Controversy is no stranger to Justin Kurzel. His 2011 debut Snowtown, an impressionist true-crime drama of harrowing power, dramatized Australia’s most notorious serial-murder case from the perspective of an abused teen molded into the killer’s accomplice––and in so doing inspired its fair share of appalled responses, along with rapturous praise. Subsequent success clearly hasn’t deterred him. After seeming to pivot toward ever-bigger productions in Hollywood and the UK with adaptational Michael Fassbender/Marion Cotillard vehicles Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed, Kurzel pivoted back to Australia and his first screenwriting collaborator Shaun Grant with 2019’s True History of the Kelly Gang, a punk-infused reimagining of the country’s foundational outlaw myth that, like Snowtown, complicates and punctures traditional renderings of Australian masculinity with nightmarish restlessness.
With his latest feature Nitram, Kurzel returns to an intimate drama on incendiary subject matter. The film, which earned American star Caleb Landry Jones Best Actor at last year’s Cannes, tells the deeply unsettling, lightly fictionalized story of the man behind Australia’s worst mass shooting, which claimed 35 lives in 1996 and prompted near-instantaneous gun reform in the country. Rather than depict these crimes directly, it instead dramatizes the troubled home life, profound social isolation, and easy access to guns that precipitated a mentally ill and cognitively impaired man’s incomprehensible transgression.
We sat down with Kurzel to talk about his unusual career trajectory, creative synergy with musician brother Jed (who, alongside his brother’s films, has also scored The Babadook and Alien: Covenant), the purpose and ethics of telling a story about a mass shooter, and––in a lighter moment––his enduring fondness for a certain Adam McKay comedy. In keeping with the subject matter, this interview contains frank discussion of mass shootings.
The Film Stage: First off—just wanted to say I’m a big fan. Snowtown was one of my favorite films of the last decade. I think it’s an incredibly powerful work. You’ve been all around the filmmaking block at this point, going from very local Australian stories to Shakespeare to Hollywood and now back to very Australian narratives again. What, for you, is the impetus behind making this full circle?
Justin Kurzel: [Laughs] No one’s so eloquently put it like that about my career. “Around the block.” [Laughs] Though, I guess you’re right! Yes, it’s been kind of a strange career. I’ve been terrible at going, “This is my lane and I should stay in it and master it,” and perhaps I should have. [Laughs] I never would’ve thought after Snowtown I would’ve done a Shakespeare film and made a film in the UK, but I guess I’ve been interested in different genres and different styles. It’s always kind of been about what project is around, what feels like it wants to be made and what feels a bit different from what I’ve done before.
I guess after Assassin’s Creed––that was an experience that was really challenging for me––I just sort of wanted to be back home, I wanted to bring my daughters up back home and just sort of reassess what I was interested in making and doing. I had a really strong pull to Australian stories again, so I did True History of the Kelly Gang and then––there’s so many stories out there of directors [working] on films when COVID hit and turned everything upside down, right? Nitram’s idea was sent to me by Shaun [Grant], who I have a really close collaboration with, who wrote Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang. Nitram was a spec script that just sort of happened out of the blue. Everything was in lockdown and the producers just sort of went, “I think we can make this.”
It really is a COVID film, it’s a film that probably would’ve only [been made] because of the fact that we’re all isolated and the world had sort of shut down around that time, allowing us to make this thing in a really intimate kind of way. I think after True History of the Kelly Gang I was thinking about how I haven’t really made an American film, and I was definitely trying to find an American kind of story. This was a film that reminded me of Snowtown in its simplicity, and I was really intrigued by trying to tell it in the simplest way––for me to take a step back as a director in terms of on-set presence, to see what it’s like to just allow a story to unfold, especially one as particular as this.
Expanding further on your collaborations with Shaun Grant: the three films you’ve worked on so far all seem to share some connective tissue. They’re all Australian period pieces dealing with historic acts of violence that follow socially alienated young men. Is there any sense, for you, of these films being part of a series, or did they all just sort of bubble up independently? Is there more in that vein that you could imagine wanting to tackle in future?
I think when Shaun sent me the script for Nitram, he did preface it with [a remark that] this is sort of the “end of the trilogy,” thematically. I hadn’t really thought about it after True History of the Kelly Gang, but I definitely think it’s a space both Shaun and I know and are interested in, and where together we do our most interesting work. We’ve tried doing other kinds of stories and it hasn’t quite gelled, but there’s something about being in a world of outliers that fascinates us and makes us really question a lot about Australia, violence in Australia, and men in Australia. I think a lot of our influence in Australian film has been similar. So I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a thread through them all, and definitely Shaun saw Nitram as a third to the other two.
