Friday 3rd June 2011
Welcome to the Melbourne underworld, where tensions are building between dangerous criminals and equally dangerous police. It's the Wild West, played out on the city's streets.
Armed robber Pope Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is in hiding, on the run from a gang of renegade detectives who want him dead. His business partner and best friend, Barry 'Baz' Brown (Joel Edgerton), wants out of the game, recognising that their days of old-school banditry are all but over. Pope's younger brother, the speed-addicted and volatile Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton), is making a fortune in the illicit substances trade - the true cash cow of the modern criminal fraternity - whilst the youngest Cody brother, Darren (Luke Ford), naively navigates his way through this criminal world - the only world his family has ever known.
And into this world arrives their nephew, Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville).Following the death of his mother, J finds himself living with his hitherto estranged family, under the watchful eye of his doting grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), mother to the Cody boys. J quickly comes to believe that he is a player in this world. But, as he soon discovers, this world is far larger and more menacing than he could ever imagine.
When tensions between family and police reach a bloody peak, J finds himself at the centre of a cold-blooded revenge plot that turns the family upside down and which also threatens to ensnare innocent bystanders such as his girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright). One senior cop, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), must lure J into the police fold and then shepherd him through a complex minefield of witness protection, corrupt cops, slippery lawyers and a paranoid and vengeful underworld.
J comes to realise that in order to survive he must determine how the game is played - he must somehow choose his place in this cunning and brutal animal kingdom. He must work out where he fits.
The beasts of Animal Kingdom evolved over a nine-year period and leapt from writer/directorDavid 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, which was a great, rewarding experience. 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 realise 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 coloured 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 andits 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 fictionalisation. "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 tofilm 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 in 2006. Enter Liz Watts, one of Australia's leading film producers. Watts agreed to be a mentor on a short film Michôd was making with Angie Fielder 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 convinced 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 realise 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 in with the kid, with J and that's incredibly suspenseful".
Animal Kingdom features an outstanding ensemble cast, from Australian acting icon, Jacki Weaver and international screen star, Guy Pearce, to 17 year-old James Frecheville who makes his big-screen debut as J.
The film pivots on the J character, but at opposing ends of the moral spectrum there is on the one hand, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) and on the other, Detective Senior Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce). Says Michôd, "I'd always written the character of Pope with Ben Mendelsohn in mind because I knew that Pope needed to be the charismatic alpha male of this particular family. The Leckie character was a different challenge because he's a quiet character in a sense, in that he's buttoned down in a way that so many working detectives are. And when Guy agreed to play the role of Leckie, we knew we'd struck a brilliant balance. Those two guys became the counterpoints on which to build the rest of the cast".
Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) - The search for a young actor to portray J proved immense, with over 500 boys auditioning for the role. "As J is a pivotal character", observed producer Liz Watts, "we needed to cast somebody who would be able to hold his own with experienced, charismatic actors such as Guy Pearce and Ben Mendelsohn. We looked at young actors around the country as well as boys with no acting experience but kept coming back to James, whom we first met when he attended one of our open casting calls".
"Initially we'd envisaged a Gus Van Sant sort of kid", continued Michôd, "foppish androgynous and slightly depressed, but James had a level of detail in his performance that nobody else possessed. Whilst some of the others were very talented, they just didn't have the innate understanding as to how every line or sequence of lines, constitutes a beat in a scene. But James was able to master that without my input. It did take me a while to envisage him in the role, because he's a big, strapping, seventeen year-old - sort of a man-child - but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea because suddenly the movie felt plausible in a way that it hadn't before. Given his mature appearance, it was conceivable that his uncles would have allowed him to participate in their world. So in many ways the story stakes felt heightened because he looked like a man and subsequently, people would expect him to handle himself thus, forgetting that he was really just a young kid".
