After watching The Snowtown Murders, I was surprised that the film was the feature-length directorial debut of Justin Kurzel. Its subject matter is challenging and disturbing. The film focuses on one of the most notorious serial murders in Australia, leaving 12 people dead after enduring brutal acts of torture. More than that, the crime was perpetrated in a depressed area of the country where child sexual abuse and neglect are commonplace. And yet there’s a steady hand behind it all, pushing the film away from exploitation and toward potent psychological drama.
There are actually many firsts with The Snowtown Murders. The film is also the feature debut of screenwriter Shaun Grant and the big screen debut of many of its actors, most notably the leads: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, and Louise Harris.
I got a chance to speak with Justin Kurtzel over the phone the other day. We talked about the challenges of making disturbing material, the feel of a community and its people, and how he’s felt about audience walkouts. Keep an eye out for our review of The Snowtown Murders tomorrow.
As a first-time director, what challenges did you face doing a movie like The Snowtown Murders?
I think it was one of those movies where I knew that it was something that I needed to be very brave and bold about. It was the sort of film that because of the subject matter you couldn’t really pull your punches on. I think right from the very beginning I wanted to create a vision for it that was pretty uncompromising. We ended up filming in the area where the murders happened and most of the cast are first-time actors that we found in the area, and a lot of their dialogue was sort of improvised from a solid script.
I guess there was something in me — a kind of mongrel in me — that was really wanting to try to make this film as authentic as possible and as truthful as possible to the real events, but also as difficult to make as possible to make as well, so you just really saw the effort and the vision in it that was hidden behind the genre traits.
The casting process was phenomenal — casting locals and just looking around in local areas and shops. What was it about Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, and Louise Harris that struck you?
Well, Daniel Henshall wasn’t very well known in Australia at the time. That was really important to me because I knew that I wanted someone from the outside coming into that community — someone that wasn’t a star or wasn’t a name who could really sink into that community easily on screen. And Dan is just a really likable person. He walks into a room and there is something. He desperately sort of wants to be liked, and he kind of gravitates towards people who like him. There’s something very inoffensive about him, and I think that was the real key to John Bunting (the serial killer), that he was able to very easily and effortlessly integrate himself into families, large communities, and also this boy’s life, which was what we were telling this story through. He was kind of like the opposite of the cliché serial killer: he kind of never goes outside, someone you never see. I mean, this guy was just incredibly prevalent in the community. Even when we were filming down there, most people had met John or bumped into him. I found that really interesting, and the notion that there were four of them instead of just one serial killer.
And Lucas and Louise were people we just saw in the streets. I found Lucas in a mall and he had a quality about him — a kind of innocence — that I thought would be perfect for the beginning of the film, and it was just about corrupting that. I definitely saw the potential there. And Louise had that really difficult mix of a kind of strength and a kind of “fuck you” attitude but also an intense vulnerability. So she was able to one moment look like she could easily bring you down and in the next be someone you’d have to pick up and carry. There were just natural qualities about those two that we discovered very early on when we started interviewing and auditioning them.
You mentioned being in the community and a lot of people knowing John Bunting. If I read right, you and screenwriter Shaun Grant interviewed actual people involved in the case. How important was that to you? And have people involved in the case seen the movie?
Well, the film is based on transcripts from Jamie Vlassakis’s court hearing. He turned crown witness so he spoke quite a bit in the court about living with John and about his involvement in the murders. Then two books have been written about it and we did our own interviews with various people who were connected with the families. Out of that we kind of got a pretty, pretty detailed idea about the psychology of the families and the relationships and domestic details of John. That was very important.
In terms of people that have seen it, we offered to have a screening for the families of the victims. Only one family wanted to take up that offer to view it. In terms of any of the perpetrators seeing the film, I’m unaware if they’ve seen it or what their response has been.
There are so many graphic scenes in the movie. Prior to seeing the film I didn’t know about the case, so after the film I looked up more about it. Given the details about the torture that went on, the movie is restrained in that respect. How did you decide what to depict from these crimes on screen?
I think that was probably in many ways a big challenge. In Australia it was reported as a kind of big freak show, and there are elements to this case that are just horrific, absolutely horrific, that you could never bring to screen. You know, 12 people were killed and just the most unimaginable horror was inflected on them through torture and in their death. It was very difficult to work out what to bring to screen and what not to. I think when Shaun had decided that the story should be told from the point of view of Jamie, it really dictated what we wanted to show on screen in terms of the violence.
