Capone talks to David Michod, writer-director of the superb Australian crime drama and Sundance award winner ANIMAL KINGDOM!!!
Published at: Aug. 17, 2010, 3:18 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
You may not realize it, but there's a growing wave of next-generation coolness growing in Australian cinema. If you didn't blink, you may have been lucky enough to catch the intense crime drama THE SQUARE from director Nash Edgerton, who previously gave us the staggeringly awesome short film SPIDER, which was actually attached to the front of THE SQUARE when it played stateside. Now see if you can follow this. Edgerton wrote SPIDER with David Michod, who also wrote the short I LOVE SARAH JANE and many others. SARAH JANE was directed by Spencer Susser, who went on to direct and co-write the Sundance hit HESHER (scheduled for release early in 2011 and starring Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Rainn Wilson), which he wrote with Michod.
While Michod was giddy about the great buzz surrounding HESHER, he was also celebrating that a film he wrote and directed, ANIMAL KINGDOM, won the festival's Grand Jury Prize-World Cinema, Dramatic. Another crack crime drama, the film stars a couple of the actors in THE SQUARE, as well as the world-renowned great Guy Pearce. The film surrounds a criminal family that works together when things are going their way and turn against each other when things are not, and that's all I'm saying. I think ANIMAL KINGDOM is a slightly better film than THE SQUARE, which I also loved, and you owe it to yourself to seek it out.
Michod came to Chicago some weeks ago, and we had a chance to sit down and talk influences, the productive and incestuous nature of his group of filmmaking friends, and what it's like to be the focal point of this next wave of creative output from Down Under. Michod is still taking it all in, but he has a fairly clear idea about where he is and would like to go. Ideally, when you interview someone, especially a new director, you hope encounter feels more like conversation than interview, and I think this qualifies. Michod was a great talker, and I had a great time exchanging ideas about crime films and other great works. Enjoy David Michod, a filmmaker and writer I suspect you'll be hearing a lot from in the coming years. And beware of minor ANIMAL KINGDOM spoilers throughout…
David Michod: Hello.
Capone: How are you? It’s good to meet you. You’ve been on this promotion journey for a long time now, haven’t you?
DM: [laughs] Yeah, I have.
Capone: Did it start before Sundance?
DM: And that’s just the selling bit.
Capone: Yeah, I’m talking about just since you finished making it, yeah.
DM: Yeah, that’s been intense, but you know, I like it. You spend a long time making something and you get to a point where… As much as I feel kind of a certain anxiety or a certain pressure to be thinking about what’s next and all of that kind of stuff, I spent a long time making this one and it’s allowing me to come to Chicago, a place I’ve never been before. I want to make sure that I enjoy that. I’m getting to travel with it, which is exciting.
Capone: Right. I have in my mind, because THE SQUARE wasn’t out that long ago in this country, at least in this city, and it was fun to see that they put SPIDER in front of it when they released it here. I had heard about it from people, some friends of mine in Austin who had seen it. And then, I think THE SQUARE actually played at Fantastic Fest last year and Harry Knowles, the guy that I work for, he was praising it immediately.
It seems to people in this country like there’s this sort of wave of films--like we have read about HESHER too--coming from Australia that are these bad-ass crime dramas that have sprung up. Was there a--I don’t know if it’s the right word--but a “mission statement” from you guys, like “Hey, we are going to try to do something different. We are going to do it in a coordinated way,” or was it not quite that organized?
DM: No, there was never any collusion, as such. I think in a way, what you are seeing is a new little group of filmmakers coming out of Australia who are more readily embracing genre, or at least the basic forms of genre and who are on some level attempting to engage with the kinds of films that they grew up loving themselves as kids. I think one of the things about crime, though, that makes it rich territory for early films especially, is that it can be so visceral and so powerful without requiring--which is true of other genres--gigantic set pieces and a huge amount of resources, which is why I think a number of filmmakers very often make either crime films or horror films as their early films, because they are achievable. You can do something quite visceral and powerful on an achievable scale.
Capone: They rely on performance more than like you said with resources, effects, or whatever.
DM: You don’t need a hundred-million dollars to make a great horror film or a great crime film, but you do need a hundred-million dollars to make a great science-fiction film, I would argue.
Capone: Yeah. You mentioned, what were some of the films that you grew up loving? What were the ones that really made you go “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I need to do this!”?
