Despite taking a short film called “Blue Tongue” to Cannes Critic’s Week in 2005, Australian director Justin Kurzel isn’t a member of the Aussie collective Blue Tongue Films, which includes “Animal Kingdom” writer/director David Michôd and star Joel Edgerton (also of acclaimed MMA drama “Warrior”). Comparisons will be inevitable, however, in that like “Animal Kingdom,” Kurzel’s debut feature is an uncommonly accomplished crime drama about a naive teen corrupted by the poisonous, sociopathic tutelage of a deranged father figure. The two films also share cinematographer Adam Arkapaw who spent time behind the camera for both productions.
If there’s a key difference, though, between Kurzel’s film, “The Snowtown Murders,” and Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom,” it’s that the former is based on a horrific true story. Specifically, “Snowtown” dramatizes the events of Australia’s notorious Snowtown murders (also called the “Bodies in Barrels murders”), perpetrated by John Justin Bunting and three accomplices, one of whom was teenager James Vlassakis. “Snowtown” is a grim, hard-to-watch chronicle of how Vlassakis was lured into Bunting’s world, eventually participating in his brutal, vicious murders.
We sat down with Kurzel in Toronto, where the Warp Films-produced “Snowtown” is making its first major stop since it was acquired by IFC Midnight at Cannes, where it played to a raucous reception. While the conversation obviously focused on his hugely promising debut, Kurzel did confirm that he’s prepping for production on a follow-up, “Ivan Lendl Never Learned to Volley,” a black comedy about an obsessed tennis parent and his son, also produced by Warp Films. Below are five insights from Kurzel on ‘Lendl’ and “Snowtown,” which next heads to San Sebastian and London, and will be released in the U.S. next year.
1. Kurzel was fascinated by the collective nature of the Snowtown murders, which occurred near the community in which he grew up.
One of the peculiar and particularly chilling aspects of the Snowtown killings – which claimed the lives of 12 victims – was the fact that they were perpetrated by a group of individuals over a span of seven years. Kurzel explained, “it’s a very unusual case because usually serial killers work alone, and they’re kind of nuts, and they’re not very social, whereas there were four guys here working together, four serial killers, and everyone seemed to know them when we were filming in the actual place.”
But he was also drawn to the material by the evident parallels between the Snowtown crimes and crimes throughout history that have a collective element. “It’s got that charismatic kind of leader who seduces and gives people their voice and identity and has an ideology that then is corrupted. It’s something that obviously has been repeated through history.” As the story of a figure who arrives to empower a downtrodden community, Kurzel compared the beginning of the film to a Western: “It’s a group of people that have kind of become stagnant, and have put up with a certain level of abuse, and a certain lifestyle, and then along comes this guy who arrives on a motorbike, really changes things, and gives people a voice and makes them feel very angry about the kind of injustices that they’ve endured.”
“This area has gone through really prolonged patterns of sexual abuse, especially child abuse, and I think it still is a really volatile topic in the area, so I could definitely see why people would want to turn to John and sought answers from him for what was happening.”
2. An early draft of the script that featured procedural elements and courtroom drama was scrapped in favor of a screenplay told strictly from James Vlassakis’ perspective.
“Snowtown” differs from most other true crime stories in that representations of authority — police, investigators, lawyers – are entirely absent from the film. Not only does this have the effect of helping to draw audiences into the mindset of the perpetrators, it’s also thematically significant, underscoring the lack of a viable social fabric in the community where the killings took place.
“The original script did have cops and the courtroom drama that actually happened after the suspects were caught, but the one thing I found really distinctive about the draft that I read was the point of view of this kid and how distinct and interesting that was,” Kurzel said. “[Screenwriter Shaun Grant] and I went off and re-wrote some drafts where we just looked at the complete point of view of Jamie, and that to us seemed to be the most compelling and interesting. I mean, I think we’ve seen 100 times before, the whole duality between the perpetrator and cop, and usually it exists within the genre form, and I really felt that this wasn’t a genre film.”
