In the United States, the name John Bunting is, more likely than not, an unfamiliar one. That’s about to change, however, with the stateside release of the award-winning, emotionally devastating Australian flick The Snowtown Murders. Directed by first-timer Justin Kurzel, the tough-to-watch (in a completely intentional way) film, which opened in limited release Friday (and is also available through IFC's VOD platform), depicts how Bunting, Australia’s most infamous serial killer, carried out his reign of small-town homicide and terror, a murder spree that tallied 11 victims from 1992 through 1999.
Amongst native Aussies, the reputation surrounding Bunting’s horrific story is that it’s the “Bodies in Barrels” case, labeled as such after eight of his victims’ bodies were found in barrels of acid, stashed inside a closed-down bank in the South Australian community of Snowtown. But, with The Snowtown Murders, Kurzel hopes to paint a different picture of the infamous events.
The film’s main character isn’t Bunting (who’s portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Henshall), but rather 16-year-old Jamie Vlassaskis (rookie actor Lucas Pittaway), an abused and troubled kid who’s in need of a male role model. In comes Bunting, who romances Jamie’s equally vulnerable mother and charismatically lures the teenager, along with the disenchanted and seemingly forgotten citizens of Snowtown, into his web of murder.
With a cast of authentic Snowtown locals, an overwhelmingly intense and bleak tone, and a masterful command of implication over on-screen violence, The Snowtown Murders is a punishing yet must-see experience. Complex recently spoke with Kurzel to discuss the delicacies involved with telling such a painful and factual story, why people think the film is more hardcore than it actually is, and the importance of authenticity.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The John Bunting case is an infamous one your native country, yet before The Snowtown Murders, I’d never heard about John Bunting and his killings. It doesn’t seem like a case that’s common knowledge outside of Australia. Have you noticed a difference in reaction from audiences outside of Australia, as opposed to the more personal reaction Australians must have?
In Australia, I think, there’s so much baggage with it. You just mention “Snowtown” and everyone’s got an opinion about it. I also think that when the media first reported on it, and the guys were arrested and the shop of horrors was revealed, it was a very macabre, sensationalist type of reporting; there was very, very little writing about the community and the people behind it. There wasn’t much of the human side to it. So that was the biggest surprise to me when I first read the script and started researching and reading through the transcripts, that it gave me this completely different perspective.
Overseas, though, I think everyone is just more focused on what’s on the screen; they’re looking at it more as a piece of cinema. They’re probably not distracted as much about the morality involved, as far as whether anyone should even tell this story or not. That kind of debate probably isn’t as strong as it was in Australia.
Is this case something that you’ve always been fascinated by, even before you decided to make the movie?
Well, I came from the area where it happened, so I had a natural interest in it. I grew up about five minutes from where the murders took place, and, I don’t know, I think I had the same prejudices as everyone else. When it happened, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh, what a bunch of fucking freaks.” I had no idea about the Jamie story, and just the dynamics of this man coming into this community, empowering them, and creating these vigilante groups. That was never really reported in the media, so I was really shocked and surprised when I read the script and got this point-of-view of this kid.
I completely understood it. The idea of a young man from this area who’s looking for a father figure is something I could connect to straight away; growing up in the area, there were so many young boys desperately searching for male figures to look up to. And I thought it was such an interesting thing that this kid Jamie found that kind of father figure in a serial killer, even though he didn’t know he was one. I thought that was just a really unique relationship.
Entering the story through Jamie’s point-of-view is what really separates The Snowtown Murders from other films about serial killers; oftentimes, it’s either seen through the cops’ eyes, or the killers themselves.
I would never have done it if it was from John’s point-of-view, because I couldn’t see how you would do it. I just wasn’t that interested in doing a body-count film, and I wasn’t interested in breaking down the psychology of a psychopath—I was more interested in the corruption of innocence, how a young boy like this is led into the gardens of Hell. That was far more interesting to me, personally.
I guess my biggest question, as was Shaun’s [Grant, the screenwriter] was, “What would I have done? If I was a 16-year-old kid and I lived in an apathetic world and was letting shit just happen to me, as if I deserved it, and then along comes this guy who says, ‘What’s happened to you is wrong, and this is what we’re gonna do about it.’” I at least had an understanding as to why Jamie would look for answers in a figure like John.
So that interested me enormously, and I’d heard about scripts that were floating around about the Snowtown murders, and they were from John’s perspective or from cops’ perspective. And there were cops in this one, too, the first draft that I read—there was a courtroom drama in the end, as well. But I said to Shaun and the producers that I wasn’t interested in that, and that what I was interested in was entering the story completely through Jamie’s point-of-view.
Shaun had already done that throughout the script, but I wanted to focus on that and make the ending about the moment where he either becomes a killer or not, where he falls into the serial killer role or he doesn’t, as opposed to the practicality of the events. I wasn’t that interested in how they got caught, or how the police did or did not catch them; I was much more interested in the journey of this boy, which I thought was incredibly powerful.
