Since the grim and gruesome news of the ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders filtered through the media over a decade ago, the small South Australian town of Snowtown has been synonymous with one of the worst crimes in Australia’s history. In his debut feature, director Justin Kurzel peers behind the newsprint to explore the men behind the massacre, as well as their motivations, in a deeply confronting piece of local cinema. On the eve of Kurzel’s trip to Cannes, where the film played to critical acclaim, we sat down with the first-time filmmaker to discuss the process of recreating the events surrounding the spate of killings that rocked a nation. From the script to the style, the cast to the community, and the horror and humanity, Kurzel shares his thoughts and experiences with The Reel Bits.
SW: First things first – congratulations on the film, and the success that you have had with it so far.
JK: Thank you.
SW: Starting at the beginning, can you tell me how you came to be involved in bringing this dark chapter in Australia’s history to the screen?
JK: Anna (McLeish) from Warp Films Australia was looking for a first film to do, and was talking to me about another project that didn’t come through. Anna sent me a script, and she wouldn’t tell me what it was. I opened it up, looked at the front page, saw Snowtown written across it in big bold letters, and I thought could this be it. And it was. I started reading it, and to be honest, I didn’t know much about it apart from ‘bodies in the barrels’. That’s where my insight into Snowtown really stopped. I was pretty blown away about the complexity of the case and the humanity in it. I think it had been reported as a freak show, so I was really quite blown away by the perspective that Shaun (Grant) had found in this Jamie Vlassakis kid. And the whole notion of the corruption of innocence, not only in this kid, but in the whole community – how this community of forgotten people found a leader in this John Bunting guy, and how he was able to exploit their vulnerabilities and fears and use them for evil.
I grew up 15 minutes away from the area as well, so I knew it really well, and I guess I just wanted to find out how and why it happened on a much more human level, rather than a body count. I wrote out a list of things that I wanted to do – cast non-actors, shoot in the area, do another couple of passes on the script that were focused on the thoughts and point of view of Jamie – and I was quite surprised that they came back and said yes to a first time filmmaker. It freaked me out a little, because I really had to go “wow, I’m doing this”. But I just found the story so incredible. I knew there were some scripts around about it, but I knew that they were horror films, and I thought it was impossible to do a story about this as a horror genre film. I felt that it was much more interesting as a psychological drama.
SW: That brings us into the way you have handled the story. You’ve touched upon the fact that it is quite horrific, but also inherently human. Can you tell me about how you manage to perfect that balance in conveying the events on the screen?
JK: I just think an audience has to understand what leads people to this kind of darkness. The main focus was on this community, and this particular family, and I think it was kind of a perfect storm really. It was this place that had gone through years of patterns of child abuse and sexual abuse, a lot of the people involved in the actual case had come from child abuse backgrounds. There was quite a high rate of paedophilia going on, and I just think John came along with an ideology – no matter how corrupt – at the right time that galvanised people and gave them a vision for something. So that was the main driving force in our approach, not the violence. I’d seen a couple of documentaries made on it, and it was all sensationalised, it was just body counts. I always found the violence in this to be a secondary thing. So I think Shaun and I made a pact at the beginning that any violence that was on screen was directly linked to Jamie’s journey through the film, and the moments of initiation in terms of leading him to a kind of hell. So, they are very, very specific moments. It starts off simple, chucking ice-creams, and then leads to kangaroos being chopped up. And then it escalates to this very pivotal scene, which is probably the most confronting in the film, with his brother. It is definitely the major turning point for the film. I think that’s why people respond to the violence in such a confronting way, because it is very real and it is deeply connected to the emotional backbone of this character.
SW: That leads me to the authenticity of the film – the fact that it does feel genuine, rather than staged. Can you tell me about your creative decisions, and the risks that you may have had to take to get the film to look and feel that way?
JK: We decided very early on that we wanted to cast first timers as part of the community, and then have John Bunting played by an actor that was outside that community. What happened, he was born in Inala, and came into this particular community, so that dynamic was really important. I didn’t want there to be baggage on screen. I didn’t want the audience to be reminding themselves that they were watching a profiled actor playing a low socio-economic character. I felt as though it would’ve been slightly patronising to the very real, hard lives of these guys that is at the heart of the story, which I thought really needed to be owned by them a little bit. You really needed to immerse yourself very quickly into their entire world, and not feel as though you were being protected, which I think is what those guys do. I also think there is a danger in films like this that there is no humanity in it, and these guys definitely brought not only a kind of authenticity, but a kind of tenderness. A believability that you could relate to, and fragility as well that balanced the brutality of the film.
