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Q&A: Writer/Director Michael Petroni on His Haunting “BACKTRACK”

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Adrien Brody sees dead people and sets out to do something about it in the new, superior supernatural thriller BACKTRACK. Writer/director Michael Petroni sat down with FANGORIA for an exclusive interview about the film.

Currently available on DirecTV and opening in theaters today from Saban Films, the Australian-set BACKTRACK casts Brody as Peter Bower, a psychologist reeling from a personal tragedy who is visited by a young girl who proves to be a ghost. The encounter leads Peter to return to his hometown, where he reunites with his estranged father William (George Shevtsov) and joins a local policewoman, Henning (THE LOVED ONES’ Robin McLeavy) in delving into tragic and frightening events in his past (see review here). Petroni, who made his feature directorial debut on the Guy Pearce/Helena Bonham Carter-starring haunted romance TILL HUMAN VOICES WAKE US, has numerous screenwriting credits in and out of the genre, including THE RITE, POSSESSION, QUEEN OF THE DAMNED, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER and THE BOOK THIEF. He spoke to Fango following BACKTRACK’s world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

FANGORIA: BACKTRACK draws on classic ghost-story themes, like facing and atoning for your past; can you talk about your approach to those traditions?

BACKTRACKPETRONI1MICHAEL PETRONI (pictured right): I think that’s a big theme in my work in general; there’s always something in your past that sort of creeps up on you. I’ve found that to be true in life, and so I gravitate toward that in my storytelling. And it is a tradition in the genre that I respond to.

FANG: You mentioned during your Tribeca Q&A that this film grew out of TILL HUMAN VOICES WAKE US. How exactly did that happen?

PETRONI: That was the first feature script I had written, and it took me a while to get it going for me to direct. It’s about a therapist who comes across a ghost of a past lover, and during the process of making it, I couldn’t help thinking that there was another spooky story to be told about that concept, and it grew from there. I kept it in the back of my mind for a long time, and then when I eked out a bit of free writing time for myself, I started it out as a kind of experiment. I wanted to see if I could surprise myself, and surprise the reader; I didn’t want anyone going through the script to know where it was going to go, and I was surprising myself as I wrote it.

FANG: Was it difficult to create that kind of surprise as you were writing, and yet have it all tie together and make sense at the end?

PETRONI: That took a lot of rereading of the script. I’d do one pass, and maybe I’d get halfway through it and then I’d go, “Right, I really need to know what I’m doing now,” rather than just keep surprising myself. It was a process of freedom and then discipline, where I’d let myself run free, then I’d have to go back and apply the rules of narrative to it.

FANG: Is the key tragedy in the film based on anything that happened in Australia in real life?

PETRONI: No, it was purely made up. Uncannily, though, a very similar incident happened in America shortly after I’d written it. I don’t want to spoil it, but I’d literally put the script down, and then the next week, something like it occurred.

FANG: Did you try to put anything specifically Australian into the script, or did you want to give it international appeal?

PETRONI: Actually, the original draft was set in America. But then I went back to Australia with my children, and when I was there, I picked up the script again and started to imagine it in an Australian setting, and it felt even more original doing it that way. I liked the idea of setting it in a place that many people aren’t familiar with, and the idea of taking Sydney and Melbourne and mashing them together into a kind of strange city that’s not quite recognizable was part of the whole process.

FANG: As someone pointed out at that Q&A, BACKTRACK doesn’t have the look of a lot of Australian films; it has a more Gothic feel about it.

PETRONI: That was intentional, and I set out with a fairly strong idea of how I wanted it to look. My choice of cinematographer, Stefan Duscio, was based on that too. He and I have a very similar aesthetic and like the same kinds of films. I showed him the photography of Gregory Crewdson, and Stefan knew about him, so we both responded to that. There’s a certain eeriness to his photographs that’s otherworldly yet hyper-real, and that was the tone we were going for.

FANG: The film truly is rooted in reality; even when supernatural events occur, they’re treated in a naturalistic way.

BACKTRACKPETRONI2PETRONI: That was very intentional. One of the directives to the art department and special effects department was, I didn’t want the ghosts to be ghostly. I wanted them to have a realness to them, so that they’re present in the scenes.

FANG: There are a few moments in BACKTRACK that seem influenced by Japanese horror, including one where a ghost’s vocal effect echoes THE GRUDGE. Was that intentional?

PETRONI: [Laughs] Yeah, it was. We did want to have a bit of fun with it, and I appreciated last night that the audience was enjoying that aspect of it; there was an audible response I really liked.

FANG: Can you talk about the casting of Adrien Brody in the lead? Did you ever consider having an Australian actor in the role?

PETRONI: Yes, although we had to make it for a certain price, and I wanted to make it as international as possible. And yes, there are international Australian stars, but there’s literally just a handful of them, and in the end, there was a much wider choice if we started to consider American actors. And when we thought about that, Adrien was a clear choice, because I wanted someone who conveys an interior world. Adrien doesn’t have to say much, and you’re very interested in what he’s doing or thinking, which was imperative for the character.

FANG: You’ve got a great cast of Australian actors, including many with past genre credits. Did you intentionally go for familiar faces when filling out those parts?

PETRONI: Not familiar faces so much as just faces I knew and loved, and wanted to work with. Like George—I’ve loved his previous stuff like LOVE SERENADE and have always wanted to use him, and he was such a great match as Adrien’s dad.

FANG: Their physical resemblance is pretty striking.

PETRONI: Yes, I couldn’t resist it [laughs]. And the great thing about George was that every time the camera rolled, he would have made a new discovery in the text, and his interpretation of it. He was always refreshing and reinventing it.

I was very impressed with the extent of Robin’s research into her role. She really immersed herself, and actually interviewed a friend of mine who’s a police officer, and drilled him on details of procedural stuff. I also really appreciated Sam Neill’s questions about his role [as Peter’s mentor]. They were very insightful, and they challenged me and then helped me understand the part a bit better. It brought something out in his character, a certain aggression in him that I really liked.

There was definitely a powerful difference in the chemistry between all of them, which enriched the relationships of the characters in the film. George and Adrien’s chemistry was so interesting, because there was a strange kind of ambivalence between them, and I love how something like that can be created just by putting the right two actors together.

FANG: Did any spooky stuff happen while you were shooting?

PETRONI: Our production base was in this famous old psychiatric ward in Sydney that has now been converted into office spaces, and there are hundreds of stories about ghosts in that old space. So if you worked late one night, and then you walked to your car, you definitely had a creepy feeling.

FANG: You’ve worked on both Hollywood features and smaller projects like BACKTRACK. What are the differences, and do you prefer one or the other?

PETRONI: Doing studio work, you’re painting on a bigger canvas, which is always great, when you don’t have to care about budget. You just go for it, and then you get told later, perhaps, that you have to change things. But there’s also something good about writing for an independent film, where you really have to restrict yourself, and when you limit yourself, you become more inventive.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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