Interview: David Michôd; writer/director of Animal Kingdom.

Interview: David Michôd; writer/director of Animal Kingdom. By Simon Miraudo.

 

David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom is a rare kind of Australian film – one that rode a wave of buzz from American critics to become a local success. The picture debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, where it picked up the prestigious World Cinema Jury Prize (as well as a number of rapturous reviews). It arrived in Australian cinemas several months later and was met with almost unanimously praise, with many declaring it one of the best films in our nation’s cinematic history. First-time writer/director Michôd has certainly set the bar high for his next project.

I spoke to Michôd about the origins of his Australian crime saga, his adoration for Apocalypse Now, as well as the film’s potential at the upcoming Academy Awards.

 

SM: Do you remember seeing a film when you were younger that inspired you to get into filmmaking?

DM: Yeah, it was Apocalypse Now. I had loved movies before Apocalypse Now; I remember Star Wars and Jaws kind of blew my little mind when I was a kid. I remember back than I didn’t really think those movies were made. I just loved them, and obsessed over them. It wasn’t until I saw Apocalypse Now that I find myself not only loving the movie but was completely fascinated by what I knew of how the movie was made and found myself attracted to the grand adventure of movie making.

SM: Have you seen Heart of Darkness [the documentary detailing Francis Ford Coppola’s struggles on the set of Apocalypse Now]?

DM: Yeah, the irony is that what I knew of the making of Apocalypse Now seemed quite horrific, but nonetheless exciting and dangerous at the same time.

SM: You started our writing, and eventually editing, Inside Film Magazine. At the time, was it your goal to eventually move into filmmaking, or were you content with writing about movies?

DM: Well no. Before I started at this magazine, I had been to film school in Melbourne, and I kind of just stumbled into the job at IF Magazine at a time when I really needed money and structure in my life. And it was a great job to have, because I felt connected to the industry still, and learnt a hell of a lot, and met a lot of great people. But I always knew when I was there that I would leave one day, and have a crack at what I went to film school to do.

SM: When did you begin writing the script for Animal Kingdom?

DM: I wrote the first draft in 2000, which was not long after I finished film school. Again, me finishing film school – as is so often the case with film students – I had no idea what I was supposed to do to forge a career. In many ways the simplest and cheapest thing to do was to start writing. I kind of didn’t really know what I was doing. I spent several years after 2000 effectively teaching myself how to write while writing Animal Kingdom and writing a whole bunch of other things.

SM: What was the earliest germ of the story?

DM: Well, I went to film school in Melbourne, but I grew up in Sydney. When I first moved to Melbourne, I found myself reading quite a bit of true crime writing, particularly by a guy called Tom Noble, who was the chief police reporter for The Age back in the ’80s. He was effectively charting a particular period in Melbourne’s criminal history that marked a decline of these hardened gangs of robbers, and decline also of a really hardened core of the armed robbery squad in the Melbourne police. There was something about these particular stories that he was telling that I found not just fascinating, but chilling as well. Almost immediately I started imagining what I hoped would one day be a big Melbourne crime story.

SM: Obviously there are parallels with the Walsh Street shootings. Were you intending to do an adaptation of a true crime story, or was that always just a jumping off point for your own creation?

DM: It was always a jumping off point. There was obviously something in these stories that Tom was writing about and this particular era in Melbourne’s criminal history that culminated in Walsh Street, which was a profoundly chilling event and a seminal event in Melbourne’s history generally. But I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the freedom to build my own world of characters around what was effectively the dying days of a particular gang of armed robbers and a particular Melbourne crime family.

SM: Where did you find the characters for the film? Are there any traits from your own family and friends that you injected into the Codys?

DM: Inevitably I think if you’re writing about what you know there will always be strong elements of your own life in any film, even if that film takes place in a world that is on the surface far removed from your own. So definitely that family that is the center of Animal Kingdom is full of my own observations of my own families, and other people’s families, and people I know generally.

SM: Moving onto the visual style of the film, I was actually reminded of Gus Van Sant’s movies, like Paranoid Park and Elephant, which also deal with these young teenage men experiencing violence. I was wondering what some of your visual influences for the film were?

