Interview: Justin Kurzel; director of Snowtown

Interview: Justin Kurzel; director of Snowtown. By Simon Miraudo.

Daniel Henshall as John Bunting in Snowtown.

The most horrifying murders in Australian history did not occur during those lawless colonial years before federation, nor in parallel with the notorious American killings by the Manson Family or Zodiac in the late 1960s and early 1970s. No, they were perpetrated barely a decade ago, in a small suburb of Adelaide, amongst innocent and oblivious citizens. John Bunting swept into the life of young Jamie Vlassakis and rallied a group of followers to dispatch any local types he found distasteful. From 1992 to 1999, they killed 12 people; the remains of eight were discovered in barrels of acid in Snowtown. Director Justin Kurzel’s feature film debut – taking its name from the location of those bodies – brings to the screen these terrifying events.

If the conversation regarding the ‘body in a barrel’ murders was stifled following the imprisonment of Bunting and his accessories, the gritty, violent, oppressive and unspeakably powerful Snowtown is sure to reopen the wound. We spoke to Kurzel about  his relationship with the killings, his thoughts on “Australian violence” and taking the film to the Cannes Film Festival ahead of its Australian debut.

Justin Kurzel.

SM: I always like to begin at the beginning, and see if there are any films or filmmakers that inspired you when you were growing up to get into the industry?

JK: Well, when I was younger, ABC used to play on Saturday nights – they had an Australian night. They used to play Paul Cox films, and you know, the films of Bruce Beresford, Donald Crombie, Peter Weir and Ken Hannam. I just remember as a kid kind of sneaking in and watching them with my parents, and being quite blown away by seeing Australian voices on screen. I reckon that was the most influential time of my … how I started getting interested in making films was probably just seeing that incredibly productive time in Australian cinema in the late 1970s, early 80s.

SM: Well, look, it’s been more than 10 years since John Bunting’s victims were found in those barrels in Snowtown. Do you remember what your thoughts were of the story when it was first revealed?

JK: I was really curious, because it happened only 10 minutes away from where I was born. I was really quite shocked that something so horrific like this happened so close to home. Most of my first understandings of it were pretty one-dimensional; you know, what the media sort of superficially reported. After I read Shaun’s [Shaun Grant, screenwriter] script, I was quite surprised by the perspective he had taken, and the level of depth he had discovered and found with the events.

SM: It’s definitely grizzly subject matter, and it’s no surprise it’s taken a little while for a film to be made of the events. What was it that incited you to kind of pick up the reins and take it on yourself?

JK: It just had a great point of view; the idea of this boy being seduced by this father figure, and kind of exploited – in the way that John does to Jamie Vlassakis – and watching this boy battle with the choices that he’s making, I found really compelling. I felt as though the issues within the community were really interesting: How does a community like this lose its voice? When does it feel it’s not being listened to? How does it become seduced by a man like John Bunting? Those sort of themes – the corruption of innocence, not just in Jamie Vlassakis but in the community, and also that kind of thing of nature vs. nurture – I found them to be incredibly strong themes within the script and really compelling ones that weren’t just specific to the Snowtown events but were very universal.

SM: There are dozens of ways this story could have been told. We could have seen it as a procedural; even a courtroom drama with a happy ending, relatively speaking. Like you said, you focus specifically on Jamie’s perspective, and that suburban perspective. But did you and Shaun play around with any other iterations, or any other perspectives?

JK: When I first read the script, Shaun had had some other points of view from the police in there, and it was probably a little bit more like a genre film. Then after I put my vision forward to Warp Films and to Shaun – that I wanted to kind of really focus completely on the perspective of Jamie Vlassakis, and how those events are revealed and unfold to him – the script took that shape. I just felt as though that was the most compelling way to tell that story. The other side of the police interaction and so forth, I wasn’t as interested in as the idea of seeing this through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old kid.

SM: Did you have any desire to meet Bunting, or Jamie, or any of the killers in prison before beginning production? Would that have even been possible?

