The feature film SNOWTOWN opened this week in Australia to much critical acclaim. The movie dramatises the events of the infamous “Bodies in Barrels” murders in South Australia in the 1990s. It has played the Adelaide festival and in Critics Week at Cannes. There was a bidding war between distributors for UK rights and it has also sold to a French distributor.
So we were lucky to grab a few minutes of director Justin Kurzel’s time for a quick telephone interview.
SNOWTOWN focuses on the way serial killer John Bunting entered a poor and tough community in Adelaide’s northern suburbs and became a father figure to 16 year old Jamie Vlassakis. This led Jamie Vlassakis into the nightmare world of a dozen killings. It is disturbing and uncompromising material. The AccessReel review of SNOWTOWN is here.
How different was the original script for SNOWTOWN to the one you ended up shooting?
It was more a genre film. Then (screenwriter) Shaun Grant and I worked on it to make it more about Jamie. And also to give a voice to an extremely vulnerable community.
Was there ever a danger of making Jamie, “too good”?
It was something that Shaun and I were very aware of – we didn’t want to judge him or go “poor Jamie”. It was important for people to see he did have choices. The burning question, especially for Shaun was “What would I have done?” Would I have the maturity and fortitude to make the right choices? We were very conscious about letting that be owned by the audience rather than skewing it one way or the other. That was a fine balance.
For a length of the movie Jamie is portrayed as not making choices.
In essence he was still making a choice. One of the criticisms that has been aimed at the film is that he is a passive character. It took someone like John (Bunting) to give him an identity, so he would start making decisions and defining himself. The irony is that where John was leading him was a corrupt world. I find most teenagers passive and awkward and contradictory. Jamie was also fatherless and needing an identity and a voice. John was a dominant character and inside the family he made things claustrophobic.
You describe John Bunting as almost a community leader.
When we spoke to the people that knew him, they said he seemed like a very sociable character. It sounded like John was an incredible listener. And that is a very powerful thing in a community like that. We met a number of leaders when we were there, church leaders, football coaches and they are very important figureheads
How did you know how much violence to show?
The violence always had to be extremely connected to Jamie’s journey. It couldn’t be like the violence in a horror film. The violence was expressed in the different forms of initiation that John got Jamie to do, very particularly with the brother (Troy) and that was a turning point of the story. The violence came out of banality, the casualness of the world – a lot of this violence happened in suburbia. To us this wasn’t a movie about a body count, but about a character’s journey.
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