Justin Kurzel and Lucas Pittaway Interview for Snowtown

How the project came together and what they knew of the actual events.

Justin Kurzel: Sean Grant had written up to about the 5th or 6th draft and then Warp Films Australia showed me the script. It was probably more of a genre film at the time, police and that in there, but I just saw a point of view in terms of the Jamie character that was a complete surprise to me. From what I knew before I had no idea about this father son relationship and this mentor figure hovering over this kid.

Lucas Pittaway: Personally I only knew the terms ‘bodies in the barrels’ and ‘the Snowtown Murders’ which is like most people in my area, like from a younger generation. I only read one page, I didn’t research into it too much.

Justin Kurzel: It was really a process of editing and really focusing the story 100% on his point of view, Jamie’s point of view. When I came on board we bought another book. It’s based on two books and we also delved into the transcripts which were from Jamie’s testimonies against the perpetrators. Then we researched with people that we met that were closer to the family, getting more of that domestic insight. How John was within the family. I was really intrigued by that ordinariness of the guy.

I was saw the first act as a western. A community that’s apathetic and kind of still, then there’s this guy that rides in on a motorbike and gives them a voice and a kind of energy they didn’t know they had.

It’s kind of a perfect storm, especially within the characters in the film. There are histories and patterns of sexual abuse and paedophilia within the area and I think John came along at just the right time and was able to harness a kind of anger and grief. He provided an ideology that they could believe in and very quickly he corrupted that. And that was pivotal to us within the drama in the story and I guess just what hadn’t been reported before. The interest in Snowtown had been on the macabre and the grotesque and I saw a kind of humanity in the story and a point of view that was very different from what had been represented.

Filming in the area.

Lucas Pittaway: For me it really helped with my acting and how I related to the character. That’s where I grew up too, I lived there when I was seven and I grew up there. I felt like I was doing justice to the area and I felt like I’d much rather it was me that did this than some actor who doesn’t know anything about the area.

Getting into the mind of someone who does deeply unpleasant things.

Lucas Pittaway: It’s not the most pleasurable thing but now that I look back at it I’m really proud of it because it’s on film forever. But when I was getting into that head space it was good to have Justin and Dan and everyone on set who I had such close relationships with there to help me through it, to guide me through it. Basically to give me a hug and kiss after because the emotions aren’t a happy place. They’re not where you want to be all the time and having to go there and back and forth was exhausting. Without them I couldn’t have done it.

Justin Kurzel: It was actually quite a wonderfully happy set. It was quite ironic considering what the film was and I think a lot of that had to do with the very quick moments of focus that you had to get into a scene. We were very aware that each of those moments were very much like rounds in a boxing match. You just went into this very dark space but as soon as possible you needed to come out of it. We had to shift ourselves very quickly emotionally so that we were able to go again and so that we had the energy to keep going through the whole film. If it was like that all the time we wouldn’t have got through the first week.
Finding the film in the writing, on the day or in the edit.

Justin Kurzel: I think it was a combination of both. I think the type of film, his point of view and the kind of film we were trying to make was definitely found in the writing but I think the spirit of the film, the true soil of it all, was definitely found while we were shooting. Just by shooting in the area gave it a level of authenticity and really grounded it behind a truth that was continually informing how we shot, where we shot. Some of the guys would say that they wouldn’t say that or they wouldn’t speak here so they were bringing their own experience of the stories too and informing the characters that they were playing and the choices that we were making constantly. So I was quite open and free, they had enormous freedom to bring what they felt was true to them.

Lucas Pittaway: It’s like if you didn’t feel the lines were a personal thing to you, you could just say something that you felt suited the character more. I remember at times saying I wouldn’t say that, I just don’t feel like that’s what I or the character would say. It’s great that it was so flexible otherwise it would be like I was actually acting and it would have been harder.

This was my first acting job, I failed year ten drama, and to get thrown into something like this… First day on set I didn’t believe I could do it. Even two weeks in I was still sitting there thinking I’m not going to be able to do next week’s big scene or I’m not going to be able to do this for the rest of the time. At the end of it to just say I’ve accomplished that and have Justin say wow to me was just… Wow, awesome.

The importance of the music in Snowtown.

Justin Kurzel: The music was always supposed to be the inner voice of Jamie really and I said that I never wanted to have the music lead the audience emotionally. I like the fact that the film had bit of distance and wasn’t judging the characters so much. Jed came up with this pulse of this piece of music that I guess really became the anthem of the film. It became more audible and the world began to shift and become more impressionistic visually towards the end as you enter the mind of this kid. His internal world became the main focus. I guess like a purgatory at the end and this kid is led to the devil, coming to a crossroads and either joining him or not.

Jamie as something of a passive protagonist.

Lucas Pittaway: Going through the emotions that Jamie went through myself it was kind of like I was in a sense of shock as well. When I was being quite passive, we shot in chronological order so when we came out of the murder scene and went to the shops I was quite in shock as well myself. We went to the shops to get garbage bags. I just find that horrific that they went to the shops to get garbage bags.

