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Interview : David Michôd (Animal Kingdom)

I wrote that role for Ben [Mendelsohn], and Ben is an incredibly powerful character in life. He’s very charismatic. He’s powerful and he commands attention. And so this evolved even further with my conversations with him that while other characters in the film may cover themselves in tattoos and muscles, Pope wouldn’t need any of that.

2010 will have been the banner year for Blue Tongue Films. The Square premiered to U.S. audiences in April (see my interview with director Nash Edgerton), and two more members of the Blue Tongue collective (profiled in the New York Times) found themselves premiering their feature length directorial debuts at the Sundance Film Festival. Spencer Susser’s Hesher will be branded as a unique noirish, coming-of-age film with spunk, which Newmarket subsequently picked up and pegged for a release next year, but the major name to break out of the fest was that of David Michôd, who not only co-wrote Hesher, but directed the crime family saga that took the World Cinema Jury Prize (Dramatic) and has won over critics and both Australian and festival audiences alike ever since its Park City unveiling.

In meeting David, I found an amazingly down to earth and an exceedingly nice person who just happens to possess an inordinate amount of knowledge about the craft of filmmaking. From music to costume design to locations to character development to dialogue to plotting, David understands it all and can command it in away that allows him to bring his film vision to fruition. Thus, I was happy to sit down with Mr. Michôd to discuss his award-winning crime drama about a seventeen year-old boy who is forced to live with his grandmother and criminal uncles.

Stephen McNamee: You use an interesting ensemble strategy in ANIMAL KINGDOM where characters that start out in the forefront fade away, and characters that begin in the background slowly take the lead. What inspired you to write a story in that way?
David Michôd: In part, it was born out of my desire to make something that had a certain languid sprawl that was about a diverse world of characters. There was an extent to which it felt like one character would carry the movie for awhile and then hopefully subtly suddenly the film would start to feel like it belonged to a different character and by the end there was a clear sense of characters who owned the film who didn’t feel at the center of the thing necessarily at the beginning. As soon as I started to recognize how that was working, I actually really liked it and started to craft it in a way that refined that kind of structure.

Animal Kingdom Jacki Weaver

McNamee: Generally, a main character’s role is to connect with the audience and with every other character in the movie, and yet in ANIMAL KINGDOM, Joshua ‘J’ Cody [played by James Frecheville] seemed more of a voyeur at times. What made you decide to create a movie where the protagonist acts like a voyeur rather than having the protagonist be the focal point of most scenes?
Michôd: It’s funny. The script gestated over time and over the course of doing that you come in contact with all sorts of schools of screenwriting and you keep hearing that you have to have a protagonist who has a goal/ has a dream of some kind and is searching for something, and these obstacles get in their way, and all that kind of stuff. And, I tried a couple of versions of the script that had a character like that. I remember once I had one particular advisor who came in to workshop the script with me, and he said, “This character is useless. Here’s what I reckon should happen. The character of J is dreaming of becoming a veterinarian. He has a job at PetCo., but he dreams of being a vet, but then suddenly he gets thrown in with his criminal uncles, and that gets in the way of his dreams, but eventually everything works out and he gets to be a vet.” And I remember at the time thinking, “Is that seriously how it should work?” And every version [like that] just felt inauthentic to me. My experience of teenagers, of teenage boys especially, is that almost aimless mumbling, having no real sense of where they are or why they’re doing it, or what it is they want. And as J says in the film, “Kids just are wherever they are, and they’re just doing whatever they’re doing.” Wherever you plunk them, that’s what they’re doing. That sense of almost kind of an autistic emotional paralysis on some level, that sense of there’s not really much going on there [inside]. And there’s that change in adulthood. There’s a really rich, bubbling, inner emotional life that just hasn’t found a way out yet, that hasn’t found a way to express itself, and that was for me the truest form of that character I could find.

McNamee: Often crime dramas succeed by manipulating audiences through, loud, brooding scores, dark lightning, ten-minute long epic shootouts. Yet, you seemed to go out of your way not to manipulate. What inspired you to go that route?
Michôd: It wasn’t that I was reacting against other kinds of films. There was just a certain kind of film that I wanted to make, which was a measured and substantial crime film that took itself very seriously and which had a menace running underneath the thing such that at certain points the film might even feel like it was playing as a horror film. When you think about the film in those terms there are certain things that don’t quite fit into that paradigm. Massive action sequences with a 15-minute shootout seem to play against that terrifying menace that runs underneath the film.

