Animal Kingdom


Written by Marlon Dolcy
21 Monday 21st February 2011

What did it feel like to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance?

Pretty great. But then we’d been feeling great all week. That first screening of the movie at The Egyptian Theatre on the first weekend of the festival was the first proper audience of strangers we’d been able to show the film to – we had no idea how it was going to play – and then almost immediately afterwards we could feel a buzz building.

What made you choose a crime film for your first feature?

My fascination with Melbourne’s rich and dangerous criminal history. On a more general level, it doesn’t surprise me that filmmakers return to the crime genre so regularly. Crime is an inherently rich dramatic terrain. And for a first time feature filmmaker, it’s a world in which you can make big movements on a human scale.

You referenced Heat and Magnolia as benchmarks of what you wanted to achieve. Do you think you've gone some way to achieving this?

Did I? I love those films, but I’m sure we talked about a whole lot of different things when we were getting ready to shoot. What I love most about those films is just how rich and substantial they are. They’re dense and layered. Every scene feels like a full chapter from a great novel. If anything, I wanted Animal Kingdom to feel substantial. Have I achieved this? You’re asking the wrong guy. I lost my mind a long time ago!

Animal Kingdom seems to have put Australia back on the map for quality film making. What do you think of the current state of Australian films?

I think Australian films are bobbing and weaving as they always have. We have a relatively small population (22 million), we only make about 40 or 50 films a year, and of those only a tiny, tiny handful will pop. And I think that strike rate is pretty consistent with every other filmmaking culture in the world. Having said that, it's always exciting to see a new generation of filmmakers getting their first features up – people like Nash Edgerton and Patrick Hughes and Amiel Courtin-Wilson.

The movie evolved over a period of nine years. How did you prepare for the movie; for example what was your writing process?

The movie took a long time because I started writing it fresh out of film school. I didn’t really know what I was doing and effectively taught myself how to write over that period. I taught myself by staying engaged with the industry and other filmmakers, doing a lot of writing for myself and other people, but always returning to Animal Kingdom because it was a film I really wanted to make. And because I had worked on it for so long, not making it would have broken my heart.

Allegedly, the darkest and most disturbing character of Andrew "Pope" Cody was written exclusively for Ben Mendelsohn. How did you go about mapping out the characters?

The characters were born pretty arbitrarily. Then as the story evolved, and the movie’s thematic concerns started to crystallise, I started to get a firmer grip on who they were and how they were servicing the story and the other characters around them. At certain points in the process I started to visualise particular actors embodying these characters – initially Jacki Weaver as Smurf and Ben Mendelsohn as Pope, then Joel Edgerton a little later as Baz. There is something liberating about being able to do this. There is something free and fun about being able to write characters with specific actors in mind.

Violence and gunplay is what we have been brought up to expect from gangster flicks. Yet the violence is downplayed in your film without losing the overall suspense and tension. What were the motives, if any, behind this decision and how do you feel that it worked within the constraints of the genre?

I simply wanted the violence in Animal Kingdom to feel authentic. Extended gun battles are the stuff of movies, or of extreme criminal cultures that have descended into something resembling war (like Mexico, for instance). In the real world that I know, acts of violence explode out of nowhere, are over in the blink of an eye, and then what is left is the tension and weirdness of aftermath.

The film portrays the anti glamour and allure of a life of crime, brilliantly shown early on in the film when J (James Frecheville) is forced to point a pistol at a motorist by his uncle Craig. J is repulsed and scared rather than the clichéd response of being empowered. Did you feel it was important not to allow the viewer to be seduced by the outlaw lifestyle and could you explain your reasons?

I knew I wanted to make a menacing crime film about criminals in decline. And I wanted that menace to be experienced by an audience through an emotionally damaged young man thrown involuntarily into a strange and dangerous world. Unlike, say, Henry Hill in Goodfellas, J has no particular gangster aspirations – he has no real aspirations at all other than to feel comfortable in whatever world he finds himself. This, for me, is true of most 17 year-olds. They don’t know what they want other than that they want to feel in control of their surroundings. With J, you do get little hints early on, little smiles, that suggest that maybe this world might make sense for him – fun and licentious and powerful – but very quickly that stuff gets stripped away from him.

The Cody’s in Animal Kingdom have been said to be based around the notorious Pettingill family and the Walsh street police shootings. How much of an importance to you did the exploits of Melbourne’s criminal past have on the film?

I haven’t set the film in the '80s, but there was something about that period of the late-'80s/early-'90s in Melbourne that I found fascinating and chilling. The last days of armed robbery as a serious, professional criminal pursuit. The last days of the hardened gangs of professional armed robbers. The last days of a particularly hardened and dangerous core of the armed robbery squad in the Melbourne police. And the wild and dangerous animosity that existed between the two groups. Having said that, it was always important to me that Animal Kingdom’s characters be my own. I wanted to feel free to fashion the world and the story and the characters according to my own needs.

Initially from Sydney, you arrived in Melbourne that had experienced the gangland killings involving people such as the Moran family, Carl Williams, and the Carlton Crew. What was your perception of these events?

I moved to Melbourne when I was 18, just before that long series of gangland killings got started. To be honest, I found most of that more recent Melbourne underworld stuff relatively uninteresting – at least from a dramatic perspective. It just seemed to me to be an endless cycle of retribution killings carried out by thuggish dimwits.

The illicit Melbourne landscape is an important aspect of the film. Beautifully shot, the use of natural light adds to the film’s authenticity. Animal Kingdom appears to be a love letter to Melbourne, do you agree with this?

Certainly, I wanted Animal Kingdom to be reflective of the Melbourne I discovered after moving there. For me, as a kid in Sydney, the Melbourne of my imagination was a beautiful big gold-rush town with grand Victorian buildings and trams, albeit with a strange, gothic edge. When I moved there, I discovered a city much bigger and badder than the one I’d imagined. A huge and intimidating sprawl, with seriously dirty pockets and edges, and with a rich – and richly documented – history of darkness and danger.

Animal Kingdom is out this Friday (February 25 2011). For more, check the official website.

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