Animal Kingdom: Interview with writer/director David Michôd

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David Michôd is the writer/director of "Animal Kingdom," the new Australian drama starring Guy Pearce. The film, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is being released on DVD on January 18.

“The thing that made me want to make a movie about this world has always been to comprehend how people live lives like these where the stakes are so high, where making mistakes can mean the difference between life or death or freedom and incarceration, where a whole level of society operates just below what we know as moral and correct”. 


“I returned to Sydney and wrote the first draft of ANIMAL KINGDOM, but nothing much from these earlier drafts ended up in the final script”. Michôd spent the next eight years writing and working on other projects, but his underworld drama kept beckoning. “I wanted to make a sprawling, Australian crime story that was multi-layered,” he explained, “with an ensemble cast that was representative of the way in which the criminal world filters through regular society and brushes against us constantly, even though we don't realize it. Frequently, I was advised that it was overly ambitious for a first feature, as it had multiple locations and characters, some of whom we're not introduced to until half-way through the story, whereas other characters shine brightly for the first 30 pages then die. But I always wanted it to feel as though each part was colored by particular characters that in some way passed the baton to one another”. 


Set in Melbourne rather than Sydney


Michôd says, “These people can literally go from being in newspapers and pictured outside courtrooms on the 6.00pm news, to being reality TV stars. That kind of thing doesn't happen in say, Sydney. That's not to say that Sydney doesn't have a thriving, or long-standing underworld, but it doesn't turn its criminals into darlings of the media”. Very soon into writing ANIMAL KINGDOM, Michôd also made a decision about fictionalization. “I wanted the thing to be fiction because I felt reluctant to engage in what now seems to be a whole culture of turning criminals into celebrities. I didn't want to do that”. 


“I was also keen to film Melbourne in a way that it's rarely viewed, as the common image is of a picturesque city awash with Victorian architecture, lush gardens and trams. But it's actually a much bigger, scarier place -a large, sprawling, urban mess, which I love. I wanted to make a film that unlike, say, a Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie crime movie, took itself seriously, and was set within a big, dark, nasty world, which was nevertheless still quite poetic and beautiful.” 


Explains Michôd. “I wanted the story to be about a particular epoch during which the criminals realize that their illegal pursuits are shifting in terms of their lucrativeness, which precipitates a crisis. They then commit this terrible crime and their world collapses. Relating these events via J was the perfect way in which to navigate their world, as I never wanted ANIMAL KINGDOM to feel as though it was a movie solely about a kid, but someone out of place in a world that is maybe going to really harm them.” 




“Authenticity was very important,” acknowledged Michôd, but I was also mindful that it was my feeling of authenticity that was most vital. I'm not one of those people who need to ruthlessly research every single, little detail. But we did do our homework. We visited Melbourne's Assessment Prison, because although it's easy to write a scene that's set in such a place, when it comes to actually staging it, you need to have been there. We visited the Metropolitan Remand Centre and had a tour of how contact and non-contact visits work, and thereafter our production designer, Jo Ford, was able to build the prison set which looked exactly like the real thing. And that gave us confidence. So whenever we'd written something that was set in an unfamiliar environment – like the interrogation rooms at police stations – we would go visit them.” 


“In terms of the basic criminal world,” recalled Michôd, “I spent years reading numerous books, watching video material and listening to audiotapes. But I never did any particular research with Victoria Police or members of the criminal fraternity, as it always felt important that however inspired the story was, I could confidently and honestly claim that it was a work of fiction, which is why I never set out to involve 'real' people in my research. By the time we commenced pre-production, I was constantly surprised by how full my head was with all this stuff. Suddenly, you have a production office full of people asking you questions, so I found it an incredible relief that I was able to answer them all. Maybe not immediately, but I had enough information to enable me to process the answer in seconds which gave me genuine confidence. You can carry an idea around in your head for a long time, and assume that people see it the same way as you do. Then you realize that you need every, single, day of pre-production, as you all have to be on the same page. It might be a cliché but it's true. By the time we started shooting, we were all making the same movie, but I don't think that was the case on the first day of pre-production.”