Animal Kingdom Ben Mendelsohn

McNamee: So with that horror film feel, I thought the character of Pope [played by Ben Mendelsohn] was interesting because although he wasn’t necessarily physically intimidating, he terrified me just from his mannerisms and the way he’d stare at another character. When you were writing that role was your vision to have Pope frighten the audience just with his personality rather than having him frighten the audience due to an HGH-created giant physical presence?
Michôd: I wrote that role for Ben [Mendelsohn], and Ben is an incredibly powerful character in life. He’s very charismatic. He’s powerful and he commands attention. And so this evolved even further with my conversations with him that while other characters in the film may cover themselves in tattoos and muscles, Pope wouldn’t need any of that. He wouldn’t need tattoos. He wouldn’t need cool clothes. He’s got a totally dysfunctional haircut; he wears the clothes that have been bought for him by his mother because everything that is terrifying about him is in his brain. And I think that’s generally true of people in the world: that the most terrifying ones are the ones who don’t need to advertise how terrifying they are.

McNamee: In the film, the music was pulled back a bit, except in a few instances. In one instance where the music wasn’t pulled back, you chose the killer Air Supply song, “I’m All Out Of Love.” Was there a reason for that song specifically?
Michôd: I always knew I wanted a moment of that nature for Ben’s character (for Pope) specifically that worked on a number of levels: watching, late at night by himself at a particularly ugly juncture in his life, a music video that he would clearly remember from his childhood, a childhood he probably doesn’t look back on very fondly, and yet [he] still is completely cognizant of that sense of things past, of things lost and gone. And yet also [the moment’s] so strangely kitsch and weird that it’s just deepening his sense of being in a world that he doesn’t understand and doesn’t belong in. And yet at the same time [it’s] all packaged in a song that’s really I think quite beautiful. And for his character it’s a moment of a strange calm before the storm.

McNamee: Let’s talk about the character’s clothing in the film. For instance, the character of J was often in a tank top and gym shorts, so even if he wanted to escape his family it seemed impossible. Who can escape in gym shorts and a tank-top? There’s no warmth. There probably aren’t even pockets, so his outfit was completely impractical for fleeing. When you were writing, did you have each character’s wardrobe in mind?
Michôd: Yes, even when I was writing, but then that evolves in discussions with a costume designer. You did have a clear sense with [J’s] three uncles that Pope was the one who was wearing clothes bought by his mother that didn’t fit him quite right, that weren’t particularly fashionable, but he didn’t care. Then Craig [another of J’s uncles, played by Sullivan Stapleton] had a very loose and easy way of wearing clothes that were a little bit cool without really thinking about it. And the youngest [uncle], Darren [played by Luke Ford], actually shops for himself and goes to designer clothes stores and has a social life that probably involves nightclubs, so he wears clothes that are a bit more fashionable. I love the way that talking about costumes involves a richness of detail that can inform people’s understanding of character. And even Smurf [J’s grandmother, played by Jacki Weaver] wears clothes that are not outrageous but are a just a little young for her. Even Guy Pearce’s mustache is a strange anachronism. It’s kind of a regular, run-of-the-mill “cop” mustache, and yet in the period in which the film is set it’s kind of an anachronism; none of the other cops have mustaches like that anymore, and the fact that he’s still clinging to one gives him a slightly endearing quality and makes him a slight oddity. He’s somehow outside that dangerous boys’ club that is the rest of the cops.

McNamee: You lived with ANIMAL KINGDOM for something like 8 years, so in your various drafts of scripts, are there different stories that you want to tell that didn’t make it into the final version because they didn’t work for this story?
Michôd: I love the richness and denseness of the whole process. I wouldn’t necessarily say there was anything that was discarded that I would like to use again because ultimately a film is whatever it needs to be. But to a very real extent, I’d love to make a sequel and a prequel as well. I mean Baz [played by Joel Edgerton] and Pope robbing banks [for the prequel] and whatever the hell it is that happens to J after the events of Animal Kingdom for the sequel. Now the likelihood of me actually being able to do a prequel or sequel is pretty slim, but whenever I think about that world and the years I spent writing [the film] and the richness that is in there, I do find myself thinking I’ve got enough stuff in my head for there to be a fully fledged prequel and sequel…[Michôd smiles] to rival the Star Wars trilogy.

Sony Pictures Classics releases David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom this Friday, August 13th. 

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