Snowtown is the uncompromising debut feature of director Justin Kurzel, who depicts the lives of the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ killers leading up to their incarceration in the late 90’s. It was always going to be a tricky project to approach, given the film raises obvious ethical questions about how to represent the murderers and that old dilemma about how to take real events and shape them into interesting storytelling.
Snowtown has been widely acclaimed and played at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but remains nevertheless polarizing. Shortly before the film’s Australian theatrical release last week I sat down for a chat with Kurzel about some of the many issues involved in bringing to the screen this startling and provocative feature. You can read my review here.
When I returned home from watching Snowtown I wrote a complimentary comment about it on Twitter. I was quite interested by one of the responses I received and I wanted to share it with you. This person wrote: “I feel like they (the filmmakers) should never have canonised that story in film. I am open minded but will need some convincing. I just think that true crime is too easy to exploit. Especially something so evil.” What do you think about a comment like that? I assume that you fundamentally disagree with their view?
I think it’s really subjective and everybody is going to have their own opinions. I feel that this was one of the darkest chapters in Australian history and it was swept under the carpet pretty quickly after the guys were arrested. Apart from two pretty one dimensional documentaries there has been no in depth debate, discussion or dialogue about what happened. For me it wasn’t about four freaks going crazy. This series of events were really entrenched in community and festered and happened over many years. I grew up 15 minutes from where the events took place. One of the things I think is so great about this country is that we can discuss and debate not only great things that happen but also the darkness and the shades of black.
Snowtown is a very frightening film. I think this is mainly because you’ve built an airtight sense of realism, which comes largely from some great performances from a cast of unknowns. There are no moments in the film when the audience look at a famous person and are reminded that they’re watching a film. How adamant were you to not have any well known actors in Snowtown?
I 100% believed in and presented my vision to the producers at the beginning that whoever was in this film should not come with the baggage of what they had done in the past. I said that the film needed to be told from the inside out and that the community that was represented and affected by this film needed to come across as truthful as possible.
I wanted people to be confronted by a part of Australia that they perhaps hadn’t seen and I didn’t want highly profiled actors to take them out of the experience. That’s because it is a very specific story. I love working with actors. I’m married to one. This is not something that I will keep on doing in terms of working with first timers. It was very specific to Snowtown and very important that the film be told from the inside out and was as honest and authentic as possible.
Would you have made the film if the producers had insisted on a more high profile cast?
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In films that are based on real life events, you can’t, as I’m sure you understand, recreate reality moment by moment because reality doesn’t have the dramatic rhythms required for interesting storytelling. So it’s not really about depicting what actually happened, is it, but more about using the powers of fiction to try and find a way to make representations truthful. Do you agree?
Absolutely. What I did find interesting in the reality of what occurred was the banality and ordinariness of the world where it took place and the fact that this violence came out of that landscape. You’re right, reality on screen has a certain rhythm to it that can be quite sparse and monotonous. I guess I flirted with that style through Snowtown, but at the same time there are very strong dramatic points. There are quite heightened events that occur and I was telling it through a particular point of view, which was the Jamie Vlassakis character. So there was a blending of melodrama and raw reality.
So far you’ve had an amazing run. The film has been widely acclaimed by critics and selected for Cannes, which is itself a massive honour. I’m interested in negative responses to the film. With a film as bold as this one I’m sure you would have already accrued some negative responses, right?
Absolutely. It is a polarizing film. It is a film that is incredibly confronting. It’s confronting because the subject matter is pretty muscular and tough. When I started the film I was aware that we would get very divided opinions about it. Even though it’s confronting material and people are tested with it they do seem to be very connected with the story and they do seem to go along with the journey. I am going to be very interested to see how the wider audience responds.
I think there are some people who want some sort of moral resolution or redemption at the end of the film. These events really didn’t have this clean, final moment where everyone feels great and rights are made of the wrongs. I wanted the audience to really engage with these characters, engage with the events and debate and discuss the choices that Jamie Vlassakis made and at the end come up with their own opinion. I am always excited by those who feel very strongly to the negative. I value their judgements as much as those who are extremely positive.