DM: It’s almost two different questions for me. The ones that just completely blew my mind when I was a kid were STAR WARS and JAWS. I was just completely and utterly obsessed with them, but I had no particular interest in what was going on behind the camera. And it wasn’t in a way until I saw APOCALYPSE NOW that I suddenly found myself fascinated with the whole experience, not just the film and how intoxicating the universe of the film is, but finding myself really strangely drawn to what looked like the exhilarating adventure of the filmmaking process as well, which is strange with that film given how horrific it looked, you know, in terms of making it. It still, none the less, it’s like anything that’s terrifying. It is terrifying, yet you know that there’s something incomparably exhilarating about it at the same time.
Anyway, I remember just seeing APOCALYPSE NOW and being attracted to what looked like a really interesting and exhilarating way of living your life. I didn’t act upon that until I was in my mid-20s and decided to go to film school, and that was fun. I just loved doing it. It was the first year of school I ever had in my life that I just really enjoyed.
Capone: You mention those two films--JAWS and APOCALYPSE NOW--as you get older you find out that those shoots were horrific. Did that inform you that “Well, maybe these great movies can only come out of a certain level of chaos…”?
DM: …and pain.
Capone: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: I’d hate to think of young filmmakers going into the world thinking “This has to hurt in order for it to be good.”
DM: I kind of think it does. I mean I remember I had people around me as I was heading into the shoot saying to me “Just remember that you only get to make your first movie once, so make sure you enjoy it.” And I tried really hard and I just couldn’t. It wasn’t enjoyable, and I actually started to feel like “If I was enjoying this process, I wouldn’t be working hard enough.” So you carry through the shoot--I do anyway--a constant level of anxiety that is just simply about trying to make the think better at every turn, and you're living on adrenaline. And it feels horrible at the time, but as soon as that shoot was over I’ve missed it, and I wanted it to keep going. And I do actually genuinely believe that in order to work hard enough that the work itself be great, you need to do that work in a state of some kind of anxiety.
Capone: This was your first feature, but a lot of you in this group came up and gained a certain notoriety from your short films. How important were making those shorts and figuring out what your strengths and weaknesses were and what you had to work on.
DM: I think the shorts that I made and that we made generally were profoundly important, such that I can’t imagine how you could walk onto a feature film set as a director without having had that experience, and I think you are right. At the most basic level, it’s just about working out what your sensibilities are and how to best execute your sensibilities in some physical form.
One of the things that was most interesting for me about all of those shorts that we made in those years leading up to the features was getting to see how varied they were, how different they were, and the ways in which we are all very different filmmakers. Because when a film is in script form, it’s literally just black words on a white page and you can get some sense of differences, but it’s not until the films are finished that you really can identify what it is about them that connects them to their maker.
The films that I made at film school were the ones that I screwed up and went into those last couple, before ANIMAL KINGDOM with a very clear sense of the mistakes I had to not make and made those shorts with a level of anxiety that I just didn’t feel at film school, such that by the time I got to ANIMAL KINGDOM, I felt primed. I felt terrified, but I felt like I knew what the enemy was going to be and where it was going to be.
Capone: What was your biggest enemy on this shoot?
DM: In some ways it’s as simple as… The biggest enemy is coverage. It’s that fear of having the experience that I’ve had before of getting into the edit and realizing you don’t have what you need to tell the story. So a lot of that anxiety that I feel on set is about just wondering and worrying about whether or not I’m getting the shots that I need to tell the story. It’s simple as that. I really love working with actors and I love the detail in the world of the film, but it’s that fear of the edit that drives my fear on the shoot. Then there are the unknown enemies. I had never had that experience before that I had on ANIMAL KINGDOM of being part of a machine that was so big that when you get to the end of the day and you’ve only got half an hour left to do a scene that you originally in your head planned two-and-a-half hours for how terrifying that can be.
Capone: Time is the real enemy.
DM: Yeah. Then ultimately coming out at the end of that process proud of myself and proud of my key crew. We found ourselves in that situations a couple of times and managed to fight our way out of it.
Capone: Going back to talking about some the films that were influential to you, specifically in this genre what were the ones that you remember really being impressed by?
