Justin Kurzel, The Snowtown Murders
For his harrowing debut feature, Australian director Justin Kurzel (Blue Tongue) took on a sensationalistic serial-murder case that rocked the northern suburbs of Adelaide in the early aughts. Known across the country as the “bodies in barrels” case, the Snowtown murders spurred controversy and launched a lengthy investigation that resulted in the conviction of a charismatic drifter, John Bunting, along with three accomplices, including a teenage boy he had taken under his wing. Attached to the project by Warp Films Australia’s Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw, and working from a script by Shaun Grant, Kurzel brings psychological verisimilitude and a gritty naturalism to the details of this true-crime story, achieving cinematic truth alongside semi-journalistic accuracy drawn from book accounts, court transcripts, and interviews in the community. The Snowtown Murders won a FIPRESCI Prize at the 2011 Cannes Critics’ Week, as well as top honors at the Australian Film Institute Awards, for best director, actor, screenplay, and editing.
Cast almost entirely with local nonprofessional actors, Kurzel’s film drops in on the benighted community of Salisbury North, where downcast youth Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) lives with his chain-smoking mother Elizabeth (Lousie Harris) and two half brothers in a squalid estate home. When infectiously charming John (Daniel Henshall) rides into town and begins to date Elizabeth, he takes an interest in cleaning up the area of ostensible predators, drug addicts, and perverts, beginning with a neighbor who has taken naked photos of Jamie and his siblings. John recruits Jamie in harassing the man, first with light vandalism, then eventually dumping a bucket of crushed kangaroo parts on his porch until he moves out in a panic. John’s energetic confidence and zeal for justice mobilizes the community, who gather for alcohol-fueled watch meetings to vent their frustrations and identify morally suspect individuals. Into this maelstrom of prejudice floats laconic Jamie, who has found a dubious role model in a man whose demonic influence on him escalates. Forced to shoot a dog execution-style, Jamie is then recruited to witness the protracted killing of his half brother, who John learns has been raping his young charge.
While brutal at times and unsettling in the extreme, Snowtown is the furthest thing from shock cinema. It is mysterious and sad, a haunting evocation of how material deprivation and emotional desolation become the seeds of horrific acts and a deranged psychological intimacy between two men. Shot by DP Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom) and scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, of Mess Hall fame, The Snowtown Murders is a devastatingly memorable and uncompromising debut film, anchored by Henshall’s kind/cruel bravura performance as the sociable psycho killer.
Filmmaker spoke with Kurzel about respecting sensitive material, the benefits of audience discomfort, and the art of blending experienced and non-professional actors. The Snowtown Murders opens Friday at IFC Center in New York.
Filmmaker: You’ve managed to wring dramatic truth out of a shocking true-crime story in a way that feels raw, real, and uncompromising. It could have been straight exploitation.
Kurzel: We made a conscious decision to approach the event with integrity and respect. It was quite a well-known story in Australia, and I guess it had been recorded in a pretty sensationalistic way, not much more than “bodies in barrels,” which was an unfortunate term. What interested me was how these events affected the community and how Jamie Vlassakis could be so easily and strongly affected by someone like John Bunting. I grew up about five minutes from where the murders took place and I wanted to understand more the human level of the tragedy. As I started reading the transcripts and talking to lots of people, I began to understand how these horrific deaths could take place.
Filmmaker: Screenwriter Shaun Grant’s unique approach was to come at things from Jamie’s perspective, which must have interested you.
Kurzel: Yeah. I think there’d been a lot of Wolf Creek–type horror scripts [based on the murders], and Shaun was really not into that. Nor was I. What we found really extraordinary was the father-son relationship and how this boy had managed to find [validation] in a serial killer.
Filmmaker: The murders are an important element of the story you tell, but the heart of it really is mapping the complex relationship between Jamie and John. That’s where the drama arises.
