Justin Kurzel Talks Snowtown, the Mind of a Killer and Australia’s Film Renaissance

Uncompromising, fearless and hopelessly bleak; thematically, visually or otherwise, Justin Kurzel’s directorial debut Snowtown details the unspeakable atrocities committed by Australia’s most infamous serial killers while heralding an exciting new voice in Australian cinema. One we should keep both eyes on no matter how desperately we want to look away. Pedestrian recently caught up with Kurzel to talk exhaustion, Australia’s film renaissance, our fascination with death and the circus that is Cannes.

Why do you think Warp Films chose you for this film? What is it about your track record that attracted them ? I think a lot of it had to do with the music clips that I’ve done. There was a visual style and a way of storytelling in those clips that I think they responded to and thought might be appropriate for this film. I’d also had a conversation with Anna [McLeish, Producer] about another project that didn’t come through that we were originally going to do and she sent me this script in the mail. She sent it to a few other directors as well, I think. I sort of opened it up and it was about Snowtown and to be honest my initial reaction to it was, probably like everyone, that it was about the bodies and the barrels and that’s kind of where it stopped. I had no idea really about the people involved or the scope of the events. Then I read the script and I couldn’t believe the humanity in it and some of the themes were extremely strong and unique and on top of that I also came from Gawler which is about 10 or 15 minutes away from where it happened so I was quite intrigued as to how this evil happens so close to home.

I know a lot of the information surrounding the case is unknown or has been legally suppressed. How did you strike the balance between being sincere to actual events and the narrative of your own film? I think you have to see something in the material at first and I think you have to have a point of view and I think Shaun [Grant, Screenwriter] found it with this kid. A film is an interpretation, it’s not a doco-drama. It is characterization of a series of events. So once Shaun decided what the film’s focus was, all the events needed to be chosen and then edited and then lead towards that particular thing. We were very, very conscious of the events in the film being true. It’s based on two books, but mainly a book called Killing For Pleasure by Debi Marshall and also from court transcripts and our own research of interviewing people that were close to the perpetrators.

Where did the research process start? It must have been a heavy experience. It was. I have never read anything more confronting than this material, particularly Debi Marshall’s book. It does rock you – it really does. It did give me vivid nightmares and question continuously why I was wanting to leap into this evil. But I just couldn’t put it down. It was a story which I don’t think had been told before, it was a slice of Australia that hadn’t been seen before. I did a little test, I’d go and ask people what they knew about the murders and everyone stopped at that bodies and the barrels and that’s it. So I just thought it was a story that needed to be told.

That fascination with evil is a really human thing, I think. When I was researching for this interview I was in this serial killer Wikipedia hole for hours and I have no idea why… I think at the heart of it people are so interested in true crime and serial killers because it’s an examination of the human condition and how and why someone can go from normality then transcend into a completely alternate world of a psychopathic nature.

There’s heavy subject matter throughout, obviously. What did you do to prepare your non-actors for the emotional weight behind those scenes? It was about not overloading them too much with the history and the details of what happened. A lot of it was about taking certain things within the film or beats and moments. For example, if a scene was about betrayal, it was about connecting that betrayal to their own lives and for them to really lean on experiences that have happened to them where they’re really felt that way, that betrayal and then allowing for the emotional reaction to that to be very immediate and true to who they are. A lot of it was about getting them in the right space and then bringing them onto the scene and letting them very quickly understand the dynamics and own the dialogue a little bit. They all knew the beats and what the scene was about and who was controlling it but then they were allowed to listen to each other and deliver dialogue in whatever way they wanted.

What’s the biggest adjustment for you coming to your first feature-length? I just think it’s an Everest. You hear that cliche from first-time filmmakers of hardly being able to walk in week 5 and I went and met a whole lot of first-time filmmakers and just spoke about their very first virginal experience of making a film and all of them said it was harder beyond belief of what they thought. And you’re kind of thinking at the time ‘yeah right’ and then you get to the fourth or fifth week and you literally cannot get up off your chair. On top of this, there’s not only the responsibility of making your first film and the gruelling hours but also the fact that I was working with first time actors and they needed an enormous amount from me, especially in the incredibly emotional scenes but also the subject matter was continuously unrelenting. So I would say it is really like you get to the end of it and look down the mountain and say to everyone “I survived!”. But it is odd. I’m sure people find ways to cope as they get more experience after nine, ten , eleven films. They find ways of surviving and keeping a tempo with it that allows them to work but when you do it the first time you’re just running at break-neck speed at the beginning and you’re not saving your energy and it’s kind of an explosion so I don’t think I’ll ever have this experience again.

I’ve spoken with a few local first time directors and it feels like Australia is in the midst of a film renaissance at the moment. Do you buy into that at all?
I do, I do. I think there are a number of filmmakers – and I could name another ten who haven’t made their first film yet but I know they will and they’ll be extraordinary – there’s a guy called Amiel Courtin Wilson [Bastardy] who made a film called “Hail” that premiered in Adelaide and it’s just unbelievable…I think five or six years ago these guys were making unbelievable short films, really interesting and exciting short films, and I just think it’s taken five or six years for them to get into a position to make their first features. I also think there’s something uncompromising about them because they’re all at an age where they’ll go for it regardless. So I agree, I do think there’s a renaissance of sorts and you only have to look at the type of films being made at the moment to see that.

