An interview with Snowtown director Justin Kurzel
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.
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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