When Monster met The Nymph

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It takes balls of steel to live in Ceduna and make a mockumentary about The Nullarbor Nymph. After all, she may still be out there… older, angrier, nakeder. And who knows what might happen to the poor unfortunate filmmaker should she ever get wind of what transpired in front of his lens. But then again, Mathew Wilkinson is no ordinary man. He’s a member of that rare breed who can look a naked, feral wild woman right in the eye and say ‘Bring It!’ This week, Monster Pictures correspondent and hipster-at-large, Zak Hepburn, asked the man himself to come clean about his take on Australia’s most provocative cultural icon and talk about the ins and outs of filmmaking so close to the actual fringe.

 

The Nullarbor Nymph is derived from a legend that suggests there was a half naked woman running around the Nullarbor Plain in the early 70s – how did you first hear about it?

I first heard about the Nymph through my Grandfather when I was about 6 years old. He used to work out near Maralinga, where the British were testing their nuclear weapons and he would always joke about trying to catch the Nymph. It wasn’t until about 3 years ago that I started to do my research about the Nymph and discovered it was all a hoax.

 

The urban legend of the Nymph is just one of the archetypical characters or beasts littered throughout Aussie Outback History – along with the Bunyip and Ned Kelly (or even Reckless Kelly…..!) – What made you want to create a film about the Nymph?

I think the first thing that surprised me was that the story had really been untouched by the media since the early 70’s. I also found that alot of young people my age (under 30) had never even heard of the Nullarbor Nymph. I always just saw a lot of great Aussie humour that could come out of the situation. A blonde, beautiful woman running around is just too good to be true. For me, the hoax however never answered the question of why she was out there. I wanted to tackle that, and the more I thought about how to inject more comedy into it, the more I realised she needed to be like the Greek legend of Medusa, a tremptress to men with the ability to cause havoc.

 

What drove you to create a mockumentary rather than a narrative feature?

Budget really. Being out in Ceduna, 800km away from Adelaide, I was never going to be able to afford to make the film as a full narrative. So I cheated and said to myself, well the concept is completely over the top, it’s tacky, so it needs to be executed in a way where you openly admit to the audience, this film has no budget. I think that really became the charm of The Nullarbor Nymph. If I had made the same film with a million dollars, I don’t think it would be as funny.

 

You wrote and directed the film – but you also put up the coin to finance it – can you tell us about the joys of self-funding a feature film in the days of studio blockbusters and Crowd-funding?

Not too many people had faith in me, to be honest, when I started making the film. Most people, even some of the actors, thought it would be the worst film to come out of Australia. I really struggled to actually get any money out of anyone. I ended up funding the film by working part time jobs as a cleaner. I think it’s funny now though, because people do come up to me and say ‘if you had told me, I would have put money towards it’.. But in reality, cleaning toilets funded The Nullarbor Nymph’s shooting budget which was around $15,000.

 

How long was the production process in total?

The funny thing with The Nullarbor Nymph is that I wrote the script at the end of 2010 after just breaking up from a horrible relationship. I think that helped to fuel the script. I filmed between April to October 2011. I had to shoot in segments because I had to rely on pay cheques to get scenes done. We set a film premiere date in Ceduna for March 3rd 2012, so I had to have everything with post-production done by then.

 

How did you go about casting The Nymph? Did the audition process include a solitary evening in the desert with the survivors progressing to a second audition?

Besides the Nymph, most people in the film were people I knew or just locals in Ceduna who had nothing to do on the weekends. I was really restricted with my auditions. Again, working from a regional town in the middle of nowhere has its limitations. I had to do casting for the Nymph over the internet. The reason Jessica got the role was because she went out of her way to dress up in a fur bikini and run around sand dunes on a beach in NSW. She seemed like the only person who was prepared to get dirty compared to others who would simply ask me ‘Will there be ice water on set?’

 

There’s a classic story of filmmaker David Lean encountering issues with sand and dust destroying his cameras whilst filming Lawrence of Arabia – was the location shoot difficult logistically?

I really tried to time the shooting period as best I could to work with the weather out here on the Great Australian Bight. April and May are the best times to shoot because you get calmer, cooler days. I never had too many problems with dust or dirt as I only had one camera, one sound recorder…that was it. We didn’t have any fancy equipment. The biggest issue we had was flies. The hotter the day got, the more flies you got. I remember my Dad watched some of the footage and said “Keep those flies in there, it’s the true Australia” So I did.. we even added in some extra fly buzzing sounds in post-production.

 

Did you encounter a lot of people willing to talk about their own personal Nullarbor Nymph story?

I was a little disappointed with the Nymph encounter stories I was told. I found that most people had really forgotten all about it or just said “It was just people playing a prank”. Jimmy, the older gentleman at the start of the film in the super 8 footage, used to be the bus driver who crossed the Nullarbor during that period of the 70’s. He told me that tourists liked to leave food on the side of the road for the Nymph, so we did use that element in our film.

 

As the legend of the Nymph has effectively been debunked as a hoax perpetrated by a media publicist – did you ever consider implanting a series of Nymph’s around the country to create a buzz around the film?  

Haha, I actually did think about setting up a Nymph on the side of the road before the Ceduna premiere. If I had the budget to splash around with Advertising that’s exactly what I would have done!

 

Many iconic Aussie comedians and performers have come out championing the film – how did you get the final film into their hands?

After the Ceduna premiere, Triple M got hold of me and asked about the film. They were really interested in the Australian element it had. I sent them a copy and they were really impressed with it. They sent it out to comedians and reviewers for me and got us all those great reviews. I was in shock when it all happened. They had a huge red carpet premiere in Sydney for us and we had a lot of celebrities turn out for it. It was great to just hear everyone laughing at it because that’s all I ever intended for it.

 

If you were being hunted by an outback feral – what Aussie genre character would you want on your side?

You know that’s a tricky one. I’d love to see a knife fight between Mick Dundee and Mick Taylor in a croc infested swamp. It seems to me that the real winner in the Aussie outback is always the natural elements – look at The Long Weekend or even Picnic at Hanging Rock, our landscape has one pissed off temper if you ask me, I’d want that on my side.

Zak Hepburn

About the author: Zak Hepburn

Melbourne based writer and film programmer, Hepburn's work has appeared in The Age, Beat Magazine, Twitch.com and a host of other publications. His film programming work includes CULTASTROPHE, a curated genre cinema program at Melbourne's Cinema Nova which evolved from his previous long running programme CULT VAULT. He currently appears weekly on ABC Radio in the dead of the night talking film and trying to act out scenes from "Play Mistry for Me". He seeks to to find Naturalistic Minimalism - he doesn't know what that is but he read about and it once thought it sounded good.

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