Shot in the Tweed Valley, the film centres around Hanna, played by Brisbane-based British actor Lisa Kay, who returns to the sleepy rural town of Billins, nestled deep in the sugar cane fields, from where her four-year-old son Joey was abducted by notorious serial killer Simpkins (Jack Ellis), and is now presumed dead.
After hearing the news that Simpkins has died and her son’s DNA was found on his property, a vulnerable and emotionally damaged Hanna rents a small farmhouse in the valley near where Simpkins lived and starts her own investigation in a bid for answers.
Her next-door neighbours, John (played by Martin Sacks) and Elenore Drake (Genevieve Lemon), own the surrounding cane fields and despite their hospitality, are strangely cold and distant.
The town has secrets and a wound that will not heal: years earlier, a local school bus mysteriously ran off the road and into a river, with all the children onboard perishing in its icy waters.
When Hanna starts to see mysterious children in the town’s cane fields and her emotional state further unravels, her resolve to uncover the truth also starts to reveal the town’s darkest secrets.
“It’s about two mothers coming up and dealing with their grief for the loss of their children in very different ways – and then it also has a supernatural element thrown in on top,” Kay told InQueensland.
Kay, who was a cast member on popular British police drama Heartbeat and has also had roles in television shows and films including Indian Summers, Vera and Bridget Jones’s Diary, has been based in Australia for five years.
“I’m so grateful to be working here and – hand on heart – doing Sweet River was just the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had,” she said.
For McMillan, who is also based in Brisbane, the feeling was more than mutual.
“Having someone of the calibre of Lisa Kay just hanging around in Brisbane was crazy and I felt so honoured to be able to give her the stage in a lead role in her first Aussie feature film,” McMillan told InQueensland.
“I think people are really going to stand up and notice her and hopefully use her a lot more because she’s phenomenal.”
McMillan said he first came up with the idea of setting a film in a cane town several years ago when he was filming tourism commercials in the state’s north several years ago.
“I found myself in these really interesting places up in far north Queensland where there were these cane belts with huge factories that would just be sugar mill processing plants that were just churning 24/7. That kind of visual of industry in the middle of nature … I just always really liked that stuff.”
“I was driving down these roads that just went for miles that were walled by cane either side that had these dirt service roads and I found them really quite scary and mysterious.
“I was driving down and looking down one and I thought ‘what if there was just a single child standing in the middle of one of these, staring back at me?’ That was kind of how it all started, it was just an idea and it came from a single idea and just developed from there.
“It’s an element of our agriculture that we don’t really use that much on screen and I always thought that’s what gave it a sense of freshness. I don’t think many people have told stories in these types of pockets of the world and that’s what made it really interesting to me.”
Kay was full of praise for McMillan’s vision and his ability to successfully translate the foreboding beauty of the scenery on to the screen and to on a tight budget and time frame.
“When you have that cane, either side of you it’s very imposing and very intimidating and claustrophobic and mysterious constantly, it really adds itself to that genre, I think,” she said.”
“I think Australian crews are fantastic – all the ones I’ve worked with have been fantastic, and particularly on this film.
“I don’t know if it was because we didn’t have a big, flashy budget we were up against it time-wise, but it felt like the adversity we were in – no money, no time – brought out so much creativity and ingenuity from the crew.”
McMillan said Sweet River had been a labour of love and he was grateful Netflix had picked up distribution rights for the film in Australia and New Zealand.
“This was a special journey for the producer [Ashley McLeod] and myself,” he said. “We both wanted to make a film and we both knew the only way we were going to make one was to get off our bums and do it ourselves. No one was going to call us with a great script and lots of money to make a film – the people that get phone calls and given great scripts and lots of money are people have made films before.
“I think it’s an unexpected little Aussie thriller that isn’t a waste of time and I’m hoping people agree with me.”
Sweet River is streaming on Netflix now.