In 1977, Robyn Davidson embarked on what seemed like an impossible quest: to cross the Australian outback, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, with only four camels and a dog for company. National Geographic funded the trip and documented this unusual journey through one of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes. They sent along young American photographer Rick Smolan, whose iconic images of Davidson and her camels catapulted both of them into the limelight.

Nearly four decades later Tracks has been made. It is a film about this extraordinary journey, with Mia Wasikowska as Davidson and Girls’ Adam Driver as Smolan. It recently won the enviable trifecta of being the first Australian film to be selected for the Venice, Toronto, and Telluride Film Festivals. We had a chat to the original Smolan who has since gone on to work for Time and Life, and produce the popular photographic series A Day in the Life and 24/7.

Hayley Inch: You seem to have an affinity with Australia, not only through the Robyn Davidson assignment, but you also started off the A Day in the Life series with Australia. What keeps drawing you back to the Australian landscape and people?

Rick Smolan: I first came here when I was 26 and just felt at home. Everywhere I went people welcomed me, offered to let me sleep on their couch. The Prime Minister [Malcolm Fraser] invited me home for the weekend! I just felt like I’d come home and I was looking for reasons not to leave. After Robyn’s camel trip, the Day in the Life series came about because I was frustrated that I didn’t have control over how my images were used. So often I found that the pictures that publications chose would be the most predictable ones. Not the really intriguing ones. So I had the idea of putting together the work of my peers and friends into a book, and no one backed it. Then Fraser suggested going through sponsors and that changed my life. Robyn changed my life, Fraser changed my life, it all happened here.

HI: The film’s cinematography draws on the aesthetic of your original photographs of the journey.

RS: Yes, Mandy Walker’s cinematography is extraordinary, and it was very eerie for me to watch my pictures come to life. The light, the framing, the sets; it’s all there. They asked me to review the script and consult with them on it. With the look, they used From Alice to Ocean [Smolen’s book about Davidson’s journey] to figure out what they wanted. It really captures the 1970s look, which was thrilling. They shot it on anamorphic Panavision, which no one does now, and Mandy used lenses from the 1970s. It has a very Walkabout look.

HI: You’re very interested in capturing ordinary moments that reflect a greater whole, and Tracks is focused on that as well – one woman’s solitary, personal quest that becomes a greater symbol for Australia, easily translatable across cultures.

RS: I think that’s true, and the thing that I love about what the filmmakers have done with the movie is that Robyn’s message - if Robyn had a message - was this idea that an ordinary person can do anything. They didn’t try to make her into a hero, they showed that she was very vulnerable. Mia is the perfect person to portray that. Like Robyn, she’s this funny mixture of vulnerable with incredible inner strength. You really identify with that, because I think everyone has a longing to do something extraordinary. Most of us spend our lives avoiding the things that we’re afraid of, and Robyn’s one of those rare characters who goes into the dark instead of away from it. And you go along with her, realising that the things we’re afraid of, if we shine the flashlight on them, aren’t as scary as we think. We’re too afraid to go there, but she actually did it.

HI: Is the film a welcome reflection on your early career and what it ultimately led to? Is it gratifying? Or is it just really weird to see yourself on screen?

RS: It’s funny, the filmmakers called me a few months ago, before the movie was at any of the festivals, and asked if I wanted to see it. It’s Robyn’s story, really, I was a tiny piece of it, so I felt that was incredibly gracious of them. So I went to LA and saw the film in a tiny, 40-seat theatre. About 10 minutes into the movie I started breaking into a sweat, my heart was pounding and I started getting dizzy. I was holding onto the edge of my chair thinking, “What’s going on, is there something in my popcorn?” Then I suddenly remembered that every time I left Robyn during the trip, I thought she was going to die. This was 35 years ago, I was madly in love with her, and I was just terrified that every time I looked in the rear-view mirror, that was going to be the last time I saw her. All of a sudden it was like a truck hitting me. I was blindsided and I couldn’t calm down. It wasn’t until I was in Toronto at the film festival with Robyn – when we sat together and heard the audience react and laugh, cry and hold their breath – that it was amazing. I always feel like an audience is an organism, and seeing it react that way, meant I could enjoy it more – seeing it through their eyes.

Tracks is in cinemas from March 6.