When J's heroin addict mother finally has one hit too many, he has no choice but to move in with his maternal grandmother Smurf Cody and her sons Pope, Craig and Luke. Having had minimal contact with the Codys, J initially has no idea of what awaits him. Certainly not an idyllic family life. As Edgerton elaborates, "the film has a lot to say about violence I think and about growing up amongst violence. It's also a world of itself which is strangely kind of removed from the everyday Australian so it gives a looking through a telescope feel for some people which allows them to get a good kick out of the movie as well. But I think what they think they're looking at through the telescope is actually a lot closer and more confronting than they think".
Janine 'Smurf' Cody (Jacki Weaver) - Outwardly, Smurf is a bright, cheerful presence oozing maternal warmth, who darts between her big, brooding sons like a little ray of sunshine. Her 'boys' - the quietly menacing Pope, volatile Craig and 'baby,' Darren - are her life - and she's the glue, or some would say toxic poison, that holds them together. And although they're grown men, she remains their 'parental figure'. However, her life is nothing without them. Her entire sense of self has been built around her relationship with her sons to the extent that there is something vaguely repugnant about the strangely tender intimacy that they share. And the fact that all three men are intensely involved in each other's lives is directly her doing.
"Jacki Weaver was the first actor attached to the project", recalled Michôd. "I didn't want Smurf to bea grizzled, old battle-axe. I wanted her to have Jacki's qualities - a kind of delightful, almost disingenuous naivety. She's very smart and delightful, yet disarmingly so. The lady that you meet belies a much more knowing person. So scenes which appeared to need a stern, almost villainous performance, were far more chilling and entertaining when they were played with, what I called, a 'faux naivety,' where this delightful little old lady would have you believe that she didn't know what was going on, when actually she knew exactly what was happening. My feeling is that Smurf, who is a strangely sexual kind of being, enjoys being the powerful woman in her world of men. There was a daughter - J's mother - but my feeling was that she hadn't subscribed to the family pecking order. If you fight with the leader you can expect to be excommunicated, which is basically what happened.
And although Smurf's sons are big and volatile and will occasionally scratch at her, they always return to the fold, because for them, it's their safe place". Weaver relished the opportunity of portraying a character of Smurf's complexity. "Smurf is a sociopath and psychopath", she commented, "who had bred these three psychopath sons. She's all the more chilling because she appears to be quite normal - even sweet - with this immense affection for her boys. But sociopaths can be lovable one moment and monstrously cold and callous the next, which pretty much describes her".
Andrew 'Pope' Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) - Barry 'Baz' Brown (Joel Edgerton) At the point when J enters the Cody household, times are a changing. Eldest son Pope, portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn, is finding that he can no longer make the big bucks from his criminal activities. Together with his good mate Baz, played by Edgerton, Pope once enjoyed a successful career as an armed robber, but after a period in jail, the 'wind has left his sails.' Baz, the more rational, intelligent of the two, with a young family to support, has realised that armed robbery has become the domain of junkies robbing night time stores for a few hundred bucks. So Baz is taking the fruits of his criminal pursuits and playing the stock market. But Pope can't grasp that he needs to change in order to survive. The little stability that his world once had, is collapsing and with it so does his sanity.
Baz makes a decision then to get out of the game, Edgerton notes and "while Baz isn't your modelcitizen he's sort of a decent guy I guess and he represents a possible father figure for J and the only kind of decent parental figure for the kid for a while there".
"Pope's a guy whose heyday was maybe ten or fifteen years ago", reflected Mendelsohn. "He's acriminal who once-upon-a-time could make money, but with the advent of technologies to thwart armed robberies and the rise of substance dealers, his world has been left behind. He's not a very highly functioning person, but a man who lives within a very small and rapidly disintegrating world. I don't consider him to be particularly driven, but rather somebody who reacts to various situations. But because he doesn't have the necessary tools to deal with change, he reacts violently. He's a character I wanted to play and in terms of that, I liked him. But would I want to 'hang out' with him? No way! I'd steer clear of him".
Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton) - Challenging Pope for the role of top dog within the Cody household, is middle brother, Craig, played by Sullivan Stapleton, a successful drug dealer who samples his wares way too often. "On the page", said Michôd, "Craig is a really crazy character, but I knew that there had to be something about him that was loveable, a bit like a toothless tiger. He makes a lot of noise, but underneath you realise that he's a bit of a pussycat and Sullivan was that guy. Not that Sullivan is a pussycat, but he's a really sweet, excitable guy and that's exactly what I wanted Craig to be. I didn't want him to be just a speed head, but volatile so that a hug from his mother would feel natural. Yet Pope looks at his younger, goofy brother and sees him making ten times the amount of money that he does, which heightens Pope's sense that his world is slipping away".
Darren Cody (Luke Ford) - Luke Ford, portrays Darren Cody, the youngest and most passive of the three brothers. "Although Darren is the baby of the family", noted Michôd, "he still needed to appear physically capable and believable in that world and Luke had those qualities. He's a Blacktown boy, so there's something very tough about him, but soft and sweet as well. Darren is essentially a bridging character between J and the other men as it felt necessary to have somebody who would make the relationships plausible, as you have a seventeen year-old boy with J and a forty year-old man in Pope. He's a kid who knows no other world so takes it for granted that his future lies somewhere in this family, but he's different to his brothers in that he's a younger guy with different interests - he hangs out in trendy strips like Chapel Street and buys his own clothes, whereas Pope has his clothes bought by Smurf and just wears what he's given. J walks into this world and finds it quite foreign and has to work out how and if he fits into it. So although Darren is essentially a kid too, he hasn't seen the outside world with the same clarity that J has".
Says Luke on his character: "I'm quite an emotional, instinctive person in real life and I really had to strip that away. I generally play characters that really express themselves. This character doesn't in some ways and he's quite restrained. He's quite internalised. That was a difficulty but also a great challenge that I was drawn to. And the fear of Darren. The fear of being around what's going on and handling his brothers and in particular, Pope - that was a big challenge for me".
Jacki Weaver mentions the wild boys and energy of this film as a key attractor, but points also to thedisquieting family relationships also there, that shift and turn in against each other as the film continues; "There's unexpected sociopathic behaviour, but so too is there a thread of very human vulnerability and this is unnerving". The testosterone on set was definitely felt by all involved. Michôd: "It was so interesting to me, really early on, after we'd cast these boys and got them into rehearsal, I felt like - at least in terms of that hierarchy and that power structure that we'd cast the thing right. Even when those guys were just fooling around with one another you could see that whole thing at work".
Jacki Weaver: "I was surrounded by these young alpha males but they treated me as they would areal mother. Very courteous but also incredibly cheeky and a fair bit of game playing going on!"
Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) - So young J finds himself in a den of savage animals and it's not long before he succumbs to the Cody lifestyle. But when the police, in cold blood, kill a close Cody associate, retribution is swift. Two young policemen are gunned down and the one link to the murder is J. Whilst in custody and later in witness protection, J's sole ally is Leckie, (portrayed by Guy Pearce), a decent detective who realises that the only way to persuade J to testify against his family, is to treat him with kindness and empathy.
"One thing that differentiates Leckie from almost all of the other male characters within the story",said Michôd, "is that he's able to step away from his job and enjoy a comfortable family life. He therefore offers J a glimpse of what a safer and calmer place the world might be. I had long conversations with Guy about what kind of a man Leckie was, because on one level I didn't want his persona to be entirely visible. So many senior detectives actually come from worlds not too dissimilar from those inhabited by the people that they're pursuing. They've developed a uniform for themselves. They wear a suit like a disguise and have a language that is almost like a robotic, monotone, cop speak, which is a deliberate way of not revealing your emotional inner life to people who may use that life against you. So I was ecstatic when Guy agreed to take the part, as I needed an actor who could portray that emotional blankness, but would still be compelling".
"In some ways", continued Michôd, "J's story arc is about a kid who's looking for a place where he belongs. He never felt that he belonged with his mother and then he lands in this house full of damaged people. Whilst he's trying to determine whether he belongs there, he meets Baz, who offers a feel of perhaps a better life outside of the Codys. But before he can accept, circumstances change and the opportunity is lost. And then there's the family of his girlfriend, Nicky, who are warm and loving. But we're aware, very quickly, that her home is not available to him in any permanent sense. So he's a kid who's always trying to determine where he belongs. Then Leckie comes along and it takes J, scarred by everything he's experienced, a while to realise that maybe there's something in Leckie that is genuine. I never wanted Leckie to be a father figure, but rather to represent there might be somewhere where J could be safe and comfortable. But eventually J realises that he needs to be the one who decides where he belongs, instead of relying on other people to do so for him".
