Dusty roads, scorched fields and a dried-up riverbed were the visual motifs of 2021 film The Dry, based on the wildly popular novel by Jane Harper. Eric Bana stepped into the role of detective Aaron Falk, who’s caught up in a murder investigation in his home town, bringing up memories of a tragedy in his past. And partly thanks to its timing, released just as cinemas were reopening after Covid lockdowns, The Dry was a box-office hit. Now, working with the same production team, Bana is back as the unrelenting federal agent – this time investigating the disappearance of a missing informant, played by Anna Torv (The Newsreader).

“He’s a really special character for me,” says British-Australian author Harper. “There’s no-one else who could have played him the way Eric has played him. I think it’s really important how readers have responded, and they have loved him in this part.”

Harper has written three books in the Aaron Falk series; the third, Exiles, was published in 2022. The author says she’d love to see the final chapter brought to screen with the same team. “That’s really crucial,” she says. “For me, I think these films are powerful enough and loved by audiences enough that they stand as the adaptations for many years to come.”

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Force of Nature: The Dry 2 transports Falk from the drought-stricken country town of the first film to a sodden bushland setting. It’s threateningly wet and disorienting in the (fictional) Giralang Ranges, filmed in the Yarra Valley, Otways, Dandenong Ranges and Latrobe Valley.

The story follows five women on a corporate retreat, hiking through the inclement ranges as a team-building exercise. Deborra-lee Furness plays the fierce but fragile big boss, Torv is the ruthless Alice, and Robin McLeavy, Sisi Stringer and Lucy Ansell make up the three other troubled and intriguing employees chosen for the weekend away.

“If you’re making a film about five women that go on a corporate retreat and get lost in the bush, they’ve really got to get lost in the bush,” director Robert Connolly tells Broadsheet. “Deborah-lee Furness was the toughest trouper of them all.”

Filmed over seven weeks in winter, Force of Nature put the actors and crew through the ringer. Connolly said it rained 80 per cent of the shoot and the crew were “pulling leeches off between takes”.

“One of the crew got 17 leeches in a day,” he says. “But they never complained. You’re looking for that bit of magic to give it authenticity.”

“That’s why the film looks the way it looks,” adds Bana. “We’re so indebted to them for that.”

Most of the crew had to lug their equipment through the bush, freezing cold, and setting up shooting locations in sideways rain. Producer Jodi Matterson (whose credits include The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart and Nine Perfect Strangers) says the team tells her it was one of the best filming experiences they’ve had.

“It was so hard, but I think there was such a sense of achievement. There was really no other way to do it authentically,” she says. “One of the really important parts of the book was that these characters were in the middle of nowhere and there was no way out, that the landscape overwhelmed them. And unless we were in that overwhelming landscape too, then it’s cheating.”

Bana, who’s also a producer on the film, says he loves the way Harper’s writing evokes landscape. “Her character work is fantastic, but I love the way the landscape becomes a central character and contributes to the drama in a very real way – almost in a spiritual way.”

Connolly makes the most of that imposing environment in both the present-day mystery and the flashbacks to Falk’s traumatic childhood. As the “everyone’s guilty” drama unfolds, mist and foliage appear to circle the characters, adding to the claustrophobic tension. At the height of this tension is a confrontation scene by a waterfall.

“Eric and Robin McLeavy were the ones that had to go into the waterfall,” says Matterson. “Not only was it freezing cold, sideways pelting rain, and a 40-minute really steep walk to get in … but all the camera equipment stopped working.

“[The actors are in the water], the light is going, the hours are going. We’re not getting it on camera. The safety and medical people are saying they’ll get hypothermia. And it was right on the edge – were we going to get that shot or not? We just got it.”

“You couldn’t hear anything,” recalls Bana. “You could hear that waterfall from 30 minutes away, and by the time we got to the base of it, it was yelling and screaming all day. It was so loud.”

Force of Nature: The Dry 2 is in cinemas now.

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