August 22, 2010|I met up with David Michôd and Ben Mendelsohn--director and star, respectively, of the exceptional Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom--in the dining room of Denver's Panzano for a little breakfast and espresso. In the middle of an exhausting schedule for the duo that saw them shuttling back and forth across the United States in support of their film, they appeared to be mutually nursing some variety of respiratory ailment--just one symptom (along with red eyes and a pale complexion) of too much time spent breathing recirculated air in the company of strangers. Entirely unpretentious and unfailingly polite, both wore torn T-shirts and shabby jeans, sported two-day growths of stubble, and seemed completely comfortable with me, probably because I was dressed, more or less, in exactly the same way. I liked them instantly.
At the end of our chat, I asked the pair to engage in an FFC tradition of two interviewees photographing each other. I think it said what needed to be said about them that Mr. Mendelsohn took two quick snaps while Mr. Michôd was well into the twenties before he finally handed my ancient camera back to me, saying, "Here, mate, there's got to be something on there." I started with a question that I make it a point never to ask (or at least to only ask with some direction), one of those "what was it like to work with so-and-so" questions, aimed squarely at Mr. Mendelsohn. When the so-and-so in question is director Terrence Malick, with whom Mr. Mendelsohn worked on The New World, I find it impossible to resist.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about your best day with Terrence Malick.
BEN MENDELSOHN: (laughs) There were a couple of them, really, I mean, fucking hell, Terry Malick, right? Early on, for instance, he asked me to keep an eye on the extras, um...
DAVID MICHÔD: Why did he pick you?
BM: Well, obviously (laughs), he saw in me a certain, you know, streak--a, uh, kind of...
Natural leadership quality?
DM: (laughs) That was a total mystery to the rest of us.
BM: (laughs) No, no, David, no, he's right, he's right--he saw in me this ability to be a sort of glorified second AD, you know, herding around all these poor extras in this heat and you know, Terry, he would never shout or anything like that, really a lovely man, so I felt like I had to take on the burden of doing a lot of shouting. Moving things around. He'd get quite a giggle out of me putting on the alpha and strutting about. I was, I don't remember what I was having them do and such but just getting them, you know, moving and then I look over and here's Terry doubled over. It was all kind of a laugh to him. That's how he directed. And then you see what's come out of all of that and it's just... Well... You know.
BM: Yeah, not bad. (laughs) "Come and join the family in Virginia," and what can you say but "sure"? I can't remember how long the shoot was but it felt like a really, really long time. Everything to do with the way that he works. He doesn't use artificial light--he's extremely natural, extremely fluid, knows exactly what he wants to do and he needs people that can really roll with that patience, with that pacing. I think it can be hard if you can't get into his mindset, [people] who aren't comfortable with that have a really hard time. But if you're willing to go along for the ride, the rewards are just, really, incomparable.
I was struck by a lot of scenes of nature in Animal Kingdom, particularly the field of grass at the midpoint--is there a Malick connection there?
DM: God, I hope so. More, though, what I was hoping to do through the course of refining the script was to figure out what kind of crime movie I wanted to make. I was fresh out of film school when I started writing it and I hadn't really considered much beyond just wanting, you know, to make it. What I wanted was to make a film that took itself very seriously. I wanted an undercurrent of menace. It couldn't afford to be light and fluffy, to exist in a cartoon universe. The first real clear, modern examples of films I wanted to emulate were films like The Godfather and Heat.
I picked out Michael Mann in your film, too, the way it looks in many scenes but also the Tangerine Dream-like score like the one he had for Thief.
DM: Definitely, definitely. I don't recall specifically talking about Mann, or Malick, or any explicit referencing of other directors or films, but we did want to evoke many of the same things that those filmmakers evoke. I mean, right, who doesn't? I really wanted to evoke the dirt and heat of a miserable Melbourne summer but as the film goes on and as we visit areas that are more sterile, more institutional, whether they be situations or environments... Well, there're really no better templates than those guys, are there? It was really important to [DP] Adam [Arkapaw] and I to have a cohesion to it even as it's tempted to sprawl across all these characters and all these places--we wanted to be able to connect the pieces in the film to each other but I still wanted, and Adam wanted, to have quite a diverse visual canvas. To not be afraid to do different things so long as it never seemed like the scenes were parts of different films.
Compare Malick to Vincent Ward to David Michôd, here.