Looking outward in your “production posse,” I noticed that, compared to many of your previous movies, Jed [Kurzel]’s collaborations on the Nitram score seem more restrained, or at least less of a driving force in the narrative. There are a lot of scenes where you very conspicuously use silence and ambient noise, whereas Snowtown has whole passages dictated by Jed’s music that bring us into the protagonist’s mind. Is there a general guiding philosophy behind your usage of Jed’s music, or the way you used it in this film particularly?
Well, obviously he’s my brother and we both sort of started out at the same time. Snowtown was our first collaboration, but it kickstarted not only my film career but also his as a composer. Before that he was in a very successful two-piece band. So of course that collaboration is very strong, and the prints of his music in my films are strong and heavily connected to the point of view of the lead characters. I’d say that’s also true in Macbeth and True History of the Kelly Gang, that the music becomes a very particular character in the film that lends itself to the point of view and tone of the film in a very dominant way. That was always intentional and always came out of the very organic partnership Jed and I share. There was always something quite bold in the way that we were using music, specifically to find an internal point of view.
With Nitram, however, it felt, right from the beginning, like anything you placed on it was either judging the character or making the character too empathetic. It was a really tricky lens. I was really interested in not feeling me so much in the film, stylistically; I think I’ve been quite loud in my past films, and for good reasons, but with this I wanted to be a bit invisible. With everything–the cinematography, production design, everything. The camera kind of cautiously filmed the world. It was interesting, with Jed’s stuff; after I filmed, we were picking up a lot of interesting sonic material within the suburbs, whether that be lawnmowers, kids playing off in the distance, birds, or even just the sound of a [scratchy] record player and the way it would slowly start to dismantle the Gilbert & Sullivan songs used in the film. We sort of went, “Wow, there’s a sonic world here within the suburbs that has a kind of musicality but also has a point of view.” Which is the character’s point of view.
There are a couple moments in it where I still sort of felt like the audience needed to come out of that point of view, always centered around the driving sequences. It’s funny, I remember going into the sound mixing and Jed had done a couple simple pieces, more atmospheric than melodic, and he was the one going, “Just take it out, there should be no music here.” I remember us debating for a long time about that. It was really interesting, because it was so different from anything we’d done before. He’s so much a part of the films that I’ve made, moreso than anyone else in that he’s been a consistent collaborator and also very intimate, and the placement of his music in the films has always been very deliberate. It says a lot about how different this film is stylistically to the other films, because of the way I collaborated with him on this.
This is a broader question that you’ve probably had in every other interview about this film, but it’s sort of the big one: why this story and why now?
Shaun and I had talked years and years ago, around the same time as Snowtown, about whether the Port Arthur shootings could be a film; we felt at the time that it couldn’t be. Shaun didn’t quite know how to write it or what the point of view was. The interest in making it now came from his script that he sent me, in that I found it incredibly powerful. I understood why he wrote it, having lived in Los Angeles and been very close to a couple of mass shootings, and him in a fever kind of desperately wanting to write a film about gun reform. It wasn’t about one thing in particular, but when I read the scene with Nitram buying the guns that sort of crystallized for me the cadence of what this film was: it seduced me into this world that felt familiar and recognizable, I felt like I was looking at a family drama, and then the character I’m spending all this time with starts to become more isolated and dismantled, and then suddenly when they’re at their most dangerous they walk into a gun store and start buying semi-automatic weapons like golf clubs.
In really simple terms, the story’s journey landed for me in that scene when I read it, and when we shot and edited it the process of getting to that scene was definitive. Working on it during COVID, though, there was also something about outliers and about how quickly people become isolated and fall between the cracks. The question of what our relationship is with outliers really became interesting to me, and started speaking to something about the events that transpired which I felt was important. There was something very familiar and recognizable about those characters that I felt came through reading the script.
I’m living here in Tasmania; my wife comes from Tasmania. We were very aware when making this film that it would cause pain to many people. I trusted Shaun, and I felt my instincts on it were that the film was on the right side of the fence. We were trying to have a really honest discussion about not only gun reform, but also how we as a society and community look after each other. That became the guiding light as we tried to navigate making what is a really, really difficult film, especially here.
