Note: This profile on Gawler-born film-maker Justin Kurzel is one of a series commissioned by Adelaide’s Sunday Mail for its centenary year, and has been republished here.

Northern exposure: Director Justin Kurzel, photographed in London. Picture: Sunday Mail

Type the words “Davoren Park” into Google and the first hit you get is a newspaper article headlined “Streets of Fear and Loathing” published in The Advertiser on July 31, 2009. It begins: “Davoren Park residents are arming themselves with knives and not letting their children play in front yards following a series of violent incidents. Their fears come after an alleged murder and police siege in the embattled northern suburb that has a growing reputation as a no-go zone for all but those who live there. A mother of four, who has lived there for two years, told The Advertiser she will not let her children play in her front yard and drives them to school most days even though the school is less than 100m away. Most residents interviewed by The Advertiser spoke only on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.”

Not long after that article was written, a young and unknown film-maker named Justin Kurzel spent several weeks in Davoren Park looking for cast members for a film. He didn’t want to use actors. He wanted people from the area. He saw a woman with her dog at the local IGA. She got into a screaming match with an old lady who chastised the woman for not having her dog on a leash.

The woman’s name was Louise Harris. She was an unemployed single mum, a long-term resident of the area. As she argued with the old lady, she noticed this bloke with a bushy black beard staring at her, and wasn’t impressed. As Louise Harris said later, “It’s not really the done thing to stare someone down at Davoren Park.”

“She had this massive confidence,” Justin Kurzel says. “She had a real strut to her. I’d been there for weeks just walking around and going up to anyone and asking them if they wanted to be in a film, and needless to say the outcome of that could have gone either way. I was this strange guy with a beard watching complete strangers in a really intense way, and she just looked at me and told me to fuck off. It was the most fantastic fuck off I have ever heard. It was so assured. She was auditioning for the film and she didn’t even realise it. The casting agent was buying an iced coffee and I ran in and said to him you have got to see this girl, she is fantastic.”

There is a school of thought in South Australia that what happened in Snowtown was so repellent that it should put to one side. That it was all a freak show anyway which had no bearing on our daily lives, in which three people we conveniently label monsters killed 11 people we dismissively regard as no-hopers. That it is embarrassing for the state that it gets brought up again.

Apologies if you fall into that category. Apologies also if you think that the person who made a movie about it sits oddly in a breezy and boosterish series of profiles on South Australians who have made the state great. Obviously, no series would be complete without someone who represents not only the arts but the pioneering film-making traditions of SA. But more pertinently, with Snowtown, Justin Kurzel did a really important thing. He smashed the mythology around these crimes and put a human dimension to the people who suffered through that horror. He didn’t make a horror movie, but a movie about the horror of inter-generational poverty and welfare dependency, child abuse, daily drug and alcohol abuse and casual violence, the end result of what happens when people are shunted to one side.

He was able to do so for three reasons, two of them artistic, and one because of his background.

The first reason it worked is because of the way the story is told. Kurzel had never contemplated making a film about Snowtown and did not see how it would be possible, or indeed desirable. But Shaun Grant’s screenplay, inspired by two different books on the murders by journalists Debi Marshall and Andrew McGarry, was not some voyeuristic recreation but a measured study of the relationship between abuse victim Jamie Vlassakis and the charismatic, unhinged outsider John Bunting. Vlassakis had never had a male role model in his life and met Bunting when he was just 12. He was drawn by Bunting’s personality and hatred of paedophiles and eventually became a reluctant convert to his cause, with his harrowing conversion documented in the film’s only graphically violent but crucial scene.

“I don’t understand why there seems to be this need to pigeonhole this event as a macabre horror show when it is a tragic human story,” Kurzel says.  “I had no idea of the relationship between John and Jamie, this point of view of a young kid being seduced into this horror. When I heard about the script I was curious about how it would be told because I didn’t think it could be told other than as a one-dimensional horror story, which is something I would not have been interested at all.”