Kurzel: I never wanted to put the film into a genre box and see the violence stylized or in a way that was fantastical. It needed to come out of a truth and honesty. What I found so horrific was the ordinariness, the banality – these guys would be killing people over two days while they were watching TV or cooking. They normalized some kind of extraordinary brutality. I tried to make a coming-of-age or corruption-of-innocence story. And the violence, because I was being truthful and wanted you to experience it in a visceral way, came through Jamie’s point of view. When you don’t have a soundtrack or a compass to position it, I think people respond to it, [even though] it may divide them.
Filmmaker: More horrifying to me than the key murder scene was hearing the phone calls victims were forced to make to their loved ones saying they wouldn’t be home for a while.
Kurzel: And that was really tricky: How do you balance implying violence and showing it? The film’s actually not that explicit if you put it up against other films. The bathroom scene to me was really important for the audience to experience through Jamie’s eyes – because at the same moment the audience feels the need to get out of that bathroom, so does he. It’s the killing of his innocence. Out of all the horrific stuff these guys did that I never brought to the screen, that scene was a real turning point in the narrative, and it needed to be seen from his perspective.
Filmmaker: The sense of unease that we feel watching Snowtown is as much related to the tone of the film rather than any specific act of violence. It must have been challenging to remain in control of that.
Kurzel: It was [more about being] in control of the characters. One thing that unsettles most people in Snowtown is that they don’t feel safe. Nothing is familiar, and that adds to its visceral nature and mystery. If you watch Drive or Inglourious Basterds, which are incredible genre films, you have a dialogue with the violence, because it feels familiar. Our goal was to make you feel unfamiliar with it.
Filmmaker: Describe the northern suburbs of Adelaide to me. What did you learn in liaising with the affected communities that fed back into your plan for the film?
Kurzel: The suburbs are about an hour north of the main city and are mainly government funded residences run by housing commissions. These were set up in the fifties for new immigrants, British and Italians. So the whole community was created rather quickly, and it’s really quite interesting because you suddenly had all these kids from Liverpool in Australia listening to the Beatles. Over time, there was a lot of unemployment and crime. What I found doing the research was that there were high levels of sexual abuse in the area that defined how and why the Snowtown murders happened. It was like a perfect storm – John Bunting came along and had an ideology about why the area was having so much trouble. More importantly, he listened to people. That’s what his true skill was. He was able to listen and empower them. He had an ideology at the beginning that I think he genuinely believed in, against pedophiles and sexual abuse, but corrupted that to serve his own kind of evil.
Filmmaker: How did you provide direction to your lead actors, Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway – especially considering the latter had no previous acting experience – in order to achieve what you needed from them in terms of performance?
Kurzel: Daniel and one other actor, who plays Barry the transsexual, were the only ones with any acting experience. Everyone else we cast in the community where the events happened, so it was a long process. Dan’s a very social guy – he desperately wants to own a room and be liked. So he had those natural qualities. [Laughs] The cliché about serial killers is that they’re anti-social. We were keen to stay away from that idea because of what we knew about John and his dynamic [within the town]. It was really important that Dan live in the area for a time, so we put him up in a hotel and I told him he had to put on more weight. He joined clubs there, and then when we started casting. I had him take the boys camping and play pool with Robert, his sidekick. With Elizabeth, the mom, he would pick up her kid at school and make dinner for her. So Dan had this really immersive experience and developed all these genuine relationships with people so that when we got on set it was really quite effortless. They all had a real rapport.
Filmmaker: So working with actors of different skill levels wasn’t problematic?
Kurzel: No. When you work with first-time actors, they go into a scene without any premeditated idea of what they’re going to do. Dan would finish a scene and maybe look out the window, because that’s what he thought his character would do, and all the non-actors would look out the window, too, because they were so in the moment and incredibly engaged. I was able to use so many reaction shots in the edit because of how [intently] they were listening and taking in what was being said to them. It was just as impressive and revealing as any [line reading]. The important thing with the non-actors was getting them to tune in to emotions that felt real to them. With Dan it was about emptying his head a little and [guiding him] to be present and open to whatever they gave him. We used the dynamic he’d established with everyone [off the set] to create tension or connection between the characters.
