In 1977, a young Australian woman, desperate to strip away the noise and artifice of life, set out on a 1,700-mile trek across the Australian desert with just four camels and her beloved dog for company. Robyn Davidson would go on to chronicle her emotional adventure in the best-selling 1980 memoir Tracks, forever cementing her status as a national treasure. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to translate Davidson’s quest to film, with heavyweights like Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman circling the project at various points. Almost 35 years later, anchored by a near-solo performance by Mia Wasikowska, Tracks has finally completed its own epic journey to the big screen.
”Casting was 90 percent of this movie,” says director John Curran (The Painted Veil), who shot the movie in remote southern Australia over eight weeks in 2013. ”If Mia wasn’t great in it, it was never going to work at all.” The film almost entirely hinges on the raw, sandblasted expanse of her unadorned face. The stripping down of character, both emotionally and physically, was a joy for the 24-year-old Australian actress, who followed her breakout role as the title heroine in Tim Burton’s 2010 hit Alice in Wonderland with a series of costume dramas such as Jane Eyre and Albert Nobbs. ”I’ve played a lot of characters recently where it’s a period piece and I have a big puffy dress and I can’t even sit down,” she says. ”So it was amazing to walk up and have someone pile a whole bunch of dirt on my face and then throw me outside.”
Curran had definite ideas in mind for the film’s other characters. He cast a non-English-speaking aboriginal elder to play Davidson’s guide for a brief stretch of her trip, and tapped Adam Driver (Girls) as Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer hired to shoot milestones on her expedition. He also worked with a desert camel driver who chose four animals to fit the director’s particular needs. ”Did you know camels are even more specific in their personality than dogs?” Curran asks. (No, we didn’t.)
Throughout the revisions of the script, the film’s financiers exerted significant pressure on Curran to manufacture a more romantic relationship between Davidson and Smolan. Curran refused. In real life, Smolan was initially annoyed Davidson because he was intruding on her solitude. The two had a brief fling, but nothing more. ”We just wanted to make sure we remained true to the story,” Curran says of his decision. ”We didn’t want to embellish this as some kind of romantic comedy where they live happily ever after.” So don’t look too closely at the poster of Wasikowska and Driver staring into each other’s eyes as if they’re starring in Out of Africa 2. ”When I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh, okay, now the movie’s a love story!”’ Wasikowska says, laughing.
No, what the movie wants to be is a reminder that sometimes a person can discover pieces of herself only when she steps outside her everyday existence. It’s a message that should also be familiar to fans of Cheryl Strayed’s Oprah-endorsed mega-best-seller, Wild. (That adaptation, starring Reese Witherspoon, hits theaters in December) Wasikowska expects that comparisons between the two stories are inevitable. ”Hopefully, we can get to a place where there’s enough movies with women as the central character that it doesn’t become a thing that people think about in a conflict way,” she says. Curran has a slightly more pragmatic take: ”I guess I’m just glad that ours is coming out first.”
One More Thing:
Two black dogs traded off playing Robyn’s pet, Diggity, on Tracks‘ desert shoot. ”They took the heat the hardest,” says director John Curran. ”We could see one starting to fade and we’d be like, ‘Send in the double!”’