Family Business: The Making Of Animal Kingdom

April 22, 2020
It launched careers across the board, and stands tall as a classic piece of Australian crime cinema: we look back on the making and legacy of 2010’s mesmerising Animal Kingdom.

“It’s a sprawling Melbourne crime drama,” David Michod told FilmInk of his acclaimed 2010 debut feature film, Animal Kingdom, just as he was beginning the shoot. “It’s cops and robbers and everything in between. It’s everything that a sprawling Melbourne crime drama implies. I love Melbourne. I love its geography, its architecture, its neighbourhoods, and its baking summer heat. I love its dark history and its grand urban sprawl…and I love the characters that lurk in that history and sprawl.”

Though Michod had a series of impressive short films to his credit (including festival faves Crossbow and Ezra White LL.B), as well as the 55-minute documentary Solo (which tells the tragic tale of doomed kayaker Andrew McAuley), Animal Kingdom represented a major bump-up for the then thirty-something filmmaker. “It feels really, really big, but somehow that’s made it easier in a way,” Michod explains. “I’ve learnt that the only way to do it is to concentrate on what’s in front of me at any given moment, and trust that the great people I have around me are working away on the rest of it in the meantime.”

Animal Kingdom writer/director David Michod.

Animal Kingdom tracks the Cody family, a Melbourne clan of armed robbers realising that their preferred mode of theft is becoming fatally dangerous, if not totally obsolete. Joshua Cody (debutante James Frecheville) is the last man standing in his immediate family after a string of deaths, so he must gravitate towards his grandmother, Smurf Cody (Jacki Weaver). Smurf overseas a gang of brooding boys, fussing over them even as they plot out endless illicit schemes. There’s a sense brewing, however, that the family is on borrowed time. Family friend and gang leader Baz (Joel Edgerton) thinks about stepping out from the proverbial underbelly and into the sunlight, while Smurf’s boys, played by Luke Ford and Sullivan Stapleton, are beginning to contemplate their actions in the context of the wider world. A shocking turn of events puts Ben Mendelsohn’s unhinged Pope – Smurf’s oldest son – in full control of the family, but his once iron grip is becoming more and more tremular, and there’s also a cop called Leckie (Guy Pearce) hovering around the gang, ready to pounce.

“I managed to do almost all of my casting before pre-production started, which was a relief,” Michod told FilmInk. “It’s a big movie with lots of characters and lots of locations. I’m lucky to have wrangled together the actors that I have, and I’m excited about the idea of seeing them bring this thing to life. Finding J was tough, and we had to cast the net wide. With casting director Kirsty McGregor, we saw somewhere between 200 and 300 kids, and seventeen-year-old Jimmy Frecheville was in there somewhere.” The big casting coup, however, was undoubtedly Guy Pearce, who made Animal Kingdom his first film in Australia since 2005’s The Proposition. “He read it and responded to it,” Michod replies when FilmInk asks how he caught such a big fish. “It seemed quite simple…but then I don’t have to do any of the paperwork!”

David Michod on the set of 2017’s War Machine.

Michod believes that a lifetime spent thinking about and consuming cinema put him in the kind of stead to nab someone like Pearce – he edited the local industry magazine Inside Film for several years in the 2000s, and cites his time as a journo as being deeply instructive. “It absolutely helped me,” Michod told FilmInk. “You get to see how the industry works – you learn a lot of lessons without necessarily having to take the bumps. And you meet people too – I’d met a few of the actors before I officially became ‘a director.’ It’s also just about absorbing the language of cinema; that job gave me a great chance to do that, and I continue to benefit from that. It can’t help but end up being infused into your work. Yes, you should have your own voice, but it’s helpful to know where movies have come from and where they are going, and to be familiar with the craft and how you can use different expressive techniques. I’m still an avid film watcher, but there hasn’t been much time lately…”

Michod developed his complex script for Animal Kingdom for several years, including during his time at Inside Film. Over those years, it went through title changes (the film initially went under the more minimalist moniker of J) and significant plot shifts. A lot of that happened through the NSW Film And Television Office’s Aurora, an intensive professional script development programme that puts screenplays through the proverbial wringer, with mentors and advisors (past notables include Gus Van Sant and Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy) offering truckloads of constructive criticism. “Aurora was fascinating. It was one of the most intense experiences that I’ve ever had. I received so much intense and varied feedback over the course of the year that I had to walk away from the script for six months before I could contemplate doing another draft in my own voice. When I did do that next draft, though, I was sure that it had benefited profoundly from having been through the process. In a way, I’m lucky that it didn’t happen sooner; with each year that I worked on it, the script kept on improving. I’m pretty happy with what we’ve achieved here – now I just can’t wait for the audience to find it. Hopefully they’ll come,” Michod said innocently and humbly at the start of the shoot, obviously unaware of what was to come.

Ben Mendelsohn and Laura Wheelright in Animal Kingdom.

