Snowtown: Horror of the mind

SnowtownAustralia’s most tragic serial murders have been re-imagined as Snowtown, a psychological thriller that will prove its early detractors wrong. Miguel Gonzalez reports.

Few Australian films have attracted as much attention as Snowtown, and it’s easy to see why. The ‘Bodies in Barrels’ murders it’s based on shocked the nation in 1999, when eight bodies were found in barrels of acid in a disused building in the small town of Snowtown, South Australia. Four people were arrested and charged over the murder of 12 victims; John Justin Bunting was the central figure behind the killings, with the assistance of Robert Joe Wagner, Mark Ray Haydon, and James Vlassakis, the son of Bunting’s partner Elizabeth Harvey.

Ever since the project was announced and it was revealed it would receive public funding, some were eager to cast the first stone and dismiss the film as “a shocking way to spend taxpayer money”, condemning “the unfortunate public appetite for entertainment based on tales of murder”.

Snowtown had not been shot yet, and those people had not even read the script before making such headline-catching statements. They were opposing it based on pre-conceived ideas, so producers Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw, and first-time director Justin Kurzel, knew they’d have to convince the public that their vision for the project was very far from making an exploitative horror/torture film.

“The events are horrific. People looked at Snowtown and instantly thought it would be a slasher film, because it’s about serial killers and there are numerous murders,” said Kurzel. “It’s been depicted in TV documentaries, and reported by the media as a one-dimensional story, so people immediately assumed it could only be made as a horror film. That was the general response as soon as the film was
announced, which is why it was such a relief to screen it at the Adelaide Film Festival, so we could finally talk about it in the right context”.

According to producer Anna McLeish, they were aware of  the challenge from day one, and knew they’d have to work hard to change any negative perceptions from the media and the audience.

“The media’s job is to try to get people’s attention and the best way to do that is through something sensational, so we’re constantly communicating that the film is doing anything but glorifying the events,” she said. “[The controversy] could be harmful to the film’s box office if we were not aware of this and planning for it, if we were not working with the distributor (Madman Entertainment) to communicate the right message and counteract that common perception.”

McLeish started the Australian operations of UK-based Warp Films in 2008, with the idea of being “fast and focused” about their projects, making sure they’d be made, financially, for “the right amount they should be made for”. That same year, she met writer Shaun Grant at MIFF, and he told her about the Snowtown murders script he was developing. In 2009, they were joined by producer Sarah Shaw, and they eventually presented the project to Justin Kurzel, a celebrated theatre director whose short film Blue Tongue had screened at Cannes in 2005.

Kurzel grew up in Gawler, not far from where the events happened. He didn’t know much about the murders, except for what he’d seen in the news. When Warp Films presented him with the Snowtown script, it was Grant’s approach to the story that made him feel he needed to be part of the project.

Snowtown is told from the point of view of Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), a 16-year old living in a world of violence and abuse. When his mother (Louise Harris) starts seeing John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), the charismatic man becomes Jamie’s mentor. By the time Bunting’s criminal activities are revealed to Jamie, the teenager must prove how loyal he is to him.

“The corruption of innocence, the nature vs. nurture conflict that he dealt with in the script; these elements were presented in a very fresh way. I wasn’t aware of the very strong father-son relationship of this case, or to what extent the events had been the result of a troubled community,” explained Kurzel. “I instantly recognised it as a psychological drama. The script showed an enormous dignity towards the victims and the events, and an incredible emotional depth in the psychology of the characters. I felt the tone needed to be observational, non-judgmental. Had it been in the horror
genre, I wouldn’t have done it.”


The theme didn’t hurt the financing process for the film, which had a budget of “between $2-3m”.

“Regardless of the project, financing is always a challenge,” said Shaw. “We got a lot of momentum based on the script really early on, and we were very fortunate that we had investors who believed in the project and came on board from day one. There’s a small component of private investment, as well as funds from Screen Australia, Film Victoria, the South Australian Film Corporation, the Adelaide Film Festival Fund and Omnilab Media.”

With the help of Victim’s Rights Commissioner Michael O’Connell, the Snowtown Management Committee and other individuals and groups, the producers undertook a consultation process with the affected community.

According to Shaw, this engagement with the community was not only organic, but essential for the project: “It’s something we thought about very early on, even before the financing was complete. It was not only because of our responsibility to engage the community to tell their story, but it was also important in terms of actually being able to make it in that area.”

In the film version, John Bunting is an outsider who enters the local community and manages to manipulate them. Kurzel thought it would be interesting to cast Bunting as a relatively unknown actor, and then source the rest of his actors from the actual community where the murders happened. Casting director Allison Meadows looked in local shopping centres and streets for the people who could bring these characters to life.

“The common element we were looking for was a sense of commitment,” explained Kurzel. “I knew the material was incredibly confronting and it was going to be emotionally draining, so the only way to get the truth that I was looking for was for those people to be as honest, brave and open as possible. It was important for me to know about their lives, understand their vulnerabilities as well as the things that make them happy and excite them, so that all these elements could be used as inspiration for their portrayals.”

The six-week shoot was done in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, close to the houses where some of the events took place. “We were incredibly welcomed,” said the director.

The approach to design and cinematography came from the area itself. Kurzel spent some time photographing it: “It was about allowing the area to tell us the sort of story that it was trying to be, so it was an incredibly giving environment.”

Snowtown was shot on 16mm by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. Kurzel believed film would allow crew and cast to work faster.

“I felt there was something very instant about film. You don’t have data wrangling and so forth; you can literally just pick up the camera and go. Aesthetically, it provided texture and authenticity… the observational vérité look that I wanted, especially at the beginning.

“We used a lot of natural light. There were lots of interiors, and many of those locations were in housing commission flats that have their blinds and shutters down, with only little slitters of light coming from under the door or through a little window in the toilet. Those Caravaggian sources of light seemed to be picked up better on 16mm than on digital.”

Snowtown doesn’t play like a dramatised version of the murder case. It doesn’t care much about how things happened, but why, and as such, it doesn’t follow all the events that took place over the seven-year period the crimes were committed.

“I didn’t want it to be a docudrama where you just find out about the case, how many murders happened, etc. It was about a point of view, Jamie’s. The story is revealed to the audience the way it was revealed to him,” said Kurzel. “This is a cautionary tale. Sometimes films are confronting and dark, but hopefully people will engage with the journey that the character goes on, and the themes that are debated here, which are both relevant and important.”

Snowtown will be released on May 19.


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