In one scene Nitram seems to suggest that the defining connective tissue between Nitram’s anger and grief over his familial losses and the decision to channel that into random mass violence is seeing coverage of the Scottish Dunblane mass shooting on TV, specifically how the broadcaster’s editorial slant makes him sympathize with the murderer portrayed as a “weird,” “outcast” victim of society. Do you worry at all that this might imply something inherently self-defeating about relaying the narrative––even if it’s factually accurate––of the mass shooter as outcast acting in vengeance against the society which rejected him?
I don’t think it can be simplified down to just that event and that thought. I think there are so many things running alongside it. The Dunblane connection was something we found out while making the film. Dunblane had happened very, very close in time to the Port Arthur shootings, and it’s really interesting because the responses from both the UK and Australia were the same. It was something we felt was important, and the fact that those two events happened so close together wasn’t so coincidental. But I don’t think Shaun and I ever wanted it to feel as though that was the trigger point, that that was the moment that defined it and Port Arthur was just a copycat killing. Hopefully the film suggests much more than that, but it was an important and authentic detail.
In Australia, young men are always looking for a tribe to be part of––particularly in the 90s. If you weren’t a part of the surfing tribe, if you weren’t a part of the football tribe, if you weren’t a part of the drinking tribe, you kind of weren’t anything. It’s sort of amazing here when I look back on my youth, and I think it still happens that a lot of young men are just desperately searching for something to be a part of, to have some sort of identity and connect to a particular sort of masculinity here that I think in the past, if you weren’t a part of, it was tough. You were isolated pretty quickly. That search for identity throughout the film––to run away from a name, to desperately try to be a part of this surfer tribe, to go to a pub and hope not to be invisible, is definitely something that plays into the story.
And in the end, the tribe that did sort of embrace Nitram was Australian gun culture. Over a period of time, he managed to accumulate a lot of weaponry and a lot of interactions within that culture. That was something I found really interesting in Shaun’s script. That’s a long-winded way of answering your question, I think. It’s an aspect of the film; I don’t think it’s trying to define Dunblane as the moment that triggered Port Arthur. I don’t think we ever wanted it to feel like that.
One last thing I wanted to say before we run out of time, which isn’t quite a question, but on a somewhat lighter note… I wanted to thank you for being the one filmmaker with the bravery to put Step Brothers on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll.
[Grinning] That wasn’t brave. That was really easy.
Well, Step Brothers is the sort of film I could watch 50 times. If I could make a film that brilliant, I would be very very happy. I would love to make a film like Step Brothers, but the genius of not only Adam McKay but the actors involved––the way in which they improvise that film, and just the tone of it, to pull it off is nuts! [Laughs] The idea of that family unit, that you completely and utterly believe that family unit of those two boys––who happen to be men––being step brothers looked after by these adult parents, is nuts. He’s one of my favorite directors, Adam McKay, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s gone on to make Vice and The Big Short. You can tell the genius from Step Brothers. It’s still one of my favorite films. It’s in my top 5, and I think it is Chaplinesque in its genius.
[Laughs] It definitely seems to have some overlap with your work in terms of complicating masculinity, deconstructing it as performance and so on.
Yeah, yeah! There’s something there. There’s definitely something about how awkward growing up is and how awkward men can be. The film makes me laugh every time, because the humor’s original and it’s one-off and no one else could’ve made that film but him.
I agree, it’s one of my favorites! But sometimes it’s something you’re a little ashamed to admit is your favorite…
I think it’s pretty cool to name it now! I think everyone’s going through the Adam McKay back catalog now and going, “Oh, I was there from the start.”
I actually think he peaked there! I wish he would go back to that style. He was never better than Step Brothers.
Yeah, and Talladega Nights. It’s weird, though: he’s one of those directors where you’re watching something that’s so farcical and so extreme, but there’s just an absolute honesty in it. You’re laughing at the truth of it. He’s brilliant at that, at connecting to a kind of humor that really gets you deep down––like, it’s a really deep laugh. And that’s because you’ve felt it or seen it before in real life. Will Ferrell’s crying in that film, where he starts hyperventilating like a little boy and can’t stop, like… I’ve done that, I’ve seen that. But to see an adult man do it in such a beautifully observed way is just genius.
Anyway, it’s a pleasure talking about Step Brothers––everyone wants to talk about darkness with me, so I’m extremely excited to be able to talk about that instead.
Nitram is now in theaters and on VOD.