Animal Kingdom evolved over a nine-year period inspired by writer/director David Michod’s fascination with the colorful, criminal landscape of Melbourne and a strong desire to film the city in a way that it’s rarely viewed. The film tells the story of 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) who, following the death of his mother, must navigate his survival between a violent criminal family (Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton) and the detective (Guy Pearce) who thinks he can save him.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Animal Kingdom is smartly written, confidently directed, and features an outstanding ensemble cast. We sat down with David to talk about his new movie. He told us what inspired him to write the sprawling, multi-layered Australian crime story, how he assembled such a top-notch cast, and why it was important to make a crime film that took itself seriously and had a genuine and palpable sense of menace running through it.
Originally from Sydney, Michod spent several years living in Melbourne and started following the local crime scene through various articles and newspaper reports. Making a movie that centered on the explosive tension between the Melbourne criminal underworld and renegade cops appealed to him because of the dramatic possibilities. He wanted to show how people live lives where the stakes are very high, where making mistakes can mean the difference between life or death or freedom and incarceration, and where a whole level of society operates just below what is considered moral and correct.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the story?
DM: I moved to Melbourne from Sydney when I was 18 and the city was so foreign and a little bit intimidating to me, because from what I had known of Melbourne to that point, Melbourne in the 80s especially had been a pretty dark and weird place. All I knew of it really was that it was a city where bad things happened. There were a number of high profile, lone gunman type massacres, and a couple in the space of two years. About 12 people were killed in each of them, just nut jobs with machine guns that go walking down city streets. But also, [there was] this long running seeming antagonism between these hardened gangs of armed robbers and a kind of almost renegade armed robbery squad that was made up largely of cops who in that era had the most difficult job in the police force. They were known as the hard men of the Melbourne police because they were the men dealing with the most dangerous criminals – these gangs of heavily armed and dangerous and very professional criminals.
Q: Was this in the 80s?
DM: This was in the 80s. It was around that period of the decline of armed robbery as a serious criminal profession. In a way, they were the last days of that kind of old school bandit. But, in those last days, it was that antagonism between these gangs of armed robbers and the armed robbery squad which was very intense. It seemed that people [in Melbourne] were being shot dead by the police at a rate astronomically higher than anywhere else in the country. So anyway, I moved into this city and it felt physically different to Sydney. Sydney is all hills and beautiful little old houses and water and all that kind of stuff and Melbourne felt like a mini-Chicago or something. It was just old Victorian buildings and it had an industrial feel to it. I was reading about all this stuff that had been going on in Melbourne, reading a lot of Melbourne’s true crime writing, and it was suddenly giving personality and flavor to these new streets and neighborhoods and I started building what I hoped would one day be a grand Melbourne crime story.
Q: How long did it take you to write the script?
DM: Eight years. I wrote the first draft in December 2000. I was fresh out of film school and I didn’t really know what I was doing and the first draft was bad. It took a long time to get it to a place that not just I but other people felt was good enough. It just took a long time for my writing to mature. Over the course of those years, I think I started the thing from scratch about four times literally. I realized my writing had matured to an extent that there was no point in me tinkering with what I’d already written. I needed to just throw the whole thing out and start again. It was a good thing. I mean, I was doing a lot of other stuff over the course of those years, but this was my pet project and I kept returning to it. I’d walk away from it for six months or I’d walk away from it for a year and then do other stuff and then come back and go, “Okay, I’m going to have another crack at that Animal Kingdom script.”
Q: How did you go about assembling such a strong ensemble cast?
DM: They were. I love the casting process. It’s a cliché but I think it’s the most important part of the process. I really enjoy it too. I love putting that jigsaw puzzle of people together. The first time when you can really get a sense of what the movie is going to look and feel like is when you’re in a casting room and seeing it. Some of them I had known. Jacki Weaver’s character I wrote for her. I offered it to her about six years ago or something like that thinking I was going to be making the movie any day now. And Ben Mendelsohn’s character, Pope, I wrote for him too. Joel Edgerton I’ve known for a number of years and we’ve worked together quite a bit and I really love Joel. I love working with him. I knew that character that he plays would be perfect for him and I just really loved the idea of having him on my set. There’s something so warm and comforting about that guy. And then, Guy Pearce, the very reassuring thing for me was having a script for a first film that we can send out into the ether. I really wanted Guy to play that character. He was my first choice. I thought he’d be great, but I don’t know him personally, and so I sent him the script and then he responded to it really quickly and really enthusiastically. I assume he reads a lot of stuff and has people preventing him from reading stuff as well. That he responded in that way I found really encouraging because it just reassured me there must be something about the material that’s working for people of his caliber to be responding to it.