The second reason the film worked is because Kurzel insisted on casting it almost entirely with locals. With the exception of the lead, Daniel Henshall as Bunting, and Richard Green as the transvestite murder victim Barry Lane, everyone else was from the area and had no acting experience. Unemployed youth Lucas Pittaway was found not far from the Davoren Park IGA, buying out-of-date jelly beans from The Reject Shop. Pittaway would Jamie Vlassakis, and Louise Harris his mother, Elizabeth Harvey.

“Having a local cast was part of the initial vision statement and it would not have happened without it,” Kurzel says. “What I really love about Louise and Lucas and the rest of the cast was that there was no star-gazing about it, they weren’t saying “Hey wow, I’m going to be a movie star”. They made me work really hard to get their trust and respect. Lou didn’t even turn up to the first two auditions. She was very sceptical about the film. It took me a while to convince her that we were serious and that I saw something in her. The last thing I wanted to do was cast a bunch of well-known actors to play the local people in the film. It would have been condescending and patronising. The guys live with a lot of the challenges in their life but they handled it all with such grace.”

The third reason the film worked is because Kurzel is a northern suburbs boy who loves and respects the place. He grew up in Gawler and was educated at Evanstone Primary, and all his mates lived in Elizabeth and Salisbury, the same places which most of the Snowtown victims and their friends called home.  When he made the film he was motivated by a sense of dignity and respect. He was also motivated by a sense of anger that people can be left to live in such a way.

“I kind of understood it,” Kurzel says. “All my friends were in the area, I was going back and forth to Elizabeth all the time, a lot of my friends did not have fathers. There was this pulse in the area where young men were looking for strong older male figures, be it a footy coach, a priest, an older friend, someone to trust. I could see the yearning for that in the community. I understood in a very guttural way the idea of a young man finding answers in John, as a mentor who came into his life, even though as a mentor he would only lead him into actions which were horrendous.

“I think the biggest problem with what happened is that people weren’t talking about. That’s why it gets a label such as ‘bodies in the barrels’ which both defines it and dismisses it. I wanted to take that stigma out of it, take the mythology away. The truth is it involved people who are part of a wider community. It is not some island somewhere. John Bunting wasn’t from Adelaide, he was from Inala in Queensland. I get kind of sick about the whole thing with Adelaide supposedly being the serial killer capital, these things happen everywhere. It is the story of a community and what can happen in a community when people feel that their voices are not heard, and what happens when they get exploited. So yeah, there was an anger behind it, especially with our research into the situation the family had found themselves in. I was horrified by the extent of the misfortune of the families in the film as well as the broader community. I think we are all responsible for having a dialogue and knowing what is going on in our backyard. In a way it’s a cautionary tale about opening our eyes and ears and taking some responsibility. A city like Adelaide is a comfortable place, we have great food, wine and beaches, but I think this apathy starts to set in about your world being within your four walls and the immediate vicinity you are living in. It has to be bigger than that. The film is definitely a response to that, that all of this happened in my backyard.”

Rewind to the late 1980s and you would not have picked Justin Kurzel as the young man who would make one of the most acclaimed Australian films of his generation. As a kid, he wasn’t running around with a super 8 camera casting his friends in movies. He was obsessed with sport and busy playing footy for Willaston. He describes himself modestly as “an honest half-back flanker” and is still recovering from the trauma of losing the under 14 grand final by less than a kick in the final minutes of the game. His mum Judy was an art teacher and his Dad, Zes, who died three years ago, was the son of Polish migrants and grew up in a Housing Trust home in Elizabeth. Zes worked as a meat inspector and then as a taxi driver. Zes also played footy for Centrals, as did Justin’s uncle Fred, and his cousins Nick and Tom played for North Adelaide. He remains a mad Port Adelaide supporter and checks the scores every weekend from his current base in London, and has strong views about the club’s current woes and how it can be turned around.

Aside from his love of footy, Kurzel was also a really good tennis player. His only sibling, brother Jed, was better, oscillating between the number one and two ranking in state juniors. Jed is a musician and composer – he wrote the award-winning score for Snowtown. He also collaborated with Jed on the script for a comedy about a Damir Dokic-style obsessive tennis parent, entitled Ivan Lendl Never Learnt to Volley.

