Thousands of backpackers venture into the vast Australian outback each year; every so often, some go missing. Vehicle breakdowns are common, some get lost and disoriented, others perish for lack of food and water. Occasionally, travelers fall prey to serial killers.

Melbourne-based helmer Greg McLean wove elements from two such true stories to come up with his A$1.3 million ($1 million) debut feature, “Wolf Creek.”

Pic, set to premiere in Sundance’s World Dramatic Competition, was picked up in late December for a cool $3.5 million by Dimension for North America and other territories.

McLean wrote, helmed and produced the high-def video pic, a terrifying tale of two British girls and an Australian guy forced to rely on the kindness of a stranger when their car breaks down while visiting a remote meteorite crater.

Popular on Variety

But “Wolf Creek” is more thriller than your standard horror pic. Boasting strong performances and a dramatic visual style, it is the result of years of preparation, says the helmer. “Wolf Creek” is his fourth script, but the first to make it to production.

McLean’s considered visual style owes much to his training as a painter, and his well-honed storyboarding technique was developed when he studied with film professors Arthur and Corinne Cantrill in Melbourne.

McLean is a graduate in stage direction from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, where talents including Baz Luhrmann, Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett studied. This training plus subsequent stints with the Australian Opera and as assistant to helmer and Company B (Sydney’s second-largest theater company) topper Neil Armfield is, McLean smirks, “why I’m so fabulous with actors.”

Veteran thesp John Jarratt, who plays the spooky outback stranger opposite newcomers Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi and Nathan Phillips, agrees: “He’s the best director I’ve worked with since Peter Weir in 1974.”

It’s taken a lifetime to realize his first feature, but if McLean has his way, it will take just a year to mount his next one. “Rogue,” an action-thriller involving a man-eating crocodile he wrote 10 years ago, is set for a mid-2005 shoot.