David Michôd, director of critically acclaimed Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, talks about the Melbourne crime scene, Jackie Weaver’s Oscar nominated performance and why not going to therapy has helped his art.
Blame it on Home and Away or Crocodile Dundee, but for me Australian drama always conjures up images of incredibly cheerful blonde people whose daily activities consists of surfing and sunbathing. Unless they’re exceptionally unlucky that is, in which case they’ll have to dodge some sharks, a Wolf Creek-style psychopath or Baz Luhrman’s love of stereotypes. But in David Michôd’s debut feature film Animal Kingdom, the darker underbelly of Australian society is exposed, without a “G’day mate!” to be found.
“Certainly for people back home, Australia has a rich criminal history – Melbourne especially,” says Michôd. “For me I felt that I was contributing to an already well-established genre, and have been pretty surprised to find that Melbourne’s criminal history is relatively unknown to the rest of the world.”
Originally from Sydney, Michôd moved to Melbourne when he was 18. Although he ended up living there for nearly a decade, he admits he found the city an incredibly intimidating place to live.
“I knew from all the news reports and what I’d heard that Melbourne, particularly in the 80s, was a really weird, messed up place. There were these long-running, really hardened gangs of armed robbers who basically ran the place and then a group of almost renegade police attempting to deal with the situation. And because they were dealing with serious criminals and had pretty much the hardest job of the police force, they themselves were pretty tough men. So you had these two opposing groups of very determined, armed professionals warring. It was a scary time.”
But for Michôd, it would also prove a creative one, as the idea for Animal Kingdom was planted and developed. His move to Melbourne came two years after the Walsh Street police shootings, where two policemen in their early 20s were gunned down in a suburb of Victoria, but the level of antagonism between the gangs and police force was still palpable, and these murders act as a turning point for the characters in Animal Kingdom.
“The Walsh Street murders really unnerved me,” he explains. “There was something very chilling in the way these two very young cops were brutally killed, and I knew I wanted to make a film about the dynamic between the cops of criminal gangs following that event.”
But though the idea for Michôd’s film was planted, it took a decade of writing and editing for it to develop into the critically acclaimed drama that was awarded the Jury’s prize at Sundance and has achieved international acclaim. Over the course of writing his script, his increasing knowledge of the criminal world in Melbourne changed the focus of Animal Kingdom from that of a simple cops and robbers tale to a more family-centered drama.
“There have been some notorious Melbourne criminal families, and so from the outset I knew I wanted to explore the dynamics of one of these criminal families. But I also wanted to chart the disintegration of one of these gangs, and I liked the idea that the gang was somehow held together by a kind of self-serving and sociopathic mother who had quite a matriarchal role.”
Heading up Michôd’s crime family is actress Jackie Weaver. Though known as acting royalty in Australia, Weaver has escaped mainstream attention elsewhere, though she did appear in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. However that’s all changed now that Weaver has earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the simperingly sweet but ruthless Ma Barker-esque matriarch, Grandma Smurf.
“I remember when I first offered the part to Jackie, I’d been writing the part specifically for her for quite a while, which is always an interesting thing to say to someone – ‘Hi Jackie, I’ve written this sociopathic character and I think you’d be perfect for it!’ But I think she was just excited to play a part she wasn’t known for all the time, she’s used to being offered the Sally Fields role in films, so I think it was exciting for her to play a woman so dark and complex.”
The film also features Guy Pearce, as well as a host of established Australian actors such Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton. But the breakout performance of the film comes from previously unknown 20 year old James Frecheville, who plays J Cody. A monosyllabic and largely emotionally detached teenager, J is a difficult character to base a film around, and giving the role to an unknown acting student was a huge risk on Michôd’s part.
“It was always going to be a hard role to cast, but James was just so intuitive I had to get him on board. I knew I wanted that character to be emotionally shut down and possibly autistic, but I also knew I wanted that stoicism to be filled with small detail, and I’m still to this day amazed at how good James was at bringing that to life. I wanted to throw him into this wild and vicious world and watch him navigate it for the sake of his own survival, because to me there’s just something innately fascinating about watching young people work out how the world functions.” He pauses.
“In all likelihood that’s me exploring some latent black hole in my own adolescence there really, but I’ll leave off the therapy until I stop getting material out of it.”
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Animal Kingdom is in cinemas now.