Snowtown – Justin Kurzel interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
FIRST-time director Justin Kurzel talks about some of the challenges of making Snowtown, his film about one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers [John Bunting, the man behind the ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders of 1999].
He also talks about working with the community and hearing things from their perspective instead of focusing on the macabre and the difficult balancing act of knowing which of the murders to show and which didn’t serve the story.
Q. As a first-time director, how does it feel to be talking about a film like Snowtown on the other side of the world?
Justin Kurzel: Oh, it’s great. I’ve been talking about the film since Cannes and since we released it in Australia. But to be engaged with it again but with a whole new group of journalists and audiences that are not familiar so much with the ‘bodies in the barrels’ cases as they are in Australia is really interesting in terms of their feedback and what they get from the film.
Q. Being local to these events, what did you think when you were first presented with the possibility of directing Shaun Grant’s screenplay about the ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders?
Justin Kurzel: Well, I only ever knew the events as the bodies in the barrels… that was the tag they’d been given and I only really heard the very superficial reporting about it. So, when I got sent the script I saw ‘Snowtown’ and it’s one of those things where you instantly know what it’s going to be [about]. But I was genuinely expecting a horror film, I guess, but got completely shocked and kind of seduced by this extraordinary relationship between this kid and this mentor/father figure who was a serial killer.
I had no idea about the background of the characters, especially Jamie Vlassakis, and his history and how John Bunting kind of exploited that. I also wasn’t aware so much of the community’s presence within the murders. I think it had been reported as a bit of a freak show and this script, or the point of view that Shaun had found, was a revelation really.
Q. So, how big a sense of responsibility did you feel about taking on a project like this?
Justin Kurzel: Massive… I mean, you’re scared shitless about it. But I found I was trying to find every single reason to say ‘no’ and there were many that I wrote down [laughs]. But at the end of the day it was just material that I was continually drawn back by and extremely curious. I could see a film, I could see the point of view in it, I could see how to do it and I wanted to go back and shoot in the area. I felt there was a kind of humanity in the story that most people had missed or hadn’t seen. So, hugely scared but I was ready to jump. I kind of thought: “Well, if I’m going to fail this is the biggest way to do it, so why not?”
Q. Did it feel like jumping in at the deep end at any point?
Justin Kurzel: Well, I remember on the first day we started turning over and I remember thinking, wow, most of the people involved in the film were first-time filmmakers… Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw were first time producers, Shaun was a first-time writer, I was a first-time director, I looked around the set and there was all these first-time actors and yet we were dealing with one of Australia’s most controversial subjects who were based on real people and there was a responsibility with that. I was thinking: “Wow, I could really just collapse in a heap here and go, ‘what the fuck have I done’?” Or I could use that energy to really just go forth and try to be as brave as possible in the choices that we make. That first-time energy is, I think, a huge part of why the film is the way it is. I think definitely within all the people that contributed you could feel a commitment and a passion to it. It does feel like a marking of time. But I think it worked in our favour in the end.
Q. A lot of the information surrounding the real-life case remains suppressed by the courts, especially Jamie’s details. So, how did you get your research done?
Justin Kurzel: Well, there weren’t many that were lifted for us. There were 300 suppression orders and the ones that were lifted, the judge even said that most of them were out of date. A lot of it had to do with a particular actor that we cast that looked very similar to one of the perpetrators, yet his photo had been published in many newspapers and magazines. Obviously, we couldn’t see Jamie but we met a lot of people who knew him. So, a lot had been written in the books and a lot was said in the transcripts from Jamie’s testimony when he became a Crown witness and testified against the other accused.
So, there was a lot of information around and then we did our own personal kind of research into the domestic situation of the family and John’s role in that… so little details like John continually cooking. There was a sophisticated element to this guy that we were very surprised by in terms of his curiosity and his cooking. He was into curries. And he was into the boys going to school and going to parent-teacher interviews and all that sort of stuff. To us, that was a side that had never been reported and was very, very interesting in terms of how at first he seduced the family and brought an element of order.
