October 2021

Arts & Letters

An eye on the outlier: ‘Nitram’

By Harry Windsor
Justin Kurzel’s biopic of the Port Arthur killer is a warning on suburban neglect and gun control

Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant haven’t always gotten along, though they’ve now made three films together in 10 years. Speaking from his home in Bellerive, Hobart, Kurzel even expresses a certain surprise that they’ve forged such a close working relationship, most recently on Nitram (in cinemas and streaming on Stan), which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in July. “I mean, I kicked him off the set of Snowtown,” the filmmaker recalls. “He came on set for the day, and we just clashed because he was kind of going, ‘Why are you doing it like that?’ And I was like, you know… who the fuck are you?”

Neither had made a film before at that point, so crossed wires were perhaps inevitable. Grant was only just putting a job as a schoolteacher behind him. Growing up in rural Victoria, in a pub with a video store attached, the writer fell for movies early, but the prospect of making a living from them seemed remote. “I went to school, played footy on the weekends, didn’t think much further than Saturday,” he says now, speaking from the Victorian coast, where he moved recently after many years in Los Angeles. Grant’s sensible Scottish mother encouraged a teaching degree that led to a near-decade in classrooms, and it wasn’t until he took a night course in screenwriting at RMIT in Melbourne that he started writing what would become Snowtown.

That script, an adaptation of a true-crime book about the infamous bodies in the barrels, eventually found its way into the hands of young producers Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw. And it was they who suggested Kurzel, himself only just embarking upon a second career after 10 successful years as a theatre designer working alongside the likes of Benedict Andrews at the Sydney Theatre Company. The director realised he preferred the rehearsal room to the workshop and decided to go to film school. Soon he was making music videos for his brother’s band, The Mess Hall, which caught the eye of McLeish and Shaw, who organised a meeting between Kurzel and Grant at a cafe.

The pair shared a working-class background, and the writer was taken with the director’s idea to shoot in the real outer suburbs of Adelaide and cast non-actors. They redeveloped the script together, jettisoning the more procedural elements to focus on the subjective experience of the film’s lead character, a prisoner of circumstance seduced by the devil. Snowtown screened to acclaim at Cannes and established both their careers overnight.

Afterwards Kurzel moved to London and made a couple of big-ticket films with the Irish star Michael Fassbender (Macbeth, Assassin’s Creed  ). Sandwiched between Grant’s unlikely foray into family films such as Jasper Jones and last year’s Penguin Bloom, the pair also reunited on an adaptation of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Still, the screenwriter’s list of unmade projects (what he calls his football ladder) is long, and many eureka moments have led to nought. “When you first have an idea,” he says, “it’s the best idea in the world. And it’s sitting right at the top of your ladder. And then as time goes by, you see the flaws, and it slowly plummets – you know, like my football team has done this season – all the way down.”

One idea, however, refused to fall. Grant and Kurzel discussed it long before True History, but the project – the last in what is now a trilogy of films about angry young white men burning down the world – ­terrified each of them. Grant recalls vividly where he was when the Port Arthur massacre happened, and there was something about the event he couldn’t shake. But he couldn’t find an access point, a way to wrestle the events into a dramatic shape. He tried focusing on the 24 hours before the shooting and telling the story from multiple points of view. But the bigger question remained: why? Why tell the story of a man both filmmakers are at pains throughout our conversations – and indeed their film – to avoid naming?

The answer, at least for Grant, arrived in 2018, when he was still living in LA and his girlfriend (now his wife) was called into work and had to abandon a trip to a supermarket where a gunman later opened fire. Two more mass shootings made national headlines only months later, one in Pittsburgh and another in Thousand Oaks, California. In the aftermath, Grant watched a basketball broadcast in which a former athlete trotted out the old “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” line, and it got the writer thinking. What if an audience spent a whole film with a character who was clearly a ticking time bomb, and then watched how easily he could stroll into a gun shop and purchase a cache of automatic weapons?

Grant wrote the script in five weeks without telling Kurzel, then emailed it to him. The director took a deep breath and started reading, certain that this was a film he wasn’t going to make, not least because he lives in Tasmania with his Tasmanian-born wife, actor Essie Davis. But he was quickly disarmed by the screenplay. “I felt like I knew this family,” he says. “I knew that person you cross the road to avoid, that is bullied and bullies at school. I felt like I knew that street, that mother. The fatigue of that mother.” There was a restraint to the material, with no violence shown onscreen, but a “palpable tension” too. And he was chilled by the scene in which the main character buys guns as though they’re so many fishing rods.

Nitram is therefore an act of advocacy, though Grant is quick to note they didn’t want to make a public-service announcement about gun control. “I think what Justin responded to the most was that it was political without being political,” he says. “I didn’t want to ram it down people’s throats.” As with Snowtown, Grant wrote the film on spec, but after that the process diverged. Though it weathered its fair share of controversy, Snowtown received the backing of the government support service Victims of Crime South Australia, which acted as a liaison between the filmmakers and the families of victims. This time, the Tasmanian service declined to participate and the production has therefore had little contact with Port Arthur survivors and families.

Is Kurzel worried about their reaction? “Absolutely. Anyone who lived through – was affected by – that tragedy… the last thing I want to do is bring trauma or distress to people. At the same time, I think we should be able to make [films] – and write and paint – about things that are difficult. And be able to have a sophisticated discussion and an open discussion, with heart and empathy, about why and how certain things happened in the past.”