The violence is revealed as it’s revealed to Jamie, so we don’t go through all the different murders. We only really look at the particular killings that directly affected Jamie. We always know that the murder of his brother was going to be a very important scene and in some way encapsulate all the other murders in brutality. That was really difficult figuring out how much you show and how much you let the audience infer. It think it was very important in that moment that the audience understood in a very visceral way the kind of brutality that Jamie is witnessing and the reasons why he ended up getting involved in the mercy killing of his brother.
I was very conscious that the audience needed to be taken to the edge of a particular type of violence on screen, and hopefully didn’t feel like they were jumping off the cliff. But we had to be right on the edge there witnessing and experiencing what Jamie was. The film really isn’t that explicit. There’s probably really one particular moment that is explicit in terms of seeing detail of violence, at least compared to most genre films.
I think what’s unsettling about the violence is that it’s truthful, it’s in real time, you don’t have a soundtrack over it. There are no sort of comforts in which the audience can watch this. I think that’s what people find most disturbing about it: brutality of this sort is incredibly confronting, it’s ugly. It is, to me, what was so horrific about the case. It came out of an ordinariness, it came out of a banality. I think that no matter what, when violence isn’t romanticized like it usually is in film, it is ugly, and it is something that people are hugely confronted by. Hopefully the story is compelling enough to allow an audience to travel through that violence, but it was really important the the violence have some integrity in this film.
What’s interesting is that there’s the violence, but there’s also this family dynamic between Jamie and John. How did the actors approach that? Was this father-son relationship something that was reported in the actual case, or was it something Shaun wrote into the script?
No, John became a very, very strong father figure for the boys. I mean, in this area, there are a lot of young men, teenagers, and young boys who don’t have father figures in their lives or they come from separated families. So the whole dynamic of this film was completely based on that father-son relationship, which is what I found so interesting: a boy having a serial killer as a sort of paternal figure. I thought it was highly unique and very, very different from any other serial killer story I heard.
This area was suffering from high levels of sexual abuse and no one felt that they were being listened to. Jamie was suffering not only within his family but also because of people living close to him. I think John just came along like a perfect storm and was able to harness all of that anger and apathy and turn it into something. He really seduced Jamie and his family into his ideology, which of course became corrupted. He began to use Jamie as a way and a means of killing people and satisfying his own kind of blood lust.
Do remember what the first really intense scene you shot was and what the atmosphere was on set?
I think the rape scene between the two brothers was very difficult mainly because I was dealing with two guys who never acted before and who both lived in an area where sexual abuse was very sensitive. That was probably the first one. And then the murder scene in the bathroom took two days to shoot. To maintain that level of intensity and emotion for those two days was very, very difficult.
But you know, look, to be honest — and I don’t mean to say this out of any disrespect to the events — it was actually a very fun set and a very kind of loving set. You kind of had to because you were dealing with such horror and such brutality that you needed to step away from it. That was something, a sort of side effect to, dealing with and shooting such full-on material. The set was a pretty soft set. It was a place where everyone felt safe, and there were no egos.
I had guys who were acting for the first time so I wasn’t having to deal with trailer s**t and that sort of crap. It really felt like a group of people that really wanted to be involved with this film because the events mattered. It was a story from their area; even though it was bleak, it was something that was theirs. I think there was a healthy kind of respect for that and it definitely made filming it much easier. People felt nurtured and safe on set.
I remember reading in an interview you didn’t watch a movie for like a year while making the film. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen while you were making the movie?
I think it was sort of subconscious and then became a sort of conscious thing. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t watched a film for quite a while. People were coming up to me and going, “What is this film like?” I was just very aware that I wanted the film to be completely and utterly inspired by the area and by the real events. I didn’t want to be led or inspired by fictitious things or other films. We deliberately spent so much time in the area looking at the light and locations, and maybe we looked at paintings more. I spent a lot of time studying Caravaggio and the sort of light in his painting and how we wanted these interiors to look. That was probably more of an inspiration.
Subconsciously there were films that I think are always playing on your mind — things that you love and you like that you start to have a dialogue with — but I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, I think it very much is subconscious. I just didn’t want anything to distract from what the place and the environment were telling me because it definitely wasn’t a genre film. There were genre elements but it was a very raw, naked kind of film, and its foundations needed to be very much the area and where we were shooting.
You grew up around the area. How has your opinion of the city changed over the years?
Well, I don’t know. Look, it’s a pretty tough area, you know, and it’s gone through quite a bit. I kind of grew up there and I remember it being pretty rough, but it’s incredibly resilient. With the sort of s**t it’s gone through, I’m amazed how resilient the people are. When we were first casting and stuff, it took us a long time to get out of the car and even walk up to someone. By the end of it, when we were kind of freely walking around the place in the middle of the night, you suddenly realize — and I grew up in the area — all of the prejudices you have within yourself about a particular place.
