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Animal Kingdom - David Michôd interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAVID Michôd talks about his journey from film journalist to filmmaker and how he came to direct acclaimed, Oscar nominated crime drama Animal Kingdom.

He talks about wanting to explore a family of armed robbers from the point of view of anxiety rather than glamour and why getting Guy Pearce involved was one of many dreams come true along the way.

Q. You’re an ex-film journalist…
David Michôd: Yeah that was weird [laughs]. I actually do remember when I was finishing high school kind of deciding what I wanted to do. And for a moment I flirted with the idea of studying journalism. I really loved writing. But even at that young age I remember going: “I don’t know if that’s how I want to spend my life.” I don’t know what it was about it that made me retreat. But it was very strange.

Ten years later I stumbled into this job on a magazine… a job that I needed because of money and structure. But I threw myself into it and loved it. I’m so grateful now that I had that job, especially at a filmmaker magazine. I learned so much about the business and the craft and I met a lot of great people, all of which was incredibly useful to me when I finally took the leap.

Q. Do you ever second guess yourself at times, coming from a background such as journalism, where you find yourself thinking what might be written about a film or a scene?
David Michôd: I have been so relentlessly surprised that that never enters my thoughts, considering that I consider myself a sensitive being… if not paranoid! I would have thought that I would constantly be thinking about the press and the potential comeuppance – the karmic payback for all of my previous vitriol. But I never have. I’ve just never thought about it. I took the leap into the great unknown of the film world and have never looked back, which again surprises me. I’m always usually second guessing myself for looking for a reason to retreat.

Q. So, what made you decide that the time was right to start making films when you did?
David Michôd: I think it was a mixture of me… I’d been at the magazine for about six years. I’d been editing it for three. At that point, I just felt that I’d given it everything that I had and that me being there any longer was not doing me any favours and it certainly wasn’t doing the magazine any favours. I’d hit a point where I felt like I was phoning it in every month. But it was also about me being aware of the fact that I was now in my early 30s and had gone to film school in my mid-20s to be a filmmaker. And if I didn’t make the decision to do that when I did then there was a good chance that I never would.

Q. And it’s been 10 years since writing the first script for Animal Kingdom to being sat here now talking about it…
David Michôd: Yeah, but it was a kind of necessary 10 years in a way. I remember when I was younger… when I was at the magazine I kept hearing these stories – and particularly these Australian films – that had taken 10 years to make. Films like Chopper, Lantana and Shine. I thought there was no way I’d ever stick with something for that long. But then sure enough I found myself in the same position and realised that it needed to take that long. I needed to mature as a filmmaker and as a writer and I needed to hone my skills. All I needed to keep going during that period were little affirmations. I mean I really loved the process but I just needed someone I respected at various stages along the way to say: “I think this is good… I don’t know that it’s good enough, you should keep working on it.” It was those little comments that were the fuel that I needed to keep going and the next thing you know 10 years had passed and you’re another one of those people.

Q. At what point did you become aware of Tom Noble’s book about the real-life Walsh Street killings that helped to inspire Animal Kingdom?
David Michôd: When I was first moved to Melbourne from Sydney when I was 18, I can’t remember at what point I started reading his books but almost immediately I found them great pieces of investigative true crime writing. They also charted a period of Melbourne’s criminal history that I found both fascinating and chilling. This was a particularly dangerous period – the decline of armed robbery and the decline of the hardened gangs of armed robbers. Also, the decline of a really old school and dangerous core of the armed robbery squad in the Melbourne Police.

It was a period in Melbourne’s criminal history in the 1980s… Animal Kingdom isn’t set in the ‘80s. But that period was kind of punctuated by a couple of events that were so chilling that I think even before I went to film school I started imagining a kind of grand and menacing Melbourne crime story.

Animal Kingdom

Q. The Walsh Street killings of two police officers being one of them?
David Michôd: Yes. The Walsh Street killings were a particularly chilling and unusual event. I mean given the nature of their job cops die in the line of duty all the time, but they don’t die that way. It was just so random and so brutal and so brazen that it immediately struck me. It proved to be a seminal point not just in Melbourne’s criminal history but its social history generally. It seriously rattled the entire city and I found it impossible not to start imagining what the hours and days and weeks immediately following an event of that nature might have been like.

Q. Another thing that struck me about Animal Kingdom is that you do kind of de-construct the glamour surrounding criminals and bank robbers. You say quite early on that they’re almost waiting for the day that it will probably come to an end. Is that something you wanted to do?
David Michôd: I knew that at base I wanted to make a crime film that was incredibly menacing and in order to do that I needed to make a crime film that took itself very seriously. That seemed to almost immediately preclude any kind of ‘crime is cool’ schtick. It immediately precluded the film existing in any kind of rock n roll heightened universe. It was a film principally about characters living lives of incredible anxiety and there’s very little that’s glamourous about anxiety. I can imagine myself making a crime film one day that does have that sense of levity and fun and energy that a film like Goodfellas has. It just didn’t feel like the right tool kit to tackle Animal Kingdom.