Characterizing “Snowtown” as “a much more observational film”, he continued, “I just thought it was unique to look at the theme of the corruption of innocence through the eyes of a perpetrator, and how something like that could kind of happen.”
3. Apart from TV actor Daniel Henshall, who plays Bunting, all but one of the cast were non-professionals, drawn from the local area.
Having previously worked largely in Australian television, Daniel Henshall is remarkable as John Bunting, at times undeniably charming, and at others, convincingly ferocious. Kurzel explained that the otherwise non-professional cast was drawn to Henshall in a similar fashion to the manner in which the community’s inhabitants had been drawn to Bunting.
On casting Henshall, Kurzel observed, “I didn’t want a cliché kind of serial killer, and it is really daunting when you think, ‘Oh I’m making a serial killer film’, and there are just so many clichés that you can be drawn to. Daniel’s very unassuming, very likeable, and he loves talking to people, and I wanted that feeling, especially at the beginning, like, this guy’s pretty good; he’s come in and he’s helping these people out. He’s very ordinary, but he’s kind of attractive, a bit chubby. So, you know, there was something about Dan that had that, and then at the same time Dan could just stare at you, and you felt as if there was something he’d been hiding from you.”
“It was the first time that they’d been on film,” he said of the general cast, including lead actor Lucas Pittaway who plays Jamie (and somehow manages to resemble both “Animal Kindgom” star James Frecheville, and a young Heath Ledger). “That really informed the authenticity of the film, and it became really interesting in terms of their relationship with Dan, because Dan was an outsider like John was to the community, and had been in a soap that everyone had seen in the area, which I didn’t know about. Dan kept it secret from me, and then he arrived, and everyone was asking for his autograph.”
“But it actually worked out really well,” he continued, “because it had a dynamic there where people were gravitating towards him, and it was a similar dynamic to John’s.”
4. Though the events of the film were tightly scripted, the dialogue was often improvised on set.
The dialogue in “Snowtown” lends the film a conspicuously naturalistic air, and Kurzel confirmed that the cast members had improvised many of their own interactions. “We had a script, but there was a kind of awareness that the guys could really own it and take it wherever they wanted,” he said. “The events of the scenes were extremely scripted and very taut, but we probably hardly had a look at the dialogue after that, it was kind of more about ‘This is where we are, and this is what the scene’s about and this is what we want to try to say.’”
“Dan was probably the only one that had the script in his head,” he added. “He allowed himself to go off the script, but at times when he felt he needed to be there, the lines were good and were working with the truth of the day and the scenes that we were doing, then he would use them, but most of the others just kind of found their own voice within the character.”
5. Kurzel’s next film will be a “Submarine” meets “Rushmore” dark comedy titled “Ivan Lendl Never Learned to Volley”
“If five years ago someone said to me I was going to make a film with this sort of brutality I would have been incredibly shocked,” Kurzel said of the violence depicted in his debut. “I’m not attracted to this sort of subject matter, but it was just so compelling and interesting, and I guess because of the personal connection coming from the area, I was very, very drawn to it.” Of his future projects, Kurzel said, “the one that I’m working with next is a black comedy and another one’s a kind of psychological thriller, but it’s much more within a genre convention. But they’re very, very different from ‘Snowtown.’ ”
The comedy is the aforementioned “Ivan Lendl Never Learned to Volley,” which Kurzel explained was partly inspired by his experiences as a precocious child tennis player. “It’s based on a true story that happened in France between this father and son. My brother and I were kind of prodigy tennis players, we had a very strict tennis father, so it’s about relationships and about, again, father/son relationships. We’re just about to go on a research trip through Eastern Europe and follow the tennis circuit there. It’s a little bit like ‘Submarine’ meets ‘Rushmore’ meets a black comedy.” Kurzel is still in the writing process, and doesn’t yet have a cast in mind, but promises that, like “Snowtown,” “it will have an incredible role for a father figure,” albeit “much gentler.”
“The Snowtown Murders” opens in limited release this weekend and is on VOD now. This interview originally ran during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.