‘As far as debut feature films go, it was an ambitious one’: Roderick MacKay looks beyond ‘The Furnace’

'The Furnace'.

Writer-director Roderick MacKay is keen to further explore frontier mythology following the release of his debut feature The Furnace this week.

Produced by Timothy White (I Am Mother) and Tenille Kennedy (H is for Happiness), the film follows Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek as a young Afghan cameleer who partners with Mal, a mysterious bushman (David Wenham) on the run with two Crown-marked gold bars.

Together the unlikely pair must outwit a zealous police sergeant and his troopers in a race to reach a secret furnace – the one place where they can safely reset the bars to remove the mark of the Crown.

The cast includes Jay Ryan (It: Chapter 2, Top of the Lake), Erik Thomson (The Luminaries), Baykali Ganambarr (The Nightingale), Trevor Jamieson (Storm Boy), Mahesh Jadu (The Witcher) and Samson Coulter (Breath).

Having had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, the 1890s drama will open on 115 screens via Umbrella Entertainment tomorrow.

Roderick MacKay.

MacKay told IF that while he was open to “whatever opportunities come my way” as a result of The Furnace, he was working on projects in a similar space to the film, albeit geared more towards frontier mythology than the Western genre.

“I’ve always had a love for frontier mythology,” he said.

“They are similar to Westerns but employ a different type of storytelling sentiments.

“I have two projects in development that deal more with frontier mythology. In their current embryonic stage, these projects are feature films but they are still malleable and could therefore take on a different shape.”

Shot across six weeks in remote Western Australia towards the end of last year, The Furnace was one of the last feature films to wrap in the state prior to the onset of COVID-19.

For MacKay, who first began researching the film in 2014, the process of making his first feature was overwhelming at times but also allowed him to be in his element.

“As far as debut feature films go, it was definitely an ambitious one,” he said.

“We only had six weeks to shoot what was a sprawling epic across a range of different locations with a cast of 30 speaking roles and dialogue across five different languages, only one of which I speak.

“It was 40 degrees most days and even reached 55 at one point, so it got pretty hairy.

“There is a certain type of thrill seeker that likes to subject themselves to this type of torment.”

‘The Furnace’.

MacKay’s focus was to strike a balance between story that spotlighted history, while at the same time remaining accessible to audiences.

“There are not many other films about this subject matter, so that was a hugely delicate part of the storytelling to navigate,” he said.

“We also wanted it to reach a wide audience and draw the history into Australian mainstream historical vernacular and the mythologising of the outback,” he said.

“That’s why we ended up leaning into the western genre to give it a familiar form, so audiences could find their way into this different depiction of the outback.

“For all the more confronting moments in the film, it does leave you with a sense of hope, which I am hopeful will feature in people’s response to the film.”

The Furnace will be in cinemas tomorrow.

View the trailer here.