Justin Kurzel: I find real life passive. I find most characters in films melodramatic in the choices that they make and I look at the performance of his and even the small choices that he makes highly problematic and dramatic and the stakes are incredibly high. Yet the expression of that could be very small. When I watch it and when I was reading the books about it I saw this incredible struggle but it was a struggle that I guess wasn’t overt. It’s quieter and a much more still performance, which is something we all believed in.

Daniel Henshall, who plays John Bunting in Snowtown.

Justin Kurzel: He went down about eight weeks before and met everyone and put on weight and a big part of that was that John in the story is an outsider who comes into this community. He seduces them. Dan was a Sydney actor who came down and immersed himself in this community and I think a lot of the natural relationships he developed with Lucas and so on were very genuine and were the basis of the dynamic he had with each of them in the film.

Lucas Pittaway: We went camping and fishing with the boys. The relationships you see on camera were great off camera as well so I felt like Dan was my mate not just some guy from Sydney. And Louise felt like my mother, the boys felt like my brothers. It was a really strong point of the film to have really authentic relationships that you could see in every action that he was the father figure.

Justin Kurzel: I realised very very quickly because of what they had developed was that all the actors were very present in the scenes. They weren’t coming in with any pre-conceived idea of what they were about to do and they were listening to eachother. Which is a very different performance style, so when I got to the edit I was amazed at how much of the performances was coming from the reaction shots of each of the actors, Which is kind of unique and something I knew came from all the work we did before. The eight weeks leading up to the shoot.

Slowly realising what is going on as a result of subtleties such as the reactions.

Justin Kurzel: The film is cryptic in places deliberately. A lot of that might have to do with the chaotic disorientating nature of Jamie’s position amongst it all or it might just be wanting the subtext to be a little a bit more hidden.

Avoiding clichés.

Justin Kurzel: When Dan went down there for the first time and was staying in the hotel I think he was quite overwhelmed by the place and he was spending a lot of time in the hotel reading books about serial killers. It took me a long time to get him out, for him to understand that what was unique about this case was that there were four serial killers who were very social, who were very known within the community. As opposed to the cliché version of past impressions of serial killers, y’know solitude etc. I said to Dan that I didn’t want him to look at this as a kind of psychopath, this has to be social, this has to be about an ordinary guy who goes out, garners the trust of the community very quickly and is trusted. Once Dan got that it was fantastic because he was out every night, he was socialising, he was present within the community. He’d been involved in a soap that everyone recognised him from so suddenly people started to revere him a little and ask for autographs. He started to very quickly find the confidence, the dynamic and that kind of strut that John kind of needed for the audience to believe that if they were in that situation and this guy rides into town on a motorbike and says this and this and this, they could be drawn into it. So once Dan worked that out, for us that was the key to John, what separated the events and this character from many other portrayals of serial killers in other films.

The ideology and (not) providing answers.

Justin Kurzel: I think the ideology was something he genuinely believed in and the community genuinely believed in. I think they felt as if they had been hurt and despite a lot of their complaints about sexual abuse and paedophilia in the area nothing was being done. He created a kind of vigilante group very quickly on the back of this ideology that he had. I think that it became corrupted very quickly. He might have still had it at the end, that same ideology, but by then this kind of psychopathic nature began to expel from him. That changed pretty quickly. I mean the idea that he was killing for pleasure pretty much overtook any kind of pure ideology. And it was corrupted from the beginning. In terms of what people take at the end, I hope that they are just engaged in the story and see this incredible kind of tragic journey of this kid and ask themselves what they would have done in similar circumstances. I don’t have any moral resolution, there’s no redemptive moment but I’ve never really been interested in that. Or providing the audience with a kind of [claps hands], a y’know it was this. Evil is a very impossible thing to simplify but hopefully, and it happened in Australia, there was incredible curiosity and people felt there was a side to the murders that hadn’t been revealed before. And a kind of humanity that went past the macabre and the grotesque which had been reported before. Maybe a bit more of an understanding in how a community like this can be manipulated.

What’s next for Lucas.

Lucas Pittaway: Now I’ve signed up with a couple of agencies, an American one and an Australian one. I’ve had auditions. I want to grab hold of this thing and get everything I can out of it.

When I read scripts if it’s not something I like then I’m not going to audition for it. If I do like the script whether it’s a comedy, a romance or anything and I love it then I’ll audition and try really hard for it.

What’s next for Justin.

Justin Kurzel: I’m writing a comedy with my brother, who did the music in Snowtown, and there might be another project that I’ll be doing with Warp Australia. I’m reading a lot of scripts and books and trying to find something that will give me the fever like it did with Snowtown.

Justin on directing other writer’s scripts versus scripts he’s written himself.

Justin Kurzel: I’m mainly just interested in finding really compelling stories. I’m sure I’ll probably always have a kind of input into the writing and into the drafts of films because I approach things with a strong vision about how I see films, which is certainly what happened with Snowtown.