The entire cast, except for Daniel Henshall (who plays John Bunting) is made up of first-time actors from the Snowtown area. How immediately did you know that using untrained, born-and-bred locals was the best way to tell this story?
Yeah, I knew straight away. The idea of getting a whole bunch of other actors to come in and populate this area was something that I didn’t think would work. I felt the community was a very, very important element in the film; there needed to be a truth and a sincerity to what you see on the screen. It had to be something that you believed. I was also interested in the idea that John Bunting wasn’t from the area—he was an outsider who came into this community. So, right away, I wanted to cast someone to play him who wasn’t from the area. Dan had never done a film before, but he was from Sydney and he was an experienced actor.
I was very adamant about the fact that I didn’t want to cast this community and then just swing a camera around and shoot them. It was really important that I was able to find people who I thought were going to be brave enough to give themselves to the production. I also had incredible performance instincts that I could direct, but the casting was really long and tough. To find the people you had in your mind, and also the tone of someone who has the ability to go to some pretty dark places, to get those three things was really tough. The thing I’m most proud of in the film is the level of performances we got from those guys; I think they’re very complex and sophisticated.
Was it as simple as a big casting call, or did you spend time in the community and hand-pick people?
You’d get up on a rainy day, when all you want to do is sleep in bed, and you’d go into the area and spend the whole day just watching people, hoping that you’re not going to get assaulted. [Laughs.] You don’t want them to think you’re some weirdo who’s watching people. You’d spend the whole day there, and you’d get nervous because you didn’t know if you’d found the right people. You don’t know if this crazy fucking idea of casting people from the area was going to work, but you just keep at it and keep at it.
It’s a lot of legwork. You can’t just do a cattle call—you have to search and find. We did one, though, where we advertised and got a whole bunch of people to turn up in a gym. But most of the cast came from just walking and walking in the area and coming across the cast. That’s how Lucas was found, and another person was found while he was walking a dog outside of an arcade. It was really about finding people, instead of them coming to you. It took a long time; we had about eight to 10 weeks of casting, which, in the end, was probably not enough.
Did you notice that Daniel’s role as the most experienced cast member paralleled John Bunting’s coming into the community and instantly having people look up to him? For a bunch of first-time actors, it must’ve been reassuring and appealing to work with someone who’s acted before.
Yeah, I think so. There was already a kind of respect for Dan because he was an actor. There was also something interesting playing into it, as well—I didn’t know that Dan had been on an Australian soap opera show. The soap was playing constantly on reruns every afternoon, and I had no idea about it. If I’d known that was on the soap, I might not have even cast him, but the irony is that everyone was watching the soap during the day in the community. So people were walking around asking for Dan’s autograph, and I just couldn’t really work out why. And then he finally admitted to being on the soap. [Laughs.]
It was actually quite good, because there was this mystique about Dan—he was a bit of a star, so people naturally gravitated toward him because of that. I think, in the end, that played into the natural dynamics that we were looking for in the characters.
Speaking of the community, the decision to shoot the film right on location in Snowtown is really important, and it’s fascinating to see how the Snowtown of today resembles a gritty town from the mid-to-late 1990s. How different is the community today from where it was back during John Bunting’s era?
A lot has changed since the murders; there’s a new council there. We actually had a lot of difficulty finding those houses; in fact, the house at the beginning of the film was knocked down about four weeks after we filmed there. So a lot had changed. I think the sense of just putting everyone in one spot has gone. The idea that there needs to be a wider demographic of people living there is different, they don’t just put everyone who has financial problems into one area anymore, at least not as much. The homes have been knocked down, and new homes have gone up, and there are new parks.
There seems to be a much more conscious striving for a sense of community, and openness and communication within that community, that probably wasn’t there 10 years ago. But, at the same time, the problems that are in the film, especially the sexual abuse, are still there, and they’ve always been there. It still seems like an issue that’s very, very important, and they still have their own challenges. It does seem like people are more open about the fact that the area needs some help, though.
You were saying earlier that when the case happened, the news reports were very sensationalized, and the people living in Snowtown didn’t get the real, honest story. Did you get a sense that, while you were filming, the people in the community were using the production as a way to work through the dark history, and make sense of everything that happened finally? Or at least confront it in a more informed way?
Well, I think people started talking about it in a different way. The only way people were talking about it before this film was as the “bodies in the barrels” events. It very quickly got this tag, and it was always referred to as this kind of freak show. For better or for worse, whether people think it was a good idea to make a film about it or not, one thing out of it was that there was a debate again, and perhaps the debate was a little broader than what it had been before, in terms of what had happened.
I think a lot of that occurred because we were filming in the actual community, and, obviously, our film is about the reasons why and was looking for answers within the community. That just naturally inspired a greater discussion of the events, as opposed to the very simplistic attitude that had existed before.
There’s part of me that thinks it was about killing for pleasure, that [John Bunting] was a guy who had an ideology, no matter how corrupt it was, and he genuinely believed that he was doing some kind of good, but it was masking an appetite for evil that I could never imagine.