BM: That's interesting, because they all three are alike in that you never feel as though you're working hard. That the hard work's been done somewhere out of sight of where you are and all that's expected of you is that you show up and do your job. They're all quiet on the set, they're all interested in the visual--in the texture of their films. The other two guys I didn't work with as closely, however. David and I have a pre-existing relationship and I felt a lot more comfortable approaching David with any concerns I might have had during the course of the shooting.
And did you often?
BM: (laughs) No, not at all actually, I don't remember one time that I had to and I think that's maybe the best part of working with someone that I understand and who understands me--the hard work's already been done, yeah?
DM: The thing about Ben and all great actors, really, isn't to me how well they can take direction but how little they really need direction.
BM: Well, David, what it really is, is this ability by some directors to create not an intellectual space, but an emotional space in their films so that when we have this conversation about how it is that we're going to find a certain performance or build a specific character in a moment, then we find that maybe the conversation's already been had. The guys with a good barometer are gonna be able to provide the good stuff. It's pure, it's not badly cut. They're all very intelligent.
DM: Very. Very intelligent.
BM: (laughs) We talk about a Terry Malick or a Vincent Ward and what we really need to understand about those guys is that they're so pure about who they are and what kind of artist they are and what kind of film they want to make that it's almost subliminal for the actors in their movies. You're in tune. All of that without entering at all into the technical space. What I like as an actor is a director able to time your best moment with the moment that he's shooting his best scene--it's important that the best moments aren't squandered and how do you know when those moments are? It's not something that you can teach. Your question is an interesting one because I certainly had that relationship with David, too.
But isn't it your subtlety that attracts these directors to you?
BM: Well, um, that's a lovely question to be asked and...
DM: (laughs) I'll take this one after you've been allowed to twist for a while. Yeah, you're right, he's giving too much credit away if that's possible with guys like Malick and Ward, but certainly when I was looking to cast I wanted to find guys that would make me look like a fucking genius. I wanted a guy who could do the entire range without much more than a twitch of an eye or a gesture or just a posture in a certain situation. He's a mix of different qualities--most of them terrifying. (laughs) But most of all he's believable to me as a leader of this pack of sweaty animals.
BM: And we did that on the set, we gravitated to these sort of pack positions as men will I think naturally do when you put them together in a group. I was, I mean, I was fairly brutal with them as we were working.
Talk about the use of sound.
DM: Yeah, we didn't want to romanticize the violence at all, to make the gunshots seem sexy somehow. I knew I wanted in the film to make something that wasn't grounded in blood and guts, but where the moments of violence would come from nowhere and then be over in the blink of an eye. I was much, much more interested in the consequences of violence than the portrayal of it, and sound--making things flat and not at all glamorous--is key to that. I didn't want a movie about how cool crime or criminals are. But again, I knew I wanted the film to have a real palpable feeling of doom so that any great, huge, explosions would be ultimately counterproductive to that.
DM: Yes, I wanted to disrupt expectation a little bit, like in the police standoff where not a shot is fired...
Or in the death of Craig without a bang...
BM: ... but a whimper, yeah?
DM: (laughs) I find--or I want to think--that the life of a criminal is a little like that: a lot of anticipation and then, poof!, and then a lot of tears.
At what point did Antony Partos come in?
DM: We'd put together a temp score so that we had something for the rough cut and also something to play during some of the scenes and brought that to Antony who, almost instantly, was able to get the vibe of the film and produce stuff that was actually better than what we could've imagined. Those cues you heard to our favourite films--that's Antony and what he saw in our film. As to actual conversation, there really wasn't that much, it was mostly inspired by the film and you know the whole back end of the picture, that I really have to give a lot of that feeling to Antony. He brought in this real depth of emotion there that I don't think was as good or as obvious in the rough cut. It's what a great composer can do for your film.
|Mendelsohn (with Jacki Weaver) in Animal Kingdom|
|"The setting in that house looks so much like a dark cave, a warren of passages where these animals could live... I wanted a feeling of a house-like-a-bunker."|
Tell me about Air Supply and that idea of patience."
BM: Well that was something that David and I marked out... Well, David pretty much just told me...
BM: (laughs) ...that there were a couple of really touchstone moments in the course of developing the script that we really needed to nail for the rest of the film to fall into place and that scene was certainly one that we'd marked out and kept an eye on from the start. It was because he wanted to see what this guy, Pope, goes through by himself. There were a couple of things going on in that shot within that guy and it's at that point just maybe the third time you get to see him and there's so little on the surface, you know, David really wanted me to be inside-out, you know, to be so fucking still to the point where... Where...