SW: Can you tell me more about the process of finding the cast. You mentioned the majority are first-time, non-professional performers. How did you go about getting them on board?
It was a twelve week audition process in the area. It was me walking the streets and shopping malls and football fields and trains. Lots of hands on work, there with my casting agent just going “yeah, that person, that person”. And it was quite confronting actually, because some of the guys looked at me like “who the fuck are you?”, and took a while to believe it was fair dinkum, and to trust me on that. We probably saw about 700 people, and we did some on the street interviews straight up just to hear them speak, just to get an instinct about them. There were some physical similarities to some of the people in the film, and then the audition process was really about how prepared these guys were to bare themselves, and to give themselves to some of the confronting and emotional stuff.
For example, with Lucas (Pittaway), it wasn’t until about the second or third audition that this kid – who never cried in public – suddenly turned on the tap and was able to have access to that. We’d seen that he had also been able to get confidence within himself to do that, and then we were confident to move forward with him. So there was a lot of trust on both parts, and a lot of fear, too, as to whether it was going to work or not. I was really just using my instincts and simplifying stuff right down so that they weren’t playing these convoluted, fictional characters. What we tried to do was to make sure that they were able to relate to each of the beats and the moments within the scenes. They were using a lot of their past experiences, and a lot of them had been through quite a bit, so they felt very close to some of the highly confronting and emotional stuff.
SW: Touching upon the location, because it is so pivotal to the film – can you tell me a bit more about shooting it locally, and how important that was to bringing that sense of authenticity to the film?
JK: I think it straight away gave you a sense of intimacy in the film, and that was very important. Even though the film is really observational, you do feel as though you are part of this house, and that you are watching into these quite fragile, intimate lives, and I don’t think you could ever do that with sets and so forth. So we used a lot of real locations, and brought in particular elements of the characters within each of them. I think it has a very, very particular look, that place. It’s housing commission houses, cement bunkers. It’s quite flat, it’s on old farm land and things like that. I didn’t watch any films for inspiration. The DoP and I, Adam (Arkapaw), just spent a lot of time there photographing, as that sort of place has a psychology onto itself, and sort of told us what it wanted to be. It’s very contrasting to Snowtown, which is wide open spaces, so those two very different looks – one being claustrophobic, one being quite open – were really important shifts through the film.
The community there was really fantastic. I was quite surprised. Obviously people were concerned about us making the film, and obviously there were those that didn’t want it to be made, but mostly I found the people to be really engaged and wanting to talk about it. I guess it was almost like a slight purging of “this happened 11 or 12 years ago”. It was taboo, no one was really talking about it. So this was an opportunity to actually engage, and for them to say how it affected the community, why they think it happened, and where the community is now from 10 years ago, when this was real. I’ve had some criticism about why we’re showing this film, why we’re going back and revisiting this stuff, and it’s so dark and overwhelming, but that’s the absolute opposite of what I found in the community, who were really wanting to engage and talk about it, hear about it. I mean, they’re really a forgotten people there, which is why John was able to kill these people without anyone knowing, because they were forgotten people. So these kind of stories, I think it is important to debate them, and for audiences to come out and have very strong discussions about what they think, and how and why they think it happens.
SW: Still on the local element – as you mentioned, you did grow up nearby. What was that like for you, making that story in an area that was relatively local for you?
I had this real duality in me, because at one point I was really horrified by the fact that it all happened there. I go through the area to my home in Gawler, and there are certain aspects of the area that are really confronting, but it is very familiar to me. I spent a lot of my childhood there, I played a lot of football there, and I had friends in the particular area, so I had a lot of affection for it. So I saw lots of beauty, and I was really conscious of not stereotyping it as this urban ghetto. I found that for me, it had pockets of beauty and humanity, so the challenge was finding a light in something so utterly brutal. I do really believe that through the guys, the first-timers in it, and through the storytelling, that you see that. You experience the struggle, but also that lightness amongst there, that then obviously implodes into a dark hell.
SW: Let’s touch upon the style, because the film provides a very distinct sensory experience. Can you tell me about the decisions made in the cinematography and the sound design in bringing the audience into the story?