Kurzel speaks often about Jed and they are obviously great mates. It was Jed who inadvertently pushed him in the direction of film, when he asked him to make a video for his band The Mess Hall.

Kurzel had had no experience in film and at the time “didn’t even know how to hold a camera”. He left Adelaide at the age of 18 to study set design and production at the National Institute of Dramatic Art and, after graduating, spent much of the next 10 years in Sydney. He worked on several productions with another intense and edgy South Australian cultural expat, director and Flinders graduate Benedict Andrews, designing sets and costumes for a series of plays at the Sydney Theatre Company. But it was his video for Jed’s band which sparked his passion for film, and saw his successful entry the following year in the shorts festival Tropfest, some commercials, more rock videos, and ultimately feature films.

“As a kid my ultimate dream was to win Wimbledon,” Kurzel laughs. “My greatest childhood moment was when Pat Cash won in 1987. I was never running around with a camera or anything but Jed and I would re-enact films. I remember when VHS came out and going with Mum to Radio Rentals and getting a VCR and then hiring weekly movies. I loved Escape to Victory, the soccer movie with Sylvester Stallone, and Jaws. I watched those films like 20 times. There was no cinema in Gawler so we had to go to Elizabeth, and that was always a pretty big night out. I was a huge fan of sports films. I would watch a film like Phar Lap or BMX Bandits and then re-enact the whole film with Jed. Something about it captured my imagination. On Saturday nights the ABC used to have Australian film night, and Mum and Dad loved it. That was the first time I saw The Club and Don’s Party, Paul Cox’s film My First Wife, films like Breaker Morant and Gallipoli. I got a real kick out of being able to totally relate to the world and landscape within those films, seeing a bloke in The Club and being reminded of one of the guys at the Willaston footy club. Australia does have a voice and humour unlike anywhere else. If I had to pick a favourite film of all time I would probably go for Gallipoli.”

Kurzel has been in London for the past three months. He is directing the adaptation of the John Le Carre spy novel, Our Kind of Traitor, and has been collaborating on the script with Le Carre’s sons. Casting is underway now. The fact that he has not been typecast as some kind of horror genre director is a testament to his vision for Snowtown, not as a prurient film but a story about relationships and community.

He and his wife, actress Essie Davis, have two kids and still spend time in Adelaide with his Mum when they can. He says that one of the nicest things about Snowtown was that even with the intensity of its content it brought back all the happy memories of his life growing up in the northern suburbs.

“I was reminded of it so much while we were making the film,” he says. “We lived on a big property and Jed and I spent our time just wandering around aimlessly in paddocks, going for bike rides and not coming back until dark or spending the whole day at the river…that’s the thing, the sense of community in the area is pretty old school and just fantastic.”

“A lot of the inspiration for both Jed’s and my work comes from our childhood and growing up in Gawler. That’s the beauty about growing up in smaller communities is that you are less shielded and you get to see all aspects of life and it fuels your imagination. Now when I look at the sort of filmmaker I am and the voice that I have as an artist I know it has been shaped by my experiences my parents gave me living in the area. For that I feel blessed.”

The best tribute which can be paid to his work comes from Louise Harris, the woman who gave him a gobful a few years ago at the Davoren Park IGA. “I just thought they were going to do something down and dirty about Davoren Park, which people always love to do, but it wasn’t that at all.”

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21 comments

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    • TracyH says:

      07:01am | 27/08/12

      ‘Killing for Pleasure’, by Debi Marshall, was a brilliant study of the social conditions that are the background to the horrific case. I felt totally let down by the film.
      There was so much more to the story, and the film just didn’t work. It was so annoying to see it mashed up by a fim maker’s ego. So typical of a vein of film makers who use tax payer funds to attempt to show their ‘brilliance’, rather than tell the story.

    • Tchom says:

      09:18am | 27/08/12

      I liked the film and I pay tax. If the AFC funded mass appeal films exclusively, all our movie would look like they were made by Adam Sandler and we’d have no national cinematic identity.