Where you as the audience didn't really know what the big deal was about this Pope guy...
BM: For sure, for sure, exactly, and then you see him for the first time and he's just sort of a shape and you look at me, yeah, and you think, all that for this guy? He's no fucking monster, yeah? David?
DM: (laughs) He's a monster.
BM: (laughs) Well yeah, something's not right with his Kingdom of Denmark there, right? And so David and I had these long talks--well, he was just horse-whispering me, really, about what Pope might be and what he might be feeling there and it was, you know, I have to confess that he gave me one direction in that scene that really unlocked the character for me and not just for that scene but for the whole rest of the movie, and then we just turned on the camera and let it rip. Probably not, um, yeah--yeah, here's a guy who's dealing with his own bag of... Things... But I'm pretty happy about how that one turned out.
DM: Definitely happy, definitely happy. I remember setting that scene up and just kind of moving the camera around and trying to find the right movements and the right light and... Like Ben says, it was one of those scenes that I really had to get right or the rest of the movie falls down.
What was the direction?
BM: It was, "Where would he have been, if..."
Interesting that you chose Air Supply for the scene.
DM: How, interesting?
It's so cheesy and unpretentious that it actually allows for an emotional engagement with the scene--it's like Philip Glass.
DM: (laughs) What I was thinking was that the song encapsulates for me in a way all the things that I love about movies, this absolute abandon. It's so outré, this strange artifact, it exists in this world of pop kitsch but there's so much immediacy to it and so much passion and feeling that it's impossible just to dismiss offhand.
A self-deprecating choice?
DM: Yeah, put it that way and maybe so: maybe a defense against criticism.
Talk more about patience...
DM: It was important to us that we not feel compelled to do unnecessary, florid things with the camera, the edit, the screenplay. We actually pruned a lot during the shoot, took out things that we didn't need to tell. We had such a great cast that it just wasn't necessary to talk everything out. Adam and I particularly talked about how the script and the performances shouldn't be redundant of one another. We wanted elegance, but we didn't want to draw too much attention to us behind the camera. We wanted the emotional manipulation to be in the margins.
Tell me about the camera moving around corners, edging around blind spots in the film...
DM: I knew I wanted to work within the conventions of the crime drama, but also for it to feel unusual. To, part and parcel with that idea of doom and dread, play a little bit like a horror film. Not a monster movie or a slasher, but something more subdued and more menacing, more slow...
Like Rosemary's Baby--a film with a lot of similar movements...
DM: I love Rosemary's Baby. I wanted there to be a lot of fear around what was happening in that room down at the end of the hall. Again, I didn't--and Adam didn't, I don't think--have anything in mind, but I do love Polanski so much that it can't be an error that he seeped into the picture somehow if he did. I wanted scenes through slightly-ajar doors. I wanted that feeling of the unknown so much that it informed the sets. The setting in that house looks so much like a dark cave, a warren of passages where these animals could live and where dark, bad things could be happening just out of sight in the corners. I wanted a feeling of a house-like-a-bunker.
DM: No, I start storyboarding and then I can't finish--but I shot-list extensively. It's my first feature and all but it's interesting because I had such the luxury of a long pre-production and rehearsal period. Long enough that we had so much time with costumes and sets and characters and writing that I don't know that by the time we started shooting that we needed much in the way of storyboards. The conversations we needed to have, we did before we started. It was amazing to see us all as individuals in the beginning, and then during the course of this time of sussing the film out, for all of us to arrive at the same place when the cameras started rolling.
I want to talk about the last scene of your film--about how the quietest of the uncles steals the moment at J's ambiguous triumph--and I was hoping we could talk about it by going back to your brutality, Mr. Mendelsohn, towards your fellow actors.
BM: (laughs) Well, I was particularly brutal to Luke Ford. Luke and I had a very, um, a very antagonistic relationship. Both ways. Luke was the person I talked to the least. I kept James [Frechette] well away from me--I made sure the second AD and stuff kept him at more than arm's length away from me. He'd come in and I'd say, "Get that kid the FUCK away from me," and so when we did have scenes together he'd be scared to death of me.
DM: (laughs) Which of course was only reasonable.
BM: (not laughing) Yes, yes, it was, it was reasonable. And I kept calling him different names for most of the thing. I called him "John," I ignored him, he really didn't know what it was about until my girlfriend at the time met him and said, "Oh, yeah, you're the one that Ben's avoiding!" and then the cat's out of the bag, then, but it still had the desired effect. But Luke, you know, the blonde-headed kid, I was just merciless with him. I gave him Querelle. You know it?
