Animal Kingdom: Australian David Michod’s Crime Drama

Sony Classics will release Animal Kingdom in July

The beasts of “Animal Kingdom” evolved over a nine-year period and leapt from writer/director David Michôd’s fascination with the colorful, criminal landscape of Melbourne, a city that rightly or wrongly is often depicted as the stately ‘grand dame’ of Australia.

Originally from Sydney, Michôd spent several years living in Melbourne and started following various writings, including newspaper reports, as so many Melbournians do, about the local crime scene.“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”.
Although crime exists in every Australian city, the fascination that Melbourne has for its criminals and its ability to turn them into celebrities, is unique. As 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”.
But Melbourne clearly was the best setting for the world of ANIMAL KINGDOM. “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.”
Following a move to the US, Michôd’s original producer, Bec Smith, a former colleague from his days at industry magazine INSIDE FILM (IF), left the project and in 2006 Liz Watts, one of Australia’s leading film producers agreed to be a mentor on a short film Michôd was making with Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford called CROSSBOW, which was, in many ways, a calling card for ANIMAL KINGDOM.
“I hadn’t seen any of David’s work prior to this time,” recalled Watts, “and basically knew him as an editor of IF Magazine, although I was aware that he was working on a screenplay for a feature film. But when I saw CROSSBOW in the edit suite, it absolutely blew me away. I thought it was a very original piece of filmmaking with a strong directorial voice. Following Bec’s relocation to the US, we spoke about ANIMAL KINGDOM and the direction it was taking and David asked me to come on-board. During that period David worked on another four drafts, finessing the structure and building the moral nightmare that the central character of J finds himself trapped within. I just loved the richness of the characters and the fact that they felt both strong and real.”
On a simplistic level, ANIMAL KINGDOM follows the misadventures of J, a seventeen year-old boy, who following the death of his mother, a heroin addict, goes to live with the Cody family – his deceptively sunny grandmother, Smurf, and her hardened criminal sons, Pope, Craig and Darren. But it’s not long before J finds himself caught between family loyalties, and the police, who want him to testify against his uncles in a murder case involving two slain members of the force.
“J is essentially our tour guide,” explained 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.”
Guy Pearce (who plays Leckie) elaborates, “this film has a very particular style to it -it’s about the potential energy rather than the kinetic, it’s what’s sitting there under the surface that really allows the audience to go -wow, what would this be like if I was in that situation? It’s really fascinating”.
From Joel Edgerton (Baz), “You are going to be as shocked as you are excited …It really places the audience very much there with the kid, with J, and that’s incredibly suspenseful.”