The searing Australian period serial killer flick Snowtown was one of last year’s cinematic surprises, receiving much buzz on the festival circuit before making a huge critical splash on its release in the UK last November.

Last week, HeyUGuys engaged in a special tweet-along to mark the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray at distribution headquarters Revolver. In attendance was director Justin Kurzel who we managed to grab some time with to discuss the film before the screening.

HeyUGuys: Justin, thanks for taking time to chat with HeyUGuys. Could you quickly tell us a little about the film for the uninitiated?

Justin Kurzel: It’s probably one of the darkest chapters in Australia history and our worse ever recorded number of serial killings, which were also known as the Snowtown murders. It happened in the nineties over a period of about six years where 12 people were murdered. What’s unusual about the case was it wasn’t the work of a single person. There were four killers and the film takes the point of view of the youngest, Jamie Vlassakis, who was 14 at the time (he’s 16 in our story). It looks at how he was corrupted and led by this surrogate father in John Bunting, who opens his eyes to an evil and hell that is quite unimaginable.

It’s an incredibly unnerving film and one of its biggest strengths is the sense of realism you’ve found through the choice of real locations and the performances you’ve managed to draw from the actors, many of whom didn’t have any previous acting experience.  How much of a challenge was it directing performers who had never been in front of a camera before?

It was a huge challenge. I  wanted to tell the story (as did the producers and writer) from the inside out and really try to capture the community from where the story came from, so we filmed it in the area where the murders happened and some of the houses where the events took place in the actual real town of Snowtown. I was really adamant in creating a community out of first-time actors. We cast for over a period of ten weeks and found most of the actors in the area. The really interesting dynamic in all that was John Bunting was not from that area and was an outsider, so we decided to cast Daniel Henshall, who was an actor in Sydney, to come into this environment to work with the first-time actors and to use that natural dynamic with the community gravitating towards him, much like how it was with Bunting at the time.

I read that your young protagonist Luke Pittaway (who plays Vlassakis) was actually discovered at a shopping arcade.

Yeah, Lucas we found in a mall. At the reject shop, actually (laughs). He was just a kid that Alison the casting agent saw, although initially, I was more interested in his brother. Lucas had huge dreads and a beanie and you couldn’t really see his face. We started talking and we looked back on the tapes from that day and there was just something really quite amazing about him. It was his first ever professional experience and he’d failed drama at school so it was quite a big step for him.

It’s an astounding performance. His character arc is pretty extreme. He starts out an innocent-looking kid and ends the film as a burnt-out adult. How hard was it for him to go to those lengths?

It was a massive task. It was an incredibly physical challenge for him because we shot in chronological order. Emotionally it was very tough because at the beginning of the film there was a harmony in the relationship he had with Daniel and there was something light about it, and slowly that was being dismantled as the weeks went on. After a while that sense of isolation Lucas felt, like his character, started to become a real test for him.  To have an 18/19 year-old kid emotionally engaged with that sort of brutality and horror was pretty confronting for him, but it was a very loving set and we were aware this was a brave new world to take people, so we made sure at the end of the day that Lucas and the rest of the cast were ok.

When you’re dealing with subject matter which is this bleak, how do you manage to keep lightness on set?

It’s no disrespect to the events, but it really was a very fun shooting environment and I think that has a huge thing to do with the weight and horror of the subject matter. I think we counterbalanced that with an enormous amount of affection for each other. There was a sense that we were doing something that was important and there was a respect from the crew and cast because it was their story and it was from their community.

I would have to say the most confronting process of the whole film for me was the writing and research and ultimately, the editing of the film, where you don’t have those emotional releases you have on set. To have your head in this intense, emotional world for eight/nine weeks whilst you’re editing, that environment you’re depicting really starts to bite at you.

Talking about the post-production process, it’s clear that sound design is a key component to the film. Was that established in the edit or did you have that in mind when you set about making it?

That stemmed from our composer Jed who doesn’t really do conventional composition. He’s very much interested in soundscapes and not leading the audience with emotional cues in his music, so he came up with a theme pretty early on which was a kind of pulse and a riff of what he thought Jamie’s internal world was. I never use temp music during editing so the music really did inform the cut and definitely the beginning and end of the film shifted and changed because of what Jed had given us. With that sound idea we created for Jamie, we were able to come up with this idea of a premonition at the beginning of the film of a kid who almost sees his own fate and that he’s glimpsed into a heart of darkness, which is unimaginable.

There seems to be an emergence of a kind of Australian suburban crime sub-genre of late. Why do you think people are drawn to that type of story?

I think we have a really strong history of muscular, visceral films about father and sons and masculinity and what it means to be a male. I think a lot of those films are realised either through the crime genre or films dealing with strong male protagonists. I think the searching for ones self in Australia is a really big deal. There’s a wide debate on identity and who we are and I think that gets reflected in the films we make. When you think of films like Animal Kingdom, Chopper, Ghosts of the Civil Dead and The Boys they are all films which deal with a kind of displacement or a sense of searching and forming an identity.

There’s a real exotic/alien quality about those films.

Yeah, there’s a slight hearts of darkness feel about them, where you could come to find yourself in Australia, but you could also lose yourself too. Again, it’s that search for identity. Even in Snowtown there’s a search for sexual identity that comes out of a pattern of sexual abuse and how young men deal with that and how they define themselves after such horrendous acts have been done to them.

Snowtown is available on DVD and Blu-ray now, you can read our review here.