DM: I mean so many different kinds. There are those Australian crime films that I love like CHOPPER and THE BOYS, and actually a TV miniseries as well called "Blue Murder," which I just love. But then obviously, I love THE GODFATHER. I love JACKIE BROWN. I love HEAT. And what I wanted to do with ANIMAL KINGDOM was make a… That’s a whole bunch of different films in a particular genre, yet they are all very different kinds of films, and I knew that with ANIMAL KINGDOM what I wanted to do was make a contemporary crime film that took itself very seriously, that had a richness of scale, that didn’t exist in a heightened universe that is particular in some ways to a lot of recent crime cinema. So on that level, you look at films like THE GODFATHER and HEAT, as well in a way, that they are crime films that take themselves very seriously. THE GODFATHER exists in that kind of Mafioso world of suits and family and all of that kind of stuff, whereas HEAT takes place in a much more white-bred, but no less dangerous world.
Capone: I’m a big fan of this film in particular, because I’ve always loved those movies where the audience knows more than anybody in the film about what’s going on, and we can almost, a lot of times, see what’s going to happen, and it doesn’t make it any less suspenseful. I think one of the prime examples is something like BLOOD SIMPLE, where none of the characters know everything going on, but we do and it almost makes it worse for us to have to watch it play out.
DM: Yeah. I mean I don’t know that I ever really used any of the Coen Brothers material of it as reference, but I’ve always loved their films. Just the other day, actually I think I was out at the Skywalker Ranch as part of the L.A. Film Festival, and one of the guys there showed us a sequence from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, which is Josh Brolin sitting on the bed in the hotel room as Javier Bardem is walking up and down the hall outside. And it’s so simple and so powerful, and they were using it as an example of how the sound in that sequence was where the tension was coming from, but I love that and I’m in awe, in a way, of their ability to build something so tense out of seemingly so little.
Capone: It was great seeing Jacki Weaver again. I haven’t seen her in a long time, probably not since PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. But there are these hints that you give about her character that maybe she’s a little too close to the people in her family. Was that deliberate ? It’s a little creepy the way she wants to kiss everybody.
DM: It was in so far as it was in the script that she kisses her sons on the lips, but Jacki and I never felt it necessary to even talk about that very much. It was just a thing that she would do and it was clear to us that it was a proprietorial thing that she was doing, that her sense of self was born out of her connection to this group of young, powerful men who just happen to be her sons, and there was something innately selfish about that rather than just parental. But we never really talked about it that much, and it’s been kind of surprising to us how much people have been talking about it since.
Capone: Looking back on the film as a whole, at first you think she’s just this old lady that hangs out in the background, but as the film goes on, there’s a shift, and you realize “Oh, she actually rules this roost.” She knows exactly what to do when the boys are in trouble and she becomes the kingpin, or queenpin, almost of what’s happening here and that’s a great little twist in the power structure.
DM: I think that was why I wanted Jacki Weaver to play the character and I wrote the character for her, because I really loved the idea that that character would creep up on you over the course of the film and I felt like that would happen most effectively if the character came embodied by someone who was deceptively delightful and almost seemingly benign to begin with. There are hints all the way through, even very early on, just subtle things, and a lot of this is just the beauty of Jacki’s performance, just a certain swagger or a certain way she will leave a room. The way she will exit a scene that she’s delivered with peaches and cream, but she will leave the scene with something dark in her swagger that gives you these little hints that there’s something really quite complex about this woman that’s going to creep up on you.
Capone: Which it does. And getting Guy Pearce in the film, was that a difficult thing and was there some baggage attached to having him involved with this?
DM: That was very reassuring for me. About a year before we started shooting, we sent the script to Guy; Guy was my first choice. And he responded very quickly and very enthusiastically. I kind of needed that at that point in time. I needed someone of his stature to take a look at not just the script, but the whole package with me, the shorts, the script, the team, and say “Yes, I want to be involved.” That felt good.
I wanted Guy to play the part in many respects for the baggage that he would bring. He’s playing quite a very deliberately buttoned-down detective who speaks in that kind of robot cop speak, which is a very deliberate way of playing your cards close to your chest, but which, as a consequence, doesn’t lend itself to great expression. So what I knew was that I wanted an actor who would be talented, skilled, and compelling enough to lend that narrow bandwidth something rich and watchable, but who may also bring some previous baggage to it.