Q. I also liked the use of real photographs at the beginning. What made you decide to go that way and, in turn, not show a bank robbery in the film itself?
David Michôd: Well, thinking I was very clever in the writing process I thought I wanted to chart the decline of a particular gang of armed robbers without ever showing them engaged in their principal criminal business. But at a certain point, especially when we were cutting the film, while the film is about a young man who is thrown into a dangerous world, we needed a way of demonstrating quickly and simply what that dangerous world was. Those images do that job better than any heist we might have shot because they’re real and because they are snapshots of people at arguably seminal turning points in their lives… people in the middle of acts of incredible intimidation. There’s something about that that is chilling.

Q. Of course the film stands or falls on the performance of the actor playing Joshua, the young man at the centre of the story. How easy was James Frecheville to find?
David Michôd: Tough but I always knew it would be. I knew we needed to see a lot of kids and I knew I would go through the emotional rollercoaster of thinking we wouldn’t find the kid and then that kid would then probably turn up. James was… I was immediately attracted to his totally intuitive skill as an actor. But I needed to work my brain around to the idea of him as the character because he’s big. He’s 6ft 2 and he’s a big kid. But James was 17 when we did the film and the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea of having a big, almost man-child at the centre of the film… a kid who physically looks like he is plausible in that world, that he should be able to handle himself in that world, but you have these constant reminders that he’s actually very immature and frightened.

Animal Kingdom

Q. At the other end of the spectrum, you have one of the most experienced actors you could find in Guy Pearce. How did he become involved?
David Michôd: I sent him the script. It was literally like you send the carrier pigeon out into the world and hope that it finds its destinations. That was exciting for me because he responded to us really quickly and really positively. He was my first choice for the role. I knew that having him on board would make the film easier to finance and when I met him it just felt immediately right. I feel incredibly lucky that I got to work with Guy Pearce.

To have an actor of his calibre in the film, who is as studious and hard working and generous as he is, was an incredible privilege for me. Sometimes I find myself imagining… Guy had been doing it for some time, he works in the upper echelons… for him to give a first-time director the time and the consideration that he did is, I think, for him probably a gamble. He’s taking a risk when he does a film like Animal Kingdom. But he’s really smart, incredibly generous and I’m eternally grateful to him that he took that risk.

Q. How has the film been received in Melbourne in particular, given that it touches on some raw nerves from the city’s past?
David Michôd: While I wanted to build a fictional world around an event like the Walsh Street murders I was expecting there to be considerably more chatter about that era and that crime in particular than there was. I was quite relieved to find that the film back home was read mainly as a film, rather than a quasi-historical document.

Q. And how flattering is it to find that the film has travelled so well internationally?
David Michôd: I think the overriding hope is that any film will be seen by as wide an audience as possible. The financing of Australian films is, in a large part, dependent on it having some potential for international play because they never make the money they need to make in Australia alone. But you never know. I went into this with my principal aim being not to embarrass myself – to at least be able to come out the back end of it feeling as though I had done an admirable job. For it to land at Sundance, and for the reception to be as dizzying as it was, and for the film to keep travelling has been a relentless string of surprises.

Q. How was winning the Jury Award at Sundance?
David Michôd: It was great, although I wasn’t there. It was weird, I left the day before the ceremony. But everything I had wanted to achieve with the film I had by then anyway. I went to Sundance just hoping that people would like the film and it kind of exploded straight away after that first screening. I remember thinking: “I really don’t care if we win an award or not. My wildest dreams have come true, so I can go home now.”

Animal Kingdom

Q. I read somewhere that there’s generally an expectation placed upon Australian filmmakers that if they are successful, the next step is Hollywood. How do you view that?
David Michôd; I’d like to make films all over the world and that includes making more back home. I think that if you want to have a big, rich and prosperous career as an Australian filmmaker then you need to be mobile. There are examples of Australian filmmakers who have forged themselves solid careers making only Australian films but they’re relatively few and far between. And they struggle. I’d like to make films with resources and, to a certain extent, making a well resourced film requires thinking internationally.

Q. Do you find that the success of Animal Kingdom has started to open doors for you? Has it made it easier to attract funding?
David Michôd: I think it’s absolutely made getting another film made infinitely easier. It will almost definitely make the actual making of it infinitely harder. You know, I feel so grateful that this world of possibilities has opened up to me but I find myself equally recoiling from the scrutiny. But that’s a quality problem to have.

Q. Are you working on something now?
David Michôd: I’ve got a couple of different things that I’m bubbling away on and trying to work out how best to approach the next 12 months. Not just what film do I want to do next, but where do I want to do it, on what scale and I haven’t made that decision yet.

Q. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from making Animal Kingdom? And the fondest memory?
David Michôd: Holy crap. The biggest lesson I learnt I think was probably… I’m just remembering all these different lessons I learned [laughs]. I think the biggest one was that the process of making a feature film is so long and drawn out that you need to be able to step back from it at regular intervals and to realise how ultimately unimportant filmmaking is. That if you feel that you’re happiness is completely dependent on the success of any film you’re making, then you will drive yourself crazy. If nothing else, the next film I make I’ll make a conscious and deliberate effort to step away, look at the whole process and go: “None of this actually matters.”

And my fondest memory was while I was at Sundance getting an email from my dad saying that he was proud of me. Because going to film school was like a vein and possible delusional decision that I made when I was in my early 20s and I’m sure my parents spent a while quietly hoping that I would one day get a real job. So, to see that delusional dream turn into a real job at Sundance for them, I think, was exciting, and to say that to me I found it quite moving.

Read our review of Animal Kingdom