“I moved to Melbourne from Sydney when I was 18, and the city was so foreign and a little bit intimidating to me. What I had known of Melbourne at that point—Melbourne in the ’80s, especially—had been a pretty dark and weird place. All I knew of it was a city where bad things happened,” first-time Australian filmmaker David Michôd recalls about his early days in the capitol of Victoria and his detached perception of a city with a well-known, lurid reputation. “There were long-running and seemingly antagonistic, hardened gangs of armed robbers and an almost renegade police squad that was, you know, made up largely of cops who, in that era, had the most difficult job in the police force. They were known as the hardened men of the Melbourne police; they were the men dealing with the most dangerous criminals, these gangs of heavily armed and dangerous, very professional criminals.” Over the course of the eight years it took to sculpt the narrative trajectory of Animal Kingdom (the 2010 Sundance winner in the World Cinema Dramatic category), Michôd had a chance to really observe and dissect the goings-on of the menacing, well-reported criminal activity, which extended throughout the city and ultimately inspired some crucial events in the film. With Animal Kingdom’s release set for this Friday, August 13, Michôd sat down with Slant to discuss his background in film journalism, the infamy encapsulating the Melbourne crime circuit, and premiering his first feature film at Sundance.
Did you always have a fascination with film?
No. I mean, I really loved movies, and I was totally obsessed with Star Wars when I was a kid. I remember those early movie experiences; first movie I ever saw was Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and the second was Star Wars, and I saw Star Wars about 50 times as a little kid. I knew every line of dialogue; I’d act out scenes in school at lunchtime, but I didn’t have any aspirations to be a filmmaker. I didn’t pay any attention to how films were made. I just liked being immersed in the world of a film. It was just at some point in my early 20s and I had finished a degree at university—it was one of those general liberal arts degrees, the ones that enrich your inner world and yet don’t necessarily vocationally qualify you for any particular position. I said, “You know what, I’m going to have a crack at film school and see what happens.” And I loved it.
I read that when you came out of film school, you went into entertainment film journalism. Did you write film criticism or was it more like profile pieces and interviews with actors and directors?
It was more of a film craft magazine; it was for and about filmmakers. It was a weird time for me. I had lived in Melbourne for 10 years and moved back to Sydney and I just desperately needed a job. I wrote a story for this magazine, Inside Film Magazine, and they needed someone to answer the phones. I said I would do it. I didn’t care at that point; I’d do anything. It was very loose and chaotic back then. Within six months, I was the Deputy Editor and edited the magazine for about three years. I had never had any journalistic aspirations, but I learned so much about the craft and how the business works, from the very beginning to the very end. And I met a lot of people. It was a great opportunity.
You’ve said that the seedy elements of Melbourne lent to certain aspects of the film, and Jackie Weaver, who plays the matriarch of the Cody clan in the film, also mentioned that an infamous Melbourne crime family inspired some events of the film and how the mother of that family has become a public figure in the Melbourne media.
It could be quite unsettling, in Melbourne especially. You aren’t quite sure at what point that happens, when people turn from someone who has had their name in the papers because, in some way or another, they have come to the attention of police or the courts, and then suddenly become newsworthy identities in of themselves. Every now and then there are certain kinds of famous criminal identities who will—you know, Chopper will write an opinion piece for the newspaper, commenting on some criminal activity that has been happening in the city at that time. The ex-wife of a very notorious criminal identity in Melbourne nearly ended up on Dancing with the Stars, and you wonder at what point when [the criminal shifts to a celebrity]. What is that fascination about?
Would you say it’s their notoriety?
Yeah, I think it’s a little bit about notoriety, but I don’t think the public is interested in these people in the same way they would be interested, you know, in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or some mid-level soaps star or sports person. This fascination functions on a kind of nourish level; it is very specifically about crime, and it’s about the perceived danger with which these people lead their lives. And on that level I understand it, because these criminals are living incredibly stressful, high-stakes lives that make for such rich dramatic material. That fascination makes sense to me, but I think it has the capacity to drift into unsavory tabloid sensationalism.
How difficult was it to raise the budget of the film?
It’s really complex, but there is a way that Australian films get made that [producer] Liz Watts is very experienced with. We’re very fortunate that we have a supportive government and taxpayer money. The federal government, for instance, will only ever give you 50 to 60 percent of your budget, and you need to raise the rest privately. So there are ways you can piece [the remaining budget] together: You have a little bit of money from state government, and in order to get government money, you have to have a local distributor attached, cable TV presale, a little bit of money from our sales agent, and a little bit of private equity. The next thing you know you’ve pieced this complex jigsaw puzzle of money together. With Animal Kingdom, it’s funny, all that time it took me to write the thing and finally get to a point where I thought the script was ready—when that happened, in conjunction with the shorts that were being well-received, it felt to me like the actual putting together of that money happened really quickly.