ANIMAL KINGDOM: Interview With David Michôd
Back in the mid to late '70s, long before I began writing on film, I had recently arrived in San Francisco and was already enjoying its thriving movie culture, which at the time included the key titles in what was being dubbed the "Australian New Wave" (a resurgence of Australian filmmaking ranging from the mid-'70s into the '80s). I was hypnotized by the mysticism of such early Peter Weir films as Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977), by Judy Davis's career-launching performance in My Brilliant Career (1979), and the ANZAC spirit of military epics like Breaker Morant (1980) and Gallipoli (1981).
With Gallipoli, Peter Weir scored his third box office success in a row and secured his credentials as one of Australia's leading auteurs. Gallipoli capitalized upon excerpts from Jean Michel Jarre's electronic masterpiece Oxygène (acknowledged by Thomas H. Green as the album that "led the synthesizer revolution of the Seventies") and catapulted the bracing good looks and cynical intensity of a young Mel Gibson into the international spotlight. Gibson had already staged his celebrity with the ozploitation classic Mad Max (1979), and followed that film's popularity with The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
The Australian New Wave was an incredible season of films whose impact has been recalled by the recent efforts of Blue-Tongue Films, a loose collective of inspired talents--namely the brother team Joel and Nash Edgerton, writer/director David Michôd, writer/director Spencer Susser and writer/director Luke Doolan. Their collaborative films have taken the festival award circuit by storm and satisfied American appetites with such offerings as The Square (a 2008 neo-noir thriller released in the U.S. in 2010), Miracle Fish (a 2009 short film nominated for Best Live Action Short at the 82nd Academy Awards®) and Animal Kingdom (2010), which won the world cinema jury prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Animal Kingdom opens stateside on August 13.
Earlier this summer I had the chance to sit down with writer/director David Michôd to discuss his savage tale of Melbourne's criminal underbelly. Complaining at first that we were seated at a large table too far across from each other, Michôd said he felt he was at a job interview. Well, I joked, answer my questions correctly and you might get the job. Michôd chuckled and promised to do his best.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]
* * *Michael Guillén: First of all, congratulations on your jury win at Sundance earlier this year and Animal Kingdom's critical success; it's actually doing quite well.
David Michôd: Thank you.
Guillén: I've been looking forward to talking with you--it feels fun for me--because earlier this year Joel and Nash Edgerton were in San Francisco with The Square, which premiered in the Bay Area at the Mostly British Film Festival and then, later, Joel came through town on The Square's press junket. I got to interview him at that time and he spoke quite kindly of you. What especially pleased me with the festival screening of The Square was that it was preceded by the short film Spider (2007), which I understand you wrote?
Michôd: Ah, yeah, yeah.
Guillén: I loved Spider; it's a great short.
Michôd: It's pretty effective.
Guillén: Absolutely. So that's where I wanted to start today. Your career has been built upon a set of celebrated short films and I was wondering if you could speak to the value of a young filmmaker or first-time filmmaker starting out with short films before chancing a first feature?
Michôd: I kind of think there's no other way to start; I mean, practically speaking. When I wrote the first draft of Animal Kingdom, I thought I was writing it for someone else to direct because I couldn't imagine a world in which anyone would give me millions of dollars to make a movie. In those years when I was developing the script, I made a few shorts. I got so emotionally attached to the script of Animal Kingdom that I couldn't bear the idea of giving it to someone else to screw it up. I decided to make some shorts because people were responding to the screenplay but no one had any faith in me as a director and for obvious reasons: I had nothing to show. So I made a couple of shorts.
The first one I made--years after film school--was Ezra White , who was a minor character from Animal Kingdom. I gave him his own little world in which to play. I screwed it up. Principally, because it felt like I was testing things; it didn't feel like a short film. It had no point. The couple of shorts that I directed after that--Crossbow  and Netherland Dwarf --were ones that I put all of my attention and energy into and they worked. They worked really well. On the back of Crossbow especially, Animal Kingdom went from feeling like a delusional pipe dream to something that didn't just feel doable; it felt inevitable. That was entirely because of the shorts I had made.
Guillén: In terms of timing, then, were the short films made after your stint as editor for Inside Film magazine?
Michôd: The first one and Crossbow came right at the cusp of my leaving Inside Film. I knew that I wasn't going to stay. I'd never had any journalistic ambitions in the first place. It was just a job that I had stumbled into. I was incredibly glad that I did it because I learned so much about how the business works and met a lot of great people.
Guillén: That's what I was going to ask: similar to François Truffaut who started out as a film journalist and then moved into film directing, I was wondering if you found a value in having done the journalism first? Clearly you did?
