As the Cannes Film Festival draws near to a close, Justin Kurzel sat down to field a series of questions about his Palme d’Or contender Nitram, a deeply disturbing retelling of the events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania, Australia. Kurzel was joined by the film’s star Caleb Landry Jones, writer Shaun Grant and producer Nick Batzias where they discussed how they handled portraying one of the darkest memories in Australia’s history, which caused 35 deaths and injured another 23. The mass killing horrified the country and prompted swift gun reform in the country.
For Kurzel, who lives with his family in Tasmania and vividly remembers the moment this event happened, the subject matter was one that he and his team approached incredibly delicately.
“When Shaun sent me the script, I took a very, very deep breath,” Kurzel said. “But I saw something in the script and the way he was trying to tell it and what he was trying to say that I found incredibly moving and compelling and quite shocking in regards to the step by step dismantling of this character.”
He added: “But also this moment in the film where it crystalizes for me and what the film is really about is when this man walks into a gun store at probably their most dangerous moment and is able to purchase an absurd amount of weapons without a licence. There was something about this scene where for the first time I really felt the importance of what gun reform is.”
Kurzel and Grant, who have worked on a slew of titles together, including their debut Snowtown, a psychological thriller based on infamous Aussie serial killer John Bunting, were quick to reveal that it was important this project explored what gun control really means. The film, 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.
“This story has been in our DNA for 25 years,” said Grant about the story. “Justin and I did our first film together [Snowtown] and we enjoyed the process and I remember he asked me if there were any other things I’d been thinking about and I mentioned that I was interested in looking at this event but I didn’t know how.”
Grant said it took him 10 years to figure out how to approach this sensitive topic and said that the script probably never would have happened if he hadn’t been living in Los Angeles, when he was exposed to the U.S.’s awful track record for mass shootings. Notably, one day when his wife was supposed to go shopping at their local grocery store [but thankfully didn’t] a man came in and started shooting at customers.
“There’s a gun violence issue in that country that is very different to what we experienced in Australia,” he said.
When approaching the role, star Landry Jones said that after meeting Kurzel and Grant in Los Angeles after the reading the script, he knew he was in safe hands and the duo would bring sensitivity to the project.
“As an American, I’m quite desensitized to mass shooting I suppose because it feels like it’s on the news every few weeks,” the actor said. “Before I read the script, I didn’t know anything about it except that Australia had gone through this reform. I was worried the film would concentrate on the shooting and I was kind of scared to even read it just because of that.”
But he added: “When I read it, I found it to be the opposite to what I had imagined it might be. Then I met Shaun and Justin Los Angeles maybe a day or two later and I saw in them a sensitivity and intelligence and awareness and these men had big hearts as well. I knew I could trust them to do something as difficult as this.”