EXCLUSIVE: It was 10 years ago that Justin Kurzel’s debut feature Snowtown became one of the most talked about films at the Cannes Film Festival when it played in Critics’ Week that year. Critics and buyers alike praised the Australian filmmaker’s distinct, hard-to-watch psychological thriller based on infamous serial killer John Bunting, a story starkly familiar with Australians but one that many international audiences had only just been introduced to.
This year, Kurzel will touch down on the Croisette again for the third time (after Snowtown and 2015’s Palme d’Or contender Macbeth) with Nitram, another raw account of a dark memory in Australia’s history. The film, which is playing In Competition this year, takes a look at the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania, which caused 35 deaths and injured another 23. The mass killing horrified the country and prompted a quick transformation in gun control legislation in Australia.
Kurzel reunites with Snowtown writer and frequent collaborator Shaun Grant (also Australian) for the project, and lifts the lid on a deeply sensitive and pivotal event in Australia’s past. It stars Caleb Landry Jones, Anthony LaPaglia, Essie Davis and Judy Davis. Nick Batzias, Virginia Whitwell produce with Kurzel and Grant. Wild Bunch is handling international sales with CAA Media Finance repping domestic.
Deadline sat down with Kurzel and Grant in advance of the film’s Cannes premiere on July 16 and during our lengthy conversation, it became quickly evident that this isn’t just a filmmaking duo with a passion for retelling violent stories. Rather, Nitram (which notably does not depict any violence nor uses the name of the perpetrator) is their narrative feature of a painful moment in Australian history and a character study of what happens when weapons fall into the wrong hands. The film, they say, hopes to lift the lid on the discussion of gun control, and serves as a call to action for other countries with relaxed gun regulations while also being a “gentle reminder” of how swiftly gun reforms can happen.
Here’s our interview with Kurzel and Grant in full: Editor’s Note: This interview may contain spoilers of some scenes in ‘Nitram.’
DEADLINE: You’re both from Australia — why was this such an important story for you both to tell?
JUSTIN KURZEL: I’ve lived in Tasmania for the last four years with my family and my wife is from here. I’ve been with her for more than 20 years and was with her when the Port Arthur mass shooting happened. We were living in Sydney at the time and it was really early on in our relationship. I’d only just been to Tasmania maybe one or two times but it was such a monumental event. At the time it was the biggest single mass shooting that had happened in the world, in a place that is just so extraordinarily beautiful and is a very tight community. So, it really shattered Tasmanians and the rest of Australia.
Shaun and I had spoken years ago about the possibility of whether there was a way in which you could take a point of view within that event. When we were doing Snowtown, which was based on a true crime story, we wondered if the themes had a connection to the events in Port Arthur. I guess it’s been in our minds for some time, but we knew it was just such a challenging subject matter and, having lived in Tasmania for the last four or five years, I know just how unbelievably sensitive it is. I really love this place and I love bringing up my children here and last thing I want to do is bringing any distress to this incredible place.
Then this script arrived from Shaun I didn’t even know that he was writing it. Shaun and I had this strange relationship in that we had just made our first films at the same time so we’ve developed this pretty close relationship and are always looking for things to do together. But Nitram literally landed out of the blue for me, like Snowtown. With Snowtown, because I knew that area and growing up, I took a deep breath when I read the script. When Shaun sent me Nitram, I took probably a bigger breath of nervousness and apprehension about what this could be. It was an extraordinary screenplay – a surprise and a shock and a piece of work that I was unbelievably scared of.
SHAUN GRANT: If you’re Australian and of a certain age old enough to remember it, Port Arthur is one of those moments in our history where you just remember where you were. The idea for the screenplay was always in there but it wasn’t really fully formed in my head. I started writing at the end of 2018 when I was living in LA. A few months prior, a guy ran into my local Trader Joe’s and started shooting. My girlfriend at the time (who is now my wife) was supposed to go grocery shopping that day but then she got called into work early and wasn’t there, thank goodness. Shortly after, there was a shooting in Sherman Oaks and then another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. Gun violence in America is so prevalent and mass shootings happen pretty frequently and every so often a news correspondent would bring up Port Arthur and Australia as a shining example of gun reform.
