Snowtown – Interview with director Justin Kurzel

Director Justin Kurzel talks about filming the true story of the Snowtown murders near his hometown.

Why did you choose this story?

JK: Because I came from the area [laughs] I come from about 5 or ten minutes away from where it all happened. In Australia it’s known as the Bodies in the Barrels – its kind of the tagline. People don’t want to go much further than that. It’s quite interesting; when we started showing the film in Australia, people would come out going ‘I had no idea that the community was so involved’. Usually serial killers work alone, these were four guys. When we went down to the area to shoot – we shot where it all happened and we used non-actors – we met thousands of people there who came to audition who would know John. He was a figure in the community; he was kind of like a preacher. He used to look after people’s kids, fix their cars… That’s really really unusual. That’s something that I didn’t know about. The whole Jamie/John story – the father/son relationship – I had no idea about. I started reading the books and the transcripts and I found the subject matter so compelling, I thought there was a perspective there that had not been shared in the media. There had been two documentaries made about it, and it was just a body count thing. I found a point of view in it that could tell the story. There had been a few scripts lying around about Snowtown that were all horror films and slasher films, I think this was the first one to find an angle on it to give you some sort of insight into how it all started to happen.

How many local people did you use in the film?

JK: Daniel [Henshall] was the only professional actor, but he had never been in a feature film. All the others – except one – are locals from the area who have never acted before.

Why did you decide to use local people instead of professional actors in the film?

JK: I just thought that with a story like this – because it was so much about the community and that vulnerability – you needed to believe it and immerse yourself in it, to see it on their face and in the landscape. I also think that if I used a high profile actor, there would have been that kind of baggage. I was worried whether it looked a little patronising – I always feel a little cynical when I see wealthy, good-looking Hollywood actors playing white trash [laughs]. It just comes across as incredibly patronising and wrong. I didn’t want that for this film. This film, to me, was about humanity and that was always very important to juxtapose against the violence. I knew that was something I needed to get from the locals and the people I found.

How do you overcome the fear of letting the victims’ families down?

JK: I don’t think you do, I think it’s at the forefront of your mind every day you walk on set – keeping the respect and integrity to the families who had suffered. It was probably my greatest reason for not doing the film; portraying the victims in the wrong way. It’s still something that is very important to me.

Have the families seen the film?

JK: We offered it. There were two screenings in Adelaide – the Adelaide Film festival is where it had it’s first screening, which was actually where the murders took place, just 20 minutes outside Adelaide – so we had many people on opening night that were involved in the case, from the police to the Premiere of the State. We had two screenings for the victims; most of them didn’t turn up, which I can completely understand. We had one family that turned up and watched the film, and we also had another one on opening night. I am hearing that one more family member might have watched the film.

How did they respond to it?

JK: The first family member that we showed was extremely emotional, obviously. The others, I’m not sure.

How do people from Snowtown feel about the film?

JK: I think people were very concerned. I think most people thought it was going to be a slasher film or a horror film. There are who are very angry that the film was made, but in the community we also found many people supporting it and wanting to have a dialogue about it. Not many people were being given the opportunity to talk about it and talk about what kind of legacy was there. Even the councils we talked to wanted to know why we were bringing it up again. To us, that was always the reason for doing it, to shed a light on something that has really been swept under the carpet for many years.

Did you get in touch with any of the people involved when you were making the film?

JK: I never contacted John. Very little is known about John or even his parents; they just vanished. I don’t know where they are. The person that wrote the book that was based on the events tried to find them for about a year and couldn’t find them. I have no connection to John or any family or friends. We did interview many people who were connected to other characters in the film, but not John.

Do the families of the victims still live in Snowtown?

JK: They are still in the community. There are some that still live there, there are some that moved to other states of the country, there are some that left after the events, so they are all over Australia, there are not just in this community.

Do you feel you should warn people about the graphic violence in the film?

JK: There were 12 murders that happened and if I went through any detail of what happened to those other people you would all probably get up and leave straight away in shock. It is probably the most confronting material that I have ever read. Right from the beginning, Sean – the writer – felt as though the only murder we wanted to express on screen was the brother because it had an emotional context to the journey. It was a major initiation and turning point for Jamie, and it also gave you a glimpse of the psychology behind John – that sadistic power of taking someone’s life and bringing it back and the pleasure of killing. That murder was to do many many things. In terms of that fine line of what to show and what not to, it is very difficult. I never wanted to sanitise it; I wanted to bring the audience to the edge where they could, in a very visceral way, experience that brutality. I’ve seen 10 or 12 films this year where the violence is much more graphic than Snowtown. To me, it was very important that you felt is was very visceral, the violence came across in a very real way and was very claustrophobic, but also came out of a banality, a casualness – which is what’s so horrifying about it. Violence, in most films, doesn’t have a value. It doesn’t have an emotional value; I think it just flips off like a car crash. I never wanted the violence in this film to be romanticised. I wanted it to be incredibly hard hitting and give you an insight into this character’s journey. The violence is these initiations throughout the film. It starts off with throwing ice creams at someone’s house and ends in this boy becoming a killer, and expressing that in the most violent way, while being manipulated by this extraordinarily evil man.

There are some extraordinary characters in the film. How many of them are true to life?

JK: They are all playing characters, but they are all real people from the community. Those issues of sexual abuse and paedophilia are very real and prevalent in the area. It was kind of a perfect storm, in terms of John coming along and offering answers, and them finding, for the first time, that they were being listened to. These communities are all over the world, and this really is a cautionary tale of turning a blind eye to them. That’s what I found was at the centre of the film. Everyone thought it was just freaks – and that is how you would do a film if you were doing a horror or a slasher – I thought it all came back to that community, what place that community was at and why was this level of sexual abuse going on for 30-40 years and nothing being done about it. There is still is an enormous amount of resentment and anger in this place. Along comes this guy, he doesn’t have to do much and he has just got them. That’s something I have seen in history repeated many times before.

You had a short film show in Critics Week at Cannes in 2005, and you went back with Snowtown, how did it feel?

JK: Different for many reasons. It’s like finally playing with the big boys with a feature [laughs], but also being there with a very controversial film; people have polarising views of it. That can be quite confronting; I don’t like seeing people walk out of my film and at the same time I understand why. There was a similar reaction back in Australia. Sometimes we had preview screenings where no one walked out and people were engaged from beginning to end. In Adelaide it won the Audience Award and this was in a community that was probably affected more than anyone else in Australia. It’s really different and subjective and it is quite a confronting thing to experience as the director of a film.

What is your next film going to be?

JK: It’s going to be a dark comedy [laughs] probably more in the style of The Squid and The Whale or Lost in Translation. I am really looking forward to it [laughs]. I am actually not a very dark person. The work I do back home – even in commercials – is comedy stuff. People are shocked that I’ve done this thing. I kind of am as well, a little bit. I don’t seek out this material. I think it was because I come from the area.

Words – Brogen Hayes