From the GATW Archives: Cannes 2011 Interview: SNOWTOWN co-writer/director Justin Kurzel

There’s a reason why IFC Midnight (SUPER, STAKE LAND) picked up Justin Kurzel’s SNOWTOWN - it’s an impressive piece of haunting cinema. Disturbing and hard to swallow, Kurzel’s feature directorial debut seals the deal that his man will continue to have a career making movies.

I tried to do a video interview with Kurzel at Cannes, but was off trying to get a sassy French woman to wine and dine me* while he was busy showing his film to distribution companies, so we settled for an email pass-off. Not sure if you’re aware of what SNOWTOWN is about, so read my review and then came back to this page to read the interview.

In this interview, we discuss finding the right Jon Bunting, why Kurzel chose the tragic story of Snowtown, Australia, and how he broke the ice during some really difficult and awkward scenes. Enjoy!

GATW: SNOWTOWN is based on a true (and really fucked up) story. How difficult was it to stay true to the facts while creating your own spin to it?

JK: The screenplay was based on two books and also court transcripts. Shaun and I did our own research as well which filled in some more intimate aspects of the case.

The events scripted are pretty close to the real events however you know with all films based on truth they are interpretations and the people in the film are always characterisations. Its important that you stay as close as possible to what happen but also be aware you are telling a particular story and the events and characters must fit the themes and ideas you are interested in.

GATW: Some of the brutal murders from Bunting didn’t make it into the film. What was the process of deciding which would make the cut and which wouldn’t?

JK: Yeah, there were 11 murders that they were convicted for and some of the details presented in court about those murders were truly horrific. We made a decision at the beginning to not make the violence the leading character of the film like most Horror/Slasher films do. We wanted make sure whatever murder we expressed on screen was directly related to Jamies major turning point and intitiation. The murder of his brother to us was integral to Jamie’s psychological journey and for you to understand the hold which John had on him. Most of the other murders are suggested through tape recordings which we felt for powerful devices to communicate to the audience who was missing or had been murdered.

GATW: John Bunting is one of Australia’s most notorious killers. What was the process like finding the right person to accurately portray him?

JK: We knew from the beginning we didnt want to portray him in a one dimensional way, you know here comes the serial killer and you can pick him a mile off. What we found interesting was that John was a pretty normal bloke in the community, he was very sociable and he was able to win the trust of the community and the family very easily. So we wanted him to be charismatic, approachable, someone who was a good listener and wanted to be around people.

Dan came in for an audition and had so many likable qualities. People really gravitate to Dan and he loves people. He makes you feel at ease and it was this quality especially at the beginning of the film which I felt was essential in understanding why the community looked for answers in John.

GATW: This appears to be Lucas Pittaway’s (Jamie) very first film. Some of his scenes are pretty uncomfortable and painful to watch. How did you break the awkwardness on set?

JK: We made sure in rehearse we all got to know each other extremely well and made a pact that we trusted each other and for this time while filming we were prepared to be brave and go to places that were very confronting and dark. We also knew that when the scene finished we could hug, hold each other and be able to turn the tap off and come out of those scenes. Lucas was incredibly brave, in fact all the cast were and I am indebted to their boldness and dedication to finding a truth in their performances.

GATW: Like the brilliant ear-cutting scene in RESERVOIR DOGS, a lot of the violence happens off-screen, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination. What made you want to use that method vs. more visuals?

JK: It was our biggest debate at the beginning while writing as to what violence do you show and what do you suggest and it is a very subjective and difficult decision. How do you get people close to this kind of Brutality without losing them. To us we didnt want to sanitize the violence but we also needed it to be always connected to Jamies journey and point of view. The scene with the brother was always the most important in the film. It made an audience get a glimpse of a brutality rarely scene while also understanding why Jamie participated in his brothers murder and why John found power and satisfaction in taking someone’s life.

My intention was for the audience to be taken to the edge of the cliff and to look into the abyss and hopefully feel as though they were still being held and not allowed to fall. But this is very subjective and violence on film is a visceral thing and everyone responds to it in different ways.

GATW: What made you decide to make SNOWTOWN as your first feature?

JK: I came from the 10 minutes away from where the events occured. I was extremely curious as to why something like this happened in a place i grew up in, where i spent my childhood. I think the script found a way of understanding how the community was implicated and affected which I had not known about before.
The subject matter was just so compelling, I couldnt stop thinking about it or putting down the books, I just knew it was the film i needed to make.

GATW: The score is so fitting and perfect for the film. Can you discuss the process working with your brother for the music?

JK: Right from the beginning Jed and I knew the music had to inform the cut of the film and provide the very intimate perspective of the lead character Jamie Vlassakis. We didin’t want the music to be leading you through the film emotionally, it couldn’t be there to manipulate what to feel. It had to be much more impressionistic and provide the very tense and claustrophobic pulse of Jamie’s descent towards hell. Jed came up with the main Snowtown Pulse and it became so influential that it gave us a new beginning and end of the film. I think it is an astonishingly sophisticated score, which not only affects you intellectually but most importantly emotionally. Its a muscular, visceral score and integral to the psychological journey in the film

GATW: What’s next for Kurzel?

JK: I am developing a black comedy with my brother Jed who did the music for Snowtown which Warp Films are producing, hopefully we can make it next year.