Q. In terms of the violence, how did you decide what to show and what not to show? It’s graphic in places but never gratuitously so…
Justin Kurzel: Well, we decided first off that we didn’t want to make a slasher or horror film and Shaun had never written it like that. The violence was never going to be something that was leading the film. I saw it very much as a kind of character piece. So, it was all dictated by Jamie’s point of view, really… the violence would be revealed to the audience as it was revealed to Jamie. The particular moments that we thought we needed to be a little more explicit were directly related to the very important initiations that John got Jamie to do, which were all kind of acting out violent moments. So, it was heavily dictated by that. It’s a hard one, though… it was a real balance deciding what you show and what you don’t.
There were many gruesome murders and there was only one that we felt we needed to bring to screen, which was dramatically very, very important – the scene between him and his brother and Jamie’s involvement in his brother’s death. We thought dramatically that had an integrity about it and was very, very important the way it happened and the way it was done. It was the first real insight that the audience get into the psychopathic nature of John in his eyes and when he’s surrounded by that level of brutality and violence. So, to us that was the key scene that then set off the rest of the film in the third act. It’s really interesting, people come out and think they’ve imagined some of these murders that they actually didn’t see on-screen and I think a lot of it has to do with that particular scene being such a car-crash moment. The residue of it plays this hidden narrative for the rest of the film in terms of the other murders.
So, that’s a very interesting thing. In the editing room, whenever we kind of shifted and changed the time spent in that bathroom on that murder it had a profound effect on the rest of the film. So, it was debated hotly and rigorously challenged by both Shaun, myself and the producers in terms of what to show and what not to, and what felt always in connection to Jamie’s story.
Q. You shot in and around the communities involved, so how careful did you have to be not to bring back any unwanted memories for people still living there?
Justin Kurzel: We were very respectful that when we were filming there that any of those more difficult scenes or brutal scenes were done in a very private way. We were there for a very long time… Dan was there was eight weeks beforehand putting on weight and walking around the area and I guess becoming very familiar within the community, as we were when we were casting. That’s not to say there wasn’t trepidation at the beginning from the community because everyone thought we were making a horror film or a slasher film. I mean, how could you possibly find a story amongst this kind of brutality?
But I think when they saw we were genuine about casting from the area and trying to tell the story from the inside out, I think people kind of decided to open up a little bit more and really started to talk about it. No one had really discussed it much more beyond the kind of macabre, so it was a really interesting time in terms of being there and being involved with the church in the area. It was a kind of community church and there were many people who were affected by the murders at that church and you could tell that they really wanted to talk, not so much about the murders but about the environment of that community at the time and where they were at. They were really challenging aspects of living in that area – many people had gone through patterns of abuse and really low levels of poverty; many people felt their voice wasn’t being heard or listened to. So, you kind of got a little bit of an insight into the sort of place it was as John leapt in there and started to empower people. So, that to me was quite tragic and surprising. I thought: “Wow, if you were in this place and this guy came in, it wouldn’t take much to kind of start listening to him and perhaps become inspired.” The film examines how that perhaps was exploited and taken by John to fulfil his own evil ways.
Q. It almost sounds as though your presence presented them with an opportunity to heal?
Justin Kurzel: I think so… or just an openness to talk about other things than the macabre in the story and to get past the gruesomeness of it and talk about how and why it may have happened. And what’s changed since the murders. So, I think that little bit of time since it happened and perhaps just our presence and being in the community made it topical. Suddenly people were wanting to engage with it or have a dialogue about it again that they didn’t get the opportunity to have before.
Q. What was the biggest lesson you learned from the experience of making Snowtown?
Justin Kurzel: I think I was more moved by the humanity of the area and the people and saw a different side to a place that I loved as a child, having grown up there, but I guess fell in love with again when I actually filmed down there despite the darkness of the events. It was a very loving and wonderful time. I guess I just fell in love with a place I hadn’t been in for a long time and which had been really badly tarnished. I saw a light in there and a hope that maybe I hadn’t been engaged with since I left.
Q. Do you think the success and profile of this film will make it easier to make your next film?
Justin Kurzel: I think what it’s probably done is introduce me as a filmmaker. Whether people are engaged with me and the voice I have as a filmmaker, I hope so. I really want to make films. I’m dying to make another film at the moment. I really deeply fell in love with it and I’m really hoping to be able to work with the other guys again very quickly. And I’m hopeful, too, that people like Lucas and Dan and a lot of the other first-time crew are really celebrated in the next six months and get other opportunities.