INTERVIEW Justin Kurzel
Justin Kurzel’s directorial debut, Snowtown, is based on the worst case of serial killings in Australia’s recent history. Just before the turn of the millennium, eight bodies were found decomposing in barrels of acid in a disused building in Snowtown, South Australia. The murders, which eventually tallied at a total of 11 people, were eventually traced back to John Bunting, who had several accomplices aiding him in the killings and disposal of the bodies.
Rather than dwelling on the torture and violence behind the murders, Kurzel’s intention was to focus on the father/son relationship that develops between Bunting and accomplice Jamie Vlassakis. The result is a hauntingly observational drama that is bound to get under your skin.
We sat down with Justin Kurzel to talk about the movie.
Tackling the story behind Australia’s grizzliest serial killings is a bold move for your feature length directorial debut. Why Snowtown?
I was really taken by the father/son relationship between this kid and a serial killer. I thought Shaun, the writer, had also found a powerful point of view into the story, which was not about the horror show of the events but more about the people and psychology.
Coming from Snowtown yourself, how important was the setting and the community?
I wasn’t born there and grew up pretty close to the area where the murders happened. I guess it gave me a very personal and intimate knowledge of the location and people, and I was determined not to appropriate the area but try to bring to screen a truth and authenticity to the community which was being portrayed on screen. From that central vision, and I guess my familiarity with the place, we decided to cast and set the film in the place where the murders happened.
I always get sceptical when a film carries the tagline ‘based on true events’. How much of the movie reflects real events? Obviously the killings happened, but what about the relationship between John and Jamie? Or the history of sexual abuse?
Yeah, I do, too, but we have stayed pretty close to the transcripts, books and interviews which we did. Of course, anything is an interpretation, but Shaun and I wanted to stay as close as possible to the real events and what happened. The John and Jamie relationship was built from our interviews with people who knew the family and, I guess, saw the more domestic situation between John and the family.
The history of sexual abuse was very well documented and, in fact, many of the characters in the film had suffered pretty extensive abuse. I think the issue is still really sensitive in the area and I got a real sense, through the transcripts of generational sexual abuse, of a pattern which could not stop.
That’s what I found so distinct and horrible about the violence in the events. It exploded out of the mundane, domestic, the banal…
Snowtown mixes the mundane with the shocking, how did you administer the balance?
That’s what I found so distinct and horrible about the violence in the events. It exploded out of the mundane, domestic, the banal… It was something I really wanted to set-up strongly in the film.
There is a sense of apathy about living – people feel they have no worth, and they kind of allow things to happen to them or be easily seduced because they are craving some kind of attention or company. I found that to be the most disturbing.
The film seems fascinated by its characters eating. They are constantly eating! What exactly does this signify?
They were details we read about and found really interesting in terms of how food played into the violence or sense of power in the film.
At the beginning, John comes into the home and provides. Straight away, he is in the kitchen looking after the family, making a big breakfast – he brings security, warmth, comfort. After he is revealed as a killer, we see how he uses food as a reward for his actions.
I always found it so unsettling and telling that John and the guys, after spending a day killing someone, would still sit down for a cooked meal or go out to a Chinese restaurant to gorge themselves on food. It was an incredible detail into the minds of the killers.
The film doesn’t really dwell on the violence of each individual murder, with the exception of one. Care to talk us through the process of the bathroom scene?
I didn’t want the violence to lead the film like it might do in a genre film, like a horror. The violence in this film had to be revealed to the audience as it was revealed to Jamie. We experience the murders through his eyes and imagination. The bathroom scene was the only murder out of the eleven which we wanted to bring to screen in a visceral way. It needed to be confronting and shocking. I wanted what Jamie was watching to be extremely uncomfortable, to build an intensity where the audience completely understands why this kid participated in this kind of mercy killing of his own brother.
I always wanted the violence in Snowtown to be truthful, to have a cause and effect – like watching a car crash in front of your own eyes, which is disturbing and real.
The way Snowtown plays out seems to suggest that we can sympathize with Jamie’s character. What are your own thoughts about the events?
I never wanted to judge any of the characters, which is why I would say the film is more of an observation. I could never excuse the choices that Jamie made, but I guess I had an empathy for his situation and why he was seduced by John. Shaun and I kept asking ourselves constantly, “What would we have done if we were in a similar situation and had a similar upbringing. Would we have had the moral strength to have made different decisions?” I also understood that need in a young male to search out and look for other male mentors if you had no father.
I wanted to make a film which allowed an audience to form their own thoughts and ideas about Jamie and the story. I kind of hate those films which offer up simplistic moral resolutions at the end as some kind of life lesson. I found this case to be extremely complex – and one which I am still thinking about and coming up with my own thoughts.
Alternatively, with John Bunting – despite all his views and opinions – the only reason why he commits the murders seems to be that he gets off on the power and violence. Would this be an accurate assumption?
I think there is a side to his character, in the film, which just loves killing for pleasure. I do believe that John’s intentions at the beginning, his ideology which he created against sexual offenders, was genuine, I just think it probably became corrupted with a blood lust.
I always found the dynamic of John wanting to support this family, love this family and be a provider, but at the same time dismantle it and destroy it, really interesting.
The film has garnered a lot of praise in the UK, but there must have been a strong backlash against the raw subject matter at home. Has this been an issue at all?
The film divides people for a number of reasons. Whether it be the subject matter, the violence or its determination not to give an answer as to why it all happened.
This film had be loud, and it has created very strong responses in people and that is what I am proud of. I wanted it to be uncompromising, to generate discussion and debate. I have been very heartened that the film has found many supporters – especially in Australia, where the public really got behind it.
I am most proud, though, of the actors in the film. For these guys to never be in front of a camera before and give the most honest and brave performances, with such sophisticated and complex characterizations, was extraordinary.
What are you going to be working on next?
I am looking at a number of films at the moment which are in different stages of development. I finished writing a script with my brother last year which I am really excited about – it is a black comedy.
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