Wyrmwood: Apocalypse Star Luke McKenzie Talks the Joys of Genre Cinema, Returning to the World of Zombies, and More in This Interview

Aussie genre cinema is back in full force with the arrival of the hotly anticipated zombie-action-flick Wyrmwood: Apocalypse. Alongside his dedicated and passionate cast and crew, Kiah Roache-Turner has crafted an impressive genre film that demands a big screen viewing.

Fans of the first film, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead might be a little surprised to see Luke McKenzie return for the sequel given the unfortunate fate of his iconic character, The Captain. In this interview, Luke talks about the discussion that Kiah and he had in bringing Luke back to the series, the joys of working with practical effects, and more.

Listen to director Kiah Roache-Turner talk about Wyrmwood: Apocalypse here and here.

Wyrmwood: Apocalypse is in cinemas now!

Congratulations on the work that you’ve done in both of the films. What was it like being asked to come back for the sequel? And what was your reaction? Like, me? again?

Yes, that was my reaction. Anybody who’s seen the first one knows there is not a big window open there to bring The Captain back. Burnt up, and then he was devoured by zombies. But no, when Kiah called me up and explained what their idea was in the new way one, it was really exciting. I’ve worked with Kiah a bunch over the years, and a lot of the crew who came onto the Wyrmwood, they’re part of a broader family, the brothers have brought in good people to their productions. And so there was a reunion element to it that I was super excited about. The story and the script was fantastic, because it’s been so long since we did the first one that I think Kiah has had a lot of time to really craft and hone his craft. And he’s already such a cinephile, and such a lover of story, and he’s hyper intelligent, but that extra kind of seven or eight years, or whatever it’s been, it really showed up on the page, because the script was fantastic and tightened class.

And then we just had a blast making it which is, behind what the objective was, I had all these ideas of taking Rhys this way or that way, and kind of digging deep into what was going on with him. But ultimately, he said, ‘Luke, be in shape. Commit to it. And it’s just going to be a hot as hell ride. So the more you can just be present and work out.’ What I guess I’m getting to is, it was less about kind of wrenching myself internally, and more about just enjoying the process, because every day on set was just a blast. I was just excited to be part of the reunion. I think people who fell in love with Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead are going to fall in love with two, because it’s just more of everything.

I interviewed Kiah last year and the energy that guy has could power Australia. The excitement and the energy that’s in the film itself is really tangible, it’s something completely guttural. Rhys is a very physical role as well. How do you prepare yourself for something that is so physical besides doing exercises and weightlifting?

I just think you’ve got to know that you’re going to go into the trenches. Like, if you didn’t, and you’re there in your first few days or your first week and you’re battered and bruised and exhausted, and that’s surprised to you, then you’re in a bit of trouble. Kiah said, ‘this is going to be an ordeal’. It was summertime in Sydney, with all the army gear on and in bunkers, and in metal clad cars, black metal clad cars, and doing stunts and fight scenes all day for a 10-hour day in summer. It was grueling, but we knew it was going to be so you prepare you as best you can. I dropped I think about a dozen kilos. And I didn’t trick myself that it was gonna be easy. That was about the only prep you can do.

How do you unwind after a day out in the elements in such intense costumes and cars and doing stunts?

Really good air conditioning, cracking a beer every now and then. It was tough man. We had a pretty good time. Because it was COVID production as well, we were all pretty locked down in the one place and everybody – bar a few people – were staying on site as well, but not on site where the location was, but at the caravan park down the road. So we did have a pretty good time of it as well. So blowing off steam, there was a pub next door, we’d go and have a meal together and have a beer, and have a swim in the pool that was there. But I had my motorbike out there as well, so I’d take off for rides up into the hinterland, and that was gorgeous. But it was mostly replenishing the tanks, hydrating as much as you can, and just taking care of yourself. Everybody on the production had a low point where there’s nothing in the barrel, there was less miles that day. And everybody had a little low point that we could come back up out of, before the second wind kicked in.

When you were presented with the script, how did you differentiate The Captain from Rhys? What kind of things did you put in place to make sure that they were unique characters, but still similar?

There was a lot of discussion. Kiah’s vision for Rhys was pretty clear, but we had a few discussions around it. There was talk about, do we take him and bring him into the world of The Captain, have them a bit more kind of closely linked, be it physically and vocally. But at the end of the day, Kiah said, ‘you know what, let’s just drop it right back and just play right down the middle, bring as much of yourself to Rhys as you can’. And I think even just doing that probably differentiated (the two), where The Captain was pretty ruthless, pretty sociopathic, he had his own justifications for why he was doing what he’s doing. But the fact that Rhys questions them is another differentiator, showing a pretty strong moral compass underneath what he’s doing. I think it was reverse engineering The Captain, taking it back to just playing a bit more on my instincts.

Over the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about the need for more genre cinema in Australian films. We do make a lot of great genre films, but not enough of them. What is the draw for you to films like the Wyrmwood series, one that is really steeped in genre, horror, zombies, action? Is there a real draw for you into that genre stuff?