JK: I don’t think it would have been possible, nor did I really want to. I felt that I had enough information from the transcripts, and from people that I’d interviewed and also from the books that I felt as though we had enough insight there to tell the story that we were telling.  No matter what, it’s not a doco drama; it’s a film – it’s an interpretation of the events. For us, the most important thing was to be as truthful as possible to those events, but that we were telling a story and the story had to connect to the themes that we were interested in telling. I still refer to Jamie and John as characters within our film, but obviously heavily inspired by the real people and events.

Lucas Pittaway as Jamie Vlassakis in Snowtown.

SM: Were you at all concerned about how you were depicting Bunting? You know, perhaps too human, or not human enough. Were these the kinds of things you discussed with Daniel [Henshall]?

JK: Our approach with the John Bunting character was that we didn’t want him to come across as a one dimensional serial killer. We felt as though it was very important that he be someone that you could instantly see how the community would be drawn towards, and the community would be very trusting of him. When we met people that had bumped into John, or knew of him, the continual feedback that we got was he was a kind of everyman and he would help you with his shopping, he’d look after your kids if you had to go out, he’d fix your car. There was something very trusting and charismatic about him and I think that that was our first point of call, because the main story we were telling was about a man who came into a community and how a community were kind of drawn to this preacher-type character. And how they were able to, very quickly, believe in his ideology, and how that ideology became corrupted, and where this community was left after that.

SM: Have you had any negative reactions about the project from that community? People do love to share their opinions of controversial projects before they’ve seen the film, but have you heard much of that?

JK: We had a lot of concern before it premiered in Adelaide, in that I think most people’s assumption of the film was that it was a horror film and a slasher film. A lot of our time before, while making the film, and leading right up to that premiere was to be able to have a dialogue with people, and say, ‘Look, it’s a psychological drama and it’s told from a certain perspective’. At the end of the day, it’s about people seeing the film and making up their own judgments about that. But obviously there was an enormous amount of concern beforehand, and this is a film that’s not going to please everyone, and it’s going to be confronting for many. Those concerns will continue. I did notice that after Adelaide, and after the viewing and people seeing it for the first time, that I guess people felt a little more comfortable that it wasn’t a horror film or a slasher film.  That it was being told as a kind of drama.

SM: Interesting. I think there are a lot of people out there preemptively comparing it to Animal Kingdom. I was more reminded by films from Gasper Noe and Gus Van Sant. Did you have a bit of reading list for yourself of films that you wanted to evoke, or were you pretty much going in clean?

JK: To be honest, I didn’t watch a film for a year while making this. I didn’t read much about film, which is really unusual because usually I do. But I felt as though these events were so specific to this community and to this environment that I really wanted to tell it from the inside out; for the environment to speak to us, and for us to get our visions from this place. There weren’t any really strong influences. The only psychological influences that I found was how Michael Haneke uses violence in his films.

SM: Absolutely.

JK: In his films a lot of the ‘monster’/‘the darkness’ is never revealed, and that’s actually not what’s important. It’s actually about how the characters interact and respond to that violence and that darkness and what they do and don’t do to each other when tested and pressured. I felt as though that sort of framework was important with Snowtown. I never wanted to give this very clean moral resolution at the end or suddenly provide all these answers. I thought it was a film that was offering an observation, and hopefully allowing the audience to make up their own minds as to how and why they thought this could happen.

SM: Well that’s definitely the case with Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years ago. And you guys are heading to Cannes very soon.

JK: Yeah we are. We’re in Critic’s Week, which is one of the sections of the festival. The film’s in competition for the Camera d’Or; it’s really really exciting and it’s going to be very interesting to see how a different country and a different culture responds to what is a very Australian film.

SM: Absolutely, and you’ve been there a couple times before with some of your ad campaigns. Do you have any preconceptions about how they will accept it in France?

JK: Well look, it’s going to be very interesting to see how people respond to the type of violence in the film. I know that Australians watch violence in a very different way from other countries, and we certainly produce violence on screen in a very different and particular way. I’m going to be very curious as to how people in France respond to that and see whether the very idiosyncratic dialogue and some of the events are interpreted will be fascinating.

Snowtown arrives in Australian cinemas May 19, 2011. Look out for our review next week!

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