Snowtown is a new film that explores the notorious “bodies in the barrels” murders that occurred in a small South Australian town during the ’90s and it is sure to be a controversial and challenging experience for audiences. It’s a harrowing, disturbingly bleak psychological study of John Bunting (played with chilling authority by Daniel Henshall), who is regarded as the worst serial killer in Australia’s history and his influence over Jamie Vlassakis, a naïve teenager who was desperately seeking a father figure.
Snowtown is the first feature film from Kurzel, an award-winning director who hails from a background in theatre design, music videos and commercials. Kurzel grew up in Gawler, a suburb not far from where the killings occurred, and, although he admits that he didn’t really know much about what happened, the script intrigued him. “I started reading it, and I found it a really compelling read. I was very intrigued to learn why [the murders] happened. It was a very interesting perspective, something I hadn’t heard before.”
Kurzel was fairly determined about how he wanted to approach the film. “I always wanted it to be an observational film,” he explains. “I didn’t want it to be this pre-judged thing where I was leading the audience on my own kind of moral journey. There is no redemptive moment at the end where I can say Jamie called the cops, or this is how and why it happened. I think it’s a much more complex story than that. You trust and hope that the audience will come out of it with their own judgments, and thoughts and ideas about the events.”
To ensure authenticity Kurzel and scriptwriter Shaun Grant did a lot of research within the area, which included speaking to people who were closely connected to events and to the perpetrators.
“There was obviously a lot of concern about what sort of film it was going to be, whether it was going to be a horror film or a slasher film, or an exploitation film. It was important that we started a dialogue with people that it wasn’t going to be that. We wanted the community to be a real focus within the film. There were some people that obviously had concerns and didn’t want us to make the film. But there were an enormous amount of people who were very positive about it and very eager to discuss the events and give their opinion as to how and why it might have happened.”
Kurzel didn’t want to portray Bunting as the straight-up one-dimensional serial killer; rather, he wanted to try and get under the skin of this charismatic killer who gained people’s trust. The casting process was important, as Kurzel wanted fresh faces that didn’t have a huge amount of baggage attached to them in terms of profile. “Not to say that’s a bad thing,” he elaborates, “but I thought that for this sort of film it would be great to have someone who’s fresh.”
Snowtown follows a number of other muscular, visceral crime locally made films like Animal Kingdom andRowan Connelly’s blistering drama The Boys, but Kurzel stamps it with its own unique style. “I think we do have a history of making those sort of films,” Kurzel acknowledges. “But I think that Snowtown is very particular and very unique to a set of events that happened and a particular community that I don’t think that we’ve seen on the screen before. And I don’t think this level of insight into true evil has ever been explored in this way before. So I think it is a unique film in that it is one that is pretty particular to what happened.”
The film has played to sold-out sessions at the Adelaide Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the Audience Award and received positive notices. “There are obviously people who are incredibly confronted by the film and it’s going to challenge people,” Kurzel admits. “I felt that while watching it, people were able to navigate through the violence, and connect very deeply with the character.”
Kurzel is already at work on his next film, a collaboration with his brother Jed, who also did the music on Snowtown. “It’s a black comedy, and it’ll be really nice to work in a different genre,” he concludes.
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