Did you look at a very different film like Wolf Creek and use that as an example of what you didn’t want Snowtown to be?
I didn’t feel as though the genre of horror and slasher films were the right ones for Snowtown. I didn’t see how a film like this could be told through those genres.
The overall atmosphere in Snowtown very disquieting, to say the least, although there’s not a lot of actual depictions of on screen violence. It feels early on almost like a kitchen sink drama with really genuine performances. But one scene – a torture scene — is graphic and disturbing. Did you ever think when you were shooting or editing that scene that you might have gone too far?
Right from the beginning we had really robust debates about the presentation of violence in the film. Some of it we felt needed to be suggested and other violence needed to be presented and be a little more explicit. I was very conscious that I didn’t want to sanitize this, that the violence always had to be connected with the emotional journey of Jamie. In a weird way I guess the violence becomes a character in the film. The different turning points in Jamie’s journey are all related to different expressions of violence and that was very important to us. It is a balancing act and there is a brutality in the real events that, I think, if people really looked at it in depth would be quite horrifying. I don’t think you could ever bring it to the screen. What we wanted to do was bring people to the edge where they lunge into the sort of brutality that actually occurred, but were still connected to the storytelling and to the characters involved in these events.
What shocked and horrified me most when I was reading the transcripts was how a lot of the violence came out of a kind of mundaneness and an ordinariness. From within the suburbs, where you had kids playing in the backyard and there was a kind of casualness in how it expelled itself. I found that to be very chilling.
Just for the record, when I saw Snowtown four or five people walked out. I’ve seen people walk out of movies before but I’ve never seen anybody run out of a movie before. However there was one person who did just that and piss bolted out the door. It was during a scene with a dog in the kitchen. She didn’t walk, she ran.
The response to violence towards animals in the film has been really interesting. A lot of people have responded to that in quite a powerful way, even more so that the violence between some of the characters. It is quite amazing that that dog scene has a huge affect on people. I can understand that.
I noticed you employed a rousing effect I’ve seen a lot before. You’re watching some really intense scene and then a director such as yourself cuts to a scene at church and everybody is worshiping and singing hymns. I’ve never exactly put my finger on why it’s such a rousing juxtaposition.
There are quite a few churches in this particular area and I was very interested in that idea of how even though things feel completely and utterly hopeless and desperate, people are still searching and hoping to find some sort of faith, no matter how small, to save them. That is something that I really noticed in the research — that a lot of these characters went to church and were heavily active in trying to find some sort of redemption for themselves, no matter how small.
Did you ever meet any of the real people?
No, we didn’t. We’ve met people who were closely connected to some of the perpetrators and victims and we interviewed an enormous amount of people in the community. It was like one degree of separation. Even a lot of people who auditioned had just come out of prison with the perpetrators or knew them very well. They gave us a really interesting on the ground perspective. That’s probably how we got the most information about John (Bunting) in terms of how the community viewed him.
I read someone describe Snowtown as “the most brutal bogan movie since The Boys.” Did you take any inspiration from The Boys?
The Boys has always been a very influential film to me and a seminal Australian film. Rowan Woods is someone I admire very deeply. There were certainly some aspects of The Boys I saw some parallels with but, having said that, Snowtown was so, so specific to the events and the idiosyncratic kind of characters. The Boys is definitely something that has always remained with me and a film I have enormous respect for.
Snowtown was made in just 14 months. How did you go, working at that kind of pace?
It was very quick. There were a lot of people who were really wanting this film to be made and there were a lot of things that happened to make this film, even down to the casting. We were very fortunate. Sometimes I think films can feel that they just want to be made. And I feel extremely fortunate that I have been involved in that and that people trusted me with a vision. I look around to a lot of my friends and colleagues and see how tough it is for them to get their films up. I feel very fortunate.
I know it’s very early but let’s talk about what’s next for you. Are you viewing your next project with the mindset that it will provide an opportunity to show people that you can work in a different genre, or do you want to find your niche by making a similar kind of film?
To me it’s always about the story and whether I have a unique vision for something and feel that I can bring it to the screen. It just so happens that the next project I am interested in is a black comedy, and I’m really excited about working in a different genre.