The first-time Australian filmmaker on the making of his justly hyped crime thriller.
David Michôd is the latest wunderkind of Australian cinema, having burst onto the scene with his debut feature, the family crime drama Animal Kingdom. Winning the World Jury Dramatic Prize at the Sundance Film Festival hinted at audience favour, and the buzz that has built since its Australia release has only added to the hype. And it’s hard not to see why. Animal Kingdom is a taut, claustrophobic tale of a crime family and its unwitting new member (played with Bressonian restraint by James Frechville). Maintaining a steely distance to its subjects as they implode under internal and external stress, the film also delivers as an edge-of-the-seat thriller, carrying the imprint of crime classics White Heat, The Killing, and Heat.
“It was a little bit of icing on an already incredible cake,” says Michôd of the award and the rave reviews that followed. “Sundance was so exciting for us. I left the festival not caring if we had won an award or not. Everything I had hoped to achieve and more, we achieved. And it was just completely on the back of that first screening, and how good the room felt.”
The length of time it took to make Animal Kingdom also helped keep his feet on the ground. “If all of this stuff had happened straight out of film school, in my mid-20s, I think it would have bamboozled me, in a quite damaging way. My making of the film has been quite steady, and I feel like I’m a much more mature person. As exhilarating as all of this stuff has been, I don’t think it has swept me off my feet.”
Michôd grew up in Sydney, but moved to Melbourne for film school. “I was reading a few books at the time, true crime writing, particularly a couple by a guy called Tom Noble, who used to be the chief police reporter at The Age. He was there in the ’80s and ’90s, in a way he was covering the epoch, the last days of armed robbery as a serious criminal pursuit. The last days of the old school bandit. And the tension these old school bandits had. It was fascinating stuff. It was giving it a certain kind of mythology. Very soon after film school, I started writing about this decline of a family of armed robbers.”
Moving to Melbourne also afforded him a unique view of the city. “One of the first things I felt was how physically and architecturally different it was to Sydney. It felt almost like a mini Chicago to me. It felt very Victorian. Almost oppressive, but kind of grand and dangerous at the same time. It’s funny, I lived in Melbourne for ten years, but the whole time I felt like I was seeing it from an outsider’s eye.” The film carries this impression, and the detached view of the urban environment adds to the tension.
Despite the inspiration, Animal Kingdom took some time to develop, and Michôd wasn’t happy with the initial versions of the script. “My writing felt like kid’s writing. So in the course of the next eight or nine years, I kept refining this thing, and did a whole bunch of stuff, a lot of writing for other people, editing a film magazine for a few years, travelled the world, and I moved back to Sydney, I kept going back to it.”
The film is driven by its performances, in particular Jacki Weaver as Smurf, the matriarch of the family, and a disturbingly intense Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. Michôd says finding actors for those characters was the hardest part. But hee also notes that casting is “where you finally, for the first time, see the movie coming alive.”
Michôd wrote the film with Weaver and Mendelsohn in mind. “Jackie was on straightaway. Ben took a little bit of persuading, not because he didn’t like the material, but because he had literally done five or six films that year, and was completely screwed. He was exhausted. [But] the more we talked about it, the more he hated the idea of not doing it. And he came on board. In a way, the exhaustion helped. His [Pope’s] defining characteristic is a very dangerous confusion, and a kind of ennui as well. When we talked about, it manifested itself in these physical ailments, he was always having these stomach problems, he had headaches all the time—all of this stuff fed out of his very real exhaustion.”
With a cast of established actors including Guy Pearce, Michôd admitted to feeling intimidated as a first time director. “Especially those first few days of rehearsal. When you walk into a rehearsal room, there are these people sitting around, waiting for you to direct. No matter how many films as a director you’ve directed, the actors, more often than not, will have done ten times more. But they’re also in a position where they need direction. Actors want direction because without it they’re just making stuff up. Very quickly during the rehearsal, you realise they want you to be there for them. If you’ve been living with the thing for as long as I have, my head is full of everything I need to know.”
Weaver’s performance has garnered the most critical attention, partly due to her slipperiness as a character. “I think on a really basic level… she is one of the things that makes Animal Kingdom quite unusual. There is at the centre of the film a quite powerful, charismatic, and unusual woman. Jackie (Smurf) is very much a character who creeps up on you during the film. She is introduced as this seemingly benign grandmother figure, and probably marginal figure, and yet over the course of the film, you realise she owns this world, and therefore she owns the movie. I think people enjoy having this sense of Jackie’s character taking over.”
While the film is undeniably gritty, it deals in the aftermath of violence, rather than revelling in the act itself. “I had a sense of a crime film I wanted to make, not one that exists in a kind of slightly heightened pop culture. I love Tarantino’s movies, but I didn’t want to make a film in that style, partly because I wanted Animal Kingdom to be incredibly menacing. And, for it to be menacing, it needed to take itself very seriously, and have a certain kind of classic austerity. I wanted it to be quite contemporary too. There are certain crime films which take themselves very seriously, like The Godfather or Heat. Heat is in some way the closest… it’s contemporary, and it’s about white Anglo criminals. And it’s rich and substantial.”
Michael Mann’s Heat aside, Michôd knew he’d have to contend with a home audience accustomed to the Underbelly perspective on gangland crime in Australia. Winning the award at Sundance, however, helped differentiate. “Underbelly was so well reviewed in Australia, but I knew almost immediately, as soon as I saw that first episode, I felt myself relax, [as] I knew that Animal Kingdom was a very different kind of movie. I knew at the very least, my aspiration was [for it] to be a grand piece of serious cinema. I knew that one of the big challenges we would have was convincing Australian audiences that Animal Kingdom… was different, that it wasn’t just Underbelly you had to buy a ticket for. Fortunately, we able to do that because the reviews were uniformly great.”
The film’s dark view of Melbourne has led some foreign journalists to query Michôd about the type of Australia he was promoting. “Crime’s always a weird one, crime seems on some level seems to exist in a different world. I got asked that question a number of times when I was in America, ‘this isn’t exactly the Tourist Board depiction of Australia’, and I always begged to differ. I remember when I was a kid and saw Scarface for the first time, all I wanted to do was go to Miami. It looked wild and dangerous. And the same thing happened when I saw Taxi Driver. I wanted to go to New York so badly. And when I finally did get to New York, about five years ago, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as dark and dangerous as the New York of Taxi Driver.”
Animal Kingdom turns a family’s self-destruction into an exciting and compelling watch. On the back of its stark view of Melbourne, the film’s power stems from the marriage of a tight narrative, great acting, and urban alienation. “What I wanted to do was portray [a] Melbourne which is far more interesting than the image that it most often painted,” Michôd explains. “What struck me when I moved to Melbourne was how big and dangerous it felt. It’s a huge, sprawling city, its geographic footprint is huge. There are weird and dark corners which I find fascinating and terrifying and beautiful at the same time. When I look at Animal Kingdom, and I look at Melbourne, I actually feel like I’m looking at something beautiful, and it almost surprises me when people think it looks bleak.”
While it may not seem bleak to Michôd, Animal Kingdom’s darkness is perhaps its most distinctive quality, and further evidence of the great cinema Australia has been producing in recent years.