Sam Neill and Michael Caton spoke to Steve Newall about their new film Rams, in cinemas November 12.
Rural Australian drama Rams sees two feuding sheep-farming brothers forced to confront a terrible livestock disease threatens their prized animals—and their family legacy. Brought to life by legitimately lived-in performances by Neill and Caton, the siblings also have to stare down some unpleasant family history if they’re to overcome the challenge at hand. From a Melbourne pub, the pair chatted with Flicks about the film—and address the inevitability of sheep jokes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FLICKS: It’s pretty rare to see a film that is about a rural lifestyle, even if it’s not necessarily the typical day-to-day. How did each of you approach that, and was there something special in bringing that particular world to life?
MICHAEL CATON: Well, I sort of always had a connection to the country because my family came from central Queensland. And then after I left school, I worked for rural industries, plumbing, and irrigation and things like that. So that connection was always open.
SAM NEILL: Someone of my age from New Zealand, it’s pretty hard not to be connected to country, and I spent every summer holiday working in woolsheds or working on hay trucks in freezing work conditions, so I’ve done a lot of rural jobs over the years. It’s a wonder I actually ever left New Zealand because I could be still driving a Commer van.
MICHAEL CATON: It’s a wonder he’s still got all his fingers.
SAM NEILL: Lashes of Picnic pinot. That’s a wine that’s made for any occasion, even a film premiere. How about that?
MICHAEL CATON: Even a daggy rear end.
SAM NEILL: We’ve just had a glass of the Two Paddocks, Caton and I, and he looks like a man that’s seen something on the way to Damascus. Layers have been peeled from his eyes.
MICHAEL CATON: I no longer feel tired of the press. I feel really wonderful.
As well as the sheep farming in the film, there are some pretty affecting scenes with a bushfire backdrop that has become a lot more ever-present since you shot the film. [This interview was conducted back in February, when Australia was ablaze.] Is it strange to see something in your film that’s become such a backdrop of people’s lives and conversation over the past few months?
SAM NEILL: Yeah. The film turned out to be a little more prescient than we’d imagined.
MICHAEL CATON: Indeed. Who could have imagined, you know, that 12 months later the whole east coast would be on fire?
What was it like for the two of you bringing your relationship to life? There’s certainly a very specific brotherly relationship we see in the film.
MICHAEL CATON: Well, I mean, the whole thing about them is they haven’t got a relationship. Well, they might have had one once but 40 years later, he’s been stewing on his loss for 40 years. You know? He’d be pretty short-circuited by this time, I think.
SAM NEILL: I’ve always thought there’s a woman involved too.
MICHAEL CATON: Yeah?
SAM NEILL: Yeah. I reckon she went for me, broke your heart, and then something happened. Is it possible?
MICHAEL CATON: It’s possible.
SAM NEILL: There’s more to this grudge than meets the eye, Michael.
MICHAEL CATON: I think it goes back to the fact that you got the farm, and he didn’t. Even though you gave him half.
SAM NEILL: Yeah. You were farmed out.
MICHAEL CATON: In actual fact, I think that he was such a cock-up, that the father wouldn’t leave the farm to us.
SAM NEILL: Because you’d been to Vietnam. You were damaged goods. Fucked up.
MICHAEL CATON: Probably been Agent Oranged.
How did it end up that you made such a sheep-centric film in Australia rather than New Zealand, Sam? I’m also going to have to ask the inevitable question about the number of sheep jokes you were on the wrong end of.
SAM NEILL: Isn’t that strange? But whatever they tell you in Australia, they have the same affinity for sheep as we do—you take that as you like.
MICHAEL CATON: Well, you wouldn’t want to get an ugly one.
SAM NEILL: And also they tell the same joke about Tasmanians. And the British tell the same joke about the Irish. And so it goes on. But being at the arse-end of the world as we are in New Zealand, it gets dumped on our fair shores. Unfairly, of course!