Debut films usually come with qualifications. They have limited budgets and scopes. They get called "small," patted on the head, and judged on a curve. Which is precisely what Australian writer-director David Michôd, whose first feature, Animal Kingdom, opens this week, worked hard to avoid.
Part crime drama, part coming-of-age tale, part ripped-from-the-headlines policier, Animal Kingdom studies character, but feels epic, and though modestly budgeted, has more in common with the urban romantic majesties of Michael Mann than it does with your standard futon-set indie film. "When I was trying to get the film produced, people said to me that they really liked the script but they felt I had written a second movie first, and suggested I go away and make something much smaller and rawer, more achievable," Michôd tells me. "There is an expectation for first-time filmmakers that even when their film is good, it will probably be very raw, bordering on docudrama." But Animal Kingdom exhibits the thematic and stylistic confidence of a mature auteur.
Projecting both self-determination and an almost confessional humility, the 37-year-old Sydney native describes his professional development as a haphazard journey. Unlike those who've dreamed of working in movies since childhood, Michôd applied to a graduate film program only after several years of postcollegiate drift. "If I hadn't gotten into film school that first time," he says, "I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be making movies." Soon after completing studies at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, he wrote a first draft of Animal Kingdom, inspired by a true-life history of vicious, murderous animosity between bands (often families) of armed robbers and the Melbourne police.
Starting out in the early aughts, Michôd couldn't convince anyone to make the movie — let alone allow him to direct it — so he set to writing and making short films to prove himself, culminating in Crossbow, a haunting, highly stylized gem that finally turned things in his favor after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. Instead of merely describing to potential producers a film that could balance brutal violence with something textural and poetic, he'd made one. Through the years, he kept working on Animal Kingdom, several times restarting the script from scratch. The completed film doesn't retain a single scene or line of dialogue from his first draft.
In January, with his feature about to premiere at the 2010 Sundance Festival (it would go on to win the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize), Michôd tells me that all the extra work and delay was for the best: "I'm so glad no one gave me permission to make the movie back when I wanted to," he says, unsentimental about his original artistic vision. Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Pope, the diabolical patriarch of the lawless family at the center of the story, had known the director personally and read various versions of the script over the years. Mendelsohn, a veteran character actor, says that Michôd's poise shielded his steady struggle. "It's like a duck on the water. He looks all graceful from a distance, but you don't see the amount of work that he's going through." Though realizing this film was always his main goal, Michôd understands how much he evolved alongside the project. "I don't consider the nine or 10 years it took me to make Animal Kingdom as simply a development of that film," he says. "It actually felt like a development of me."
During three of those years, Michôd served as the editor of Aussie trade magazine Inside Film, which, while apparently no Godardian outlet for his emerging art ("I needed money and probably needed some structure in my life," he explains), did immerse him in all aspects of the film industry, preparing him for the long tail realities of today's business. "I can't fully control the film's life out in the world, but, also, the film doesn't really exist until it's out in the world," he says. Although the scale and complexity of Animal Kingdom made it difficult to realize, its bigness has made it easier to sell to audiences back home, where it has been both a critical and box office success. "Australians are notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to seeing Australian films," he says. "They need to be told not just that the film is good, but that it is exceptional. For us, it was about properly communicating the size and richness of it."
But even if Animal Kingdom feels nothing like a first film, there's always the concern that a debut splash will doom the next one. "Cinema history is replete with filmmakers who put their heart and soul into that first film, and that film is a raging success," he says. "But no one forces you to work as hard the second time out, and it shows." Which has him thinking, again, about going the counterintuitive route. "Part of me thinks maybe the best thing is to not make something even more complex than Animal Kingdom, but to make something much leaner and simpler." In other words, something more like a proper first film, but second.