We chat to Stu Ross, writer, director and cinematographer of new Victorian documentary, The Hunt: In Search of Australia’s Big Cats.

The Hunt: In Search of Australia’s Big Cats is a not-to-be-missed documentary about the quest to prove the existence of a living population of big cats in the Australian bush from Victorian production companies Robot Army and Ruby Entertainment.

Ahead of its premiere on Discovery Channel, we spoke to writer, director and cinematographer Stu Ross about his personal connection to the subject and the setting, why he thought the story would captivate audiences, and the experience of filming in remote bushland to capture footage of these elusive big cats.

Film Victoria is proud to have supported The Hunt. Read on to also discover the five documentaries we supported through our most recent round of funding.

How did the hunt for Australia’s big cats first come to your attention and why did you think would make compelling viewing?
Growing up in Geelong, Victoria, I had always heard stories of sightings in the Great Otway National Park and even had a few friends that claimed to have had encounters. It was always in the back of my mind as an amazing story to be told, however it wasn’t until I started researching that I realised nothing was being done, in an official, scientific way, to properly investigate the vast number of reports and sightings. They were always dismissed as 'urban myth'. But there were a handful of self-funded, independent researchers who had been working quietly for years trying to get to the bottom of it. I realised that these people, who had dedicated their lives to proving – scientifically – that these animals exist, were the real story. I wanted to document their hunt for proof. 

Whether you believe it or not, it’s an intriguing mystery, so I knew it was going to captivate an audience. It’s such a polarizing subject too: you are either a sceptic or a believer. I also think that a behind-the-scenes look into a profession you know almost nothing about – in this case, big cat research – is always fascinating. That there are people out in the bush trying to lure big cats with bobcat urine and distressed animal calls … I don’t know who would not find that interesting!

Victoria’s Otways was one of the locations featured in The Hunt following many reports of big cat sightings over the years – how was this filming experience?
Filming in a location that is both close to home and close to my heart was a great experience. Usually I am drawn to unfamiliar places for inspiration but the Otways has always been the exception. To me, it’s a magical and unique place. It’s hauntingly beautiful around every corner – and the perfect backdrop for such a mystery to take place. Reports of big cats (in particular, melanistic leopards, more commonly known as black panthers) have been coming from the Otways for the last half a century. Not many people know this but there was actually a scat (faeces) found by a Land Protection Officer in the early 90s on a property in the Otways that tested positive for leopard DNA.

The physical setting for this film is quite isolated and wild – was this a physically demanding film to make and how did you go about capturing the key images?
Coming from a cinematography background, this was the most enjoyable part for me. The setting was what in many ways drew me to find the story. I have spent a lot of time in the Otways and capturing it in a cinematic way was high on my list of priorities for this film. It is a wild place of temperate rainforest and seemingly it’s either hot, or misty and raining, which did pose a lot of challenges for filming, but always results in the best shots. I really wanted the landscape to be almost like a character in the film and for the cinematography to show that Australia is so large and vast that the idea of there being a population of big cats hiding out there was entirely possible.

Your Geelong-based production company, Robot Army, is also behind comedy series Rostered On. You couldn’t get two more different projects – so what’s next for you?
My producing partner, Ryan Chamley and I are the directors at Robot Army and we have very different taste, so a diverse slate keeps things interesting. For me, as the cinematographer on all these productions too, I thoroughly enjoy the variety in the work. As far as what’s next, we have a comedy series in development and are looking to turn The Hunt into a series. I’m also developing a documentary film about the storied history of the Aradale Mental Hospital in Ararat, Victoria.

You teamed up with experienced producers Stephen Luby and Mark Ruse, who are known for popular comedy and drama projects including Kath and Kim, The Games, The Secret River and Bed of Roses, to make The Hunt. What did each of you bring to the table?
We had worked with Stephen and Mark from Ruby Entertainment on Rostered On and it was such a good relationship that we wanted to keep the ball rolling. Stephen was especially invested in The Hunt, as several members of his family had had big cat sightings.

Stephen and Mark brought a wealth of knowledge in navigating the production process and skills which can only be gained by years in the game, and have become unofficial mentors to Robot Army. Both had started in documentary early in their careers and the experience they brought to the film elevated the production immensely.

Ryan and I brought a fresh approach to filmmaking and experience in getting great results with minimal resources. We nodded politely when they would offer feedback (which we often ignored), but had the humility to admit they were right (which was often the case), even if those specific words may not have been spoken!

At what stage did the project catch the eye of the Discovery Channel? What was the impact of this relationship?
After a few years of collecting interviews and doing some preliminary shooting, we successfully applied for production funding through Screen Australia. We needed a network attachment and Discovery Channel was the logical choice. The Hunt sits nicely with many of their other cryptozoology-based shows so it’s a great home for our film. We then applied to Film Victoria, who were very willing to support us as emerging filmmakers from a regional base. So it has been a happy partnership with all stakeholders.

We’re really thrilled that Discovery Channel will be premiering the film during their ‘Mystery Month’ in May. Due to the massive amount of material we filmed, we have also created a longer version which will air on Animal Planet (Discovery Channel’s sister station) in June.

The Hunt: In Search of Australia’s Big Cats premieres on Discovery Channel, on Foxtel and Fetch, on Tuesday 5 May at 9.30pm. It will also be available to stream on demand.

Through our latest round of production funding, we supported five equally compelling documentaries:

  • Worlds by writer/director Josef Gatti and producer Rob Innes, is a series of online films that look at where art and science collide in nature. The films explore the patterns and evolution of nature, including high-definition footage from NASA, and state-of-the art technology such as electron microscopes to capture beautiful images
  • ecosphere, a VR experience by Phoria for Oculus that immerses the viewer in the wildest places on Earth to discover stories of hope from the humans taking action to reverse the loss of nature
  • Untitled Book Series, a three-part series for the ABC from Blackfella Films (First Contact) that takes viewers on a journey to celebrate Australia’s love of books, meet the nation’s great storytellers and explore the Australian identity
  • The Children in the Pictures, a feature documentary by Emmy-Award winning Victorian director Geoffrey Smith (The English Surgeon) that provides unprecedented access into a police investigative team dedicated to rescuing children who are sexually abused by highly organised dark web networks
  • Dark Water: Battle on the Franklin, a feature documentary directed and co-written by Kasimir Burgess (The Leunig Fragments) and written by Claire Smith (Catalyst, Vitamania) about the epic fight to save Tasmania’s wild Franklin River from being dammed by the Hydro-Electric Commission in the 80s.

From 4 June, applicants will be able to apply for production funding at any time, with decisions made within four to eight weeks. Find out more.