Before writing and directing the tough, excellent crime film Animal Kingdom (my review here), David Michôd wrote about film and was the editor of Australian mag Inside Film for a number of years. I wonder if anyone then knew that he had a movie like this inside of him, or that he would make such a huge splash with his debut.

Set in the criminal underworld of Melbourne, Animal Kingdom is both sweeping and personal, telling a crime story that resonates on a number of levels while also feeling totally original and fresh. You can see where the DNA of Goodfellas, the defining modern crime movie, is in Animal Kingdom, but you never feel like you’re watching another retread. Because you’re not.

A couple of weeks ago I got on the phone with Michôd. This is what we talked about.

Watching Animal Kingdom I was convinced that a story this deep, this textured had to be from a novel. It turns out that it wasn’t, that it’s an original story. Where did this come from?

I moved to Melbourne from Sidney when I was 18. Melbourne was a kind of big and totally unfamiliar city to me, and so I started reading a lot of true crime books – Melbourne has a long history of true crime writing. Particularly ones by Tom Noble, who was the police reporter at The Age in Melbourne, and particularly about this period in the 1980s where this was this ongoing and quite dangerous animosity between the hardened gangs of old school armed robbers and the armed robbery squad of the police. These stories, and getting a sense of Melbourne from these stories, made me want to write what I was hoping would be a big Melbourne kind of crime story. It was very important to me from the beginning – and I wrote the first draft of the thing ten years ago – that I write something that felt big and rich and substantial. I didn’t want to make a little kind of rock ‘n roll crime film about how cool criminals are. I knew I wanted to make something weighty and grand and possibly grandiose. Out of those years of massaging it these characters came to life, and these relationships. I think it was just literally a process of ten years of me massaging the script and watching my writing mature at the same time.

How did you know it was time to move forward with the script as an actual film? When did you realize it was ready?

I think it was about the time when other people started telling me it was ready. At all stages of the process it’s easy to lose your barometer. I think you rely at all stages of the process on the feedback you get from outside sources. The challenge is to make sure you have finely tuned filters to figure out what feedback is useful and what should be ignored. For me with the script it was hitting upon a draft where people stopped telling me everything that was wrong with it and started telling me I should make it. And that coincided with me making a short film, Crossbow, which got me some attention as a director. And it coincided with Liz Watts coming on board as producer. Those things – a script that felt like it was in the right place, people having faith in the director and a very experienced and well-respected producer – made it feel like it was going to happen.

The entire movie hinges on one performance, in a lot of ways – James Frecheville as Joshua. That has to be difficult, finding that guy who can be the lynchpin of the whole movie.

Yeah [laughs]. I always had a very clear idea of the kind of character I wanted J to be – that typical, emotionally inept, socially awkward and possibly even non-expressive teenage boy. Then the challenge becomes a kid who can do all that stuff while not doing very much but still feel like a performance with detail. That was the one thing about James that struck me when he came in to test for us – and we saw about 500 kids – was the amount of natural intuitive detail that was there. The one thing about James that wasn’t how I had imagined his character was simply his size. He’s 6 foot 2 and even though he’s 17, he doesn’t look necessarily like a 17 year old. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the size. This confused and awkward young man being packaged in a body of that size – somehow for me it made the character feel more sympathetic and, on another level, made the movie feel more plausible. He looks like he should be able to handle himself in that world.

I think what makes Animal Kingdom special is the family aspect. At the center of that is the character of Janine, played by Jacki Weaver, who really just adds a whole new dimension to everything that goes on. Is she based on someone, or is she a character who you came up with out of whole cloth.

She’s not based on anyone specifically. In Melbourne there are a couple of quite infamous shady matriarch type figures. These sprawling families that very often have at the head a seemingly flamboyant, if not vocal, mother figure. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to build that character up. There is no person in Melbourne who is like the character that Jacki Weaver plays. I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t want the character to come packaged as a grizzled, battle scarred, nasty old matriarch. I wanted the character to come packaged as the sheer delight that is Jacki Weaver. I wanted that sense of a character that crept up on you.

I was at a screening of Mad Dog Morgan and director Phillipe Mora was there doing a Q&A. He was talking about the state of the Australian film industry. He had come out of that early wave of Aussie directors, and his opinion was that not a lot had changed since those days. It’s a small industry, and it remains a small industry, and it’s a tough industry to keep going. You’ve been on all different sides of the Australian film industry – where do you think it stands today?

I wouldn’t disagree that not a lot has changed. Certainly the infrastructure feels more solid now, but we don’t make a huge number of films in Australia; we make maybe 40 a year. It’s never that easy. In some ways I think that our blessing and our curse is that we’re an English speaking country. I love that I can make a film that can play not only at home but at Sundance and in various countries around the world unsubtitled, and in a language people can understand. But at the same time it means we are always competing with Hollywood. And almost invariably we are going to lose. But I think making movies in general is tough, and most people get it wrong. In a country that only makes 40 films a year I think you can only really expect that maybe 3 are going to work in any given year. And I think that’s true of all filmmaking cultures in the world. It’s a really hard thing to do because you never know what you’re doing or what you’ve done until it’s finished. You can do everything that you intuitively think you need to do, but it’s not until you’re finished that you generally know whether or not you’ve gotten right. I think this is true of filmmaking all over the world – every year there are only 2 or 3 films from anywhere that really thrill me.

In the last decade Australia turned into the new backlot for Hollywood. How has that impacted the industry there?
It’s been positive [on the crew level]. It’s always great when Australian crews and cast have the opportunity to work intimately with resources. It’s great for experience levels and it’s great for a sense of energy within the industry. But Australian crews have always been experienced and respected for their ingenuity. They’re not used to have resources or an infrastructure. There’s an ingenuity that can be useful on set.
Having said all this, Australia as a Hollywood backlot has been drying up a bit.
Yeah, Green Lantern was supposed to shoot there, but then the economy tanked and they pulled it back to the US.

It’s almost entirely to do with the strength of the Australian dollar. Suddenly it’s not so cheap to shoot there.
Another thing Mora said is that for Australian directors the next step is naturally Hollywood. Do you see that as the case for you, or do you see yourself staying in Australia?
For me it’s not really necessarily where I step to next, it’s a question of what I step to next, and on what scale that thing will be. I would like to make a film that is a bit bigger than Animal Kingdom. Not wildly bigger, but a bit better resourced. On some level that may mean doing it somewhere other than Australia.

Do you have that thing lined up? Looking at Animal Kingdom people might peg you as a crime director, but looking at your other work it’s obvious your interests are wider. Is there something lined up?

There are a couple of ideas I’m toying with, but I think you’re right – my interests are incredibly varied. At the same time I think there is some sense to be had in consolidating whatever my voice is. It might be a mistake for my second film to be a musical, but I can totally imagine wanting to do that at some point down the line.