Michôd: Yeah; but, it was funny. I had been to film school in Melbourne before I got that job at the magazine. So that job at the magazine felt very much like something I was doing in the meantime but--over the course of doing it--I got very involved in it. I was there all up for about six years but by the end I knew that I needed to leave.
But those were just a couple of shorts that I wrote and directed myself. The ones that I wrote, like Spider and I Love Sarah Jane  with Spencer Susser, for filmmakers starting out they were incredibly useful because they were all about experimentation. Even though I didn't direct those shorts, it was really useful for me to see how something translated from the page to the screen, to see where mistakes were made, and to see where things that I had written that I thought were necessary were actually redundant when they got to the screen. It's through that experimentation that you get a sense of the language of cinema, such that I can't imagine what it would be like to try to direct a feature without having made shorts first.
Guillén: One thing that has frequently come across in much of the commentary that has been written about you and Animal Kingdom is your command of the medium as registered by your preparation. Of course, as I understand it, you had been sitting with the script of Animal Kingdom for nine years. One thing Joel mentioned when we were talking that I found interesting was that you make video storyboards; that you set up how you want a sequence to go by filming it first on video. Can you talk about your process of video storyboarding?
Michôd: It's funny, I've actually heard Joel say that too and he did help me do a little bit of that on Animal Kingdom; but, I didn't do very much of that on Animal Kingdom. I know that's how Nash likes to work, and Luke Doolan too, who cut both of their films.
Guillén: Did you already have Animal Kingdom visualized in your head so much that you didn't feel a need to video storyboard?
Michôd: It's in part that, but it's also that--even just shooting something on video and then editing it as a video storyboard--is in itself a labor-intensive, onerous thing to do.
Guillén: That's what struck me when Joel mentioned that. It seemed like video storyboarding would, in effect, be making a movie twice.
Michôd: One of the principle differences between me and Luke Doolan and Nash and Spencer is that those guys are all editors as well as filmmakers and I'm not. I learned how to edit at film school; but, back then, becoming an editor meant buying a $2,000 machine and I thought, "I've never going to do that so I don't need to hone these skills." In the few years since film school, suddenly there was Final Cut Pro and Avid for laptops and those guys all capitalized on that; but, I never did.
Guillén: Do you storyboard at all?
Michôd: No, I don't storyboard either; but, I shot list and I love drawing maps. I love--I can't think what they're called--mud maps, or something. I do that. I agonize over that. In a way the whole purpose of storyboards or video storyboards is just to work out your coverage and coverage is what causes me the most anxiety.
Guillén: By "coverage" you mean your camera placement with regard to your actors; that sort of thing?
Michôd: Yeah. It's entirely about what shots do I need to tell the story in the scene. That's anxiety-inducing. For me, it's easier and freer to do it on paper with my DP and I like the mystery of it as well. I like the adrenalin of turning up on the set with a plan but not knowing exactly whether or not it's going to work until you piece it all together. There's something about shooting it all on video first that takes the mystery out of it.
Guillén: One of the things I appreciated about Animal Kingdom was the interiority of J's voiceover. Admittedly, I've only seen Spider and Animal Kingdom, so I'm not sure if such voiceovers are a cinematic device you like to use?
Michôd: I do like to use voiceovers. Crossbow, the short that I mentioned before, is told almost entirely in voiceover. I really enjoy the opportunity for poetry that voiceover allows. You should have a look at Crossbow. Animal Kingdom, strangely enough, was never written with voiceover. The voiceover was added in post--in part to deal with that always difficult thing of first acts in movies, clarifying worlds and making people feel comfortable knowing where they are and who the characters are and that kind of stuff--but, also because it was very important to me, given the strangely sprawling nature of Animal Kingdom, that the very beginning be grounded with J [ newcomer James Frecheville]. While he's present in all the scenes at the beginning of the movie, without the voiceover he's strangely in the background. Having that voiceover allowed me to just cement the world in a way but also to put him very much at the center of it.
Guillén: The voiceover granted J agency. You got the sense that--even though you were seeing this seemingly passive kid--he's actually smarter than appearances allow.
Michôd: That was very important to me too because he is an emotionally damaged kid and emotionally damaged kids often aren't very expressive. It was important to me that you get a sense that there is quite an interesting and complex life there that will come to the surface at some point.