The Fassbinder about a gay French sailor?
BM: (laughs) Yeah, I gave Luke Querelle and he didn't watch it and I'd ask him and he didn't watch it and finally he watched a bit of it and I said, "Did you get it? Did you get it? That's your character. Go home. Watch the film. That's your character." So finally he goes home and watches it and comes back and he says what're you talking about, I don't think I get it, you know, how is that my character? And I say to him it's because you take it up the fucking ass whenever I want you to. And he got very angry about it.
I can't imagine how that could have offended him.
BM: (laughs) When we were doing that scene when we were getting ready to go out, we were really going at it with one another that day.
DM: Rather tense day on set.
BM: Yeah, just really at each other's throats all day--I mean, he was being such a fucking idiot, I couldn't even fucking look at him. Just a really bad day, but a really great day, too.
DM: I think Luke's performance in the film is actually really beautiful as a result of all that antagonism and tension. They'd be at it, you could tell they really, genuinely, had developed this deep distrust and hatred of one another, and then I'd start the scene and Luke'd have to just bottle it all up. What you see in those scenes they have together is this just amazing frustration.
The murder of the girlfriend...
DM: Exactly, exactly, you hear him off screen and he's actually the centre of all of it. Of all of what's happened in this family and all that might happen to J now that he's ascended. I think that Luke wasn't sure of the work he did in this film, but it's actually crucial--vital.
BM: He's fucking great in the movie. Fucking imploded. He can't do anything.
The last scene doesn't work without Luke's performance.
DM: Absolutely. It's his scene, his moment. He's so downtrodden, so much the useless brother, I'm sure that he felt that way too on the set. But his performance is exactly what it needed to be. It's the right counterpoint, the perfect balance, the movie doesn't mean what it should mean without that reserve that he brings.
BM: No, and I don't think that Pope is near as menacing a character without being able to see the effect that he has on people in his circle. Luke and I worked very much the same way--we allowed these things to bleed through and off we go. We hated each other. He was infuriating, I have never worked with anyone as infuriating, but I don't think that happens if we weren't so near in temperament and process.
Querelle is a nice touch.
BM: (laughs) A masterstroke.
You talk a little about fear of criticism--how does the Australian Film Industry play into that?
BM: It's weird, the Aussie Film Industry. There's this idea that we have, you know, that we're always on the edge of destruction, so that everyone's always just one step away from complete and abject panic. It's a very small industry, everybody knows everybody else, and what tends to happen is you get these upwellings of panic for no reason that I can see. There's the whole New Wave in the '70s, another wave of creativity in the '90s--and then, what? And why does it go away and why does it come back? It's hard to say, it's a mystery, but it has to do with an inferiority complex I think. We have high expectations and we're constantly disappointed.
You have directors, actors, editors, cinematographers--you have so much talent, particularly given the size of your population. What's missing?
BM: Well, we lack entrepreneurial production. It defuses some of the potential impact of our best work.
DM: Yeah, it waters it all down, you know. There are trends, there are cycles, thirty, forty year cycles, but I find it quite interesting that the Australian media portrays itself on the constant verge of collapse. We make thirty to sixty films a year and the problem is really that all of them get a theatrical release. The thinking is that if the people are paying for the films, then the people should be able to see the films, which makes people think that what we make is mostly, you know, 99% garbage so what's wrong with us?
That's par for the course, though, isn't it? Across the board.
DM: It is, it is, but I think what's different is that while you guys are making six hundred, we're making sixty and everybody sees all sixty, and fifty-eight times they're disappointed at best, embarrassed more likely. Mine's a practical explanation that these government-backed movies in our industry--not 100% but substantially--[meaning] that these films that should never probably be made by people that never probably should have made them are being made and then they're getting the same kind of push and screen space as, you know, real films from all over, so that these terrible movies homegrown are up against the best films--or at least well-made films--from the States and everywhere else all over the world.
So you were expecting a different reaction to your film in Australia?
DM: I was, yeah, I was expecting to get raked over the coals back home. I had no idea, really, what to expect, truth be known. I mean, by the point that we got to release and to Sundance, I was feeling pretty good about the movie but that's when you get cut down to size. I was expecting backlash--expecting this wave of reviews of the first reviews--but I found that it didn't happen. In part, I think, it didn't happen because--well because I hope it's rich and substantial and not undercooked like a lot of Aussie films are. It's been gratifying the most to me that the response here is so closely echoed by the response at home.