INTERVIEW: ‘High Ground’ Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson

A movie twenty years in the making, director Stephen Maxwell Johnson shares insight his filmmaking journey, the inspiration and research behind making 'High Ground' and what’s next in store for him.
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High Ground stars Simon Baker (The Devil Wears Prada, “The Mentalist”), Callan Mulvey (“Rush,” Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Aaron Pedersen (Mystery Road, Killing Ground), Ryan Corr (Packed to the Rafters), Caren Pistorius (Unhinged, Slow West), Jack Thompson (Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, ‘Breaker’ Morant) and introducing Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Witiyana Marika and Esmerelda Marimowa making their feature screen acting debut. The film was directed by Stephen Johnson making his feature directorial debut, and written by Chris Anastassiades (Yolngu Boy).

A still from the adventure/drama film, HIGH GROUND, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

A still from the adventure/drama film, HIGH GROUND, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Gutjuk teams up with ex-sniper Travis to track down the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, who is also his uncle. As Travis and Gutjuk journey through the outback they begin to earn each other’s trust, but when the truths of Travis’ past actions are suddenly revealed, it is he who becomes the hunted.

Very few films linger in the back of my mind days after viewing. High Ground is one of those films. From the timely and universal story set on the outback to the soaring visuals with a nod to Westerns, this is a movie not to be overpassed. A movie twenty years in the making, director Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s perseverance and passion for this story bleeds on the screen. I had the absolute pleasure of connecting with Stephen Maxwell Johnson and learning about his filmmaking journey, the inspiration and research behind making High Ground and what’s next in store for him.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Starting from the beginning, what is your filmmaking journey to now?

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: Right, well I was very very fortunate with the life. I grew up in the Bahama Islands and moved to Africa and then eventually out to Northern Territory in Australia and I had such an incredible childhood growing up in the wild and all of those countries and then being immersed also in the culture of those countries particularly very, very intimately with Aboriginal culture here. And really, so many of my inspirations are being drawn from those experiences that I had as a child and seeing movies at a really early age in Africa and just feeling in my bones that was just a beautiful way to celebrate life and things that I've seen, stories I’ve heard and adventures always having an appeal, ‘Wow, I'd love to try and sort of put that kind of stuff out there myself in that way.’ I mean I was always into theater and dance. That was kind of part of my journey. And ultimately, High Ground was born out of the many many stories and the many friends that I have in Arnhem Land over the years. The great untold story about this country that needed telling, and that we would come together and sit down and develop the idea for a film.

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Sadie: That's amazing, having that history of this story in your backyard, basically. In terms of this story, it's very simple, but it's a very universal story, especially in terms of global history, what was the development stage like with screenwriter Chris Anastassiades?

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: Well Chris and I are very dear friends, we've known each other for years and we've made a movie before in Arnhem Land together. So Chris, I met many, many, many years ago and introduced him to the culture and introduced him to family. So he was very familiar with the territory. He and I've done a lot of work over the years together, and it was about the two of us really just exposing ourselves to all the elements and allowing those to sort of free flow into the idea of creating a narrative screenplay that would sort of tell an entertaining story about our history but one that was impactful. Everything in the film has been inspired by true characters, it’s fiction that serves history in that way, and it was about looking at exploring and grappling with things to really tell a deep truth about what had happened in an entertaining way and a non-judgmental way. A way that where people were just immersed and been on the journey, and sort of come out the other side and hopefully rethink the Australian story in that way. And so, yeah, look, it was a long journey, a lot of sitting down, listening, learning, talking, going away, writing, back, forward, back, forward, I mean it was an incredibly immersive process in that way. Witiyana Markk, a producer on the film and actor in the film, again, one of my oldest friends collaborated with us, with lots of kinds of things to do with story and the processes and connections with all of the appropriate people to talk about things. So very much  a very intimate collaboration between a lot of people to bring this to you know where we got it.

Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson behind the scenes of the adventure/drama film, HIGH GROUND, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson behind the scenes of the adventure/drama film, HIGH GROUND, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Sadie: How long were you in development for the story and then to the screenwriting phase of it?

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: 20 years. Really, the process has been.

Sadie: Wow.

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: Yeah, a long time, long time obviously I've done a lot of other things along the way but this has been a very long journey. It just got to a point where it was a case of not worrying too much about the timeframe, just like, ‘OK, we'll make this when we make it and when the time's right.’ And interestingly enough when I originally wanted to do this, people were not interested, there's no way we could the finances to do it way back then, so the journey of time has been part of the songline of making this film and it's come out now which I think is good timing, post-COVID, there's a lot of things going on in the world. I think as human beings, we are sort of vulnerable in a way we've never been before and perhaps you know a story like this will resonate now more than ever in an effective way or a good way where people perhaps allow it to permeate them.