DM: That’s funny; I’ve never heard the Gus Van Sant parallel before.

SM: I mean it as a compliment, of course.

DM: Funnily enough – and in some ways this is something I’ve only identified retrospectively – but if there was any one particular visual style reference to the film it was Apocalypse Now, in that it was a grand narrative that was full of beautiful detail, and that was quite raw and authentic. And yet, at regular intervals steps away into moments of contemplative visual poetry. And it was that kind of juxtaposition of raw authenticity and heightened cinematic art that I was largely attracted to when making Animal Kingdom.

SM: The film threatens to set up some crime drama tropes, like car chases and showdowns. Obviously, you avoid those for the most part. Were there occasions where you were tempted to throw in a set piece? Was it a struggle to hold onto that raw, understated tone?

DM: Not really. Obviously I wrote the script over a long period of time. It took a number of different forms over the course of those years. I think what I always knew was that I wanted to make a really menacing crime film about a particular gang or family in decline. With that scenario, you’re looking at a family of criminals, who, over the course of the movie, are committing crimes of a defensive nature. You don’t see this family committing the crimes of their principal business. What you see are a family, or a gang, backed into a corner, and which have become incredibly dangerous because of that. And I always wanted to stay true to that in a way; I didn’t want a heist movie. I wanted to make a movie about a group of criminals who were anxiously living out their last days, even if they didn’t necessarily recognise that period as being their last days.

 

SM: Was there a draft of the screenplay where you did see them at the height of their crime careers?

DM: Not really, you know? And in fact, I can’t think of a draft of the script that had any kind of set pieces of that nature. The challenge was always…when you make a film about professional criminals you need to be able to demonstrate on some level what the nature of their criminal activity is. So, with Animal Kingdom it was always a challenge to communicate what kinds of people these people were, without actively showing them in the course of a heist or some other kind of illegitimate money making venture. But again, I didn’t want to make an action crime film, I wanted to make a film about fear if nothing else.

SM: You did a Top 10 film list for ION Cinephile, and I noticed you listed films like Funny Games and Taxi Driver, which I thought was really interesting. Those two films sort of tease the audience with the prospect of violence, only to withhold it, and unleash it later on when it’s least expected. Were those influences in your mind at the time?

DM: What I knew was that I wanted the violence to feel real, and from my observations, when violence explodes in people’s lives, it explodes out of nowhere. It’s rarely anticipated, and it’s gone in the blink of an eye. What you’re left with is aftermath. I wanted the violence in the film to play out in those terms, rather than either gratuitously wallowing in violence, or using violence as a backdrop for action set pieces.

SM: Do you think Sony Pictures Classics – who distribute the film in the U.S. – will mount an Oscar campaign?

DM: Yeah; I think from the very beginning when we screened the film at Sundance, that the critical reception for the film was really strong. I certainly think that’s something Sony Classics identify. In many ways that’s what they do best. They’re very good at identifying films that will receive a very strong, positive critical reaction, with the possibility that that may lead to some kind of heat come awards season. And already you can feel that buzz building, particularly around Jacki Weaver, but just around the film generally. Whether or not that translates into anything is the great unknown.

SM: It’s hard to predict these things.

DM: It’s always hard to predict these things. But certainly there’s buzz around the film and has been for a while. That in itself is very exciting.

SM: I’m curious about another film of yours, one that you’ve written, which is Hesher. Do you know when we’ll be seeing that in Australia?

DM: I’m not sure when we’ll be seeing it in Australia. I know that it was bought in Sundance by New Market, and I think they’re planning to release it either somewhere towards the end of this year or early next year. I don’t think they’ve set a date yet. I have no idea how or when it will be seen in Australia.

SM: What’s coming up next for you?

DM: I’m not entirely sure. There’s a few options I’m weighing up at the moment now that I’ve got a little bit of space to think after the Animal Kingdom madness that seems to have not stopped for a moment since Sundance. Hopefully I’ll make a decision some point in the not too distant future about what I do next.

SM: Alright well David good luck with the rest of the tour, and thanks for speaking with me.

DM: No worries, thanks for that.

Check out my review of Animal Kingdom here. Animal Kingdom is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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