Why He's On Our Radar: Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel didn't hold back with his feature directorial debut "The Snowtown Murders," a grisly true account of one of the worst serial killer cases in the country's history. Kurzel's no-holds-barred approach paid off. The film opens this Friday via IFC Films after winning the Special Jury Prize at last year's Cannes' Critics Week, and picking up a slew of awards at the Australia Film Awards.
"The Snowtown Murders" (previously titled "Snowtown" on the festival circuit) follows Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris), a mother raising three boys in South Australia's Snowtown. After discovering that her boyfriend has pedophilic tendencies, she takes in a new man, John Bunting (a terrifying Daniel Henshall), who turns out to be even more vicious that the last. It isn't long before John gets close with Elizabeth's son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Pittaway), a soft-spoken outcast. From there on in, Kurzel's debut shows just how easy it is for a young mind to be corrupted to perform unspeakable acts.
Now you’re from Adelaide, which is just 145 miles south of Snowtown. Explain to me your reasons for delving into such a shocking part of your country’s history with your feature film debut.
Look, I think when the events became public it deeply shocked me. It’s where I grew up. I think you just have a natural curiosity as to why Australia’s worst serial killing in history happened in my hometown. Does it say something about the particular community that lives there?
I didn’t think much about it when it happened. I was just shocked by it. The media was completely talking about it as a freak show; a one-off. It was last year that I was sent the script. The producer didn’t say what it was. I opened it up and it said, “Snowtown.” As soon as you see that word in Australia, you know what it’s about. I started reading this and was just blown away by this point of view in the film that I had no idea about in the case. This 18-year-old kid who had a father figure that was a serial killer and this community that was exploited by this guy. I found it so fascinating.
I didn’t completely know that the area had one of the largest statistics of child abuse and pedophilia. When I started researching it, I felt that that was an incredibly important part of the world of “Snowtown.” It really wasn’t reported in the media very much. There had been a couple documentaries that were about getting off on the details of the murders. To me that wasn’t that interesting. I wanted to know how this guy had this really social existence with the community, came in and won them over. How desperate must this community and family be to be able to lay their guards down?
When I was growing up, there were a lot of kids without fathers. For a young kid, a male mentor is really important, so I can understand that attraction. But I guess I didn’t understand the kind of anger and hatred towards figures of authority. The idea that a guy comes in and gives them a voice is just kind of fascinating.
You worked with a cast of largely non-actors to depict the community. How did you go about using locals for realness sake, without exploiting them?
It was really just about shooting there and telling the story from the inside out, rather than coming in with a whole bunch of profiled actors. Originally it was more of a genre film. I had this crazy idea of filming in the area with real people. As soon as you see the first frame, you got to believe it. I just hated seeing that in films – where you’d see a misappropriation. We basically went there before shooting, started hanging out, and cast the film for 12 weeks. It was an odd process. We were doing open casting calls, and a lot of people came in who knew John, people who had spent time in prison with him. There was this weird two degrees of separation within the community. After a while you’ve been there for so long, people start to sort of feel comfortable – like you’re not waltzing in and waltzing out.
You must have come up against some resistance within the community.
Yeah, there was some trepidation that we were making a horror/slasher film, or something like that. There’s no doubt that there are people who were angry, and still are, that a film like this is being made. I knew it was going to be a divisive film.
The thing that I found, was it felt like people were ready to talk about it. It was so branded as a freakshow when it first came out, that people are curious to look at it with a new perspective. That to me was always our focus. It really was about the community. How the fuck does this happen?
We wanted to be inclusive and curious.
You clearly won them over, having picked up the Audience Award at the Adelaide Film Festival. Were you surprised that it went over so well with the people most affected by the story?
It was the best night I ever had in my life.
Who all was there?
There were some families of the victims, police commissioners, detectives and lawyers involved in the case… church leaders, the cast (laughs). I didn’t know which way it was going to go. I think there was a sense of relief at the end of it. When it was first made public that the film got funding, there was an outcry. There was a sigh that it wasn’t that.
The film’s not a horror/slasher film by any means, but it still is extremely gruesome. How have audiences on the festival circuit reacted to that aspect of the film? In Toronto, where I saw it, there were a significant number of walkouts during the grislier sequences.
I think the violence in the film is different from most violence in films. I think if you’re watching a horror film, you always kind of have a compass. A film that I really love is “Drive.” It played the second night after ours in Cannes. There’s this incredibly explicit scene that’s much more explicit in terms of what you see. Really, there’s only one explicit moment in “Snowtown.” The Palais, during “Drive,” was kind of cheering in this scene. It was really fascinating to me in terms of how violence was being received by an audience.
In my film, there is no kind of soundtrack. It’s very real. It’s about violence coming out the banality of domesticity. The audience doesn’t have a compass. They’re kind of like, “How do I position myself to receive this?” I think that is a really confronting part of it. It needed to be unnerving. I needed to people to the edge of this car crash.
Watching violence onscreen is very subjective as well. Everybody has different levels.
That particular scene in “Snowtown” is a really harrowing scene. But in the end, we only show one murder out of twelve. This murder is deeply linked to a really important turning point in Jamie’s life. You have to completely understand why this kid would kill his own brother. That to me was really important.
That sort of stuff has a really fine line. In horror films, the violence is always a character. In this film, the characters lead the film.
How is shooting a scene of that nature, especially with a young newcomer like Lucas Pittaway, who plays Jamie?
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We shot that scene over two days. It’s hard because it’s a scene that goes for about seven minutes, but happens all in real time. We’d have to break for lunch (laughs) and get poor Lucas into that emotional state again. That was really hard.
It’s about accessing a fear in you. Lucas seemed to work really well when he felt as though he had a kind of tunnel to something within himself that he was incredibly scared of. Once he found that, and once we were able to get him there, we were able to get him there really quickly.
Over those two days, he was hardly speaking to anyone. Daniel, who was playing John, up until that point had been very present in Lucas’s life. They had done a lot of things together, mirroring their relationship in the film. We were just very careful.
When the day finished, I’d take Lucas home, and make sure he was OK. To me the most amazing thing about working with first time actors – it’s this weird acting style where they’re in this emotional state that’s true to them, that they’ve created, yet they’re still aware that there’s a light… that I’m in the room. That was quite an extraordinary thing for them to get and navigate. They aren’t used to the artifice. They were able to get to that state quickly.
And getting out was tough?
Yeah. It was quite a close set.