The Call of the Wild

David Michôd on the unlikely roots of his Aussie crime drama, 'Animal Kingdom'

<i>Animal Kingdom</i>
Animal Kingdom

If the new Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom doesn't set your heart racing, your palms sweating, and your mind reeling from all its inventively manufactured suspense, well, there's no hope for you. At all. Go directly to genre film gaol, and return all those Brian Trenchard-Smith and George Miller DVDs gathering dust and coffee rings beside your plasma screen.

If, on the other hand, you're still recovering from the deliciously seedy emotional battering of Nash Edgerton's The Square, and you're hungry for more Aussie criminality, then this wild, wild Kingdom is right up your dark alley.

Like British director Ben Wheatley's remarkable genre masterpiece Down Terrace, Michôd's Animal Kingdom focuses its steely, unblinking gaze on a familial bunch of small-time crooks with overblown egos and blown-out dreams. Think The Godfather in reverse. Think chaos. Think desperate. Think doomed. Now you've got it.

It's no surprise, either, to find that Michôd is part of a loosely knit semicollective that includes fellow Aussies Nash and Joel Edgerton, Spencer Susser (Hesher), actor Luke Doolan, and other like-minded filmmakers Down Under. What's surprising is the sheer cinematic forcefulness of what appears to be a new generation of Australian genre filmmakers, crashing into theatres with all the elegantly poetic violence of storm-backed breakers crashing against the rocky Aussie shoreline. Think blood in the water, blood on the streets, and broken souls, bloodied but unbowed. This is genre filmmaking at its most epic.

The Austin Chronicle spoke to Michôd about Animal Kingdom, the state of Australian independent cinema, and why Apocalypse Now is the most influential movie ever made – at least, to David Michôd.

Austin Chronicle: You've frequently worked with Joel and Nash Edgerton over the years. Would it be fair to call your filmmaking with them something of a collective?

David Michôd: I actually met Nash because I used to edit a magazine in Australia called Inside Film, which had its office in the same building as Nash and Joel's. Nash, Joel, Kieran Darcy-Smith, and a stunt man, Tony Lynch, had formed a loose little collective, mainly as a way for them to make show reels for one another. They had all been to either drama school or were trying to get work as stunt men. At some point along the way, I left the magazine and formed a friendship with Nash and another guy named Luke Doolan, who had joined the fold as an editor. Somewhere in the course of Nash working as Ewan McGregor's stunt double on Star Wars, we met Spencer Susser, who was shooting behind-the-scenes footage, and somehow we all just sort of came together. It was basically just a bunch of friends. We never had any grand plan to work together, we just had similar aspirations and got involved in each other's stuff. It just sort of evolved. It's still just a very loose collection of people who really want to make films and love having close friends to make them with.

AC: Between Animal Kingdom, The Square, and past genre outings like Wolf Creek, it feels like Australian independent cinema is going through something of a renaissance. Would you agree with that?

DM: The Australian industry is not big, and so we only make about 30 to 50 films a year. And in any given year, the natural attrition for films all over the world means that there will ever only be one or two that pop. That's the percentages. I think what you're seeing now, though, is a younger generation of filmmakers starting to make their first films, all with a seemingly greater willingness to embrace genre filmmaking in one form or another and use it in all different ways. Some of us like to go back to its most basic roots while others like to elevate it somehow or subvert it or make it more than it at first might seem. It's effectively just a younger generation of filmmakers wanting to make films like the ones they grew up loving themselves.

AC: It almost feels as if you guys are the next chapter in the Aussie indie documentary Not Quite Hollywood.

DM: That may be true. The thing that was so unique about that period in the Eighties was how kind of loose and renegade those films were, in part because of the way they were financed – very open to abuse, really. So the films themselves got very crazy, which is what made them so fun. What you're seeing differently now is filmmakers who want to make similar types of films but with proper infrastructure in place, and who have aspirations to make big films, too. The climate is very different now, the cinema is dominated by tent poles, and it's becoming ever-increasingly difficult to make smaller films work. There's a recognition that you need to have films that are salable ideas. I think that's one reason that genre has come to the fore again. I mean, you can say up front that Animal Kingdom is quite clearly a crime film, and people will know what you mean. It was always my aspiration to make a crime film that worked the way crime films should and yet felt very different and richer and, hopefully, more substantial.

AC: There's a fair amount of what I'd call "Aussie noir" in Animal Kingdom. Were you a fan of or influenced by the classic film noirs while growing up?

DM: I've seen a lot of film noir, and there's certainly many that I really love, but when it comes to what has influenced my filmmaking, I actually think, as weird as this may sound, that one of the greatest influences on this film was Apocalypse Now, which I saw when I was very young. It was a film that had a kind of grand if not grandiose narrative aspiration, was filled with detail, and yet had these amazing moments in which you step outside the film for a moment of quite dark and beautiful poetry, you know? That mesh of image and sound and music that just comes together so lyrically. Apocalypse Now was the film that made me want to make films. And, again, as weird as this sounds, if there was any one influence on Animal Kingdom on a stylistic level, I think that was it.

AC: It's a very intimate depiction of a criminal enterprise, and I know that the your original script differed significantly from what ended up on the screen, right?

DM: Absolutely. I wrote the original draft fresh out of film school, and it was basically just more naive. I had been reading about this one particular event in Melbourne's criminal history, which was the culmination of this ongoing animosity between this quite hardened and dangerous gang of armed robbers and an equally hardened and dangerous corps of the armed robbery squad in the Melbourne police. I had a sense that I wanted to write a script about a big Melbourne crime story, but I really had no idea how to do it. I hadn't really learned much in film school about how to write a feature-length screenplay. So I just started writing. I had a clear sense that the script was unformed and it needed work, so I just kept working on it and chipping away at it. And, luckily, I received enough affirmations along the way to make me want to keep working on it. So in essence, the screenplay developed and matured as I developed and matured. And, frankly, there's really nothing left in Animal Kingdom that was in that original draft. Not a single scene, not a single line of dialogue. What's on the screen feels like a new screenplay written by a new person, effectively.

Animal Kingdom opens in Austin theatres on Friday. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Animal Kingdom, David Michôd, Nash Edgerton, Joel Edgerton, The Square, Spencer Susser, Luke Doolan, Apocalypse Now, Not Quite Hollywood

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