Says Pearce, "What's interesting about the story of Animal Kingdom, is that you're looking through the eyes of a kid in this very dramatic and dangerous and violent world - and there right in the middle is this kid! Leckie knows that he has to be able to form a bond, a trust with the kid, in order to get through to the family and to really nail what he wants to do. So it's a curious mix of emotion here for my character in a way - to use the kid, but also to genuinely feel for him".
In researching the world of Animal Kingdom, writer/director David Michôd and his production team, covered a lot of ground.
"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 needs 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 realise 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".
"I thought of Animal Kingdom as my love letter to Melbourne", laughed director of photography, Adam Arkapaw, "as we filmed everywhere from Bundoora to Altona and the CBD, to Ivanhoe and Brighton and that was intentional because Melbourne has so much variety. David was passionate about wanting to encompass the whole city, from its quiet, leafy suburbs and cityscapes, to its stark, industrial side".
"From the outset", continued Arkapaw, "there were a couple of references David was fond of, including Heat, which is an example of a crime film that's timeless and classic and Magnolia, which was his reference as to how an ensemble piece can work. Every discussion we had would begin with why a particular scene was in the film, which would then lead us to the point of that scene, which is what good cinematography does. So once we understood scenes on that basic level, our decisions regarding our camera usage became quite straightforward. We decided to simplify things, because with so much crime drama out there, there's always the danger of making something that might seem interesting just because it uses big dolly moves or super theatrical lighting. So we put our trust in the script and allowed the power of the written word to come through".
Both Michôd and Arkapaw made the decision not to overplay the film's violent sequences, as they felt it would be far more disturbing for an audience to experience the reality of those scenes, rather than watching an almost cartoonish bloodbath. This naturalistic approach also extended to the lighting. "We tried to motivate light from what was naturally available", explained Arkapaw. "And if there was insufficient light we would then use our film lights to achieve the right quality, but it was always motivated by real sources. With a film such as this, there is always a temptation to make the lighting quite dark, but aside from some scenes that take place in the Cody house, we resisted that urge and chose to use light as naturally as possible. Most of the film was driven by wanting to represent a reality and not a metaphoric design. For example, a police station is essentially very white and oppressive so those were the qualities of the locations that we found and the sets that we built. Reality was our prime objective".
Scenes shot within the police station were filmed on Tungsten stock, spot lit with daylight sources and partially corrected with an 81EF filter as there were blue tones in the shadows. Many of the costumes were also blue, so the overall effect was quite sterile. Much of the film was also lit with cool white tubes, imbuing it with a somber blue-tone, which suited many of the scenes. Three different Kodak stocks were used throughout the shoot. These were Kodak's 50D for the exterior day scenes, chosen for its degree of latitude; 250D for the interior day scenes, as it was the most sensitive daylight stock available and 500T for the night scenes, selected for its lack of grain. Renowned production designer, Jo Ford, was delighted that director David Michôd's brief was to avoid obvious art direction. "David said that he wanted to shoot in Melbourne without resorting to the city's normal icons, such as trams, Victorian architecture and cute little village-style suburbs", recalled Ford. "This was 'music to my ears' because with drama, I prefer to focus on the actors and not the sets. I'm not a great fan of amazing wallpaper or fabulous cars. I try to keep the art department in the background as much possible. So if audiences feel that we simply went to locations and just started shooting without any preamble, than we've achieved what we set out to". One of the key locations for the first half of the film was the Cody house for which Ford referenced baroque and renaissance painters to achieve a depth of palette with rich, dark colors, emphasized by the hot highlights which emanated from windows, capturing the heat of a Melbourne summer. So when Leckie appears, bringing his world into J's life, the contrast was marked. With Leckie's character comes straighter, bright interiors which provide a dramatic contrast to the richly textured, dark animal den which the Cody's call home.
