David Michôd, Writer/Director of Animal Kingdom

18 AFI award nominations isn’t bad going for your first feature film, and with Animal Kingdom David Michôd has achieved just that. Motivated by Melbourne’s bleak gangland history, the film inducts audiences into a pride of backbiting career criminals – Ben Mendelsohn, Jackie Weaver and Joel Edgerton among them – with a confidence which marks Michôd as one of the country’s most promising emergent filmmaking talents.

Animal Kingdom is available now on both DVD and Blu-ray though Madman. Michôd answered a few of my questions about the release for Readings.

Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton in

Animal Kingdom.

You mention in your commentary track on the DVD that you wanted Animal Kingdom to be about the city of Melbourne as much its human characters – no mean feat. How close does the finished film come to capturing your original ambitions for filming Melbourne?

I’m not sure. Those kinds of considerations feel paramount when you’re in the planning stages – talking about locations, production design and visual style – but once the thing is shot and you’re in the editing room, all you’re really thinking about is storytelling. All other previous considerations slip into the background. Having said that, I do remember a couple of times in the edit choosing to put shots back in just because, putting myself in the shoes of people from anywhere else in the world, they felt exotic – from the beauty of Beaconsfield Parade to the raw bleach of Altona Meadows. And sure enough, in my travels this year, I have been surprised at just how little those elsewhere in the world know about Melbourne and how powerful a tool cinema is for introducing people to a new place, in an almost mythological way.

You worked closely with crime journalist and writer Tom Noble in the planning of Animal Kingdom. Can you talk a little about this collaboration?

I was first inspired to write Animal Kingdom after reading a couple of books Tom wrote following his stint as chief police reporter at The Age in the 1980s. And while the film isn’t set in the 80s, there was something about that period Tom was covering, that period charting the decline of armed robbery as a serious and professional criminal pursuit, which felt ripe for cinema.

I knew from early on, however, that I wanted to create my own menagerie of characters and to build my own fictional world around them. But I also wanted the film to be rooted in something authentic and so I made contact with Tom and subsequently spent a lot of time with him and his research materials, just sifting through flavours and textures and language.

I’m so glad I met Tom. He’s a lovely guy, his advice and materials were invaluable, and his books are just great. I think he’s the best true-crime writer in the country.

Australian crime films have a tendency to side with – or at least valorise – their criminal subjects.

While Animal Kingdom is about professional criminals, it isn’t really about professional crime. The movie starts at close of business. The crime depicted in the film is defensive crime, retaliatory crime, backed-into-a-corner crime. The movie is about crime committed by dangerous people in a state of confusion or upheaval. And when put in those terms, it’s hard to see where there might be room for glamour or heroics. There’s nothing particularly noble or sexy about paranoid anxiety.

You have three icons of the Australian screen in your film in Ben Mendelsohn, Jackie Weaver and Guy Pearce. You state in your DVD commentary that you’d written the role of Smurf with Weaver in mind, which shows – it’s perfect casting. How did Mendelsohn and Pearce become involved? Mendelsohn in particular gives one of the most surprising performances of his career, right at a time I’m sure a lot of viewers were certain they’d seen all of his faces…

I wrote the Pope character for Ben. I remember approaching him with it a few years ago. I knew him a little socially, but not very well, and I really had nothing to show him to inspire his confidence in me as a director. I remember him looking at me, slightly bemused, and saying, ‘Thanks for the offer, kid. Come back and see me when you’ve got some money and maybe we’ll talk some more.’

Fortunately, in the years that followed, I made a couple of shorts that got me a lot of attention and suddenly the Animal Kingdom script seemed a much more attractive proposition for everybody. But when Ben finally signed on, it was at the end of one of the busiest years of his career and I think he was doubting he had it in him. We’re both pretty glad now that he did it, though. I think his performance is remarkable and his very real exhaustion fed into the performance perfectly. Pope is one seriously tired and wounded beast.

In a way, Guy’s becoming involved felt much simpler. He was my first choice for the role, we sent it to him and he said yes – quickly and enthusiastically.

Finally, from its earliest inception to its DVD release,

It’s pretty nice. For the first time in my life I feel like I can write ‘filmmaker’ with confidence in that little ‘occupation’ box on incoming-passenger cards. But now, of course, there’s a whole world of other shit to worry about. The worry never really goes away.

Cover image for Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

Stephen Sewell

This item is unavailableUnavailable