One of the most talked about films at this year’s BFI London Film Festival was Snowtown, a stunning true crime drama about the horrific ‘Bodies in the Barrels’ murders that shook South Australia.
Debut director Justin Kurzel tells the story of serial killer John Bunting through the eyes of his vulnerable protege Jamie Vlassakis. He paints a disturbing picture of a disenfranchised community that is manipulated by the charismatic Bunting, using first-time actors.
With Daniel Henshall giving a chilling performance as Bunting, he’s matched by newcomer Lucas Pittaway, a young man literally plucked from the affected area to play Jamie. We caught up with Kurzel and Pittaway during the festival to talk about the challenging project, funding by Warp Films Australia.
Snowtown is released in the UK 18th November - read our review here.
Is this your first time in the UK?
Pittaway: Yes! I went straight to Abbey Road, and did Big Ben and the London Eye. I’ve only been to France otherwise [for Cannes], so it’s really fun to explore somewhere where people speak English as well. I can explore and not have trouble finding my way home!
What’s the response been like from the festival screenings?
Kurzel: Really exciting. The screening the other night had a Q&A, and people seemed to be quite immersed in the film. There’s strong debate and dialogue at the end, and I’m really excited about the film being released here. The British public have a curiosity for Australian crime films. So it’s really promising in terms of response.
You came into a script that was already there with the producers - what did you feel you could bring to it?
Kurzel: Sean [Grant], the writer, had been working on it for five or six years. When Anna [McLeish] and Sarah [Shaw] shared it with me, he’d found an incredible point of view in the case that I had no idea about, in terms of the relationship between John and Jamie. The fact that he’d found a mentor in this kind of man. I only knew about the Bodies in the Barrels case. But it was probably a little bit more of a genre film before I came on board, with points of view from the police. We sat down and got very excited about the point of view of the film being entirely told through Jamie. The more gruesome nature of the events being told through his point of view, and revealed through him. Once we decided on that, we went away and worked on another draft. Keeping in mind we were going to film in the local area, and use unknown actors, that started to dictate where we were heading with it. I had gone down there with Sean, as I grew up very close to the area. We started reading transcripts, so it was very collaborative.
Was it true that you weren’t able to find out that much about Jamie?
Pittaway: Yeah. The day they told me it was about the Snowtown murders, I searched for it, and I was trying to figure out which person I was testing for. There is very little I could find about Jamie. I chose not to read the book, as it portrays a different person from the one that’s in the script, you could say. My research was just the script, and what Justin explained to me.
Were you apprehensive about portraying a real person?
Pittaway: No, because I felt like I was playing a character in the script rather than a real-life person. Apparently I don’t look like him or anything.
During the making of the film, did you have any correnspondence with people affected by the case?
Kurzel: Not directly with any of the perpetrators, but we had correnspondence with people connected to the family. Many people in the community knew John, which was what was unique about the case - there were four serial killers, and they were visible and social in the area, which is highly unusual. We got a lot of details and observations from people that knew John, or who had just got out of prison with John. The feeling when we were shooting was that we were one or two degrees of separation away from the actual events.
Did you have any concerns about how much violence was going to be shown onscreen?
Kurzel: It was a real balance. We didn’t want it to be the leading feature of the film, like the way a horror or slasher violence is. So it was very important it was directly connected to Jamie’s journey, and within that story we were telling. There were many murders, but we knew we didn’t want it to be a body count film. A big part of revealing the violence was how it was revealed to him. A lot of it is suggested, but there is one particular scene that is more explicit, and that we decided it needed to be, so the brutality encompassed the brutality of the rest of the murders. But dramatically, it was very important in the storytelling. I wanted the violence to be visceral, for the audience not to have a compass with it - for them not to feel like they were watching a genre film, where there’s a safe distance from it. It was very important it felt real and authentic, and immersive. That there was a cause and effect to it. That’s been really hard. A lot of people come out thinking the film is a lot more violent than it is, and that’s to do with the implied nature of it - that they feel like they’ve seen something on the screen that wasn’t actually there. Especially with the murder scene Jamie goes through, people feel the residue of that particular scene throughout. The psychology of the violence in Snowtown is really compelling. The fact that a lot of this happened out of a domesticity, in the day, in suburbs, with schools just up the road. While they were killing people they were watching TV. There was a kind of ordinariness about it all that I found chilling.