100%. I think they’re inevitably just fun to make. Like you said, Kiah is just a lightning rod of positive and driven energy, because he loves what he does. He loves genre films. And I think that’s the big, big draw part is that, in Australia, we obviously make a lot of different films. But I think the model of getting films up in Australia has lent itself to making films that are geared towards going and getting a bunch of laurels overseas and then launching a writer or directors career. And that’s a beautiful thing. I love films. But, they haven’t classically done well commercially. And that’s a broader conversation.

But the other type of films we make is we try and punch up to Hollywood, and we do well for it. We’ve got incredible crews, we’ve got great locations, great talent, and we try and punch up and make $5-10-15 million films into a $100-150 million film. And you’re just not going to have the days, you’re going to have the crew, you’re not going to have the CGI budgets, you’re not going to have the time and development, you’re not going to have the well worn heads that are part of the team who have been there and done on the $150 million films. So I think we fall a bit short when we try and do that.

But the thing we do well, since Ozploitation way back in the day, we do genre well.

We have a tongue in cheek humour. We can meet in the middle where we can have great types of stories and good performances and complex and interesting characters, but also punch up in action by leaning into practical effects. We are quite innovative. Like some of the stunts and the practical effects we did on Wyrmwood were just so ingenious, like we had the sequence where myself and Shantae (Barnes-Cowan) who plays Maxi, were ejected from a pipe as it was blowing, and you see us launching up through the tube at a million miles an hour and there’s fire below us, and then we’re launched into the air as we shoot out what is sold to be 60 to 70 feet of pipe… we did that laying on our side. And they had this metre and a half diameter tube that they had cut a section out, maybe a third of the tube was cut out, so it was laid on its side.

And we were fixed as they put the cameras on us, and then they had five people slide that tube over us at a rip-roaring pace, with co2 blasting up from underneath. And shooting into that, it sold so well. There was no huge CG budget, it was innovative, it was practical. It’s the George Miller school of make it up as you go, and get what looks good on camera. So you can do that stuff well is really what I’m getting to. Leaning into genre allows you to bring all that creativity to it and to explore and see how you can twist out a pre-existing world like the zombie world, which Kiah has done so well. So there a lot of reasons why genre is exciting.

One of the things I’m really impressed by with Apocalypse it the practical stuff is pushed to the next level. Talking to Kiah about the guns, which are just air cannons, shows how effective they are. They look bloody brilliant. They sound excellent as well. For you as an actor, what does it mean when you walk on set, and you have all of this practical stuff, and not green screen things, no tennis balls and things like that?

I mean, without getting cliché, acting is reacting. Really the stimulus is the other actors you’re in the scenario with, the more stimulus you can get and give, the more it drops you into the moment. Our production designer, Esther Rosenberg, did a phenomenal job and I know now she’s onto good stuff from here, but the world that she built, the props, the textures, the fact that the guns were in our hand and we had the practical effects of shooting co2 out of the guns as we pulled the trigger, it just gives you an authentic texture to the film, which you can’t really replace.

I haven’t done a lot of CG stuff or green screen, so I don’t really have a yardstick to measure against too much, I can only speak to the experience of having everything around you. And that definitely drops you into the moment. And I think that shows up on screen. You know, cameras don’t lie. And, they pick up on when something is manufactured, and the less you can do that, and the actors have authentic reactions is better for everybody. And as an actor, it makes your job so much easier.

The practical designs have allowed fans to be able to go home and make a costume and look like the characters from Wyrmwood. How was it attending conventions and seeing people dressed up as the characters from the film’s and having this second life of fans just loving it? What does that do to you as both an actor and getting to see your characters that you’ve created as an iconic character being brought to life by fans?

Weird. I was living overseas for most of the past seven years, so I didn’t actually get to do as much of the convention(s) as the team did really, but it definitely is strange to see. It’s gratifying to see that people have invested in and bought into the world that you’ve built.

But then it’s also surreal.

I can only imagine how much for Kiah, he built this thing in his brain, then put it into a camera, and then having that full circle where people are saying, ‘oh, we love what’s in your brain!’ Yeah. It’s kind of surreal. It’s been gratifying, but surreal.

It’s got to be pretty exciting to have it out in the world. There were screenings last year, which, by all accounts, the Monster fest one went really well. I’m excited to revisit it now in a cinema because I had to watch it at home, and had a great time watching it by myself, but this is an audience film. It’s built for audiences. Have you been able to get along to see it with audiences?

I did. Yeah. I didn’t get a chance to do any of the festivals last year as I was stuck overseas. But I went last Friday and watched in the cinema, and as you said, it’s an audience film.

It’s made for audiences. It’s made for big cinemas. Everything comes at you full pace. The sound, it doesn’t relent. And it just reminds you the power of cinema because films like Wyrmwood, or the Australian films, we’ve missed them. In the last couple of years have been tough on everybody, and different pockets of the world have been open and closed, open and closed at different points, but by and large, the big cinema going experiences, especially shared communal experiences kind of makes life worth living, sharing a moment with your fellow man. And Wyrmwood really leans into that, to see it in a cinema on a big screen, it just takes it to the next level and it really unleashes all of the power that the film has in it. So it’s a pretty special thing. I’m looking forward to you going and watching on the screen as well.

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