What do you attribute that to? You mentioned this collective history in short films culminating in all this talent but from a storytelling perspective, what do attribute all this output too? I feel like we’re finally embracing Australian culture and stories to the point where we’ve finally gotten over the whole cultural cringe thing. And illustrating that point, the thing that really stood out for me in Snowtown was the voices of Rex Hunt and Tony Greig on the television. It’s such a uniquely Australian touchstone… Exactly! You don’t think about it much but those two are real touchstones of popular Australian culture, they are so of that era and we shouldn’t be ashamed of them. [Pause] I think it just takes a lot of passion and intuition to make films. And I think at the time – four, five, even ten years ago – a lot of those filmmakers were just getting off their own backsides and making films and being really passionate and in love with it. I would always go around festivals with my short and see so many Australian films and they were all by these guys, guys I know now who have just made their first film or are about to make their first film. I just think there’s an incredibly strong voice in Australian film at the moment and it isn’t being dictated by commercial pressures. It’s got an individuality about it that embraces Australian culture in a new way and it’s great because everyone wants to make sure their first film is a full expression of who they are. That’s why we’ve had a spate of really fantastic debut features and it’s great that the rest of the world is starting to take notice.

At the same time though, this is a depiction of suburbia that is really quite universal. I’d almost call it mundane if not for the flashes of violence… Yeah absolutely. A lot of it came out of a sense of banality and ordinariness, which I thought was at the heart of Snowtown. Even in the details that we read in the transcripts, what these guys would eat after killing or how they would just watch TV all day and then kill. I just found that so horrific. This house was in the suburbs, there was a school next door, there were kids playing in the backyard and yet inside this house the most brutal thing that had ever taken place in that area was happening. So I think you’re right, it is the juxtaposition of those two things. I think there’s also this subconscious thing inside of me that was really intrigued by not demystifying it all, saying to the audience, ‘while you were there watching cricket on a Sunday, and were instantly transported to a place that was familiar and comfortable, this was happening’. I think things like sitting at home Saturday night and watching Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday, they’re all kind of safe-blankets that we have embraced in Australian pop culture. I was quite surprised by how they kept coming up amongst this brutality. I guess it was also a way of connecting us closer to this community and the events.

You also don’t shy away visually from those scenes of violence or abuse or even just nudity. Why did you choose to depict those things visually as opposed to using the power of suggestion? I think it was a balance. I think there are some scenes where the violence is expressed through suggestion and then obviously there are others that are more explicit. To us, every act of violence in the film was a turning point in Jamie’s journey and it was, I guess, an initiation that started from throwing ice creams onto the house and the kangaroos and then onto the killing of this dog. So to us the violence always had to be connected to the psychology of his character and when he was being tested. To us, the most violent part of the film, which to us encapsulated the brutality of the other 12 murders, was the killing of his brother and probably the most significant turning point within the whole film and there was a sense in the film of no return after he had crossed that line and it descended into purgatory or hell, towards being a killer. I never wanted the violence to be the thing that was leading the film. I’d seen a couple of documentaries about it that were just body counts, you know, onto the next one, onto the next one. I wanted it to be deeply entrenched in the psychology of this character but at the same time I think it was about bringing the audience to the edge of a cliff and letting them peer into a kind of brutality that I don’t think anyone has ever really seen…Not sanitizing it, but not letting them fall. And that’s a subjective thing, some people will feel as though they fell and others will feel as though they’re sitting there, still connected to the journey and the story.

How did you win the trust of the locals in this project? It helped a lot that I came from the area and I think it also helped that we spent a lot of time down there in pre-production. There were two communities that we were working with. One of them was Snowtown, which was just the local town, and a lot of that was us having conversations with them about their concerns. Their main concern was that Snowtown was the innocent victim and that the crimes didn’t happen here. In the northern suburbs, there was obviously deep concern about what sort of film this would be and if people wanted to start talking about it, start debating it, but we noticed being down there that people (we probably saw over 700 people for the roles) really wanted to engage with the subject matter. I think because it was such a taboo subject and had been consistently swept under the carpet we initially thought it was a bit of embarrassment. We found the opposite there, people really wanted to talk about it, they were very engaged, some would even come to the auditions and wanted to tell me all about their experiences of knowing them and so forth. We found that to be really surprising – how little was known about it, how little was discussed about it, which I guess is the whole point of making a film like this. If no one discusses it or brings a new perspective on it, its always going to be just referred to in a very one dimensional cliche way and I think that hopefully this film will generate debate and discussion. Most people find the film very confronting but in the foyer after, there’s a lot of debate about it and a lot of discussion and it gets people starting to think about certain things.

How are you feeling about Cannes? I think because of the nature of the film it will be very interesting to see how a French and an international audience responds to it. Other than that it is a circus. It’s a complete circus but it’s going to be fantastic to just get a different audience reaction and for Snowtown to have a platform in which it’s seen hopefully in different territories.

Just finally the soundtrack is absolutely amazing. Working with your brother Jed [The Mess Hall], did you inform him creatively or did he have free reign? What I said to Jed was, we need to find a pulse and a rhythm for Jamie. I didn’t want any kind of emotional manipulation of the audience within scenes so to us we always approached it as something that was very claustrophobic and it was a pulse to this character’s descent into a kind of hell. It needed to be very visceral. Jed actually came up with the beginning and then end of the film, he gave us a bit of music that I thought was the head and tail of the film so he actually changed the script when we got into the edit, which was quite extraordinary. It was him just feeding us stuff and it was one of those wonderful things where the music informed the story.

Title Image- Still from “Snowtown”