Filmmaker: Adam Arkapaw shot The Snowtown Murders for you. What were you going for visually that you thought would help complete the naturalism the actors were giving you?
Kurzel: I went to film school with Adam, so we’ve had a working relationship over the years. When you’re working this way, you need a DP and an actor who’s intuitively following the beats. Adam has this innate ability to, in a very cinematic way, find performance and narrative in what’s happening right in front of him. I think that’s a unique thing in a cinematographer. On top of that, he’s a painter, so he’s able to form very cinematic shots that allow you to go to a wider landscape rather than something very intimate between two characters. He honed in on that Gothic quality we were after. The first act was always a kind of Western for us – you start off in this landscape and hear this voice-over, a premonition of what this kid’s going to see. Suddenly you arrive on this one street with houses dotted around, and then John rides in on a motorcycle. We had a very specific structure for all three acts. The third became much less observed and more like a ride into Purgatory through Jamie’s mind. Things became more heightened and a bit like standing at the gates of hell and having a peek inside. So Adam can effortlessly switch between performance and landscape-driven sequences – he was able to know which one’s turn it was.
Filmmaker: There are dark poetic touches in the film as well, like the shot of a python devouring a mouse.
Kurzel: Yeah, I guess they became more prevalent as we entered Jamie’s imagination. To be honest, there was a lot in the transcripts. Jamie was under the influence of drugs at the time – he lost all sense of time. There were moments when he didn’t know if the brutality he was seeing was a dream or not. We really did feel as though it was a descent, that John was taking him down into a Brueghel painting of some kind. We wanted these elements to pop out of the world around Jamie and leave the audience with a really strong sense of being in his mind.
Filmmaker: Snowtown was a debut feature for you and most of your creative and technical team. Did you ever have a moment where you collectively thought, What are we doing? Does anyone know?
Kurzel: Every single day! [Laughs] I think the element of fear in the whole film really liberated all of us. We had a lot of robust debate about the nature of the film, the cuts, and even using first-time actors. And to [Warp Australia producers] Sarah Shaw and Anna McLeish’s credit, they stuck by the vision 100 percent. If we had started to compromise here and there, it would have become a mess. You have to have a bit of animal in you in order to make a film.
Filmmaker: Your brother Jed Kurzel is a member of the Mess Hall and composed music for the film. What did he bring to the table?
Kurzel: The Mess Hall are a hugely respected two-piece blues rock band in Australia who’ve been around 10 or 12 years, before the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Jed is the singer/guitarist in the band, and we are hugely collaborative and have similar tastes in cinema. He was always composing – his mind just works in a visual way. Jed and I absolutely hated the idea of music commenting or leading you emotionally. It was about finding a cinemascape that would become Jamie’s voice. I never use temp tracks, and Jed had come up with this very distinct pulse which [bookended] the film. It [inspired] us to come up with Jamie’s monologue. And then it became a theme, this notion of evil calling him. Even though the film has a very naturalistic and observed quality, especially through performance, it needed to become cinematic. Adam and Jed were able to find voices and tones to lift the film into something else.
Filmmaker: Newer production entities in Australia like Warp Films seem to be taking chances on riskier indie film projects by young filmmakers. Are the opportunities there growing?
Kurzel: There’s definitely a renaissance happening – though I hate to use that term. I think it’s because a group of filmmakers with really strong voices who were making short films five or six years ago have been encouraged to find their own unique way of making cinema by brave producers who have the energy and confidence to embrace first-time filmmakers. You can definitely feel that through the last three or four years with films like Samson & Delilah and obviously Animal Kingdom. Or Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail, which is brilliant. There’s a real appetite at the moment for strong film voices.