Before he became a filmmaker, “Animal Kingdom” writer/director David Michôd served as the editor of Australia’s Inside Film magazine. So what’s it like being on the other end of the interview process? “I had expected I would hate answering the same questions over and over. And then you get on the other side, and every conversation is with a new person, so it’s a different conversation. I actually don’t hate it at all.”
Well, that’s a relief. Michôd’s part of a pack of Aussie filmmakers who’ve been doing their fair share of press after making a recent, unmissable mark on the indie film circuit, one that also includes “The Square”‘s Nash Edgerton and Spencer Susser, whose debut “Hesher,” due in theaters in January, was co-written by Michôd. The group have an informal arrangement in which they advise and help out on each other’s productions, making them something of Australia’s answer to mumblecore, with more edge, higher budgets and less equivocating.
“Animal Kingdom” is a sleek crime drama set in the Melbourne underworld about 17-year-old Josh (James Frecheville), who after the death of his mother is taken in by his grandmother (a scene-stealing Jacki Weaver) and her trio of bank-robbing sons. As the family gets pulled into an escalating war with the local police, Josh begins to question his involvement with their violent criminal lifestyle, but is unable to place his trust in the detective (Guy Pearce) trying to convince him to testify against them.
In an interview you did with Screen Daily, you mentioned that your sensibilities have shifted from being purely arthouse more toward the commercial over the years. What led to that change?
I was surprised, even back at home, at how important it was to me that people go and see the movie — and that lots of people go and see it. I had probably, once upon a time, thought that I didn’t care about that.
That you’d be proud of the movie even if it was showing to an empty theater?
That was probably what I thought would happen, but that’s not necessarily to say that I was being arrogant when I felt that way. All you can really do as a filmmaker is make the kind of film that you would want to see yourself and hope there are other people out there who share your sensibility.
But it became apparent that it’s really important to me that there be other people out there who share my sensibility, because it’s so hard. It’s such an exhausting, emotionally taxing process, making a film, that you don’t want to get to the end and find that you’re the only person who likes it. You want to feel that it was worth it and that you’ve somehow shared that experience with other people.
“Animal Kingdom” was inspired by a true incident, is that right?
Yeah, the killing of the two young cops, that turned Melbourne upside down at the end of the ’80s. I haven’t set the film in the ’80s, just in a kind of indeterminate recent past. But I knew from when I first started reading about that crime that I wanted to build what I hoped would be a big Melbourne crime story around that particular event.
The police are responsible for one of the film’s more shocking scenes of violence. It’s not, overall, a terribly flattering portrayal of the them.
There was a period in Melbourne in the ’80s when the armed robbery squad were a little… overly excitable. Melbourne police were shooting people dead at a rate astronomically higher than anywhere else in the country. There was just something about the nature of the way the police force worked down there.
The armed robbery squad were a gang of hardened guys who had what was widely recognized as the hardest and most dangerous job in the force — because they were hunting the hardest and most dangerous criminals. For a period, that animosity, that antagonism was exploding in at an unusual rate.
“Animal Kingdom” is just as much an extremely dysfunctional family drama as it is a crime story. What led to your taking that kind of angle?
It was just what was most interesting to me. You start falling in love with your characters. And these characters — as toxic and horrific as they are — were a lot of fun to write, especially to write certain characters for particular actors. Writing Smurf for Jacki Weaver, writing Pope for Ben Mendelsohn was just fun.
I’m sure, once upon a time, it started as an episodic crime thing, with lots of cool shit in it, but the more I wrote, the more I just loved these characters more than anything else. I let them take over.
The character of Smurf may be the most memorable one, particularly who she becomes, in the latter third of the film. What inspired her?
She wasn’t inspired by anyone in particular. She grew out of my observations of certain families that I knew who weren’t criminal families, but were really tight-knit. I remember looking at those families, back when I was a kid, and thinking, “Oh, that looks nice,” how involved in each other’s stuff they are and how seemingly open and loving they are. Carrying that observation on for a few years, [you] come to realize that, in fact, there was something kind of weird and toxic about how tight they were.
That it was a little too cloying, or that the parents were living vicariously through their children in a really unhealthy way — that there was something self-serving about their love for their children.
These were subtle observations that I took to an extreme level: a woman who built her entire sense of self out of her sense of her relationship with her powerful and dangerous sons, and how that manifests in a quite selfish and pragmatic way.
Your approach to portraying crime and criminals is terribly unglamorous, from the suburban life they’re living to the fact that they seem to be constantly on the defensive to the realization that they’re grown men who literally or in spirit live with their mom.
One of the things I loved about the Smurf character was a sense of a woman who was the glue that was holding the family together. I don’t think those boys would be hanging out with each other if it weren’t for the fact that they had a mother who was forcing them to, for whom it was incredibly important that they all be together.
I liked the bizarre and dangerous dysfunction that that produces, as well. I’m sure Darren [played by Luke Ford] would still be working in some kind of illegitimate world, but probably not one so dangerous if it weren’t for the fact that he was being kept so close to his brothers by his mother.
One of the things that’s fascinating about crime as dramatic territory is imagining what it’s like for these people who live such incredibly dangerous and marginalized lives, where the stakes are incredibly high, where the difference between success and failure is life and death or freedom or imprisonment. You have to imagine lives in a constant state of semi-anxiety. One of the things I love about crime films in general is that they’re an exploration of characters living incredibly anxious lives.
“Animal Kingdom” opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 13th.