I wanted it to be a very visceral film. One that was more an expression, was quite emotional rather than analytical. The cinematography at the beginning is much more observational and hand-held, so you really feel like you are peering into these people’s lives, but from a distance. And then as the story focuses on Jamie and his journey into purgatory, the film becomes much more expressionistic and internal. We’re seeing it through his eyes, the camera is seeing it through his eyes and the emotional world that he is in in a much more intimate way. And I’d say that it was the same with the music. The music was never going to be there to support any emotional resonance within a scene. To me it was always about a rhythm and a pulse, almost like a heartbeat of this boy. At the beginning of the film, we start off with this premonition, and he talks about getting a glimpse of his fate, and that music, that pulse, becomes a motif of that fate and anxiety that is eventually realised at the end. But the music was also supposed to create that very visceral, claustrophobic feel, which is what I think most people actually respond to. It’s not so much the graphic nature, it is more to do with that underlying tension.
SW: I think that you’ve done that incredibly well, and the audience engages with the film in the exact way they need to for that type of film.
JK: Well, the sort of films that I like leave questions unanswered, and allow for an audience to experience the story in a much more expressionistic way, much more visceral and muscular. We really tried to avoid the literalness of the story. Dates, and all of that sort of stuff I just found kind of irrelevant really. It was more about how do you get an audience to touch, or to get a glimpse, or to taste this kind of brutality, which is kind of like experiencing a car crash. It’s those kind of experiences in the cinema, and you often get it in the theatre as well, or music if you go to see a rock concert, that are stimulating particular senses in you that are a little bit more than just mind.
SW: You mentioned that you would like audiences to come out questioning, pondering, asking why. Can you expand a bit more on that?
JK: Well, i wasn’t interested in any kind of moral resolution in this film, and there is no redemptive moment. Jamie didn’t call the cops, and he didn’t have this final moment where we all go “thank god for that”, and he found some sort of moral fortitude in this. To me that wasn’t interesting. To me, what was interesting was what propels people to be attracted to evil, how easily it is for a vulnerable community to be corrupted, and the power of a voice – and this was a pretty ordinary voice living in a pretty ordinary place – that can find incredible power incredibly quickly if a large group of people don’t feel as though they are being heard and listened to. Those sort of themes, the corruption of innocence, are really powerful, especially in areas like that where there aren’t many father figures around, there’s a lot of young boys who are desperately searching for mentors. And I noticed that growing up. I completely got that idea of this perfect storm of this guy coming along with a very, at first sound ideology against sexual abuse and paedophiles, and then in an effortless way capturing this family and this kid, and testing them to their absolute limits. At the same time, I didn’t really want to judge Jamie. I think he made some pretty appalling choices, but at the same time it was important to find an empathy there that an audience could understand or at least get a glimpse of how he got into the position he did.
SW: You’re about to screen the film at Cannes – how are you feeling about showing the film to an international audience for the first time?
JK: Really nervous to be honest. I wasn’t, but I am really nervous now. I think it is also that it opens in Australia while we’re over there, and there is a big question mark about how big that curiousity factor is with Snowtown, and whether audiences are going to want to go see it. I really hope so because I think the story is extraordinary, but it will be really interesting overseas. There’s been a bit of buzz about it overseas at the moment in the States and obviously also in France, and I think there are particular themes in there that are pretty universal and interesting. And the film looks muscular, and I think there is a heritage in Australian film from films like Wake In Fright to The Boys to Chopper and so forth, that deal with this masculinity that is present in the film that will definitely intrigue audiences overseas. But what I’m excited by is that I do think this is so particular to Australia, even though this could happen anywhere. I do think the way it looks and feels, and the performances, the series of events are so unique and particular that it should be really interesting in terms of how that translates, not only through the language but culturally I guess.
SW: To wrap up, do you have any idea of what you might move on to next?
JK: Yeah, I’m writing a black comedy with my brother, who did the music on Snowtown. We’re hoping to set it in Europe, and it is a very different film to Snowtown, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s a really fun script, and it deals with fatherhood again, and similar themes but on a completely different canvass. But this happened so quick, the film took 14 months to make, so I really haven’t had time to breathe. I’m actually quite looking forward to having a bit of distance from Snowtown because it is definitely something that stays with you, and you can’t really clock off. I’m looking forward to having some distance from it.