When I interview David Michod, I feel like I am staring purity in the face. He has certainly earned a professional status as a writer/director with his phenomenal crime-thriller, Animal Kingdom, but it's also apparent that he doesn't know just how much greatness is lying right ahead of him. Michod is very open to discussing his film, and is especially jazzed to discuss what excites him about each step of the filmmaking process. Take part, film lovers, in meeting a director that we should be seeing many great things from as the years progress.
How did the story of Animal Kingdom come about? What inspired you to take it up specifically?
It came about from when I first moved to Melbourne, Australia, from Sydney. Melbourne was a such a brand new city for me and I was kind of reading a bunch of true crime books about the city. They were kind of giving a personality, or a mythology to these new neighborhoods and streets. There was a couple in particular by a guy named Tom Noble, who used to be the chief police officer in the area. He covered this era of the 80’s which charted this decline of armed robbers. There was something about these books that made me start building what I hoped would be a Melbourne crime story.
What was in the first draft of the script? Apparently there’s nothing from this final version that made it to the final copy.
It was just a very different kind of movie. I think when I just started writing the film, I was fresh out of film school and in my mid-20’s. That first draft was naïve. It was a large part of me piecing together a bunch of almost anecdotal Melbourne crime stuff and slapping them together in a way that felt cool to me. So over the course of the years it took me to write the thing, not did my writing mature but I matured. It went from being a fun but loose cool crime movie to something more classic and austere. And menacing.
Did it have the Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino coolness that they try to instill into people at places like film school?
It was certainly in more of that vein than the finished product. It wasn’t even like it was Ritchie or Tarantino, it was more like that it was akin to a subgenre of Australian crime, which is drowning in Australian vernacular. Some of it is incredibly rich and funny to me, and others, but none of it felt true. It felt affected … it felt put on. Slapped together, fraudulent.
How many rewrites did you go through before you started shooting?
About seven or eight. Of those, four of those were starting from scratch – throwing the thing out. I kept the characters, but these new drafts were not simply concurring with what I had previously written. I’d throw the whole thing out knowing there was a basic structure in my head. Because you can do that. Sometimes when you mature with your writing, you feel that sometimes you’re just futzing around the edges. You might as well throw the whole thing out, and start with a blank page.
A lot of people say that editing is where the film is finally written. Is there anything from this final product that came out in the editing process? Either organization of story, or a whole other idea that came to life?
I think that’s always the way. Always, you make changes that are effective writing changes [in the editing room] and some of them can be quite profound. This certainly happened on Animal Kingdom. The main ones were that what I had written I had hoped would be a sprawling drama, hoping that there would be a genuine tension or menace running underneath it. What we found when we got into the edit was that the tension or menace was working so well that it felt like we had two different movies. We had just a sprawling crime drama, and we had a film that was almost working at the level of a thriller as well. And so we had to do a bunch of careful shaping and molding to make sure that while thing continued to sprawl, we didn’t lose that tension. It was challenging. We cut a bunch of stuff out, but these are the things you discover in the edit room. I had hoped that menace would be there, but I didn’t fully anticipate how palpable it would be in some parts of the movie. Which was great, but it does mean having to write a final draft in the end.
Is there any tactic to balancing out the brothers’ stories?
I deliberately set out to make something that felt ambitious, and had a lot of characters and locations. The challenge is always to make sure that you can juggle all of those characters without getting to the end and feeling like one is just horribly undercooked. Some are obviously smaller than others, but even those characters need to feel like their character development justifies their size of the film. I enjoyed trying to solve that puzzle. I also really liked the idea of which characters strangely drift in and out of the film. They shine bright for a while, and next thing you know the film belongs to someone else. I like the fact that the film belongs to character Josh, but then it belongs to the character played by Ben Mendelsohn in a way. And it’s not until the end that you realize those characters you met at the beginning of the movie truly own the film.
Why did you decide to use Air Supply’s music in the film? Is it the Melbourne connection? It seems to be an interesting choice, especially with it’s placement in the movie. Is there any intentional irony?
I’m sure some kind of lame patriotism came into play. But it’s possible on some level I thought that … it’s such a well-known song that it might be more accessible to Australia, since this was an Australian film we were hoping to use an Australian song. I have no idea to what extent that actually came into play. For me, it was just that perfect mix of character. That song is very much about Pope, Ben Mendelsohnn’s character in that point in the story. It seemed something that was both strangely arcane and kitsch but also powerful and moving at the same time. All coinciding with a moment for this character that is one of total and utter confusion. I really like its usage in the Australian trailer because … well, some people hate it. They equate the usage of 80’s soft rock in a crime trailer as somehow suggesting that the film is soft. But I liked it because what I set out to do was make a crime film that worked the way a crime film should, but it was filled with detail, and was surprising and unusual at the same time. That for me was a simple way of communicating it was a crime film in the trailer that was not just your average little punchy, action-crime thiller.