Sadie: Yeah, I hope so. It’s a film that you definitely think about and one scene that in particular stands out to me is the conversation between Gutjuk when confronting Moran, basically, one side is doing this for the crown and the Aboriginals are rightly claiming this is their country. Getting both points of view, I think is important to see.

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: Absolutely. And very much so, you’re right. That scene certainly encapsulates the dynamic of the time, the ignorance of the time, the missed opportunity that took place, the miscommunications, the mistakes made on both sides, all of those kinds of elements are there. It's just that, you know, what is so very very special about what we're dealing with here in Australia is that Yolngu culture, indigenous culture is actually the oldest living culture on planet Earth. As far as being human goes it's the oldest culture we have. There are many languages, many songs, ceremonies, dances all still being practiced today. It's rich, it’s still alive, even though it is disappearing. And, you know, people do not see themselves, that it's all one cycle being connected to Earth. They are Earth. It's all one thing, and you know hopefully there's a sense of that in the journey of the film.

Sadie: Yeah, absolutely and I'd like to point out the visual motif that you have with the flight of the birds, and having that bird's eye view of the lands from the hunter to the people of that land, I thought that was just beautiful and the way that you were able to keep that interweaved throughout the whole story.

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: You know that was certainly the intention, and certainly kind of how it is. That's the perspective that the people have and it was just trying to sort of incorporate those elements into the storytelling and creating as an immersive experience as possible keeping the camera alive and just the soundtrack. Everything kind of was all about just trying to draw people into that cultural life force, I suppose in that way.

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Sadie: In terms of casting this movie, you have an incredibly talented cast of characters, what was that casting process like especially for the Aboriginals?

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: It was extensive and was over a period of years. Jacob Junior Nayinggul the lead actor Gutjuk, he was not even born when I first discussed this with his grandfather, way back his grandfather was a very very powerful leader, Jacob Nayinggul, old man, and he was an incredible man who was aware of masochism was of that generation of that time and he and I had spoken about the idea of this story of core resistance and he wanted it to happen. He wanted to throw all his country, all these people, everything he had culturally, to the telling of the story because it was his story. And he had unfortunately over the years, he passed away. But Jacob was born. And Jacob Junior grew up and I found him as part of the casting process as I traveled extensively to Arnhem Land screen testing young warriors and young men and young women, and he just stood up and put his spear in my throat and looked me in the eye and just bang, he just nailed it. And he's the grandson of that old man so it's almost like he sang him to me, so he kind of grew up and became the leading man in the film.

[L-R] Jacob Junior Nayinggul as Gutjuk and Simon Baker as Travis in the adventure/drama film, HIGH GROUND, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

[L-R] Jacob Junior Nayinggul as Gutjuk and Simon Baker as Travis in the adventure/drama film, HIGH GROUND, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Sadie: We kind of touched on this but what kind of stories are you inspired by right now and that you're looking forward to telling in the future through your films?

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: Yeah, that's an interesting question because I mean after something that's taken so long like this, you know, you’re exhausted, it takes it out you. This whole thing is taking place in a remote part of Australia, access is expensive. It’s an incredibly exhaustive exercise. I've come out of it, ‘Whoa, never going to anything like that again for a while.’ But look, I'm recharged. I’m very, very excited about another historical story which is just unbelievably powerful story again that kind of relates to the historical facts about Australia, and some amazing characters and stories. Another one I'm interested in is a TV series which is something very, very different, and also a big theatrical production. Look, a number of different projects on the cards coming down and speaking to you and about to drive out today to some of the locations very close to where we made High Ground to have a few conversations about a few things with families. I’m active and we'll just see where it leads me.

Sadie: Stephen, I very much look forward to your future projects and best of luck with everything.

Stephen Maxwell Johnson: I really, really appreciate that. Lovely to talk to you. 

High Ground is On Digital and On Demand May 14, 2021. 

DIRECTOR: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
WRITER: Chris Anastassiades
CAST: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Aaron Pedersen, Ryan Corr, Caren Pistorius, Sean Mununggurr, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Maximillian Johnson, Jack Thompson
SYNOPSIS: Gutjuk teams up with ex-sniper Travis to track down the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, who is also his uncle. As Travis and Gutjuk journey through the outback they begin to earn each other’s trust, but when the truths of Travis’ past actions are suddenly revealed, it is he who becomes the hunted.
RUN TIME: 104 minutes
RATING: Not Rated
GENRE: Drama, Adventure
DISTRIBUTOR: Samuel Goldwyn Films


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