I often say that while that day was so tragic what followed it made me prouder than I’ve ever been as an Australian in that the country made quick changes. I found Western society to be in kind of a war with itself. This film is my sort of anti-gun film. I find evil ignored is evil repeated. I met a lot of Australian twentysomethings out in LA and they’d have no idea about Port Arthur and it really shocked me and made me nervous because you can forget a perpetrators name but to forget events is a very dangerous thing.
DEADLINE: Justin, living in Tasmania, what kind of challenges did you face telling this story? How did you approach this in terms of being respectful to the community you live in?
KURZEL: As we were getting ready for the film, I would have conversations with people that were either directly or indirectly involved, either they were there on the day or were first respondents or just people that were living in Tasmania at the time that were coming to grips with the news. It’s been interesting how slowly people are sort of wanting to express their feelings and thoughts and understandings of this event that happened 25 years ago, which seems like yesterday. It’s still so raw and fresh. Shaun and I were unbelievably aware of the sensitivity of it.
We knew we didn’t want to portray the mass shooting or violence. There was a restraint that was really needed. What was so telling and interesting about the screenplay was how you could feel, in a very visceral way, the journey of this character as he continues to make terrible choices, becomes more and more isolated and then exploits the gun culture in Australia at the time. When you see them written on a page and how it plays out and how easy it is for a character, who we know is at that point at their most dangerous and most fragile, be able to purchase a semi-automatic weapon so easily and quickly, like it’s a fishing rod, that spoke to me so much more than opinion pieces or debates about gun reform. We had lived through this character’s steps and at that point where he purchases these horrific weapons, we emotionally understand and feel how awful and wrong this is. We’ve been deeply, deeply aware of the sensitivity of it, and we’ve tried to tread very gently.
DEADLINE: Did you liase with the victims’ families?
KURZEL: It’s been really tricky. With Snowtown when we approached an organization like Victims of Crime, they were incredibly forthcoming and wanted to be a conduit between the filmmakers and the victims. With this film, we’ve been really open and transparent about what we’re making, what the point of view is and what we’re trying to say in this film. But it’s been very hard. People have not wanted to be associated with it so it’s been very hard to find that conduit between us and the community that has been so affected by it. We’ve been going through a process of consultation that’s been going on for some time and are still going through that and privately we have been making ourselves available. I’ve spoken to various people that were connected to the shootings to pull it off but it’s an ongoing process and of course there are those that don’t want to speak to us and we completely and utterly respect that. It’s about us being available and present. We don’t want to force ourselves on the community that might not want to engage.
GRANT: I made a decision very early on not to speak to the perpetrators. I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who asked, ‘Did you go to the prison to speak with them?’ and the answer is “no. Never.” I always had a moral issue with doing that because I worry that they would get something out of it, and I never wanted to grant them that satisfaction. It’s a narrative structure and we, as artists, have to move on from the exact truth and tell the story we think is best.
DEADLINE: Shaun, why did you decide to tell the story from his point of view? And why is his relationship with his mother so integral to telling this story?
GRANT: I think both the parents are integral here. The father and the absence of that father parents plus his relationship to heiress Helen Harvey. I recently was looking through my mobile phone and there’s a note in it that’s nine years old that I’d written about how you could tell it from just 24 hours on the day from different points of view. Of course, there has been films that have dealt with violence such as this in the past and quite often, it would be from different points of view or would be from the victim’s point of view. But it took me almost a decade to try to land it. It really boils back down to a scene where he buys the guns, which was one of the first scenes I wrote. The film hinges on so much was that I wanted an audience to understand that there is a great risk if certain people get their hands on weaponry with no licence or registration. That’s when the penny dropped and when I went away and sat down and wrote it. It’s very much a cautionary tale.
But I think every parent goes through challenges in parenting where you question yourself and wonder if you’d done something differently or better, could your child have turned out differently? That kind of that space that the mother is in is really profound. You needed to feel her fatigue and exhaustion but also feel that she knows this is her son and this is who he is.
DEADLINE: Justin, what was it like shooting the scene where he purchases the guns?