Lucas, you haven’t acted before, which is incredible. Did you draw on anything for your first role?
Pittaway: No, I’d never thought of it before. I failed year 10 drama and dropped out of high school. I was planning on joining the army at the time, and then when someone comes along and says to you, would you like to have the chance of acting, I thought why not. That’s how I got into it, and grew to love it. I probably went to the cinema about once every two months. I liked good films, but I didn’t get to see them in my area. I didn’t have an indie cinema, I didn’t have anyone who knew what films were good. I just hadn’t discovered good film at that time.
Daniel was one of the only professional actors on the set, I believe?
Kurzel: There was one other, Richard Green who plays the transexual Barry. Daniel had only done the odd bit of television. He was from Sydney, and it was quite deliberate, because it reflected a little bit on the dynamic between John and the community - he was an outsider. Dan arrived, spent eight weeks there before the shoot, put on 15 kilos and developed these very sincere and close relationships with the cast. So when we started shooting there was a natural dynamic between the characters.
Was it quite difficult directing children in a film like this?
Kurzel: No it wasn’t. I think if they’d just arrived on set to meet Dan for the first time it may have been. He took them camping, and was a father figure to them on set. If they misbehaved he was really hard on them. There was a natural bond there. As a director, I was just getting them to work off Dan, using the natural energy they had. They were great. I mean, occasionally they would look at camera, because they’d forget they were in a scene!
Lucas, how did you bond with Dan?
Pittaway: Really well. We’d hang out, see films, and he would cook big pots of stew for everyone. It really helped in our scenes - it wasn’t Dan from Sydney, he was a guy really working in our community.
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
Pittaway: Justin likes to think it was the murder scene, but for me personally it was the night where Jamie sees [edited for spoiler] body in the back yard. That scene was really exhausting for me. Mentally exhausting, as I hadn’t had a scene that harsh yet. I didn’t know if I could do it yet or not, so basically, that night was me discovering I can do this.
What’s been the response from the local community?
Kurzel: The screening we had in Adelaide was really positive. It was a very moving night, as we had people there that were directly involved in the case. It obviously was confronting for everyone, as it started a dialogue on a perspective that hadn’t been shared before. Particularly how this level of brutality came out of a community that didn’t feel like it was being heard. It stirred a debate that went beyond the freakshow of Bodies in the Barrels, and how it had been reported in the past. Obviously not everyone likes the fact that the film has been made, and there is definitely a divisive element in the film. I always saw the first act like a western. A community that was apathetic, that was waiting for something to come along and grab them. In comes John on a motorbike, and empowers them with this voice. I found that to be extremely powerful, and something I had seen repeated many times in history, in varying degrees.
Was the disorientation deliberate?
Kurzel: I wanted the audience to be as disorientated as Jamie was. There are characters who come in and out, and you may be taking second guesses as to who they are and where they’ve gone. I wasn’t as concerned about that, as long as you were deeply connected to the main part of the film. I didn’t want there to be a narrative of the next victim, the next victim. This kid didn’t know what was real and what was not. The claustrophobic, chaotic nature of the film is deliberate.
What’s next for both of you?
Pittaway: When I get back to Australia, I’m auditioning for two roles that I feel very strongly about, so I’m going to pour my heart and soul into that.
Kurzel: I’m writing a dark comedy with my brother, and were looking at stuff with Warp Films, looking for something that grabbed me as much as Snowtown did.
Filmbeat caught up with Kurzel and Pittaway on the red carpet at the festival. Watch the pair describe Snowtown in their own words below: