October 2015

Arts & Letters

An eye for tyrants

By Peter Conrad

Justin Kurzel on location in Scotland.

Snowtown director Justin Kurzel takes on ‘Macbeth’

The heroes – or perhaps the villains – of Justin Kurzel’s films are dangerously charismatic men, on the surface quite unlike the reserved, thoughtful and soft-spoken director. First in the series is John Bunting, the psychotic Messiah in 2011’s Snowtown, for whom murder is a purgative moral crusade. Next comes the self-destructive but sexually alluring ruffian in ‘Boner McPharlin’s Moll’, Kurzel’s contribution to the 2013 adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning. Now, in Kurzel’s Macbeth (in general release 1 October), Michael Fassbender plays Shakespeare’s reluctant and remorseful killer as a bloodthirsty warlord, excluded from humanity by his addiction to violence.

“Yes, I’m fascinated by leaders,” said Kurzel when we met in London. His comment may have had a confessional undertone. Directors have to be demagogues, autocrats, commanding generals, like von Sternberg strutting about in jodhpurs, von Stroheim glaring through his monocle or DeMille bellowing into a bullhorn.

Kurzel, 41, arrived at his own leadership role almost by accident, after some fumbling missteps and anxious reappraisals. He grew up in Gawler, on the edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australia – coincidentally close to the area where in 1999 some barrels in a bank vault disgorged the mutilated bodies of Bunting’s victims. As a boy, Kurzel was conventionally “sports crazy”. At first, his chosen stage was the football field, where he played out hyperactive competitive dramas with his younger brother, Jed. Later he graduated to tennis and, in 1987, dazzled by Pat Cash, announced his ambition to win Wimbledon. Gawler had no cinema, but Justin and Jed were driven by their father to see the Rocky films, which they performed all over again when they got home. As an antidote to this hormonal aggro, their mother, an art teacher, took them to Adelaide for the ballet at the Festival Theatre. The signals – Stallone or Nureyev? – were confusingly contrary.

When Jed formed a band, Justin taught himself to play the bass guitar, at which, he admits, he was hopeless. He also made frustrated attempts to be an actor. “I desperately wanted to succeed, but I was too ego-driven. I overacted, I never listened to the others who were onstage with me.” He decided to try set design instead, took a course at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, and then for three years collaborated with director Benedict Andrews on a series of acclaimed productions for the Sydney Theatre Company. “By my mid 20s, I was at the top of my profession as a designer, without knowing whether that’s what I wanted to be doing. I had no voice of my own, still didn’t know who I was.”

Nepotism came to the rescue when Jed asked him to direct video clips for his band, The Mess Hall. Justin enjoyed the work and found he “had an ache to go on doing it”. In his late 20s he humbly reverted to being a student and attended film school, after which he learned his craft by directing commercials. “Finally one day someone sent me a script, absolutely out of the blue. I opened the envelope and looked at the title page. Just one word: Snowtown. I felt a chill down my spine, and that was it. I jumped off the cliff.”

“Films were very visceral for us,” Kurzel said, remembering the Rocky re-enactments with his brother. Later, discussing Snowtown, he used the adjective again: “The films I like deal with landscape in a very visceral way.” At another point, he said that the challenge of Macbeth was “to create something that’s visceral, not arch and reverent that way it can be in the theatre”.

Viscera are guts, innards, offal, and they frequently spill out in Kurzel’s films. Roos are butchered on a backyard chopping block in Snowtown, and in Macbeth Shakespeare’s hero – who in the play does his killing offstage, or enlists thugs to do it for him – carves up adversaries on the battlefield, skewers his king through the heart, and lights the pyres on which Macduff’s wife and children are roasted alive. But how, I wondered, can a landscape be visceral?

To explain, Kurzel mentioned two films that influenced his vision of the Australian interior, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright. In the first, some schoolgirls disappear into the totemic clump of stone; in the second, a schoolteacher is deranged by exposure to the outback, sheds civilised habits and regresses to howling primitivism. Kurzel doesn’t need Weir’s sorcery or Kotcheff’s savagery to invest the landscape with a humming, seething, possibly malevolent energy. Snowtown begins with a long travelling shot of a flat, featureless rural horizon, while on the soundtrack an unseen character recalls a ghastly dream and Jed Kurzel’s music hypnotically drones. As we watch and listen, the vista’s tedium changes to menace and madness. Empty space becomes somehow murderous, and when Bunting’s victims leave phone messages saying they’ve gone off to Queensland or Perth it’s as if the vacancy beyond Snowtown’s sagging suburban fences has absorbed and annihilated them.

“In Australia you can go missing, or the place can just erase all trace of you,” said Kurzel. “That doesn’t happen here.” He glanced out the window at a narrow street in central London, patrolled by pedestrians and invigilated by security cameras. The frontier is terrifying because its loneliness forces you to confront yourself.

“The Australian landscape is incredibly beautiful,” he went on, “but it can be alien and cruel. Maybe there’s a curse on it, because it doesn’t belong to us. I’ve never seen anything like it – at least I hadn’t until I got to the far north of Scotland, where we made Macbeth.” In the film, the highlands with their peaks and troughs reduce Shakespeare’s characters to specks, and – because Kurzel chose to set the action outdoors during a soggy winter, even placing one encounter on a frigid beach – gales regularly blow away the verse. A shaggy beard helped to insulate Fassbender from the cold, and it amused Kurzel to see the poetry emerging from the gingery bush around the actor’s mouth.

On location, there was even a Picnic at Hanging Rock moment, when Marion Cotillard, Kurzel’s grave and grief-stricken Lady Macbeth, suddenly disappeared from view. “She was walking along, then we lost sight of her. A bog had swallowed her – the ground literally ate her up! But to do the play cinematically meant embracing the land that the characters are fighting about. The witches and spirits and souls of all the past come from the spectral form of the land. I wanted to suggest that there are many stories told about this place, and this is just one of them. It’s probably my Australian perspective that makes me think that way.”

Kurzel envisaged Snowtown as an Australian Western – a demonic version of George Stevens’ Shane, with Bunting riding in on a motorbike not a horse to corrupt the community he claims to be redeeming. Shakespeare’s play, as Kurzel re-imagined it, felt similar. “I read a lot about the real Macbeth and being a soldier in the 11th century, so again I thought of it as a Western, set in a pioneering town.” While Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth pretends to be shocked that Duncan has been killed while enjoying her hospitality (“What, in our house?” she gasps), Kurzel’s Lady Macbeth is less of a homebody. She and her husband appear to be camping out in a draughty hutch that, with mountains rearing behind it, reminded me of Wyoming in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Kurzel grinned: “That’s the idea. Heaven’s Gate is one of my favourite Westerns.” The Macbeths move indoors after their coronation, though for the scenes in their castle Kurzel used the grandiose, comfortless cathedral at Ely in Cambridgeshire. Here, too, he had the American West in mind: he wanted them, he said, to drift morosely through the chilly corridors of something like the infernal hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which was modelled on a labyrinthine lodge in Oregon.

At large in the wild, wild north, Kurzel’s Macbeth sheds the moral qualms that inhibit Shakespeare’s original character. In the play, Macbeth distances himself from his crime by picturing it aesthetically: he remembers Duncan’s “silver skin laced with his golden blood”, which is almost prissy in contrast to the mess of the actual scene. Fassbender as Macbeth is less squeamish. He also doesn’t suffer from the guilty paralysis that afflicts Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “After he kills Duncan, the play drops off,” said Kurzel. “It stalls. From then on, it’s an essay on guilt, and that doesn’t work cinematically. We had to keep the momentum going, so we gave him this personal vendetta against the Macduffs.”

Fassbender’s Macbeth could be Bunting streaked with woad. His militarism is latent in Snowtown: when Bunting enlists another recruit, Kurzel notes on the commentary track of the DVD that “his army is becoming stronger”. As Kurzel pointed out, “There’s a lot of similarities between him and Macbeth, though I only realised that after we started making the second film. Macbeth kills for a living, but the murder of Duncan is different, because the victim is his kinsman, his guest, and his king. Michael and I were interested in showing how he might be liberated by that, freed from his conscience. From then on, he can embrace evil. It’s like something Bunting says to [his protégé] Jamie in Snowtown: the kid has a conscience, so Bunting tells him to redefine what’s right and what’s wrong – then he’ll enjoy it.”

Jamie needs Bunting to administer this moral anaesthetic; Macbeth, battle-scarred and accustomed to gore, is able to desensitise himself, and by the end of the film he is one of the undead, an upright automated cadaver at the head of a zombie army. “I find that extremely scary,” said Kurzel. “Violence interests me, and that’s how violence works: you become what’s around you.”

Macbeth says he has “supped full with horrors”, and films today – Kurzel’s included – serve up ever more sanguinary meals to lip-smacking consumers. Are we meant to be disgusted, grossed out or frightened into compassion and commiseration by this surfeit of carnage? Has it left us indifferent, even dehumanised? At the beginning of Kurzel’s Macbeth, a dog gnaws the bodies left behind on the battlefield; near the end of the film, another dog – an enormous, doleful but entirely uncaring Great Dane – lies beside Lady Macbeth’s deathbed and ignores her husband’s despair. Those interpolated details are a kind of initiatic test for the viewer, a back-to-front version of the scene in Snowtown when Bunting challenges Jamie to shoot his dog as a proof of commitment to the cause. Bunting wants Jamie not to care; Kurzel asks us to accept responsibility for what we see and, even more troublingly, for what we imagine.

I suggested that Bunting, played with such creepy affability by Daniel Henshall, might be a more Shakespearean character than Fassbender’s case-hardened Macbeth – more complex, ultimately more mysterious because we have no information about his motives or his past, and irresistible despite his insanity. “People in the area who knew [Bunting] were always telling us what a great fellow he was,” Kurzel recalled. “He was incredibly sociable, cooking up his curries and getting everyone organised around the kitchen table, whereas serial killers usually stay in their rooms, brooding. He was offering hope, a kind of resurrection, to the kids in that community. He gave them a sense of identity – and the search for identity is at the heart of most things we do creatively. The tragedy is that he was sick, a psychopath. Yes, the whole thing was a tragedy.”

In previous interviews Kurzel has referred to Bunting as “a kind of preacher”, like an Islamic State recruiter. But Bunting was also a leader who psychologically fortified his converts, much as Kurzel had to do when training and encouraging a cast that, apart from Henshall, was made up of amateurs. On set, Kurzel often whispers to his actors, sympathising with their fears and persuading them to trust him; he is instigating action, as the apparition in Macbeth does when it tells the insecure hero to “be bloody, bold and resolute”. A director is a leader who exercises power by remote control, and stirs up actors to make mischief on his behalf.

“Jed and I often talk about great first albums – how brave and silly they sometimes are in the risks they take,” said Kurzel. “Snowtown must have seemed like that, a bit mad. After it I was offered a lot of projects internationally, but nothing much at home.” Taking the hint, he moved to London in 2012.

He seemed a little rueful about this relocation, though to deflect attention from his own case he glanced sideways at that of Jennifer Kent, who directed The Babadook, in which Kurzel’s wife, Essie Davis, plays a mother mentally besieged by a bogey from a children’s book. “Jennifer put years into that, and it was ignored in Australia at first. The distributors did nothing with it until it was plastered all over the place in London. Then they realised what they had. In Australia we’re very lazy about celebrating talent that’s just there. Look, it’s tricky. You want to work with bigger budgets, more ambitious pieces, high-profile actors, so you go where the opportunities are.”

His first assignment overseas was a John le Carré adaptation, Our Kind of Traitor, which he backed out of after 18 fractious, inconclusive months. “We had what they call ‘creative disagreements’ about the script. But the producer asked me if I wanted to do Macbeth instead, probably because Michael Fassbender was a fan of Snowtown. And when we finished that, Michael showed me the script for Assassin’s Creed, on which he’s a producer, and said, ‘Have a read of this, see what you think.’” Perhaps to his own surprise, Kurzel was hired to spend $200 million directing the film version of the commercially successful video game.

“Do you choose a film or does it choose you? I wasn’t familiar with that gaming culture, but it surprised me how much depth there is in it. I got fascinated, and found myself falling for it. And Assassin’s Creed isn’t the usual shoot-’em-up thing; it’s based on you having a connection to all those who’ve come before, as these people in the present take part in medieval battles between the Assassins and the Knights Templar that were first fought by their ancestors. It’s about your DNA memory, with all sorts of teasers and answers that help you to figure out who you are.”

As Kurzel talked, I sensed that he had come to think of this exorbitant project as a personal undertaking. What he finds touching about the Macbeths is their attempt to secure a legacy, even though the film begins with the cremation of their only child. “As human beings we all want to form a nucleus,” he said, “and be part of a tribe.” After examining this failed dynastic effort to control the future, in Assassin’s Creed he is exploring our derivation from the past; the “search for identity” has switched into reverse.

His reference to ancestry – which in the game is a kind of Dreamtime, accessible only to members of an inner circle – made me think that he has located a specifically Australian meaning in this global pastime. “I suppose it’s true that those of us who aren’t indigenous have a problem relating to the past. My father’s family migrated from Poland after the war. They could pick a boat to get them out of Europe, and by chance the one they chose was headed to Australia, which is where my dad met my mum, whose family came from Malta.” Accident, however, has a way of turning into destiny: the week before, Kurzel had been location-scouting in Malta for Assassin’s Creed, so the terrain in which the film’s hero will relive his past happens to be one of the director’s parental homelands.

The plot of Assassin’s Creed also hints at the perils of Kurzel’s current success. The protagonist, to be played by Fassbender, is a bartender who is kidnapped by a corporation and processed through a Jungian machine called an Animus, which allows him to recall those ancestral memories. The creed, it turns out, is about the loss of freedom. Kurzel has begun to discover what that means. The auteur, it turns out, does not have supreme authority. Months ago, he invited me to an early screening of Macbeth that had been arranged for the cast and crew in London; he was then informed by the production company that he had broken an obscure rule that debarred media representatives from such events, and I was disinvited. A kerfuffle followed about the location of our interview. It was supposed to take place at Pinewood Studios, where Kurzel had offered me a “show and tell” about preparations for Assassin’s Creed. That was embargoed because of “security issues”, as if the NSA were in charge, and we had to meet in the Soho offices of StudioCanal, which controls Macbeth.

Kurzel plans to repatriate himself to the arduous but mercifully under-populated frontier, where there may be less interference. When we spoke, with his second film as yet unreleased and his third still in pre-production, he was already at work on the script for his fourth, an adaptation of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang – a version of the archetypal tale that will reveal, he said, “what those times were”, with the outlaws struggling to survive in an inimical landscape that could well turn out to be Snowtown without mod cons. A fifth film has joined the queue, a thriller set in a mental hospital, which is a location ideally suited to a director with such a dark imagination.

Kurzel is a self-confessed worrier, who once said in an interview how much he envies the reckless, uproarious laughter of his wife: as an actor she lives in the present moment and, unlike Lady Macbeth, does not bother about discerning “the future in the instant”. Did he, I asked, lie awake fretting about what he’d taken on? The answer was evident in his haunted eyes. “It’s hard to make a film like Assassin’s Creed, with such a massive budget and on such a massive scale. And it’s so different from what I’ve done before. But I only ever do things that scare me. Snowtown did, then Macbeth did, and I suppose that’s the reason I’m doing this one – because, to tell you the truth, I’m scared shitless.”

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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