The abode chosen as the Cody house was a 1960's National Trust property, replete with NationalTrust furniture. As the production planned on spending much of the shoot there, the decision was made to remove the existing furniture and supply their own. Most of the furniture used was sourced from charitable organisations such as Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul. "We had a little art department sale at the end of the shoot", noted Ford, "but the rest of the furniture went straight back from where it had come, so no doubt it will end up being used in another feature film down the track!" Extensive location surveys were undertaken which often led to encounters with interesting characters. "When you're on these surveys", observed Ford, "you meet people from the animal kingdom every day. One of our 'safe' houses was owned by a gentleman who had the biggest animal heads, that I've ever seen, mounted on his walls. There were buffalo and deer as well as giant pigs and bison and I did a mini freak as I'm not very good with such things, but at least we knew we were in the right location Anyway, we politely had them placed in a room away from the crew, which I thought was locked. But every so often, I'd hear an odd squeal, usually from one of our grips or lighting boys, who'd innocently entered the room to store equipment, only to be confronted by a huge head sitting on a bed, reminiscent of that scene from The Godfather". As with the cinematography and production design, the decision was made to keep the wardrobe plain and avoid clothing characters as criminal stereotypes. For the greater part, they were dressed as average, next-door neighbours, which somehow made the brutality of their behavior all the more chilling. As J is very much an observer and initially discounted as being unimportant by his Cody uncles, he was dressed predominantly in black and white, which meant that he often blended into the background.
All three Cody men were dressed differently to reflect their personalities. As Smurf would have purchased most of Pope's clothes, his wardrobe was innocuous and somewhat too young for a man of forty. Craig, the most flamboyant Cody, was covered in tattoos - courtesy of the make-up department - and predominantly dressed in V-Neck singlet's, jeans and the occasional pair of Chinese fishing pants, as his look was largely about showing off his body art. Darren, as befitting a 'hip' young man-about-town, had the most fashionable garb, including a somewhat inappropriate light-colored suit that he dons for a funeral scene.
"David's brief re Smurf", recalled costume designer, Cappi Ireland, "was that she should be a bright,cheery spark, amongst all these boys/animals, which being so little, blonde and pretty, wasn't difficult. But obviously she's very evil, so her effervescence actually accentuated the sinister aspect of her personality".
"For me", continued Ireland, the challenge was not to over-stylise characters, so in the end I decidedto buy everything - apart from those instances where we needed multiples of a particular item - from opportunity shops. When I made that decision, it stopped me from becoming too design conscious with certain characters and gave the film a far more 'worn-in' vibe. As an example, all of Leckie's shirts and ties came from Savers (a popular Melbourne thrift store). Guy was totally happy to wear second-hand shirts. He totally got it. Some actors would refuse to wear second-hand clothes, but the more we showed Guy the old, worn-in items, the more he loved them, so it totally made sense". Another aspect of Leckie's appearance was his moustache. Guy Pearce explained, "As an actor, there are little changes that one makes, which can create vast differences, both externally and internally. So I find that costume, makeup and mannerisms are all tied together. There are certain things that spring to mind when I read something, so when David asked me how I'd feel about growing a moustache, I replied that I'd actually feel pretty good about it, because it's not uncommon for cops to have them. It's not a big deal, but the process of building towards that decision was something that needed to be discussed between us".
Almost perversely, given the volatile story he was telling, writer/director David Michôd maintained are laxed, steady presence throughout the shoot. "David's very calm and honest", remarked Pearce, "and he's also a wonderfully creative guy with great vision. Both he and Adam Arkapaw, the director of photography, worked beautifully together because they're both very sweet, gentle, creative men. Camera placement is such an important aspect of filmmaking and there are people out there who could learn a lot from both David and Adam. David has a very clear vision and that goes hand in hand with the honesty and the calmness. When it comes to filmmaking, people are very different but everyone involved with Animal Kingdom was inspired by David and his vision".