Guillén: In his Sundance review of Animal Kingdom, Movie/Line critic S.T. Van Airsdale stated that Animal Kingdom has rebooted the American crime saga, referencing such filmmakers as Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola among select others. I found his to be an intriguing assessment for being precisely what an American film critic might say, in the sense that I'm aware that Animal Kingdom is actually inspired by true-life events in Melbourne's criminal history. So it's actually an Australian crime saga, distinct from its American counterparts. How do you feel about that? Does it concern you that an American film critic appropriates an Australian venture into its cinematic lineage? Or does this speak to the universality of the film's criminal themes?
Michôd: I have no objection to his comment. First, it's very flattering. What I had always wanted was--at least on some level--for Animal Kingdom to have something to do with those filmmakers and that is to make a crime film that's quite grand and that takes itself seriously, which is certainly what I love about the great crime films of Mann, Scorsese or Coppola. They do take themselves seriously. I also love Quentin Tarantino's films; but, they do seem to exist in a slightly different universe, a heightened universe, and a fun universe. I wanted to make something that was quite austere and serious. But I imagine that his comment would also have to do with the fact that Animal Kingdom is in English, which makes it easier to parallel with American cinema than maybe films from non-English speaking cultures.
Guillén: American criticism aside, the pieces on Animal Kingdom that I've most enjoyed have actually come from Australian critics at the the Sydney Morning Herald--Gary Maddox, Kylie Northover, George Palathingal, Philippa Hawker and Paul Byrnes--who published a suite of essays on the film. I found their write-ups particularly insightful because they situated Animal Kingdom within its Australian context, both historically and in reference to other Australian films and television shows (such as the mini-series Underbelly, several of which I'd never heard of here in the States.
Michôd: I do wonder about that sometimes, about the relationship of American film criticism and Australian film criticism to Australian film. There is a peculiar relationship Australians have with Australian cinema. In fact, Australians--generally speaking--don't like Australian films. One of the things that has been most gratifying for me these last couple of weeks now that the film's opened back home is that people are actually going to see it, which is great. I anticipated that a lot of the criticism in Australia would not be talking about the film as cinema but where it sits in the much-maligned recent history of Australian film. I almost expect a backlash after all that incredible press we got out of Sundance. I was almost expecting to go home and be cut down, as is the wont of Australians.
Guillén: A prophet knows no honor in his own country? Animal Kingdom--or at least certain scenes in Animal Kingdom--were directly inspired by the Walsh Street police shootings that took place in Melbourne in 1988. How old were you in 1988?
Michôd: I was 15.
Guillén: Were you aware of these events at the time or were you struck by this information later?
Michôd: It hit me later because I actually wasn't living in Melbourne at the time; I was living in Sydney. I moved to Melbourne about two years after these events. Melbourne back then, especially in the '80s, was a pretty dark place. For everyone else in the country, Melbourne was known as the place where bad things happen. There were a number of high-profile massacres; crazy people with guns going in the street and killing 12 people, that kind of stuff. But there was also a well-known antagonism between police and criminals in Melbourne, such that people generally were being shot dead by the police at a rate way beyond anywhere else in the country. I had this image of Melbourne as quite a big, dangerous city.
When I first moved there, I started reading these books that fleshed out and put a personality to these streets and neighborhoods. One of the books I stumbled across was Walsh Street by Tom Noble who used to be the chief police reporter at the newspapers in Melbourne. There was something about that central crime in essence--that one that sits at the center of Animal Kingdom--the brutal and random revenge killing of two very young uniformed cops that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. From way back then I knew at some point I wanted to make a film that was about a world of dangerous cops and criminals surrounding that event.
Guillén: Is Tom Noble still alive? Did you interact with him at all in the making of Animal Kingdom?
Michôd: Yeah, yeah, he was great. He came on board very early as a script/research consultant. I spent many many days sitting in his living room because he had boxes and boxes of videotapes, photographs, and police interviews; an enormous wealth of material. I would sit on the floor of his living room searching through this stuff.
Guillén: One of the Sydney Morning Herald journalists that I mentioned before, Philippa Hawker, wrote that Animal Kingdom "never for a moment feels like a true-crime narrative ripped from the headlines" and that it was "a coolly made, riveting exploration of choices." This pretty much tracked with how I first reacted to the film. I was fascinated with the decisions your characters were making throughout this strong character-driven narrative. I was wondering if you would play a little game with me?
Michôd: [Chuckles] Yeah?
Guillén: As the writer and director of Animal Kingdom, you know these characters probably better than anyone else. I was wondering if we could go through your core ensemble of characters and have you discern what was the best decision they've made and the worst decision they've made? So, let's say, starting with Darren Cody (Luke Ford)?