In the film, we barely see any of the “bodies in the barrels” side of the murders. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to steer away from that reputation of it and have audiences focus on the more intimate sides of the story?
Yeah, I didn’t want to sensationalize any of it, but, at the same time, I wanted the violence to be truthful in the film. I find that most films, the way they interpret violence is in a very fantastical, kind of heroic, way and that’s fine if you’re making a particularly sort of genre film. I have nothing against that, but I felt as though this was dealing with true events, and this was dealing with many people who had died and suffered hideous, hideous deaths.
So I felt that the violence in this film needed to be something that confronted an audience like they’d just seen a car crash in front of their eyes. The only way for me to do that was to obviously tell the story through the point-of-view of Jamie, and expose the violence in the same way as it was exposed to Jamie, and, finally, show how the violence came out of a banality and domesticity. That’s what I found so shocking, that a lot of this came out of an ordinariness and an everydayness. That was very, very important to me to bring to the screen—it is fucking uncomfortable watching it. It is.
Hopefully, it gives you a real insight into the level of brutality in it that we only just skim through. If I brought to the screen some of the events and moments in the case, it would be unwatchable. I always wanted it to be within the context of Jamie, but at the same time make sure that the violence had an integrity to it. That’s a balance that is subjective. There are some who think the film goes too far, and then there are others who think it’s just right.
It’s interesting to hear and read people label the film as being brutally violent, because, really, there’s only one scene of extreme violence. The rest of the violence either happens off screen or is only discussed or acknowledged after the fact. It seems like what’s happening is, the film is such a traumatic, heavy, and emotionally grueling experience that, by the film’s end, people think they’ve seen more violence than they actually have.
I really believe that, definitely. That’s a great point. I’ve had conversations with people where they start talking about a scene in the film that I never shot. You go through that scene in the bathroom, you know, and it’s a very long scene because you really need to understand why this boy got involved in the murder of his brother, and the whole notion of it being a mercy killing. Just at the moment that the audience wants it to stop is when Jamie does, and the length of that was always really difficult—how long do you stay in the bathroom with that kid?
It was a balancing act, but I really do think that residue of that scene plays into the last act of the film. You don’t see any violence in the last act of the film. There’s none, but I’m sure the residue of that scene imbues the murders that are to come with images that kind of resonate into becoming real scenes, when you never actually see them, if you know what I mean.
It’s really interesting; if you go through the film, there’s really only one explicit scene, which is with the toenails, but if you put this film up against any other genre-based horror film or thriller, you would be surprised by how very, very tame it is. I just think it’s the implied violence, it’s the claustrophobic nature of it, and it’s the way the violence is executed, which is very real and honest. It doesn’t have a compass; most genre films that you watch with tons of violence, they usually have a compass, and you feel safe, which is why you’re able to interact with it. This violence, however, is real, and it’s ugly. I think that’s what people feel most confronted by: the truth of it.
And that speaks to the film’s really effective “observational” point-of-view, I think. If we were to see John Bunting killing all of his victims, it’d be a lot easier to hate the guy, but seeing him through Jamie’s eyes makes it tougher to form a clear-cut opinion on him. He’s just as charismatic and likable to us as he is to Jamie—before he kills people, of course. Was that your outlook from the start, to not force any opinions onto the viewers?
I just didn’t want to judge them, you know? Who the fuck am I to judge what they did? [Laughs.] I can sit here and go, “Well, Jamie had choices,” and he did. He was responsible for what he did, but, my god, the situation he was in—what would I have done? I don’t know. So who am I to judge his actions? I don’t excuse them, but it was something that I was very conscious of, and I didn’t want it to be this morality tale, in a sense, where I wrapped it all up in the end and said, “Well, that’s why they did it, and here’s what we have to learn.”
To me, it was much more interesting to make it an observation, to allow audiences to come to their own conclusions. And give them just enough about the situation and about the characters’ journey to come to their own answers about it all.
Having made the film, and having talked about it nonstop for about a year now, have you, personally, been able to make any sense of what John Bunting and his accomplices did?
I don’t know. Maybe filming it and hanging around Lucas and his friends has made it easier for me to understand why you would be attracted to and search for answers within a male mentor. Seeing the boys in the cast gravitate toward Dan, I have a much greater appreciation of the power of that, of the power of finding an identity through another male. I think most young boys need that. I think it’s very, very important. I definitely had very strong male figures in my life, who, when I look back, clearly laid the foundations to who I am.
So I can understand the absolute need and importance of having that kind of male figure in your life. With John Bunting, I’m still not sure, though. There’s part of me that, at the end of the day, thinks it was about killing for pleasure, that he was a guy who had an ideology, no matter how corrupt it was, and he genuinely believed that he was doing some kind of good, but it was masking an appetite for evil that I could never imagine. I guess my only sense of perspective in it has to do with Jamie, in that understanding of searching for answers in a figure like John. That makes me understand it even more, and, to me, that’s the most important aspect of the film.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)