What films or directors inspire you?
In some ways, Apocalypse Now. One thing I love about that film is that it manages to successfully imbue what is in some essences a war film, a very unsettling sense of menace and almost quite poetic in tension. For me I remember when I first saw that film it was such a wonderfully unsettling juxtaposition in a way of almost the horror film and the war movie. But at the same time I love films that feel rich in almost a literary sense. I think great movies are great because they’re full of detail. You can have a great story and some interesting characters, but the richness of the characters, and one you can return to over and over again is the one that is full of the kind of detail that great novels are usually formed. Even though you don’t see it in first viewing. That being said, one of my favorite movies in the last ten years was The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. It’s one of those films that movies at a laborious pace, but it’s so rich and so full of detail, it stands up in multiple viewings. I had that same thing as well, in that it works within the genre of the western, and feels like it could be a beautiful piece of art. And moves at that leisurely pace that poetry requires.
Animal Kingdom also has a very careful speed to it, yes.
Well, it’s not an action film. It’s got quite shocking moments of violence in it, but it’s by no stretch an action film. But I wanted to set the film in a kind of brutal Melbourne summer, where everything is almost so maddeningly hot that you can barely move.
How hot was it?
I remember when we were location scouting for the film that it was 48 degrees Celsius. If you do the conversion it was phenomenally hot. In the two weeks before we started shooting, the Black Saturday bushfires started happening, which were only 45 minutes drive out of Melbourne. They were catastrophic, 200 people died. It was apocalyptic. We were location scouting on that day. No one knew that people were dying like this. But during that day you could feel evil in the air. Something so dangerous and horrific about it. Melbourne has stretches of summer that feel like that. I wanted to get a sense of the maddening lethargy of those periods. Such that you can barely move when it’s hot like that. So when violence explodes in the film, it just explodes out of nowhere. And there’s a quiet that comes with it too. When it’s that hot, it’s probably like an extremely cold middle of winter. The streets are empty, and everyone is just sheltering. It’s kind of creepy. It’s that creepiness that I hoped to capture.
What stories do you want to tell next with filmmaking?
I’d like to do all different [genres]. The idea of walking into a crime film doesn’t appeal to me at all, but having said that, I don’t think it would make sense for me to walk straight into a musical either. The films that I like the most are the ones with grand story and are rich with detail. In many ways I don’t really care what world that takes in, so long as it feels like a grand and detailed adventure.
Would you consider a Hollywood production?
I’m still working out these questions in my head. Not just what to make, but where to make it, what scale to make it. I like that being a filmmaker allows you to experience someone else’s life for a period of time, to get to know another world really intimately. And to travel. I want to continue taking advantage of that.
I’ve seen a short that you’ve co-written called Spider and I was wondering what your contribution was to that film.
That experience on Spider was similar to the experiences I’ve had with Spencer Susser of Hesher, which were basically like a director bringing to me an idea that is very much of them, and me helping them shape it into something that is more than an idea. For me the challenge was just taking that stuff and fleshing it out in such a way so that those things that are effective about it feel like they’re coming from somewhere, so that it doesn’t just feel like a couple of horrific happenings.
I assume that you contributed towards the slow burning in the film?
You’re probably right. [Director] Nash had some clear ideas as the events that he wanted to happen, and the basic world of the thing. The challenge was then making it feel like substantial drama in a very limited time frame. But I enjoy that challenge of when my friends bring something to me, and they say, “Can you do this?” and I say as I did with Spider, “I really don’t understand the point of this. But okay, let’s have a go and see if we can make this into something that appeals to both of us.” It’s rewarding. I do that in a way that I have to trust that person, that thing in their head, the way it will work. Then to see Spider with a big audience, you get a sense of how powerful something as basic or small as this can be. And how shocking it can be. And how skilled someone like Nash can be in what he does. It’s interesting. I remember after we finished making it, it made me feel, “Well, I don’t know what it’s about,” except for the basic level.
Don’t scare your girlfriend with fake spiders.
Yeah or this loose idea on karma or something. But then you get it up, and put it in front of an audience, and then it doesn’t matter what it’s about. There’s a very clear and unusual journey the audience takes watching that short. They are lulled into something. And they are absolutely horrified. And then they’re left hanging for a while, because I’m not sure how they’re supposed to be feeling. Then it’s somehow all OK in the end. And that alone is a visceral experience, is, the power of cinema.
Quick Questions with David Michod
Worst Job? Telemarketing cable television. When I was 23.
Favorite Summer Movie? Point Break.
Book You Wish You Had Written Infinite Jest
Ultimate Weakness? People pleasing.
Something you can not wait to do? Go home and watch Australia play New Zealand in rugby.
Age of first kiss? 14.
(Here is the previously discussed Spider short.)