    • TracyH says:

      09:44am | 27/08/12

      I agree with you. I do appreciate Australian films. I just feel that this particular story was way bigger than the director could capture. Please read the book if you haven’t already done so and you will see what I mean.

      Incidentally, the AFC lost a lot of my support when they released very few films with subtitles for the deaf. For all their talk of building a social cultural capital for all Australians, they forgot about the deaf. Nothing more frustrating than to want to see all of our films, but not be able to because of no subtitles. In the last few years this issue has been addressed, I am pleased to say.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      10:10am | 27/08/12

      @TracyH, ‘mashed up by a fim maker’s ego’?? At the risk of being David to your Margaret, I totally disagree; I thought Snowtown was brilliant, as finely honed as you could want. I am as critical of Australian films as the next person, but this one (although not flawless) was once of the best I have seen for a long time. Very disturbing, non-exploitative, intelligent and generally well acted (although I didn’t like Pittway’s character, too passive). Compare it to the trashy Wolf Creek - needlessly violent and with nothing much to say. Well done Justin Kurzell.

      Would be interested in reading the book you recommend.

    • Hamlyn says:

      05:40pm | 27/08/12

      The movie is never as good as the book!!

    • TracyH says:

      06:50pm | 27/08/12

      This is part of a review…the author of this book did her homework..this was the most upsetting book I’ve ever read. The most shocking aspect, to me, was the police response. Seriously, if you read this book, you would realise what I mean about the film.  “KILLING FOR PLEASURE took Marshall five years to write, synthesising thousands of hours of interviews with the families of the victims, with neighbours, and with close members of the families of the murderers. What she describes pushes the boundaries of credibility, both in relation to the nature of the murders, and in the slowness of the South Australian police system to begin investigations”.

    • colin says:

      10:33am | 27/08/12

      The Australian Film Industry is just as narcissistic, self-aggrandising, and meaningless as it ever has been, and this film does nothing to ameliorate these facts. One-and-a-half stars.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      10:53am | 27/08/12

      *Peers over glasses and looks peeved, if not affronted *
      I’m sorry colin, but I have to disagree. Snowtown has a fantastic, nightmarish atmosphere that has nothing to do with self aggrandisement and everything to do with its subject matter, which is apathy and hopelessness. Four stars from me.

      *ironic raising of the top lip* I realise it wasn’t directed by your beloved Hitchcock, but really, films have moved on…

    • colin says:

      11:06am | 27/08/12

      Scotchfinger 10:53am | 27/08/12

      Hitchcock? Hardly. Vertigo aside, he wasn’t all THAT good.

      By the way, how do you perform an, “ironic raising of the top lip”? Do you lower the bottom one? Or refer to its occurrence in the very next scene as an aside to the audience..?

    • Scotchfinger says:

      12:02pm | 27/08/12

      you will have to practise then, will you not Mr Collins (sic)

    • colin says:

      12:22pm | 27/08/12

      @Scotchfinger 12:02pm | 27/08/12

      Oh, no need - believe me - no one would suspect my mannerisms to be rehearsed, Miss Bennet…ah, I mean, Mr ScotchFinger…

    • Scotchfinger says:

      12:42pm | 27/08/12

      RG Collingwood considered all the characters in P&P to be a perfect symmetry of caricature.

    • colin says:

      12:57pm | 27/08/12

      @Scotchfinger 12:42pm | 27/08/12

      And who could argue? Symmetry of caricature makes for a well-balanced tale. And we all know that a well-balanced tale is vital for any weasel - especially one under a cocktail cabinet.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      01:29pm | 27/08/12

      that’s what the Punch lacks - plenty of caricatures, but not enough balance…

    • colin says:

      02:07pm | 27/08/12

      @Scotchfinger 01:29pm | 27/08/12

      Caricature, brevity, and - really - superficiality are the norm given the format.