That tension – the desire to make something “sensitive and respectful but at the same time authentic” – is writ large over the film itself, which ends before the massacre and never presents the perpetrator as anything less than antisocial, alienating and deeply unpleasant. Though Nitram has understandably been viewed as a companion piece to Snowtown, that film was distinct in that it elided the distance between the viewer and a teenage subject who was both victim and murderer. Snowtown was another in a long line of Australian films, such as Romper Stomper or The Boys, about charismatic men who enlist younger ones in evil acts. When he first read the book on which the film was based, Grant was struck by the fact that the protagonist was born, as he was, in 1979. “The whole genesis of the story was – what if that was me?” he says. “What if I’d been raped my whole life, and the one person that gave me any support turned out to be Australia’s worst serial killer?”

Nitram, by contrast, withholds the same sense of identification, the same sense of empathy for a man who aggravates everybody he meets – a fact the writer admits made it “harder to write, harder to sell”.

The compressed 21-day shoot took place in Geelong, Victoria, rather than in Tasmania. It was also in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, an experience that underlined the story’s themes of loneliness and fragmentation for cast and crew. Shooting mostly handheld, Kurzel and his cinematographer, Germain McMicking, used spherical lenses (rather than the wider anamorphic) and adopted an unusual aspect ratio, the better to mimic the television screens visible in several scenes. The director wanted the world to feel suburban, familiar, even nostalgic, and for the filmmaking to be almost invisible. The camera is therefore mostly detached rather than subjective, “like it was hiding, or peering through doors”. And the music provided by the filmmaker’s brother, Jed, whose pulse-like score gave Snowtown such a propulsive sense of dread, is used only sparingly.

The effect is a film that is both tethered to its subject’s experience and outside it, looking on with alarm. According to Kurzel, it’s about the way people react to the main character, trying to decode what is forever encrypted. It accordingly centres the parents, played by Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia, who mediate their son’s contact with the outside world. Kurzel came to understand, while he was making it, that the film was actually about a mother trying to love her child, and largely failing. The film even ends on a shot of Davis, though the original plan was to fade out on its nominal main character. It feels like an acknowledgement that she has emerged, by that point, as the film’s most human face, a character who “helped us to understand him more, and connect to his dismantling through her eyes, rather than through his”.

It’s also a reminder of how good Davis can be, and how rarely we get to see her in a film (not since 2015’s The Dressmaker). Grant is full of praise for the veteran actor, who was always interrogating his script to ensure they didn’t nudge her character towards caricature. He recalls a conversation in Cannes where a journalist seemed to imply a correlation between the mother’s harshness and the child’s crimes. “We need boundaries and rules, and I think mothers get a lot more blame in parenting than fathers. That was never my intention, because I think they were doing absolutely the best they could.”

Grant and Kurzel’s three films together interrogate ideas of parenthood as well as the country’s history, recent or otherwise. And you could make a case that those preoccupations are in some ways twinned. The films of the Australian New Wave were frequently about people growing up in a country that didn’t love them back – that saw them, indeed, as alien. Kurzel’s favourite films include classics such as Mad Max, Wake in Fright and Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which “characters are floating in landscape where they have no footing”. And Snowtown and Nitram are nothing if not urban variations on the theme, updating the estrangement to the 1990s.

When it became public, last November, that the pair were making a film about Port Arthur – or more accurately, about Martin Bryant – many pundits, as well as politicians, declared they found the idea inappropriate and unseemly. The reaction was predictable, if surprising in its vehemence. And the blowback clearly salted the wound after the filmmakers had already been turned down by government funding agencies (the film was eventually self-financed, at least in part). The controversy can perhaps be attributed to the remarkably resilient idea that movies are entertainment, and therefore anything that tackles real-life trauma can only diminish or trivialise it. Or maybe to the fact that the event is such an outlier in our history, and therefore sacrosanct.

Either way, as Grant points out, there are plenty of precedents for this kind of treatment, from 22 July, directed by Paul Greengrass, to the Australian-made Hotel Mumbai, both released in 2018. Each of those films bloodily recreated real-life shooting attacks – in Norway in 2011 and India in 2008, respectively – whereas Nitram does not. “I set out to tell a dark story in a gentler way than we’ve done before,” he says. “And I think we’ve achieved that.” Though Kurzel was conscious that he’s known, as a director, for an interest in violence (and a certain amount of, well, viscera), Grant’s script afforded him the opportunity to take a less explicit approach, and the new film operates with a kind of falling barometric pressure. Before the storm, though not exactly calm.

Speaking in advance of Nitram’s local release, the filmmakers are clearly nervous about the reception that awaits it, but also emboldened by critical hosannas at Cannes, where Caleb Landry Jones won Best Actor in the title role. They’re bullish but still smarting, at least a little, from the initial wave of brickbats. Were they ever tempted to make a film about a fictional mass shooter instead? It’s a question Grant has heard before, when he was developing Snowtown in the wake of David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, which took the 1988 shooting of two police officers in Melbourne and made it the central event of a fiction.

“And David did it well. I remember in the writing of Snowtown being almost told to do that by someone coming into a writing workshop we’d set up. And my biggest issue… Animal Kingdom’s a cracking thriller film, but there’s not necessarily a social issue that you’re trying to get across. For Snowtown, I had a major issue with the South Australian government, at that time, taking all these unemployed people and putting them in housing estates. So that a boy like our protagonist in the film can go 10 kilometres in either direction – and [still] not know anyone that’s employed.”

The political dimension in Nitram is made explicit in the closing credits. A series of cards informs us that there are now more firearms in Australia than in 1996. And that, despite the famous buybacks of the Howard era, several of the states didn’t follow through on much-touted reforms. History ignored is history repeated – that’s been the mantra of writer and director throughout the press cycle.

Acclaim overseas will no doubt ensure respectful notices at home. We’re an impressionable bunch. If we owe the artist the extension of our sympathies, there’s little doubt that Grant and Kurzel will collect. The character they’ve chosen to make a film about, by contrast, receives no sympathy at all. He’s a blank with the IQ of a child, and simply unfathomable.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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