The Making of Michôd

First published in The Big Issue Magazine.

Animal Kingdom and Director, David Michôd (2.7 MB)

It’s no mean feat to break into an oversaturated market filled with crime-time shows like CSI and Underbelly – not to mention big-budget crime thrillers. But Australian director David Michôd has sliced through the genre slosh, initially with his short film Crossbow, which earned him an Australian Film Industry (AFI) Award for best short screenplay in 2007. Now comes his first feature, Animal Kingdom, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival earlier this year, and has since been picked up for US distribution.

This all sounds like rapid progress, but for Michôd it has been a long road to success. Ten years ago, after studying at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), his films were still “very naive and unfocused,” he says. Michôd turned away from the craft, moved back to Sydney and found himself desperate – without film-industry friends or money. Quite by chance, he met Bec Smith, editor of IF (Inside Film) Magazine, and started work answering phones for the periodical. After the great expectations raised by years at university and film school, it made for a dismal start. But he now believes that this job gave his life some “much-needed structure” – full-time work, a regular wage, and the opportunity to learn the business and meet film people. Still, it was far from easy.

“I arrogantly assumed because I’d written [a] thesis and stuff that I could walk straight in and my skills would be a gift to that publication,” Michôd says, “I realised quickly that magazine writing was a specific skill and I needed to adjust to that.”
He did, but after six years at IF he realised it was time to give filmmaking another shot. “There are too many people in this world wanting to make movies,” Michôd says, reflecting on that period. “I had to demonstrate something that was exceptional. I went into the making of Crossbow quite filled with fear.”

David Michôd’s first feature, Animal Kingdom, was a Sundance film festival favourite. But the once-naive arts college graduate struggled before earning success as a mature filmmaker.

Replacing his once-cavalier attitude towards short films was a determination to prove to himself that he could do it. The result was Crossbow, his “first mature piece of writing”. The short film (see it on YouTube) has a narrator recounting his memories of the low-life neighbours and the tragedy that befalls them. It’s suburban, it’s thrilling and it feels incredibly real.

Animal Kingdom is a very different creation, but it is clearly grounded in Michôd’s short film. In Animal Kingdom, which Michôd both wrote and directed, there are none of the usual suspects for a crime film: steroid-packed gunfights, catastrophic
car chases or sexy sidekicks with a cockatoo’s vocabulary. But don’t think this makes for a dry film. It may start slowly, but the realism ramps to a killer pace with compelling everyday logic that leaves the viewer spellbound and horrified. In place of titillating eye candy are honest characters and realistic dialogue, with intricate relationships that are built around a story that has the pathos of a Greek tragedy.

When his mother dies, 17-year-old Joshua (James Frecheville) lands in a house with his grandmother and uncles. They just happen to be psychotic criminals with a
family business based on armed robbery. On the surface, it is all warmth and congeniality, but with the Victorian police on a rampage against the uncles, Josh soon finds himself in the middle of an all-out war. He is the weakest link; something the police exploit, making him an informant with a hit hanging over his head. A straight cop (Guy Pearce) tries to guide him through the worst of it, but to survive Josh must leave childhood behind and somehow outmanoeuvre them all.

As the grandmother, ‘Smurf’, Jacki Weaver is chilling, exhibiting a psychotic rationale that lends itself to comparisons with Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. She plans never to see Josh again, thus making it okay to kill him. Meanwhile, Pope Cody, eldest brother and leader of the gang, has a deadly paranoid logic that’s eel-slippery. He is played marvellously by Ben Mendelsohn.

Michôd may be a filmmaker, but he admits that he prefers reading books – and it shows. “My favourite films always feel fat, like a novel does,” he says. “Nine times out of 10 when I’m disappointed with a movie experience it’s because it feels thin.”
It is not surprising to hear him add that the notion of making a film “that is thin, undercooked and unsubstantial seems like a waste of time to me”.

Now, with the success of Animal Kingdom offering up new opportunities, Michôd is approaching the next decade with caution. “Whatever I do next will be a decision I make very carefully,” he says. With the benefit of experience, he now has a
strong feeling that “anything could happen at any time, which would completely shift the landscape of my life”. And he’s probably right.

Monique Hohnberg is a journalist that specialises in all aspects of the film industry. She is also writing a book on how to overcome tragedy.

First published in The Big Issue Magazine.