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BSS2017: David Michôd on directing

“I still keep my first draft of the script of Animal Kingdom because it is so terrible! Not a single line of dialogue remains in the final film.”

Michôd’s first feature came after film school in Melbourne and a series of prize-winning short films. He also co-directed with Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa, Mountain) a documentary featuring Australian adventurer Andrew McAuley’s solo kayak crossing from Tasmania to New Zealand.

An early issue for Michôd: What was the movie about? And the parallel question: Why am I making it? It’s loosely based on a real story… “Eventually I realized it’s about finding a moral compass in a morally corrupt world. Once that was sorted…”

Directing begins while you’re writing. Writing continues through the directing.

Some people thought Animal Kingdom would be a Tarantino or a Guy Ritchie story. He felt a responsibility to convey what kind of film it would be. “Yes, it’s a crime story, but it’s more about anxiety…”

When moderator Shuchi Kothari commented on how the film starts in a very economical way, Michôd drew attention to the early hug between Jackie Weaver’s character, the mother, and her son Ben Mendelsohn (pictured, top). The film both begins and ends with such a hug, but at the end all is different.

Animal Kingdom spent 10 years in development. Michôd wrote it specifically for Aussie actors Jackie Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn .

Michôd now understands the need to spend time with the actors talking about the world of the story, not working specifically with the script.

For the first scheduled rehearsal there were only three actors available, including Weaver and Mendelsohn – but the first scene involving only that particular trio was not until script page 87. Mendelsohn threw a fit, and stopped rehearsal. He and Michôd went to his hotel room and talked the script through. “Mendelsohn used the benefit from that discussion to torture the other actors, and the film is the better for it! Not many actors would do that.”

(To hear this was a surprise to me. When working on a children’s TV series in Melbourne in the 1980s, a teenage Mendelsohn was the guest lead for an episode. A quieter, gentler young man it would be hard to imagine.)

When starting to make Animal Kingdom, the director of photography from his short films was unavailable. Michôd wanted not a mentor but instead “…someone talented, but also as hungry as I was. We didn’t know each other so well; perhaps we were not sure of each other… There were some arguments…”

When Kothari commented on the much bigger scale of his third feature film, War Machine (a $60m adaptation of the book by Michael Hastings), Michôd responded by saying that small and large scale films are essentially the same – you have actors, a camera and a monitor. But sometimes working on a bigger project is in fact easier, because there is more support around you. However it still necessary – and best – to solve problems creatively, not with money.

In an interview within the Sydney Morning Herald, Michôd said, “The one question that I’d been asking for years was, ‘How is that we are still at war in these six or seven countries and how is it that the impossibility of victory seems so obvious to me but not to the people who are responsible for it?’

“In Michael Hastings’ book I finally found the answer; that it’s about detachment from the real world and it’s about hubris and delusion born of vanity and ambition, which can be ridiculously absurd but also catastrophically sad.”

When Kothari pointed out that “a theme in these films is masculinity – and the questioning of it”, Michôd responded, “I am aware that the world is largely run by delusional, sociopathic monsters!”

When there were weapons on set, he never wanted to touch one – he never picked one up. Even with the armourer and other forms of safety on set, he felt it was “too dangerous”.

Effectively War Machine is a Hollywood studio film, said Michôd – but unexpectedly, Netflix left him entirely alone. He never heard from them during the shoot.

A word of encouragement to conclude with: “Netflix is cashed up, and looking for stuff!”