Q&A with the Animal Kingdom director
Published: September 1, 2010
After his mother dies, affectless Australian teen “J” Cody (James Frecheville) takes refuge with his grandmother Smurf* (Jacki Weaver). Smurf’s affectionate demeanor appears to promise a nurturing new home, at least until he—and the audience watching Animal Kingdom unfold—gets a good look at the rest of the clan: a gang of career criminals led by Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). J is soon privy to the family business, but once the Melbourne police start to close in on the brothers, he’s caught between the only blood he has and a police detective (Guy Pearce) who may be the only person who has his best interests (or continued survival) at heart.
Based on the actual doings of Melbourne’s infamous crime families, Animal Kingdom represents the indelible fictional feature film debut of 37-year-old Sydney-born writer/director David Michôd. It displays the exquisite craft and polish one expects from the work of a film school grad and the former editor of Australia’s Inside Film magazine, but there are primal emotional forces roiling the Cody family that don’t often come easy to fledgling directors—nor does the kind of cheek that soundtracks one character’s emotional implosion with an Air Supply song. Michôd answered questions for City Paper by phone during a recent North American press tour. (Lee Gardner)
City Paper : Animal Kingdom is based in part on a true story. American audiences aren’t going to know it, but is it a story most Australians are familiar with?
David Michôd: Oh yeah. The central event, which was the random revenge killing of two young cops, was a huge event in Australia, generally, but in Melbourne specifically back in the late ’80s. It turned that city upside down. It ended up becoming the biggest criminal investigation in Australian history, and rattled, to say the least, the relationship between the police and the underworld, and the police and the community. They certainly didn’t feel safe.
CP: This happened when you were fairly young. What about it made you want to revisit the incident in a film?
DM: I remember it was not long after I had moved to Melbourne from Sydney when I was about 18, and I started reading a lot of true crime writing, and particularly a couple of books by a guy named Tom Noble, who used to be the chief police reporter at The Age newspaper in Melbourne. And one of his books was about that particular event. And I remember being chilled by his account of the hours both before and after that event. It was so harrowing. I mean, cops die in the line of duty all the time all over the world—sadly not an unusual occurrence. But they don’t die in this way. This was very specific and very calculated and very premeditated and totally random. It was something about that that when I read it, it just made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I knew from that pretty quickly that I wanted to build what I hoped would be a big Melbourne crime story around that.
CP: I was struck by the fact that when Craig, played by Sullivan Stapleton, shows up onscreen, shirtless and tattooed and volatile, you think, Now there’s trouble. And then you meet Pope, who’s more contained but is also obviously more intent, and you think, No, he’s the one you have to watch out for. And by the end of the movie, Smurf has proved herself the most formidable member of the family.
DM: One of the things I quite like a bit about the way the movie moves is that it feels like it belongs to individual characters for a period of time, and then a baton of sorts is almost passed to a new character . . . but hopefully that happens in a subtle enough way that you don’t feel the baton being passed.
Jacki’s character was in so many ways the one where the whole thing began for me. I knew I wanted to have a collection of boys, and quite dangerous and emotionally damaged boys, who were brothers and who were very close to one another, and the only reason they were close to one another was because there was this mother figure who ‘s the family’s glue. And I knew I wanted that character embodied by Jacki Weaver, because she’s so, just . . . disarmingly delightful.
It’s funny, way back in the early days, I was writing the character for her, having this visual sense of how that family would work. Jacki’s, what, 4-foot-11, I think, and I loved the image of having 4-foot-11 Jacki Weaver surrounded by her 6-foot sons. These were really strong and bold images that I’ve had in my head for quite a long time.
CP: Where, in your thinking, does her character’s power come from? I mean, she’s so outwardly sweet, but she’s raised these monsters.
DM: I think it’s in some ways a product of the toxicity of her relationship with her sons. Almost certainly they were born to different fathers, and that those fathers were themselves completely unreliable if not abusive, and they would have been as abusive to Smurf as they were to the kids. And out of that Smurf has developed for herself a sense of identity that is built around the complete unreliability of men, generally, but the permanence of her sons. Her love that she expresses to them, in often inappropriately intimate ways, isn’t really a parental love. It’s almost a kind of selfishness—building a sense of her identity and the power that she has from having powerful and dangerous sons.
CP: What did you see in James Frecheville that made him right for this role? It seems like a very tough part, because the character is at the center of everything but he’s such a blank for most of the film.
DM: It’s funny, there’s something so kind of obviously emotionally damaged if not emotionally numb about that character. And in some ways, it flies in the face of that kind of screenwriting-slash-moviemaking 101 of needing to have a protagonist who’s active and has goals and is striving to achieve those goals. Whenever I contemplated applying those theories to this particular character, it always felt wildly inauthentic. My experience with teenage boys is that there is an emotional blankness, or a blankness in their emotional exteriority, that can be infuriating. Which isn’t to suggest that they don’t have a rich emotional inner life, but they haven’t developed the tools to express that life.
What I loved about James in the casting process was that he was able to give me that awkward emotional immaturity and yet still imbue his performance with what I think is quite incredible detail. You could see that he was constantly making choices. He wasn’t necessarily making the right choices, but he was making choices, and he was able to adjust when I asked him to make different choices.
We cast him about a month out from the shoot. It was kind of nerve-wracking, because you go into this [process] and hope that that right kid will walk through the door, but there’s always, in the back of your head, the fear that that kid won’t. It’s such an exhilarating relief when the right kid does.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identifies Smurf as J's aunt.
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