KURZEL: I was very nervous shooting that scene because I remember reading the script and to me, everything was about that scene. You’d invested in this character all the way up to that point and if you understood the makeup of this character, the kind of vulnerabilities, the fragility and danger of this character up until that point, you could see that character was becoming more and more isolated and he was making some really bad choices and becoming very impressionable. And for him to walk into a shop like that and buy a gun, it’s the casualness of it all, Nitram finding this new tribe that accepted him and are selling him this extraordinarily dangerous weaponry.
DEADLINE: You definitely feel that in that moment.
KURZEL: We never wanted to make an overtly political film, even though it’s a subject we’re incredibly passionate about in regards to gun control and gun reform. We wanted to take you through a film that was character-driven and that made you feel in the moment and see what it’s all about. It’s these character pieces or family dramas that take away the edges of that and make it feel something really lived in.
DEADLINE: Can you tell me a little bit about the casting? It’s a pretty stellar cast with some strong performances.
KURZEL: It felt like an ensemble piece when Shaun wrote it with all of these different sorts of characters around it. We thought it would be fantastic to work with an ensemble of professional actors that we really love and want to work with and we think are right for the roles and then sort of surround them with this animal.
There was something about Caleb that was kind of otherworldly, but also really childlike and naïve that we were really sort of drawn to. When we met him in Los Angeles, he walked in and was this wonderfully eccentric, beautiful and interesting person and he had such a deep connection to the material. He has this ambiance. We walked out of the meeting and knew it was him.
We made this during Covid and bringing an American actor to Australia was tough but he was fantastic. He’s a very immersive actor and wouldn’t come out of the accent. He was like a sponge – I’ve never worked with someone so immersed in their art and what they are observing.
Judy [Davis] was always our first choice for the mother. She contemplated playing Helen but ended up agreeing that the really challenging character to play was the mother. Essie [Davis, Kurzel’s wife] and I, we’ve worked together before and she played Helen, which was one of the hardest characters to place. She had this very Grey Gardens, eccentric existence being the Tattersall heiress. When she meets our main character, suddenly he has art and culture in his life. They listen to music, she teaches him the piano – they are two people from two different parts of life that find themselves in this moment so that relationship was important to get right. Anthony LaPaglia was such a huge supporter from early on and it was so great to work with him.
DEADLINE: You purposely don’t mention the killer’s name, at any point during this film and we don’t see any violence. At what point did you make this decision to not give the perpetrator an identity?
GRANT: The violence decision came about pretty early on in the process of showing as much restraint as we could. Justin and I have both done films that have been violent in some regards and we just wanted to make this an effective restraint. This is, like I said, a narrative feature and we were creating this character but out of respect we didn’t name him.
Whenever I read about these mass shootings, I find the description of the perpetrator to almost be like a record on repeat. There would be similar characteristics. Usually, they were around the same age, isolated and angry, academically struggling, the absence of a father and then “lone gunman” becomes this sort of umbrella term that felt very similar. I wanted to know who this person was, but if you give them a specific name then it becomes a one off. And I was conscious that if this was a one-off we wouldn’t have hundreds of mass shootings happening all the time.
DEADLINE: What do you hope the film achieves in terms of raising the conversation about gun regulation and gun laws in the U.S. and beyond?
GRANT: For Australia, it’s more of a gentle reminder. When I was researching I found out that some regulations in Australia had been loosened since then and this was sort of a “lest we forget” message for me. Internationally, I wanted the world to see that after this, Australia did a lot of good with gun regulation and good things can happen and they can happen swiftly.
KURZEL: I was just trying to reach back into history for some kind of discussion about an event that is truly difficult for Australians to talk about. There are many events in history in Australia that are really tough to talk about, especially in our darkest chapters. Understanding what memory is frees us up to have an authentic conversation about who we are and what we know. I think that’s been kind of quite profound for me to start to have conversations about that event and how and why it’s affected us in such a deep way and why it is still such an extraordinary wound. It’s a very sensitive topic and looking back it’s been the albatross around our necks in a way. Writers, filmmakers, painters and artists all have an ability to reach back into time and explore or open something up to discussion from a place of distance.