David Michod talks about his journey from film journalist to film-maker and how he came to direct acclaimed, Oscar-nominated crime drama Animal Kingdom. He discusses exploring a family of armed robbers from the point of view of anxiety rather than glamour, and why getting Guy Pearce involved was one of many dreams come true.
You're an ex-film journalist...
David Michod: Yeah that was weird [laughs]. I actually do remember when I was finishing high school kind of deciding what I wanted to do, and for a moment I flirted with the idea of studying journalism. I really loved writing. But even at that young age I remember going: "I don't know if that's how I want to spend my life." I don't know what it was about it that made me retreat.But it was very strange. Ten years later I stumbled into this job on a magazine... a job that I needed because of money and structure. But I threw myself into it and loved it. I'm so grateful now that I had that job, especially at a film-maker magazine. I learned so much about the business and the craft and I met a lot of great people, all of which was incredibly useful to me when I finally took the leap.
So, what made you decide that the time was right to start making films?
David Michod: Well, I'd been at the magazine for about six years. I'd been editing it for three. At that point, I just felt that I'd given it everything that I had and that me being there any longer was not doing me any favours and it certainly wasn't doing the magazine any favours. I'd hit a point where I felt like I was phoning it in every month.But it was also about me being aware of the fact that I was now in my early 30s and had gone to film school in my mid-20s to be a film-maker. And if I didn't make the decision to do that when I did then there was a good chance that I never would.
And it's been 10 years since writing the first script for Animal Kingdom to being sat here now, talking about it...
David Michod: Yeah, but it was a kind of necessary 10 years in a way. I remember when I was younger... when I was at the magazine I kept hearing these stories - and particularly these Australian films - that had taken 10 years to make. Films like Chopper, Lantana and Shine. I thought there was no way I'd ever stick with something for that long. But then sure enough, I found myself in the same position and realised that it needed to take that long. I needed to mature as a film-maker and as a writer and I needed to hone my skills.All I needed to keep going during that period were little affirmations. I mean, I really loved the process but I just needed someone I respected at various stages along the way to say: "I think this is good... I don't know that it's good enough, you should keep working on it." It was those little comments that were the fuel that I needed to keep going and the next thing you know 10 years had passed and you're another one of those people.
At what point did you become aware of Tom Noble's book about the real-life Walsh Street killings that helped to inspire Animal Kingdom?
David Michod: When I was first moved to Melbourne from Sydney when I was 18, I can't remember at what point I started reading his books but almost immediately I found them great pieces of investigative true crime writing. They also charted a period of Melbourne's criminal history that I found both fascinating and chilling.This was a particularly dangerous period - the decline of armed robbery and the decline of the hardened gangs of armed robbers... also, the decline of a really old school and dangerous core of the armed robbery squad in the Melbourne Police. It was a period in Melbourne's criminal history in the 1980s... Animal Kingdom isn't set in the '80s, but that period was punctuated by a couple of events that were so chilling that I think even before I went to film school I started imagining a kind of grand and menacing Melbourne crime story.
The Walsh Street killings of two police officers being one of them?
David Michod: Yes. The Walsh Street killings were a particularly chilling and unusual event. I mean, given the nature of their job cops die in the line of duty all the time, but they don't die that way. It was just so random and so brutal and so brazen that it immediately struck me.It proved to be a seminal point not just in Melbourne's criminal history but its social history generally. It seriously rattled the entire city and I found it impossible not to start imagining what the hours and days and weeks immediately following an event of that nature might have been like.
Another thing that struck me about Animal Kingdom is that you do kind of deconstruct the glamour surrounding criminals and bank robbers. You say quite early on that they're almost waiting for the day that it will probably come to an end. Is that something you wanted to do?
David Michod: I knew that at base I wanted to make a crime film that was incredibly menacing and in order to do that I needed to make a crime film that took itself very seriously. That seemed to almost immediately preclude any kind of "crime is cool" schtick. It immediately precluded the film existing in any kind of rock'n'roll, heightened universe.It was a film principally about characters living lives of incredible anxiety and there's very little that's glamorous about anxiety. I can imagine myself making a crime film one day that does have that sense of levity and fun and energy that a film like Goodfellas has. It just didn't feel like the right tool kit to tackle Animal Kingdom.
I also liked the use of real photographs at the beginning. What made you decide to go that way and, in turn, not show a bank robbery in the film itself?
David Michod: Well, thinking I was very clever in the writing process I thought I wanted to chart the decline of a particular gang of armed robbers without ever showing them engaged in their principal criminal business. But at a certain point, especially when we were cutting the film, while the film is about a young man who is thrown into a dangerous world, we needed a way of demonstrating quickly and simply what that dangerous world was.Those images do that job better than any heist we might have shot because they're real and because they are snapshots of people at arguably seminal turning points in their lives... people in the middle of acts of incredible intimidation. There's something about that that is chilling.
Of course, the film stands or falls on the performance of the actor playing Joshua, the young man at the centre of the story. How easy was James Frecheville to find?
David Michod: Tough, but I always knew it would be. I knew we needed to see a lot of kids and I knew I would go through the emotional rollercoaster of thinking we wouldn't find the kid and then that kid would then probably turn up. James was... I was immediately attracted to his totally intuitive skill as an actor. But I needed to work my brain around to the idea of him as the character because he's big. He's 6ft 2 and he's a big kid.But James was 17 when we did the film and the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea of having a big, almost man-child at the centre of the film... a kid who physically looks like he is plausible in that world, that he should be able to handle himself in that world, but you have these constant reminders that he's actually very immature and frightened.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have one of the most experienced actors you could find in Guy Pearce. How did he become involved?
David Michod: I sent him the script. It was literally like you send the carrier pigeon out into the world and hope that it finds its destinations. That was exciting for me because he responded to us really quickly and really positively. He was my first choice for the role. I knew that having him on board would make the film easier to finance and when I met him it just felt immediately right.I feel incredibly lucky that I got to work with Guy Pearce. To have an actor of his calibre in the film, who is as studious and hard working and generous as he is, was an incredible privilege for me. Sometimes I find myself imagining... Guy had been doing it for some time, he works in the upper echelons... for him to give a first-time director the time and the consideration that he did is, I think, for him probably a gamble. He's taking a risk when he does a film like Animal Kingdom. But he's really smart, incredibly generous and I'm eternally grateful to him that he took that risk.
What's the biggest lesson you've taken away from making Animal Kingdom? And the fondest memory?
David Michod: I think the biggest one was that the process of making a feature film is so long and drawn-out that you need to be able to step back from it at regular intervals and to realise how ultimately unimportant film-making is. That if you feel that your happiness is completely dependent on the success of any film you're making, then you will drive yourself crazy. If nothing else, the next film I make I'll make a conscious and deliberate effort to step away, look at the whole process and go: "None of this actually matters."And my fondest memory was while I was at Sundance, getting an email from my dad saying that he was proud of me. Because going to film school was like a vain and possibly delusional decision that I made when I was in my early 20s and I'm sure my parents spent a while quietly hoping that I would one day get a real job. So, to see that delusional dream turn into a real job at Sundance for them, I think, was exciting, and to say that to me I found it quite moving.
Interview: Rob Carnevale
Photos: PA/Optimum Releasing