Michôd: Best decision and the worst decision? I would say the best decision that Darren makes is--despite his weakness--to sympathize with and on some level protect J. The fact that he does that seems to work out for him in the long run. Despite his almost paralyzed weakness and ineptitude, he does clearly look out for J on some level and, therefore, doesn't suffer in the same way his brothers do. On a grand scale, I think the worst decision that he makes is not acting on what are clearly his impulses to begin with, which are to move away from his family on some level. He's not necessarily going to be a straight kid or a clean kid; but, he can sense that the people that he's associating so closely with are incredibly dangerous.
Guillén: The scene where he does nothing to prevent his brother Pope from harming J's girlfriend Nicky....
Michôd: That was going to be my specific example.
Guillén: ...is an absolutely shocking scene. I've got to tell you. That scene exemplified the animality of this kingdom and how swiftly and ferociously evil can take over, let alone how fear can make one complicit.
Michôd: In talking to people about that scene, I've frequently been asked why Darren doesn't act. I feel like we did quite a lot of good work getting up to that scene to demonstrate that this kid is so completely under the thumb of his older brother that--as much as you can tell that he wants to do something about it--he's just completely incapable. It surprises me when people react so strongly to that scene. I think it's just that people want him to do something and he doesn't.
Guillén: How about Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton)?
Michôd: I'm not sure what his best decision would be. He's a guy who makes quite crazy decisions and I don't know that he'd necessarily argue that any of them are good, other than that he's quite loving of J and the other people around him and, therefore, hopefully by osmosis he would instill in J a sense of a strange kind of generosity.
Guillén: He's a thrillingly charismatic and virile character. I wasn't familiar with Sullivan's work at all; but, out of your ensemble, he's the actor whose work I want to pursue. You've introduced me to him.
Michôd: I remember first seeing him when he was about 17, back when I was at film school and he was just a kid who was around doing stuff. There was something quite raw and great about him back then and he's just been effectively languishing in Australian television for more than 10 years. He came in to test for a much smaller cop role and I was knocked off my feet by how charismatic and manly he is now. Everyone went nuts for him at Sundance. It was like, "Where did this guy come from?" The worst decision Craig made was not just quietly playing the game after the cops had been killed and panicking and running away.
Guillén: How about Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton)?
Michôd: The best decision Barry made was setting up a family and endeavoring on some level to live a good life. The worst decision he made was not leaving his old life sooner.
Guillén: Pope (Ben Mendelsohn)? Can he make any "good" decisions?
Michôd: This is a man who makes only bad decisions. He's a man who's genuinely confused and so emotionally damaged that--as soon as the pillars of his otherwise seemingly functional life fall away--the only thing left for him is to lash out.
Guillén: Andrew "Pope" Cody is one of the most nuanced villains I've ever seen. He's fascinating for being so morally bankrupt. How about Smurf (Jacki Weaver)? Another excellently-written character, by the way.
Michôd: I would say that her worst decisions are choosing to have children with the men that she presumably hooked up with--who would almost always have been abusive flakes--and her best decision is also her worst decision, which is her cloying nurture of her relationship with her kids, such that some of the decisions she makes in the film to many people seem evil; but, are in other respects, to me anyways, coldly pragmatic.
Guillén: She comes across as a true lioness in this pride. How about Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce)?
Michôd: The best decision he makes is to find a way to engage directly with J on a level that no one else in the movie ever really does. The worst decision would be the fact that ... Leckie's an unsual character in that he's a good man and a straight cop and a strangely odd guy in a way; but, he's also very manipulative. He engineers a number of scenarios very deliberately that put J in a sense of tension between him and his family in the hope that J will someday realize that he has nowhere else to go but to the police.
Guillén: Guy Pearce was perfectly suited for this role. I just watched him last night, in fact, in a film called Ravenous.
Michôd: I haven't seen that.
Guillén: In his roles Pearce is often passive, almost vacuous, something of an empty vessel, who is nonetheless incredibly instrumental to the narrative traction of the films he's in. This is a distinct and fascinating quality I note in him as an actor. Finally, how about the film's young protagonist J (James Frecheville)?
Michôd: This is on a very simple, practical level. The worst decision he makes is to steal that car for his uncle. The best decision he makes is to kill Pope, which is the moral universe of the film: this is a kid forming a moral compass for himself in a totally morally corrupt world. To do something like that, as he does at the end of the film, is both the wrongest thing a person can do and yet, in his universe, the only thing he can do.
Guillén: Thank you so much. I loved your film and look forward to your future work. I imagine you're quite the popular guy right now having to field off offers?
Michôd: It's weird the pressure that you feel. I couldn't have asked for things to have panned out any better; but, it just brings with it a world of pressure.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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