'Snowtown' Director Justin Kurzel On Making A Film About Serial Killer John Bunting
The word 'Snowtown' is enough to fill most Australian minds with horror - it's the small town north of Adelaide where, between 1992 and 1999, serial-killer John Bunting disposed of 11 victims. These people were only discovered when police came across barrels full of acid in a disused bank building. It transpired that Bunting had co-opted several other people to do his evil bidding, including a teenager Jamie Vlassakis, who later turned Crown Witness.
Making a film about a real-life serial killer may not be everyone's cup of tea, particularly if you grew up in the very area where the evil deeds were committed. But Australian director Justin Kurzel explains that he was drawn to bring the story to screen, and film it from young Jamie's perspective:
"No matter what, there is a lot of tension when someone sends you a script with the word 'Snowtown' on the cover, and trepidation about what you're about to read.
"I was definitely drawn to the darkness in it - curiosity as to how someone can take a human life, and what the psychology of psychopathy is - that's one side. The other is how a very desperate community was exploited for evil, and the responsibility of all of us to listen and the need to be heard."
Kurzel's particular fascination is with why Jamie was so drawn into Bunting's strange world:
"Jamie was 14 when John came into his life, and replaced a missing figure and became a very strong mentor. I found that really compelling. I kept asking myself what I would have done. There were so many families around me growing up, preoccupied with replacing missing fathers, whether that would be a football coach or whatever, I could just see how that could happen, entering a boy's life at such an impressionable age.
"I was interested in creating a kingdom, where the audience could understand that in this one street or neighbourhood, this is where the kingdom exists, and there was just no way out for this boy and his family, unless they make brave and ultimately dangerous moves... I was very conscious of that claustrophobia and sense of imprisonment."
The story was especially poignant for the director, who grew up nearby and remembers the media's reporting of the events as "pretty shallow".
"When it was originally reported, a lot of the focus was on the macabre element," he remembers. "What shocked people was that it was white, suburban Australia. I came from it, and I was confronted by the fact that this place had such horror and darkness. Also the way people were living...
"A lot of these victims weren't missed, so it was really an incredible shock when police went into the bank vault, and dug up the back yard. A lot of the families of the victims were assuming that their loved ones were interstate. Or they'd received phone calls from their loved ones, yelling at them, saying they didn't want to see them again. That was what so tragic about the story, a lot of these victims didn't seem important enough - they could easily disappear like that - like ants in the cracks."
Kurzel filmed in the town only streets away from where some of the murders happened, and used several non-actors in lead roles.
"I wanted to find a level of authenticity and truth.
"I was incredibly scared about whether I was going to be able to guide them to these performances but also whether they had it in them, but they had a wealth of experience of knowledge and life that allowed them to connect to the themes in the film, and some of the choices their characters made. They were able to use emotions that were still very raw and share them with me, and allow them to be seen on camera - for example, betrayal."
Kurzel and the film's producers took the decision to debut the film at the Adelaide Film Festival, in front of many people involved in the case and representatives from the Snowtown community.
"It was a very emotional and volatile night," the director acknowledges. "It's a divisive film - there are some people who really didn't want it to be made, and I completely understand and respect that. There is an argument that it's too soon since the murders. But people responded to the humanity of it, and were intrigued by the compelling nature of this father-son relationship they didn't know about.
"I'd never be presumptuous enough to offer explanations for John Bunting's behaviour, but as for the situation in which it happened, I can sort of see how those bits and pieces fitted together to get Jamie to that point. It's not excusing his choices, and his involvement in terrible things, but he was 14 when he met this guy. Where was he that he found the answers in John Bunting? That remains profound and interesting."
Snowtown is in cinemas from Friday 18 November.
(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the film would open on 4 November 4, it opens on 18 November)