Capone: There’s certainly a weight to that character that a lot of cops in movies that are more focused on the criminals wouldn’t have. The cops wouldn’t necessarily carry the weight when the movie is all about the criminals, but with him it is, because it’s him. Who’s decision was his mustache? That’s a great throwback look.
DM: That was both of ours. [laughs] I mean those are the things that do come out of that. The issues that arise when you are trying to create a cop character in a film that’s actually about the criminals. I knew I didn’t want to make a police procedural, and so your opportunities to get a sense of what kind of a guy the Leckie character is are limited, and you need to use them effectively. In some ways, the mustache came out of those conversations that we had. Guy and I both had a sense that we wanted his character to be somehow slightly odd--not a true eccentric, but not a part of that “Dangerous Boys Club” that the other cops are. Strangely enough, that mustache he carries, which is almost like an archetypal, if not cliché cop mustache. In this day and age, it's actually quite an anachronistic and unusual. I don’t know what it’s like here, but in Australia, cops might have all had that mustache 20 or 30 years ago, but they don’t anymore, and for a guy still to be wearing it around makes him feel like a cop, but kind of an endearing oddity, as well. It was that anachronism that I think we both liked about the mustache.
Capone: In my head, it was informative, because it made me think, “I bet his father was a cop too, and he had the same mustache. It’s part of the uniform.”
DM: That’s probably very true, and I know that there are guys… I have actually a few close friends who have fathers who are still sporting mustaches of that nature that they have had their entire lives, because they just can’t imagine not having it anymore.
Capone: Talk real quickly about HESHER. I know you didn’t direct it, but clearly signing on people like Natalie Portman or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who to me is a seal of approval on any script. They had to have come aboard based on your writing, so how did that whole thing come together, and how did you land those actors and the other actors that are in the film?
DM: That was all largely Spencer [Susser]’s doing. I mean, one of the kind of sad things for me was, and it’s a quality problem [laughs], but was that we were both shooting our films at the same time. So this thing that I had been tinkering away on with Spencer for a number of years, I didn’t get to be a part of when it came time to shoot, and so all of that madness that he was going through getting Natalie on board and then Joseph and the whole madness of pulling a film together in L.A. was being done right when I was going through my own version of that in Australia on ANIMAL KINGDOM. So I didn’t actually get to be a part of that process as intimately as I would have liked.
Capone: Until Sundance maybe?
DM: Literally until Sundance. I mean Spencer and I were so up to our eyeballs in our own stuff and wild self obsession and everything that goes along with that that we didn’t really get to just take a breath until we saw each other again at Sundance like 18 months later.
Capone: So do you have studios now knocking on your door, because you clearly have shown an ability to write an original story? That’s a rare commodity these days, at least in this country. Have they come at you with “What else have you got?” “What other ideas do you have?”
DM: These are the very things that I’m thinking about at the moment. I’ve got some ideas that are bubbling, but those questions about what makes sense as a second film are not just about what that film is, but where to make it and on what scale to make it and when to make it. They can feel nerve-racking, those questions, because the last thing you want to do is just leap into something that’s half cooked or that you are not sure about. At the same time, I don’t want to wait five years before I do another one. I’m just hoping that when some of this ANIMAL KINGDOM smoke clears soon, I can think with some clarity.
Capone: Do you have any interest in working on something that you didn’t write?
DM: I think I have an interest in it insofar as it would make my life a lot easier, but having said that I can’t quite wrap my brain around what it would mean to direct someone else’s script. On a certain level to me, it feels like making a film that’s already half made, and I think that is very much a product of me having started as a writer and having done a lot more writing than I have directing, which is as you would expect.
For me, the filmmaking process is tightly associated with having built the thing from the ground up. I’m capable of it and I have been reading, because I do want to stay open to the idea of the next project coming from anywhere. So I’ve been reading quite a bit and I very regularly read things that I think are good--sometimes very good--but I feel like I’m incapable of engaging with the text on the level that you need to in order to properly direct something with authority, and that may just be entirely my failings, that I’m not very good at reading texts. But that’s something that I would be terrified about. I think it would be terrifying trying to direct a film without having full confidence in your knowledge of the material. Maybe that comes. Maybe you just need to read those scripts 10 times before they fully sing.
Capone: All right, well thank you very much. It was great to meet you. Good luck with this.
DM: Thank you. Nice to meet you.
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