NEW YORK - The opening moments of the new Australian crime drama "Animal Kingdom" consist of surveillance camera images of bank robbers frozen in moments of heightened danger, awareness and reflexivity - balancing fine lines between riches, arrest and death.
It's a fitting entry into the world of a Melbourne crime family whose violence and complicated loyalties recall the tragic conflicts of the Corleone family in "The Godfather." But unlike the characters in Francis Ford Coppola's classic fending off threats from rival mob families, the Cody family is seemingly caving in upon itself because of its own jealousy, suspicion and paranoia.
And if there is truth to the adage "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives," it is evident in the circumstances confronting 17-year-old Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville). Taken in by his uncles following the death of his mother, J finds himself pulled into the criminal activities of Pope Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), an armed fugitive from the police; Pope's younger brothers Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford); and Pope's business partner, Barry (Joel Edgerton).
All are bound together by J's grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), whose touchy-feely benevolence masks a much more calculating matriarch. It's the kind of role actresses would kill for, and the performance by Weaver (whose resume includes the Peter Weir film "Picnic at Hanging Rock") hits it out of the park.
Taciturn and in many scenes just hovering on the edges, the teenager J is a bit of a cipher to those around him, making him more suspect and dangerous to the family - and potentially more valuable to the police who want him to testify against Pope."The character that James plays is (as so many teenage boys are) quite emotionally inept, not very expressive - awkward in their skin," says writer-director David Michod, who elicited from Frecheville (in his first professional acting role) a performance of remarkable complexity.
"Animal Kingdom," which won the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, marks a stunning debut by Michod. He says he was aiming for an operatic crime film, but it is so only in its emotional depth. In its staging and photography it is actually quite naturalistic, but tense, like a coiled spring.
Michod talked to CBSNews.com about the development of the story and characters, scriptwriting workshops, and his surprise at audience reactions.
The film's striking opening credits are played against surveillance camera images of bank robberies - were those real or staged?
David Michod: No, they're real photos from real bank robberies. Some of them have been manipulated a little bit with some Photoshop because there were some great characters that were in some not-so-great locations, so there was some shuffling there.
We had contemplated for a moment restaging these things, maybe even using some of our actors, but there was something for me so powerful about these snapshots of what for these people were incredibly heightened, dangerous moments in their lives. Who knows who these people even are? Where are they now? I have no idea.
It's very important, and efficient: At the beginning of the movie you generate a sense of what world this kid is about to walk into, how dangerous this world is.
I found it curious that as the film opens we're introduced to J through his voiceover, describing his observations as we watch him fall into this extended family that ripe with tension, jealousy and paranoia. And then the voiceover stops - J shuts up, as it were. In retrospect he seems to have taken the advice of the crime family's attorney who tells the young man not to say a word to the police, and does so with us.
David Michod: In a certain sense he's just observing this strange world that he's been thrown into. So whilst it was quite clear this family was a little bit unnerving, unsettling, I wanted those early scenes to at least be voiced by him and grounded with him. [And] also because of that emotional ineptitude, give the audience a sense that he does in fact have quite a rich inner life, that he is a thinking person. Hopefully once the film is over you have a sense of the retrospective wisdom of that voiceover.
It is a weird thing with a voiceover: You don't want to use them unnecessarily. I felt it important for it to have been there, but once its purpose has been served it doesn't feel there was any need to return to it. I would like to believe that the ending of the film works, says everything you need to know, without having the character describe it to you.
Can you describe how you came to cast James Frecheville as J?
Michod: James was not how I'd originally pictured the character; I'd imagined a kid who looked more like a kid, who was smaller and more fragile perhaps. As soon as I saw James, his tests were just remarkably detailed, more so than any of the other kids we looked at. But I loved the idea of the movie with a kid of his size at the center of it, a kind of awkward man-child who looks like he belongs in that world but really doesn't belong there at all.
And yet when the police barge in at one point, they make no judgment about his age (as in, "He's just a kid, ignore him"); they treat him like any other offender.