      Besides, isn’t the whole Modern Argument centred around glib “sound bites”, anyway..? grin

    • iMitchy says:

      02:05pm | 27/08/12

      Snowtown was brilliantly directed, and equally as important as casting locals was the decision to cast a real actor to play Bunting, if not moreso. He is such a powerful character in the way he draws you in as a viewer and you feel everything Jamie Vlassakis is feeling - you are seduced by his charm then too fearful to betray or leave him. The realism of this film is not to be underestimated though. It’s too real in ways. It’s scary real.

      That being said, whilst I respect the film, I did not enjoy it and won’t watch it again. I couldn’t wait to see this movie from the time I heard it was being made, but I really wanted to see a film about the whole story, not the Vlassakis POV perspective film that Kurzel made. This is a brilliant and powerful piece of art but it did not entertain me - it did what it was designed to do and I didn’t like that. This says more about me than the film.

      I do feel however that if this was not a true story or if the viewer was unaware of the events, say an international viewer, positive reviews would be very few and far between. Our fascination with human monsters which provides the entertainment from documentaries and films about killers, lies in the insight into their mindset and our inability to comprehend the reality of their actions. Snowtown offered a fly on the wall perspective which provided that ability to comprehend the realism but kept us in the dark as to the workings of the mind of a psychopathic antagonist. This coupled with a seemingly disjointed storyline, as many pieces of the puzzle are missing due to to Vlassakis’ absence from the events, removed the fascination with the story and placed the viewer into the nightmare without the knowledge that a third person account offers to make one feel safe and more concerened with the welfare of the protagonists than themselves.

      Like I said, a powerful compelling piece of work but it scared and disgusted me to the point that I could not enjoy it. Well done Kurzel.

    • Scotchfinger says:

      02:21pm | 27/08/12

      great review, I can find nothing I disagree with!
      Unfortunately however, we have no trouble in ‘comprehending the reality of their action’ - we just marvel that the nutters have gone so far as to seek out pain and suffering. Unfortunately humans are all too predictable. `

    • iMitchy says:

      03:02pm | 27/08/12

      I’d disagree Scotchfinger, although it may just be my sheltered existence - I can easily comprehend the extreme violence portrayed in many movies such as Hostel, Saw etc. and I thought that much of this was realistic until I saw snowtown.
      The most defining thing for me is the noise, or lack of it. You don’t notice the sound in movies until it’s not there. You don’t think of victims’ putting their strength into fighting back rather than screaming, or alternatively, being to exhausted and in too much pain to fight back at all. You don’t picture blood to be so black, thick and plentiful, dried all over a victims head and body from sustained beatings. You don’t imagine black eyes to be swelled shut or cuts to be so un-neat. You don’t expect strangulation gargles to be all air rather than silence or a defying extended grunt of defiance. And you don’t expect a victim that at the point they would beg for death, they don’t have a fearful, desperate expression on their face, instead are too weak to move at all.

      I could not have comprehended any of this realism until I saw Snowtown and wish I still couldn’t. We can’t comrehend that reality until we have seen it. I now know why I could always stomach what I once thought was realistic violence in films, because there was a subconscious disconnect between what I thought looked real but what I knew wasn’t.

    • the cynic says:

      07:20pm | 27/08/12

      Was badgered by people in Australia to watch Snowtown they raved about it. I was not In Aus at the time of the real thing but did read about it .  Managed to get a copy on DVD and watched it, unfortunately, what a crap movie. Disjointed story line piss poor cinematography Glad I got a pirate copy over the border I would have been real pissed if I had lashed out for a night at the movies.  The whole thing never made one impact on my thoughts for the whole affair. From what I saw everyone of the real life cast deserved all they got. Lead a clean normal life and you will be rewarded. You play with the devil you ‘gonna get burned.

    • Black Dynamite says:

      04:42pm | 27/08/12

      It was no “Big Lebowski”

      BD

    • Matt says:

      01:00pm | 28/08/12

      “John Bunting wasn’t from Adelaide, he was from Inala in Queensland.”

      Inala is the Brisbane equivalent of Elizabeth. Same crap, different place.

 

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