I was surprised by the amount of affection and love that the people in the area had for each other. And I guess [I was also surprised] how trusting they were of me coming in and making a film about a pretty unattractive event that happened in their backyard and I wasn’t going to turn it into a kind of horror film and exploit the tragedy. I think once they felt comfortable about that, I was really quite blown away by how quickly they were able to open up to me and share their experiences in their lives. So yeah, my opinion of it changed quite a bit.
Are you thinking about what your next project is going to be? Are you going to team up with Shaun again?
I’m making another film with Warp in Australia. I’m looking at scripts at the moment. There’s one that looks like it could be pretty close… Well, there’s two actually that might be pretty close, but they’re still in early days yet to kind of talk about them. One’s in America and one’s in the UK, and they’re really exciting pieces. I’m hoping to be able to make a film this year. I’m really missing being on set and having my mind completely focused on something. Hopefully that’ll happen this year.
Would you be interested in working with Lucas, Daniel, and Louise again?
Yeah, I’d love too. I think Louise, even though she was a first-time actor, is as good as any experienced actor I’ve worked with. I think her instincts are extraordinary. It would merely be about having the right role come up that’d be around for her. And Daniel’s a major, major talent in Australia. He’s someone who’s got a big future, and someone I would definitely love to have a working relationship with. Again, it just comes down to the role, really, and whether he’s, you know, available. [laughs]
With the rape scene, or even just the dog scene, both of them are so intense I was thinking “If I wasn’t in a room full of other critics, there would probably be walkouts.” How do you feel about people who would have such a visceral reaction to those scenes and would just have to walk out of the movie.
Well, you know, I’ve experienced it right from the beginning in Cannes and also in Australia. When we had the preview screenings, we had walkouts.
Look, the bottom line is I hate seeing people walk out of my film. But, you know, I also have to be honest with myself that I made an incredibly uncompromising film and that I always wanted it to be confronting and that I wanted it to be very visceral. That was very deliberate. I have to respect what people’s radars are for the dialogue they are willing to have with the screen with the violence. So I have to respect the fact that everyone has their different degrees of what they can watch and respond to, and that’s fine.
But again, I think people respond [to it the way they do] because it’s so claustrophobic, to be quite honest. It’s a number of elements that makes the experience so intense. But I think that’s really valid. The film’s visceral as most comedies are visceral — like where you openly and emotionally laugh out loud. This is a film that really gets into your gut and does have quite a heavy effect on you. That’s something that I was desperate to make, and a valid emotion that I wanted from the audience. I don’t like seeing people walk out of my film, but at the same time I understand it’s a confronting film. Hopefully most will find it compelling enough to still be engaged with the story and be able to go on that journey that Jamie does.
The fact it was so uncompromising and so expertly done surprised me. So many people on the film were first-timers. Was anyone ever conscious about this being a maiden voyage into such dark territory?
Well yeah, I think everyone was aware of it. When you’re making a film you’re kind of doing it in bits, so I think [the actors] were all quite surprised when they saw the final product because you’re finally watching the whole thing play through with a kind of story. But when you’re making a film, it’s artificial, you know? [laughs] You’re going in and out of emotions — really intense emotions — for your takes, but they may only be for about a minute. And then you come out of it, and there’s a light, there’s tape on the floor, and there’s a guy with a camera. But that’s the brilliance of acting and actors: they’re able to switch it on and switch it off in a very quick way. They can respond to a sort of emotional truth but also be aware of the artifice.
I think it was probably only when they all sat down and watched it play through that they became aware of how dramatic the film is. [pause] I’ve just been given a post-it note saying, “One more question.” [laughs]
I’ve just got another interview after this.
Oh yeah, certainly, no problem. Well, I guess the last question is what do you hope the audience will take away from The Snowtown Murders.
I never intended to put a resolution at the end that kind of ties it all up and we all suddenly go, “And that’s why evil exists.” But what I do hope is that the film is a really interesting look into the human condition and how a kid like this and his environment can be exploited and manipulated if he’s used to being ignored. There was always a bit of a cautionary tale. Snowtown always felt that it was a film that shined a light on a disadvantaged community, a community that wasn’t being listened to, and the dangers of what happens when someone comes along and decides to exploit that in some way.
There are many things people can take from this film, and I don’t think it offers one moral conclusion, but it definitely is a really compelling kind of insight into human behavior and a kind of evil that I definitely haven’t seen before.