‘Wolf Creek’ Producer Matt Hearn Backs ‘Penny Lane is Dead’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Matt Hearn, producer of “Wolf Creek,” one of Australia’s biggest genre exports, is backing “Penny Lane is Dead,” the feature debut of Australian writer-director and makeup artist Mia’kate Russell.

Set up at Melbourne’s Buffalo Media, headed by André Lima, who will produce “Penny Lane is Dead” with Hearn, “Penny Lane” looks like one of the strongest projects being brought onto the market this week at Frontières, in terms of its behind the camera talent package and financing.

“Penny Lane” features among Frontières’ six Forum projects, a program reserved for films in advanced stages of financing.

The film has drawn down “significant funding” from Screen Australia’s Producer Offset program, which means 40% of the film finance is secured, Lima told Variety.

“With the right market partners in place, we estimate that [a further] 20%-30% of the production budget can be raised from our federal and state film agencies through their production investment funding programs,” Lima added.

Prosthetics designer Larry Van Duynhoven (“Furiosa”) and costume designer Nicola Dunn (“Very Important Person”) are attached, among key craft collaborators.

“Penny Lane” is set on a warm night as 17-year-old Penny Lane is celebrating getting into college with her longtime girlfriends Toni and Amy. The night, however, does not turn out as planned. Penny Lane’s jealous and troubled cousin Kat decides a cruel prank is in order and what begins as a thoughtless spiked cupcake game spirals into a night of bloodshed.

“‘Penny Lane Is Dead’ is a reverse home invasion thriller led by powerful 17-year-old female protagonists and a good dose of blood and gore. It is packed with action and rock’n’roll and will satisfy all die-hard horror fans,” Lima told Variety.

“Here the invaders end up fighting for their lives as the residents are anything from ordinary. This single location, lock-in thriller will capture the nostalgia of summer in 1986 Australia, filled with classic Australian rock music and swagger. Think ‘Animal Kingdom’ meets ‘The Runaways.’”

According to Lima, “Penny Lane” is set in a heatwave-plagued Australian summer. Pre-production is slated for January 2023 and the shoot for February and March. Completion and delivery are estimated for the end of May 2023.

The producers’ first intention is to shoot interiors in Melbourne with exteriors on the Surf Coast, just one hour away. “But the film’s setting gives us the freedom to shoot it anywhere,” Lima said.

“I grew up watching films by John Waters, David Lynch and Pedro Almodóvar. Films that contained strong female characters, the bizarre, and the comically twisted,” Russell has said, describing her intentions.

She added: “My other inspiration is the realism of Australian cinema, films such as ‘The Boys’ and ‘Animal Kingdom,’ which explore the brutality of our bloke culture. My intention is to combine both.”

“‘Penny Lane is Dead’ is bold and unapologetic, one of the loudest films you’ll ever see. Once the action starts, it doesn’t let you stop to catch your breath. It also has a lot of heart — it is a queer love story, after all,” Russell concluded.

In the run-up to Frontières, which takes place July 21-24, Hearn and Russell fielded questions from Variety:

You look, Matt, to have been quite select in the project you have got involved in. What attracted you to produce “Penny Lane is Dead?”

Hearn: I’ve known and worked with Mia in the advertising industry and kept an eye on her development as a film writer/director. Her treatment for ‘Penny Lane is Dead’ blew my mind. It was so much fun to read and a visual feast, articulating the world she wants to create with a cool ode to 80’s horror films. She’d considered every single detail. Her writing is thrillingly original, bold and unapologetic and in every sense a fun and thrilling page-turner that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s the type of film I want to see, each frame filled with style and originality, and I can see it finding an audience.
With my producer’s hat on the story has been crafted being mindful of budget. And good horror films, as proven time and time again, generally attract a good box office and do very well on the streaming platforms. I think Mia can bring something fresh to a sub-genre of film I love so I rang her straight back and said “I’m in and how can I help?”

You’re best known for “Wolf Creek” films and “Rogue,” both of which ground sub-genres winningly in Australian setting and culture. Does “Penny Lane is Dead” have that strong sense of Australian grounding as well?

Hearn: I was an Australian teenager in the 80’s and I could see every frame while reading ‘Penny Lane Is Dead’, the script has such a strong sense of place. It quickly evolves into a bloody edge-of-your-seat game of hide-and-seek, that cleverly combines elements of the 80’s slasher, revenge and Ozploitation films. We’ve recently seen the power and success of well-produced genre-bending entertainment in 80’s retro settings in ‘Stranger Things’, and I think the Australian kitsch of the 80s this film portrays will resonate on many levels. And of course, the beautiful, slightly isolating and sometimes terrifying undertone of rural Australia where things were mostly quiet and unassuming but can turn really dark at any moment. Tension and beauty are two aspects of filmmaking that I love.

In your director’s statement, Mia’Kate, you note the “comically twisted” in John Waters, David Lynch and Pedro Almodóvar. Is the sense of comedy strong enough in “Penny Lane is Dead” to call it a horror comedy? 

Russell: I don’t think the comedy is strong enough to call the film a horror comedy, but ‘Penny Lane Is Dead’ certainly has her tongue firmly in cheek.

The kills are both gruesome and often hilarious, and the banter and fighting between the teenage girls have comedy in the tragedy of its truthfulness. Having said that, I am hoping the audience will be laughing when they know they shouldn’t be. Making them gasp, laugh, and then shake their heads is the perfect trifecta.

Do you have any crew attached, such as DP or composer, or costume design, who will work on the film dates allowing?

Russell: Absolutely. Working as a makeup and special effects artist for twenty years has given me the opportunity to meet some of Australia’s coolest actors and crew.

Larry Van Duynhoven is currently the prosthetics designer on “Furiosa,” and did prosthetics on films like “The Invisible Man” and “The Nightingale.” We first met around 15 years ago, and I swear the SFX guys in Australia are the nicest and most talented you’ll meet. Larry’s read “Penny Lane,” and we can’t wait to work with him again.

I met Nicola Dunn in 2009 on Aussie film “Red Hill.”  She was head of costume, and me makeup. We were in a tiny one-horse town for a month, and when we weren’t taking turns keeping lookout for each other while peeing in the bushes on set, we were playing pool or dancing and drinking the town’s pub dry with the cast and crew. So very Australian of us.

She told me she was costume on “Wolf Creek” which will always be one of my top horror films, and I begged her to work with me when I make my first feature. She’s on standby for “Penny Lane,” which would just be a dream come true.