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[Interview] Justin Kurzel On Violence, Charismatic Serial Killers And Crafting ‘The Snowtown Murders’

The Snowtown Murders (review), Justin Kurzel’s harrowing and brutal thriller, arrives in limited theaters Friday, March 2 from IFC Films.

This film really drew me in, and even though the experience wasn’t always pleasant (nor is it intended to be) – I knew I was in the hands of a truly gifted filmmaker. Needless to say I was eager to hop on the phone with Kurzel earlier this week to discuss his approach.

The true-crime story of The Snowtown Murders concerns “a teenager who finds his world threatened by both his loyalty for, and fear of, his newfound friend, John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer.

The film follows Elizabeth Harvey (Louise Harris), a mother raising her three boys in a poor suburb. After her latest boyfriend displays pedophilic tendencies, she takes up with a new man, hoping for security but instead welcoming an even more vicious predator into her home. John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) is the moral compass of a self-appointed neighborhood watch who, fueled by cigarettes and beer, cast judgments on those living around them. Bunting enlists his crew in acts of sadistic vigilantism on those he considers deviants, and in the process takes Elizabeth’s son Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) under his wing.

Hit the jump to check out the interview! I just watched the film. It’s pretty rare that you get a film this bleak. I wanted to talk about the tone, because I think the balance is remarkable. What was your approach to the story?

I was given the script. I had a lot of trepidation about reading it because [it was a true story]. I just didn’t know how you could make a film out of it unless you went “genre horror” with it. Even though I’m a fan of horror films, this wasn’t the right film for that approach. What was revealing about it was that this point of view was so compelling was the idea of this 14 or 15 year old kid who was looking for a father figure and sort of found him in this serial killer. And how this man was able to harness the sense of apathy in this boy and empower him to this kind of purgatory or acting out and participating.

The other thing was that I knew the area quite well and saw this film to be as much of a commentary on the community.

Absolutely. The community is kind of drawn in by John’s magnetism. A lot of the murders he’s committing are in the name of “justice” and it’s interesting to see what society will allow itself to do when given a flimsy justification.

Well I was really surprised by the levels of sexual abuse in the area. And the repeated patterns of it. And there aren’t too many male figures in the area. A lot of the boys come from these broken families and are desperately searching for these strong mentors. So I completely understand the idea of John riding in on a motorcycle and capturing people’s imaginations with this ideology he had against pedophilia. I can completely see how people would be drawn to that. I found him interesting because everyone usually has this completely cliche idea of what serial killers are. You see them onscreen as people who live this hermit-like existence in solitude.

I found it interesting that this guy, that there were four of the really. There were four serial killers who were able to work together for such a long period of time and able to keep it quiet. And also that John was just so social. He was really prevalent in the community. When we were filming down there, in the real place, people would tell us that they knew him or he looked after their kids. He seemed to have a charisma and a personality that permeated the area that was still very strong 10 years later when we were shooting.

Were they coming from a place of second guessing their association with him or was he revered still?

It was a combination. A lot of people had no idea what was going on. In some parts of the community there was this misunderstanding, “well John was only killing pedophiles” and that he was sort of doing good. He was getting rid of all the vermin. And I think the understanding that that wasn’t the case, that by the end of it he was targeting anyone for his own bloodlust, was still a little unclear. But I think most people understand now that he was a psychopath who was exploiting and preying on the vulnerable.

Quite a bit of the film hinges on the believability of Jamie and John’s relationship. What was your approach to guiding that? Daniel [Henshall, who plays John] in particular has to exude a lot of warmth.

Dan is a pretty unassuming guy but at the same time he loves to be liked. He’s kind of a social butterfly. He’s always in the center of conversation. He has that natural instinct. We took him to the area, because everyone else was already from there. And he lived there for a few months. In a hotel room, a terrible hotel off the main road. The first couple of weeks he was really nervous. I was trying to get him to put on weight and he was staying inside and reading books on serial killers and her was doing all the things I hoped he wouldn’t do. He was closing himself off from the area he was in. And I can understand that, it was very confronting for him. But the whole dynamic of this guy was that everyone knows and loves him and he walks into a room and everyone gravitates to him.

I told him, “you have to get out. You have to be present. You have to be making friends. Really become someone who was present. And once he started doing that and realized that there wasn’t some deep huge psychological walnut I was getting him to crack [it worked]. Because it was really about Dan understanding the dynamic of being liked. Which is a difficult thing [to wrap your head around] when you’re preparing for a serial killer role. It was about a different dynamic and it all started to fall apart.

The violence in the film feels brutal, but obviously it’s not titillating. It’s almost silent.

The violence had to be revealed in the film as it was revealed to Jamie. You’re witnessing the violence through the eyes of a 16 year old, 17 year old. I found this particular violence to be horrific because it came out of a domesticity and a banality. And a kind of silence as you say. A lot of these guys were tortured and murdered over kind of a two day period with the guys taking breaks and watching television with school just outside. There’s something so horrific about the apathetic nature of the violence.

I didn’t want it to be hidden behind a soundtrack or sound effects or a genre mechanism that allowed the audience a safety. I wanted them to be unsettled, I was tying to be honest about the brutality but also giving it an integrity. There’s really only one very explicit scene, but I think the claustrophobic and silent nature of it, as you said, makes it feel much more brutal.

Yeah. The impact the film had on me in that regard was certainly more than the sum of those parts.


And so I noticed after this you’ve got a comedy lined up? I don’t blame you.

Haha, yeah. It’s a black comedy I wrote with my brother about competitive tennis. It’s kind of a fun and interesting observation about obsessed tennis parents.

The Snowtown Murders is in limited theater this Friday, March 2nd. Check your local listings.




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