One of Australia’s most fascinating filmmakers to surface in the cult cinema world over the past couple of years has been Daniel Armstrong. Armstrong has quickly built a name for himself in the industry and fans have loved his films like Sheborg Massacre, MurderDrome and Fight Like A Girl, just to name a few.
Now, Daniel is back with his new film Tarnation, which is set to turn the ‘cabin in the woods’ style horror on its head. Heavy Mag sat down and chatted to Armstrong as he prepares for his film to open at Monster Fest in Melbourne.
“Tarnation is a cabin-in-the-woods extravaganza,” says Daniel laughing when I ask him to tell me about the film. “It came out of my love for movies like Evil Dead and the cabin-in-the-woods films that came out in the 1980s, so it is a bit of a homage to those, and a little bit self-indulgent as well. It’s all set in the cabin in the woods, a young girl called Oscar goes there to think about her life and discovers that the woods are inhabited by Satan, who tries to take her soul with some tricks and tortures including a demon unicorn and things like that. You need to see it to make sense of it; it is a bit of a weird film, but it is a lot of fun – there is a lot of blood, and a lot of humour. There are also some great performances from Daisy Masterman and Emma-Louise Wilson who played the Sheborg in Sheborg Massacre. Emma plays a character called Wheels who is confined to a wheelchair. All up, it’s a blood-soaked adventure in a cabin in the worlds with a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll thrown in.”
That led me to the question of how the name Tarnation came about? “Well, yes, the film is set in a ghost town called Tarnation,” he explains. “It starts off in the city, and then Oscar gets kicked out of the band that she is in and her boyfriend leaves her and takes the cat with him; and then, when she is all bummed out, her housemate asks to go with her and fiancé on this weekend away, and that’s in this old dead town called Tarnation. But it is also around the fact that the ye olde word for hell is ‘tarnation’, so that fits with the theme of the movie which is that Oscar is being dragged or tempted into hell by this Satanic presence in the woods.”
Luckily for the location scouts working on the film though they didn’t have to work too hard to find a creepy cabin in the woods. “We built it,” explains Armstrong. “Our Art Director, a genius guy, literally built it for us out where we have filmed several films now out at a mate’s farm in Melton. It’s essentially our backlot, and he lets us come out and light fires and crash cars into trees. But he had an old chicken coop on his property and Anthony Hatfield, our Art Director, being the genius he is looked at the chicken coop and said, ‘Can we turn this into an Evil Dead style cabin in the woods?’ Then he found all these bits of wood and corrugated iron around the property, and in hard rubbish and ended up building us our very own custom built cabin, which was genius because then we could splash blood everywhere and smash windows… we could do what we wanted.”
Armstrong is also full of praise for his cast who had some tiring times on set but worked very hard. “In the lead role, we have Daisy Masterman,” he says. “If you’ve seen Sheborg Massacre, she was the co-star; the energetic comedic co-star and I actually worked with Daisy the first time on my first film, MurderDrome, where she had a small role (one of the mean girls), and I remember seeing her in that small role and thinking ‘she was under-utilised’, which is why she had a bigger role in Sheborg, and this time I actually wrote the role of Oscar with her in mind…. I was keen to put her in the lead role. And then Daisy had a lot of input during the writing of the film and had a lot of input with developing the character, so that was a lot of fun. We also have Emma-Louise Wilson back; she’s been in every movie that I have ever made, but not always in a major part. She was the Sheborg, but she plays Wheels in this one, she has a disability and is confined to a wheelchair the whole time, which is ironic because Emma is a trained stunt-woman and I keep putting her in roles where she can’t do any stunts. In Sheborg Massacre, she was in this Sheborg suit where she could hardly move. So she couldn’t do any stunts; in this one, she can’t move her legs and is stuck in a wheelchair and again can’t do any stunts. Next time, I will have to give her a role where she can do some stunts because she is trained to do that and is always complaining. Then we’ve also got Danae Swinburne who also had a role in Sheborg Massacre. Here, she plays Oscar’s housemate Rain, and then we’ve got Blake Waldron and Joshua Diaz rounding out the cast. Blake plays Josh’s hot cousin; they are part of the group that goes out to the woods and encounters Satan and demon unicorns.”
Armstrong also admits that there were problems with having Wheels in a wheelchair the whole time as well. “The main problem was logistical,” he explains. “We’re out on a property that is mainly bush and mainly trees where there are dirt and uneven ground and then we have this cabin that we have built out of a chicken coop, so it didn’t have a real floor; we just put some carpet down over the dirt. That meant there was no even ground anywhere which made it very tough for Emma to even move, so most of the time we had to trick her move from A to B with camera angles and stuff because she just couldn’t roll, the wheelchair we were using was also one that we had found in hard rubbish, so it didn’t function terribly well, either… so that was interesting. I thought it was funny, but I’m sure the cast found it annoying, but it’s good to create challenges. I like creating challenges. You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over; you have to grow and take on harder things.”
So how nervous is Armstrong before the world premiere of his movie at Monster Fest? “I am so nervous that I wish I didn’t have to go,” he says laughing. “It is pretty nerve-wracking, I think anyone who does this would tell you that it is pretty nerve-wracking because I am comfortable with the film that I made and I’m happy with it, but you never know how it is going to play in front of an audience. You become hypersensitive to every reaction during the film – if someone goes out to the bathroom, you find yourself panicking and thinking, ‘Oh no, why are they leaving?’ And it is also the first time you’ve seen it played on a big screen, and with a cinema sound system and all of that. You don’t get a chance to see it on the big screen or hear it through the cinema speakers until it is actually playing that night in front of an audience. There is a lot of things that can go wrong because it is not that easy to mix your sound for a cinema without test runs. So the first time that it is tested on a big screen is the actual screening, that is nerve-wracking in itself. Sometimes I stand up the back near the door and go outside for a few deep breaths, and then try to disappear very quickly when it is all done.”
Tarnation screens at Monster Fest 2017 on November 24th @ 9.30pm.