Michod: He's six foot two, he looks physically capable, he just looks like one of these boys. Out of that I liked the idea of this sort of man-child that seemed to invite a kind of emotional blankness that might almost appear to border on autism, that made his awkward passiveness kind of authentic to me.
My experience of teenage boys is they very often are very socially inept. They mumble and they shuffle. You can almost be deceived into thinking that there's not much going on inside, but in fact there usually is a lot going on inside, They just haven't found the right and fluid ways of expressing it.
J's character evolved did undergo a further evolution once we found James, and found a physical shape for that character.
Once James was cast, what surprised you the most about his character in that family dynamic?
Michod: I actually found the character to be far more sympathetic embodied by a big awkward boy.
More than if he were a little kid?
Michod: Yeah, because the little kid would so obviously be detached from his uncles, would look like a kid, be treated as a kid by other people. I found J to be a far more sympathetic character when he looked like he should be able to handle himself, should be able to handle responsibilities, including the quite unusual and dangerous ones that are thrown to him, And yet it's quite clear - I think it's clear in James' performance - that he's not capable. He can't really handle himself. He's very much out of his depth.
Even the little things, like that scene where Guy Pearce [who plays a police detective] is teaching him how to cook. He's standing there at the stove, he doesn't even know how to hold a stirring spoon. Somehow it's much more tragic when you're looking at a boy who looks like a man. You wouldn't expect a little kid to know how to cook, but a big kid?
You said that Melbourne's rich history with crime and police corruption inspired you. What other influences - literary, film, whatever - were you trying to replicate, or purposely trying to dissociate yourself from?
Michod: There weren't any specific books, but literary in a general sense. What I wanted to do is make a crime film that works within the conventions of the crime genre and yet felt rich and full of detail, almost novelistic.
In terms of cinema, I wanted to make a crime film that took itself very seriously, that was not a jokey or heightened crime film, that had an austerity in a way, but allowed for the thing to take on hopefully an almost operatic scope. But at the same time I was also very aware of not wanting to make a film about cops and robbers specifically that felt like a TV show. In part that was technical things - resisting any pressure that I might have felt not to shoot the film on 35mm, for example.
How much greater budget was required to do that?
Michod: It would have saved us some money. We had what was probably a pretty standard, reasonably well-resourced first Australian film kind of budget. We knew it was ambitious but we were convinced we could do it. My producer (Liz Watts), who's produced a number of films before, is very experienced, very familiar with how the Australian infrastructure works. She knew it would be tough but that we could do it, and she was totally supportive. She knew as well that we didn't want this thing to feel like television.
So that extends not just to shooting on 35mm but having what we hoped to be quite a big and classic score, as opposed to a little rock 'n' roll kind of film.
How did the process of writing "Animal Kingdom" start?
Michod: I wrote the first draft in December 2000, almost immediately out of film school. It was the first thing I'd ever written by myself, and it was not long, and it was a very naïve first draft. I mean, I look at it every now and then for a laugh these days, because there's literally nothing in that first draft that's still in the finished film - not a single line of dialogue, not a single scene. It just evolved in a way over these ten years, in the course of writing a whole lot of other things - writing short films, writing things with other people - and was able to see my writing mature.
But I just kept returning to this. Some of those early drafts were so naïve I actually started the things from scratch about four times. Which is always a painful thing to do.
Did you return to the idea of the child protagonist? Or the plot of a family imploding upon itself?
Michod: I think more specifically it's a literal starting from scratch, rather than doing what is seemingly the easiest thing to do, which is opening your document and tinkering with what you've already written. Just starting with a blank page, letting the story tell itself again, but hopefully with a more mature brain. Certainly the first naïve drafts were more full of just cool moments or fun, crime-y things. But as the drafts deepened and my writing matures, you start to pick up on the more poignant kind of concerns, and start to build the story around those things, rather than letting cool episodes dictate the form that it takes.