Q: You could have taken the story and told it in so many different ways, but you kept it serious with a subtle tone that gave it real impact. Why did you choose to do that as opposed to other roads you could have taken?
DM: It seems so obvious to me now, but I had assumed back when I was writing and going through various stages and soliciting people’s feedback and criticism that when somebody reads the script they read the movie exactly the same way that I do, that I intend for it to be read. And you realize that that’s not the way it works. They’re just black words on a white page. I remember we did a great workshop back in 2004 in Sydney and they flew people out from all over the world to do it and very different filmmakers, screenwriters specifically. There was Lynne Ramsay who made Morvern Callar and David McKenna who wrote America History X, Rob Festinger who wrote In the Bedroom – you know, very different people and they all have a very different idea of what this movie is. I started to realize that some people were reading it like a Guy Ritchie movie and other people thought it was more Tarantino. Others thought it was like a Ken Loach film or something. The principle reason in a way for me to go and make the short that I made called Crossbow was because I realized I needed to communicate what my sensibilities were and the tone I was after. What I knew was that I wanted to make a crime film that took itself very seriously. Maybe these are just my sensibilities generally, and I don’t know why, but I knew I wanted to make a crime film that had a really genuine and palpable sense of menace running through it. I couldn’t see that there was any way of achieving that without making a crime film that took itself very seriously. You can have levity in the film because real people look for levity in their lives, but it couldn’t be jokey. It couldn’t exist in an unnatural heightened universe. It needed to take itself very seriously in order to achieve that kind of menace. I almost hope that at certain points in the movie it might even feel a little bit like a horror movie as well as a crime film. I think that’s a product of just trying to treat it all seriously. I’m sure this is true of life, but when violent things occur in people’s lives, they almost invariably come out of nowhere. They explode out of nowhere and they’re over in the blink of an eye and your natural impulse is to run away from it and then deal with the aftermath somewhere else.
Q: Animal Kingdom is not neatly packaged with all the loose ends eventually tied up. Instead, there’s a certain randomness to it. Was that intentional?
DM: It’s in some ways the product of making the film that I wanted to make — a big, sprawling crime film – and knowing that I wanted to have that menace running underneath it. And yet, especially when we got in the edit and realized that that menace was actually working quite effectively, it then becomes finding a balance between the big kind of languorous, sprawling drama and keeping that menace working. So, that actually does mean potentially sacrificing some of those neatly tied up loose ends just to keep that train of menace on the tracks and I like it. The challenge for me also was I wanted to keep it languorous and keep it of a certain scale but without loosing that tension that runs through it.
Q: The film’s opening credits show a bank robbery in progress. Was that supposed to be them?
DM: No, not necessarily. I just wanted to give a very clear, visceral and authentic sense of the world that this kid was about to walk into knowing that I was making a crime film about a gang of armed robbers in which you don’t ever actually see an armed robbery. You just want to give a clear sense. I find those photographs so powerful because they’re all real photographs. They’re a whole range of different armed robberies. I find them so powerful because these are people at seminal moments in their lives. They might have done this stuff a bunch of times, but when they’re in that bank doing that stuff, these are the points at which their lives could turn in any number of different directions and there would be a level of fear and anxiety and yet exhilaration at the same time. I find those photographs so powerful so I used them as a way to quickly and simply giving a sense of the world that this kid was going to walk into.
DM: It’s only just come out of it. The film isn’t set in the 80s but that whole world I was describing before was from the 80s. It’s only very recently that it’s come out of the end of what’s called down there a 10-year gangland war where there was this ongoing series of murders and then revenge killings and revenge killings for that killing and it was [chaotic]. It was actually getting to a point where it was exploding in very public places where people were being killed in popular NC restaurants and stuff and so the police over a period of about two years just shut the whole thing down.
Q: What are you working on next?
DM: I am not entirely sure. I mean, I’ve got a few ideas. The whole Animal Kingdom thing has felt so [amazing]. I couldn’t have asked for it to unfold any better than it has, but with that comes a feeling of incredible responsibility. I feel like the decisions I need to make about what I do next are way more important now than they ever would have been if this thing has just slipped under the radar. Part of me almost wishes I could go back to what it was like 4 years ago when I had no options. (Laughs) Whatever I wanted to do is what I did.
Q: Would you return to this world?
DM: Yeah, but I don’t want to redo what I’ve [just done]. I don’t want to retread old ground. I’d like to make all different kinds of movies. I don’t think it would make sense though for my second film to walk straight into a musical even though I’d like to. (Laughs)
Animal Kingdom opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on August 13th.