Features/What to SEE/Film

Darkness lights the way

6 July 2023

Set in the dark and twisted American South, Ben Young’s latest film also boasts plenty of local luminaries. The Perth-born director takes Ara Jansen behind the scenes of Devil’s Peak. 

Ben Young likes his stories a bit dark and sinister. It’s one of the reasons why taking the helm of his latest film, Devil’s Peak, was such a thrill. 

The Perth-born director related very strongly to a pivotal relationship between the movie’s main character and son. It reminded him of a not-so-healthy connection he had as a teenager.    

“He was someone I looked up to as a father figure,” Young says. “He was a criminal and involved in some pretty bad stuff and was too old not to know better. I had to make a choice. I was 17 and hanging around with this guy. I idolised him and had known him since I was a kid.  

“I remember having the conversation about not having anything to do with him anymore and at the time it was a tough decision.  

“I had a great relationship with my dad, but at that age he wanted me to study, while this other guy gave me cigarettes and alcohol. It was very difficult to figure out who I wanted to be when I grew up. One of the hardest things was walking away from someone who was important to me.” 

Ben Young is fascinated with the South. Photo supplied

So he felt more than a little kinship with 18-year-old Jacob McNeely, the lead character in Devil’s Peak. Set in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, the film is adapted from David Joy’s novel Where All Light Tends to Go. Jacob is torn between taking over the business from his meth-dealing kingpin father and leaving the mountains forever with the girl he loves.  

There were some other great reasons to get involved in Devil’s Peak, including actors Billy Bob Thornton, Robin Wright, her son Hopper Penn and Perth-born actor Emma Booth. The film’s director of photography, Michael McDermott, also hails from Perth while fellow Aussie Harrison Gilbertson, who was in a previous Young film, plays an angry young cop.   

“They were so strong I could see them living and breathing,” he says. “Plus, I’ve been fascinated with the history of the South – I love the accents and the environment – and it’s such a dark, twisted place. It was a world I wanted to spend time in.” 

Devil’s Peak is a heavy, violent, high stakes, hold-your-breath film. It’s also beautifully made, the characters feel true, its aesthetics are grounded and the performances are brutally honest. Thornton as Charlie, the meth-dealing patriarch, is quite simply frightening. It’s a character driven movie with the attitude of an indie but with the stars and finish of a big budget production. And yet somehow the film still manages to create a sense of hope.   

Known for his features Hounds of Love and Extinction, as well as award-winning short films and music videos, Young says he has been offered big-budget films, but the material and the characters have always felt a bit shallow. Robert Knott’s screenplay, however, grabbed him – not just the dark characters but the realism of the story and the impact of its subject. 

The Aussie contingent on ‘Devil’s Peak’. Photo @benjyoung

Young says working with two of Hollywood’s most respected actors was exciting and fun.  

“He’s the nicest human in the world,” he says of Thornton. “He’s terrifying as that character. I saw Sling Blade at 14. I get chills thinking about it.   

“Working with him was a dream. He comes so prepared and with so many ideas, and he’s such a generous performer. He’s so collaborative. He’s gracious, kind and really supportive to the other actors. He always takes the time to talk to the other actor, to make sure he’s giving them what they want, so they can do their best work.” 

Thornton returns the compliment: “When I met Ben, I’d never seen a more enthusiastic director in my entire life and I’ve worked with all of them,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow! This kid is happy! This is gonna be great! Finally, I get to work with a director who’s happy to come to work every day!’” 

Wright also enjoyed the experience. “What a light he is! He’s the most optimistic, kind creator, and the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with. And he has an amazing eye – he was an editor first, so you see him cutting the movie while he’s shooting you in the scene.” 

Young considers directing a collaboration rather than a dictatorship. It’s about discussing what could and might work from scene to scene, rather than his word being gospel. 

“I call this making an offer rather than telling them what to do,” he explains. “I use language to generate conversation and help them land on the choices that work for me, them and the film. Both Robin and Billy are directors themselves, so that also made it easier. This film really was a true collaboration with true artists.”  

Robin Wright in ‘Devil’s Peak’. Photo supplied

Young, who started his career as an actor, was on the way to work on a television show in Queensland when he finally got the green light for Devil’s Peak. Discussions had been going on for enough time that he thought it would never happen. Suddenly, Thornton wanted to meet him and two weeks after the TV job, he was in Atlanta and it was full steam ahead.    

Long-time friend Booth, who plays Thornton’s girlfriend, worked with Young on his previous two films. They first met about 20 years ago, when they were 12 or 13, playing opposite each other in a local anti-smoking commercial. They reconnected at 21 when they were both cast in the TV adaptation of Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net

“Since then, we’ve formed a great friendship,” says Young. “I’ve directed three movies and Emma has been in all of them and I hope that she’ll continue to be in all of them.” 

While currently in Perth with family, Booth normally lives in Florida with her husband, artist and musician Dominick Joseph Luna. Over the past few years, she’s spent a lot of time at home painting and is now gearing up for her first solo art exhibition.    

“Ben calls me his muse. I will not do a film without him,” she says with a laugh. “He’s one of my best mates and I love him as a director. He’s an incredible collaborator and we both have a taste for the dark side in film, television and art. There’s magic when he and I get together. We’re already talking about our next film together.  

Emma Booth pays tribute to Ben Young, her ‘brother from another mother’ on Insta. Photo @emmalovesluna

“There’s also lots of laughter when we get together. Creating together is something that brings a lot of joy.” 

Equally, Booth says Young always throws challenging roles her way. She loves that he knows just how far and hard to push her. “I love getting my hands dirty. I get bored easily. It’s not worth it if I’m not just a little bit scared. To be able to affect an audience is such a privilege,” she says.  

“As a director Ben is amazing and has an incredible eye. He’ll suggest one small thing, everything clicks and it will totally light up a scene. He doesn’t monitor every little thing, like some directors do. When he does chime in it’s perfect and makes the scene 10 times better.”       

The American crime drama will lead the charge of international features at the 26th annual Revelation Perth International Festival this month and Devil’s Peak will make its Australian premiere on Young’s home soil. He is also one of the festival’s ambassadors.  

What is unusual about Devil’s Peak is that while it was filmed in Atlanta, Young used his influence to bring the project to Perth for post-production.  

“To my knowledge, Devil’s Peak is the first American film ever to be completed in Western Australia,” Young says. “Screen West became involved in the movie, and we were able to entirely finish the movie in Perth. Merlin Eden, who cut my first film Hounds of Love, cut this movie in Perth. The effects, the colour timing, the sound design and the music is done by Adam Spark (Birds of Tokyo). 

“It was a bit of an experiment, but we proved it was possible. Hopefully, it proves to anyone who will give me that opportunity that we can do the work here. This is a stepping stone.” 

One he hopes will lead to him filming a future project from start to finish in his home town. 

Devil’s Peak opens Revelation Perth International Festival on 12 July ahead of a theatrical release later this year. Revelation runs until 16 July 2023.

Pictured top: Billy Bob Thornton stars in ‘Devil’s Peak’ as a drug kingpin. Photo supplied

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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