Mia Wasikowska, the 24-year-old star of “Tracks,” wasn’t even born when Robyn Davidson made her one-woman, nine-month trek across the Australian outback in 1977. She wasn’t alive when a string of producers began trying—and failing—to make a movie based on Ms. Davidson’s best-selling memoir about the journey.
The book quickly gained cult status in Ms. Wasikowska’s native Australia, although she hadn’t read it before the screenplay came her way. “I told my parents I had been given this script, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, you have to do it,’ ” she said. “Then I realized how many of my contemporaries were very aware of it, too.”
A story about traipsing through nearly 2,000 miles of desert, with camels and a dog, created harsh conditions for filming. And Ms. Davidson’s journey was as much interior as it was physical, a way of escaping social definitions and finding her own independent path. The film, directed by John Curran, demanded that Ms. Wasikowska learn to lead camels, spend eight weeks filming in the desert sun and do most of it without a human actor to play against. Adam Driver shows up as Rick Smolin, the National Geographic photographer who dropped by every few weeks to chronicle the trip, but most scenes are carried by Ms. Wasikowska alone.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a stressful shoot, but it was great in the end,” she said. She has starred in “Jane Eyre” and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (the 2010 hit that put her high on the list of top-grossing actors) and is now filming the sequel, “Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass.” With “Tracks,” she said, “I was involved in a more personal way.”
The production fell into place a few years ago, when Disney, the last of the would-be producers, let the rights go nearly a decade after acquiring them, hoping to make the movie with Julia Roberts. Emile Sherman, the Australian-born producer of “The King’s Speech,” had been waiting. Ms. Wasikowska said she asked Mr. Sherman and Mr. Curran why it had been so tough for anyone to make the movie, when she found the heroine so fascinating. “They told me, ‘It’s hard because you go to these boardrooms with all these male financiers and they’d say: ‘But she’s such a bitch.’ ” In early scenes of the movie, Robyn is surrounded by belligerent men, skeptical of a woman setting out alone.
Mr. Curran’s career includes the marital drama “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “The Painted Veil,” set in 1920s China. An American, he went to Australia on a lark in his 20s and stayed for 18 years. He said, “When I came to Australia in the mid-’80s and backpacked in the outback—it’s a very male-dominant environment. Robyn in the book, even though she admits all her weaknesses, there’s an inner strength to her.”
Ms. Wasikowska had never played a real person before, much less someone living. “She’s so feisty. The Robyn in the book, I was sure was going to hate anybody who was going to make a movie of her.” But the director and producer reassured her that Ms. Davidson got what the film would be. “It was an abstraction of the book, which was already an abstraction of the initial journey.”
The two women first met at an airport when flying out to a camel camp near the middle of Australia. On screen, it often looks as if those camels are her domestic pets. “You get to know their temperament very quickly,” Ms. Wasikowska said. “They’re super gentle.”
Really? “They have such a bad reputation,” she said, “I think because they make such a funny noise when they growl, which they just do all the time. It’s like vocalizing or complaining—it’s not linked to an aggressive emotion. But they get bad press because of a very good growl.”
The movie was shot on film, not digitally. “It’s a period film, and I wanted that sort of texture,” Mr. Curran said. “I probably had in the back of my head a number of Australian desert films from ‘Walkabout’ to ‘Wake in Fright’ that were templates of the look. The desert on one hand can seem pretty monotonous, but the more you’re out there—it’s a varied landscape, and I tried to match the environment she was passing through to chart her mood.
“There were times we were shooting close-ups of Mia from a half mile away on a super long lens to create on odd sense of claustrophobia. Other times we let the environment dwarf her,” conveying her isolation.
Those close-ups and her body language were essential in a film about a character who has relatively little dialogue. “The script was in flux the entire shoot,” Ms. Wasikowska said. “The first script was very sparse and I immediately loved that. The later drafts kind of got more and more wordy.” Like the real Ms. Davidson, she resisted explaining her character’s thoughts or motives out loud. “That was a bit of a fight,” she said.
The screenplay is attributed to Marion Nelson, a pseudonym that reflects a number of iterations (at least one by Mr. Curran) and a collaborative process while shooting. Mr. Curran said, “We were out in the elements and improvising a lot. My process is to play around with what’s on the page. Sometimes I would purposely push Mia out of her comfort zone.” Still, the Robyn who emerges on screen is not wordy at all. “I like that this character never apologizes for pushing herself into something that to other people seems irrational or like madness,” Mr. Curran said.
“What resonated even more with me now is that she did this back when there was no GPS, no cellphones. The idea of really truly disconnecting like she did, which is necessary and therapeutic in this character, I think now would be a frightening thing to people.”