Australian writer and director David Michôd’s 10-year odyssey to make his first feature film, Animal Kingdom, turned out to be worth all of his hard work.
Michôd’s story about a Melbourne crime family won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 2010. More recently, Jacki Weaver received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her mesmerizing portrayal of Janine “Smurf” Cody, the family matriarch.
Michôd began work on the first draft of Animal Kingdom back in 2000.
“About a year after film school I wrote the first draft,” he said, adding that writing was the cheapest way for him to get involved in the film industry. He continuously tweaked the script over the next few years before he settled on a final draft.
Animal Kingdom follows the story of 17-year-old Joshua ‘J’ Cody, played by James Frecheville, who re-connects with his grandmother (Janine) and his uncles after the death of his mother. J quickly discovers that the Cody clan are involved in armed robberies and the drug trade, so they are on the radar of the ruthless Melbourne Armed Robbery Squad.
“I wanted to put an emotionally damaged teenager in the centre of the movie to guide the audience.” Michôd said. “In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story in a heightened universe.”
Michôd said that latching onto the coming-of-age theme really pushed forward the writing of the screenplay. It also led him to the dramatic and tense ending.
“Once I was locked into the thematic thread, it was almost as if there was no other ending the film could have,” he said.
While there are many great performances in Animal Kingdom, particularly Ben Mendelsohn and Guy Pearce, it’s the work of Weaver that has rightfully been the focus of award praise.
Michôd says that Weaver’s character came about, in part, because of the research he did about Melbourne crime in the 1980s. He became fascinated with the mothers of various crime families and their relationships with criminal sons. Right from Weaver’s first appearance on screen, it’s apparent she is not your typical grandmother.
“I wanted Jacki’s character to be charmingly disarming,” Michôd says. “You know, without even possibly realizing it at first, that the character you are about to meet is very complex and not as delightful as she seems.”
If there is a list of evil movie grandmothers, Janine Cody will definitely be a top contender.
After spending a decade on Animal Kingdom, Michôd said the first screening of the movie was very special for him.
“When the opening titles started to run at Sundance for the first proper screening to an audience, I burst into tears. It suddenly all hit me at once how long a road it had been,” Michôd said.
If working 10 years on Animal Kingdom has taught Michôd anything, it’s that he won’t be jumping into his next project unless it’s something he absolutely believes in.
“Movies are too hard to make,” he said. “They are too physically and emotionally draining for me to waste my time on something I didn’t believe in.”
Animal Kingdom is now out on DVD and Blu-ray.