Following a frenetic and challenging shoot, the film transferred back to Sydney for all remaining production work.
Animal Kingdom was edited over 16 weeks in Sydney with editor, Luke Doolan. "The pace we wanted was a very slow burn, almost a Polanski type of pace, where nothing overtly escalates, it just sort of builds and builds and builds sub-consciously and in an extremely tense way". Clearing through many hours of footage, Michôd and his editor took the story into a tighter more suspenseful realm full of clearly marked characterisations and brilliant performances. But as Doolan says, " most of Pope's menace and psychosis is in the script, as is Smurf's menace, so we didn't have to push these things too far in the editing - as the performances and story did this in a way".
The score for Animal Kingdom is one that combines classical with synthesised approaches - all creating atmosphere and tension, along with character suspense and mood. The film's award winning composer, Antony Partos, "When David initially approached me about the score, he had a strong sense of the palette and mood he wanted in relation to the score. He wanted to create a sense of the epic within the film, without being melodramatic. Overall the approach to the music was to create synthetic textures that would take the place of an orchestra without trying to imitate the sound of an orchestra. Most of the palette consists of built up textures of synths together with voice, treated violin and cello and prepared piano. Organ also played a role in creating a sense of grandeur.
However the sounds chosen were deliberately small and intimate rather than bombastic". David had a keen sense of where he wanted music to dominate and drive the scene and other times when subtlety was needed. Partos says, "In this case I would create tones that were more sound design in quality. These were used to interplay with Sam Petty's sound design. Often they played out as simple atmospheres that create an uncomfortable feeling rather than being overt". Although there were no rigid character themes, the main opening title theme is constantly referred to throughout the film. Partos explains, "It has a sense of doomed grandeur and there is a subtle use throughout, although it's varied in structure, tempo and instrumentation".
"This was the first score that I have done where it has been almost exclusively based on synths asopposed to 'traditional' instrumentation. Finding unique sounds and exploring their relationship with each other was the main challenge. There were many pieces that came together by constantly reworking sounds, textures, as well as tempo, which allows a certain freedom. As a composer one learns about how to arrange acoustic instruments, but exploring and creating sounds from scratch was an entirely different learning curve!".
Sam Petty, Sydney-based award winning Sound Designer has worked previously with Michôd on his short films, so their working relationship was well placed to complete such a large design soundtrack for the film. Says Petty, "We tried to create and build suspense using a few different techniques, which hopefullyweave together and compound to move the audience - from unease at the beginning, to dread by the second act and to a release by the end". This design was built then on various techniques which began by subtly and incrementally stripping away the sounds of the outside world - the "non-criminal" world - from the audience and young J's character.
Petty and his team also exploited this sense of claustrophobia - personified by Grandma Smurfs cloying grip on her fold - by using insistent cicadas, pulsing in insistent frequencies, while removing air movement during the hot Melbourne summer. This affects the film with a "heavy" heat and stillness and a sense of being trapped, increasingly so. Different locations too also characterised the design work in the film - the Cody house has high andlow tones by again taking the "air" out with the upper-mid frequencies - so there is a subterranean, bunker-like atmosphere inside. "Funnily enough we used a motif with the fridge in the Cody house", says Petty, "often as the source of abstract and tense high tonal shifts and very filtered, bassy car passes was often the source of the (hopefully) ominous low end".
Contributing with various key pieces of additional musical score, to that of the brilliant Partos, Pettyalso tried to extend this exploration into the troubling low and high frequencies, while also looking for a bit of playfulness early on. His work on various cues can be heard throughout the film, plus around the testimonial scenes, where Petty "wanted to tap into the loneliness of this young witness in the court system by using high austere solo organ and desolate synths".
gdA Porchlight Films production, Animal Kingdom was shot on location in Melbourne, Victoria, from 16th February until 3rd April 2009, with funding provided by Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Screen NSW, Showtime Australia and Fulcrum Media Finance. All post production was done in Sydney. Madman Entertainment in association with Jetty Distribution handles distribution throughout Australasia, with sales agent E1 Entertainment selling the film internationally.