script, then straight away I read the novel pretty much in one sitting, and thought 'I know what I want to do'."
He then had to pitch his vision for the film to its producer Scott Frank - the co-writer and director of the Netflix smash hit Queen's Gambit, as well as the scriptwriter of films such as Logan, Minority Report and Out of Sight. "They liked my approach," Power says. "From getting the script to the green light was a couple of months.
"I came on board the project beginning of 2019, and then a couple of things happened: 20th Century Fox got bought by Disney and everything Fox was doing was put on pause, but there was still a lot of good will for the project at the studio, they really wanted to make it.
"Then we were gearing up again, and then a global pandemic pauses everything again - and then last year, we were always kind of at the head of the queue to be made."
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The experience was, by the account of Scott Frank himself, a positive one for everyone involved - thanks to Power who apparently, just one feature film in, knew the secret to a successful set: "If you are calm, reasonable, respectful and encouraging, people do their best work and they are happy," Power says.
"I feel like the cast and the crew bonded like a family - everyone was away from their family and friends for five months; we became very close."
No Exit was a much easier shoot than Killing Ground, which was filmed over 29 days at Macquarie Fields, south-west Sydney. Power had to abandon some scenes to finish the film on schedule because he was unable to get extra time off from his day job - which Killing Ground's success meant he could finally quit.
It has been a pretty long journey. When I grew up in Launceston, I felt that films were made by someone else somewhere else.- Damien Power
"I found the Killing Ground shoot was really hard - almost traumatically hard - because we were outdoors for 99 per cent of the shoot, and we had terrible weather, which meant that every day we were behind; every day was a struggle.
"I had a great cast and crew, but that doesn't compensate for the actual slog of production when you don't have much money ... whereas on this film, I was really well-resourced, we shot 95 per cent of it in the studio, which gave me a lot more creative control. And again, I had a great cast and crew, and had a wonderful time making the movie."
Power for many years worked in film and television classification, including for the federal government's Office of Film and Literature Classification and for Foxtel.
He fell in love with movies as a teenager when he joined the Launceston Film Society with his grandfather. In isolated, conservative, pre-Internet, 1980s Tasmania, it changed everything.
"I remember seeing [1987 UK cult classic] Withnail and I, and I also remember not really understanding it," he recalls. "What was great about the Film Society was just seeing films that were from so many different cultures and in so many different styles - it was everything from early Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch to Peter Greenaway, and to classics like Rebel Without a Cause - stuff that there was otherwise no way to see. It was not on TV. It felt like opening a window to the world."
Kids that Power went to school with, at St Patricks College in Launceston, still remember how good he was at essay writing, a star student in English and history. He went on to complete an Arts/Law degree at University of Tasmania but "studying law was enough to put me off from ever being a lawyer". He was also a good long-distance runner, an apt metaphor for his path towards right now - through a career essentially watching films for a living while completing short courses in filmmaking and an MA in Directing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and making a series of award-winning short films along the way. In his 40s, he makes Killing Ground and then - as he's backing into 50 - Hollywood crooks its finger.
"It has been a pretty long journey," he says. "When I grew up in Launceston, I felt that films were made by someone else somewhere else, that it was not possible, but now, it is much more possible - you can make a film pretty cheaply and independently wherever you are."
He hopes to be back on a film set soon. At home in Lewisham, where wife Rachel is his collaborator and script editor, he has several projects on the go, and since No Exit's release there has been a flurry of meetings and conversations, "which has been great". He was already attached as director to a couple of Hollywood projects and is developing his own script - a psychological thriller set in World War II, either in the US or Europe but which he hopes to make here.
"In my experience you never know what project is going to happen - you always have to have a couple on the go," he says.
The idea of it opening everywhere around the world and being available to everyone in their homes at the same time is pretty incredible.- Damien Power
He is also developing an "edgy drama" vehicle for Havana Rose Liu, which would take him away from thriller territory - although perhaps not for long.
"I also saw some Hitchcock at the [Launceston] Film Society, and certainly if you're thinking about suspense thrillers, I think about Hitchcock. I think Psycho was the film I was thinking about when we made No Exit - Darby's journey from the rehab centre to the visitor centre reminded me of Marion Crane's journey to the Bates motel.
"It is a genre that I love, and it is very fun to make as well, because thrillers are all about point of view, and as a director it is particularly fun to play with point of view - the gap between what the character knows and what the audience knows.
"But I am always most interested in character. And unlike a drama where you might follow a character who goes on a journey and is changed, thrillers often happen in a much more condensed period of time, so the stories become about how true character is revealed under pressure."
When No Exit came out on February 25, Power put his feet up and watched it at home in his loungeroom, "a nice safe way to watch things these days".
The cast had a day or two earlier attended a VIP screening in Los Angeles, posing on the red carpet for photographs that went around the world, their director notably absent. "They facetimed me into the party afterwards to say hi," says Power, who did not fly over to join them given the pandemic.
While No Exit will not be in theatres - which Power says he is "fine" with, noting that it was always headed for Hulu once the studio made the decision to move forward and make it - he at least got to see a test audience watch it on the big screen. "We watched it remotely and it was great; it was so much fun to watch people react to it - but the idea of it opening everywhere around the world and being available to everyone in their homes at the same time is pretty incredible."
No Exit is not as brutally confronting as Killing Ground, but then its critical reception has not been as positive either. Audiences, as is often the case, are begging to differ. Power has been informed that viewer numbers around the world are double that of the streamer's expectations.
"People have said to me, 'Killing Ground is a great film that I never ever want to see again', and that is fine, but I actually think that No Exit is really entertaining in a way that surprised me. It actually repays a second watch so you can see how all the pieces come together."
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