It took Thomas M Wright six days to write the first draft of what would go on to be his second feature, The Stranger. The next morning, he couldn’t walk.
Putting pen to paper was preceded by a rigorous six-month research period, during which the writer/director would study his subject matter for ten hours a day, six days a week.
Wright told IF the exacting depth of his preparation ended up taking its toll on his health in the form of pneumonia, for which he had to be hospitalised.
“I think it is something about this material, and the source material, where you have to be very careful about what you invite into your into your home and into your life,” he said.
“And it was a very difficult film to make. But of course, that pales in comparison to the people who’ve been really affected by these sorts of events.”
For The Stranger, the source material is one of the largest investigations and undercover operations in Australia.
The film stars Sean Harris and Joel Edgerton as Henry and Mark, two strangers that strike up a friendship through a mutual acquaintance. At the heart of their uneasy relationship are secrets that threaten to ruin each of them, with one a suspect in an unsolved missing person’s case, while the other is an undercover operative on his trail.
The story is based on the real-life sting operation to capture the man responsible for the 2003 murder of 13-year-old Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe.
Wright, director, producer, and co-writer of 2018’s Acute Misfortune, said his involvement had come from conversations with Edgerton, who also produces and held the rights to Kate Kyriacou’s book The Sting: the Undercover Operation that Caught Daniel Morcombe’s Killer, on which the film is based.
“Joel and I had been discussion about finding something to work on together and I think he had been grappling with the material, trying to find a form,” he said.
“When he saw my first film, Acute Misfortune, I think he saw an alignment.”
Wright took a moral position early on that the film would not show the victim, the victim’s family, or any violence “visited on the victim” in order to leave room to “let those people tell their story”, instead displaying his own connection to themes by casting his son as that of Mark’s.
“I felt I had no right to represent that child and any attempt to summarise would diminish the reality of who that person was,” he said.
“But also, I felt that the film was going to present the audience with a demand for their investment in the film to say, ‘Why does this matter? Why deal with violence as a subject?”
“Empathy is at the core of the film and it is a film about connection because the absence of that figure asks us to fill in that space and to say, ‘Well who is it for you then?’, and for me, it is my son.”
After writing the first draft toward the end of 2019, Wright shot the film across seven weeks in 2020, utilising locations north of Adelaide and Port Adelaide.
While the production was able to escape the harsh COVID restrictions enforced on the eastern states, there was still no shortage of challenges on set, with 250 part scenes needing to be completed in less than two months, making for a lengthy pre-production period and a tight shooting schedule in which up to eight scenes would be shot in a single day.
The director paid tribute to both Edgerton and Harris, whose combined preparation totalled three years, for being able to deliver under difficult circumstances.
“This was a tough shoot; it did not make for a comfortable or straightforward working environment,” he said.
“It was a working set and a shoot that sustained a lot of tension, but that’s because the film demanded that they both go deep and disappear into these parts.
“I couldn’t be more thankful to either of them for the depth of their commitment and to Joel for his partnership through the entire process as a producer. I think it was an extraordinary collaboration between all of us.”
The work of Wright and the film’s cast has already been acknowledged through a string of festival selections this year.
Wright said securing a global audience for The Stranger carried significance for him as someone who experienced difficulty in finding a similar reach for his debut.
“As a filmmaker that has put three years of his life into a piece of work, [it means a lot] to know that it’s going to be seen widely and able to reach a really broad audience as well,” he said.
“Classic cinephiles and people that are interested in that kind of lineage in Australian cinema will seek out the film, whether that be at festivals or in the cinema release, but I also feel it’s a film that works on multiple degrees in how it’s going to communicate with an audience.
“If you want to engage in it as an immersive, satisfying work of narrative cinema, then it’s there to be engaged in but if you want to deal with the film on a more metaphoric or personal, emotional level, then it also invites that response.”
The Stranger will be in cinemas via Transmission Films tomorrow.