The powerful script for Animal Kingdom was a strong lure for the cast. For Ben Mendelsohn, however, the role came at the end of an exhausting string of performances. “I almost didn’t want to do it,” the actor explained to FilmInk just prior to the film’s release in 2010. “I had to be pulled onto set in a wheelbarrow! But in a way, it suited the character.” Indeed, it’s almost fortunate that Mendelsohn was at the end of his tether. Pope is a deeply jaded man – his empire is cracking, and his adrenal gland must be splintered from always looking over his shoulder. His best mates and right hand men are getting gunned down, and the police are forever on his doorstep.

“This was the sixth film that I’d done in a year,” Mendelsohn explained, “and I’d even done two other TV shows, with Tangle and Who Do You Think You Are. It was the most employed that I’ll ever be in my life, and please don’t think that I’m complaining! Animal Kingdom came right at the tail end, and I wasn’t even sure if I would do it. Part of me was screaming: ‘Fuck this, get someone else to do it! I can’t do it!’ But it was good in the sense that I just had to twist my own dial a little bit to the left, and then I could find a way to access the character. This is a guy who is bone-tired, and who knows that things are not good. The essential problem is that he is the patriarch of that family, but he’s dealing with one massive disadvantage – he’s not in an area that makes a lot of money anymore, that being armed robbery. There was a time in the seventies when that was your bread and butter as a criminal! But they really found out how to stop it in that decade, so by the time that you’ve got the nineties rolling around, it’s really hard to do it. You’re talking about the time that drugs take over as the leading money-maker. Jesus, that’s enough to give you grey hairs!”

Ben Mendelsohn in Animal Kingdom.

While Mendelsohn tries not to judge the characters that he portrays, it was hard not to leave the set with an acrid taste in his mouth after playing Pope. “You’re dealing with a guy on his way out, and who’s really missed the point of life by and large,” the actor offered. “The closest thing that Pope has to ‘loved ones’ are his mates. And the one he loves most is taken out.” In playing a loose cannon, Mendelsohn didn’t feel that he needed to raise his voice. “For my money, you don’t need to go, ‘Ooga boooga boooga’ in order to be scary. It’s enough that you simply don’t know what this guy will do next. What I’m very happy with is that what I was trying to do has come up trumps. That makes me very happy as an actor. Very, very happy.” Is Mendelsohn one of those actors who struggles to look back on his own performances? Even the question draws a wince. “Yeah, I don’t normally look back,” he replies. “I stopped doing that quite a while ago. I think about my roles all the time, and given the opportunity, I think about what I could have or should have or would have done better if I could do them again.”

Mendelsohn, who first broke onto the big screen with The Year My Voice Broke (which he still cites as close to his favourite role), is no stranger to the unique pressures of being a rising actor. Not that he gave any breathing room to his young charge James Frecheville, who’d been plucked from obscurity to play Joshua Cody, the young man who falls headlong into an unknown world of criminals. “I spent as much time as I could ignoring him!” Mendelsohn cackles. “I wouldn’t want to be around James. I didn’t want to talk to him, and I didn’t want to be introduced. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. That was about trying to create a vibe which is key for the film. The set-up here is this incredibly strong family-oriented world, and the character that James plays is an outsider. A film like this, which has to draw its power from the performances, needs lots of nuances here and there, so I just had to do what was right to get the job done.”

James Frecheville and Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom.

Frecheville take on the topic was a little more ruffled. “I didn’t know Ben Mendelsohn, and had never met him,” the young actor explained. “So I went out and hired Cosi. I wanted to see what the cast that I’d be working with on Animal Kingdom was all about. The way that Ben treated me was not what I expected. To be really honest, it was kind of bad! He’d call me John, Jack, kid…anything but my name. Either that or he’d totally avoid me! He’s a guy with a bit of gravitas, so that can be a little hard to take. We’re friends now, but I definitely felt that he was trying to fuck with my head.” The hazing process culminated when Frecheville was scoring lunch from the catering tent and bumped into Mendelsohn’s partner. “I was having lunch, and his girlfriend introduced herself to me. I told her who I was in the film and she said: ‘Oh! You’re the one that Ben’s not talking to!’”

For Frecheville, it was a heady transition from unknown actor to lead performer in a major film. “All I can really say is that it was all new to me at the time that I started working on the movie. I hope as it goes on that I’ll feel a bit more in control. Looking at all the other very established actors in the cast, they all really knew ‘the drill.’ They just got into this zone of how to work, and they seemed incredibly experienced. To say the least, I didn’t. There seemed to be some kind of mystical dogma that they all knew, and that was the hardest thing. But of course it’s just about applying all these insights that they’ve learned over time. Hopefully I can get to that place – be it through mastering the time that the camera is rolling, or even taking a role home with me if I need to.”

Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton in Animal Kingdom.

Listening to how evidently traumatised Frecheville was from his early hazing, it’s worth asking Mendelsohn if he likes to keep the on-screen dynamics churning after “cut” and before “action”? “It’s horses for courses,” Mendelsohn replied after a lengthy pause. “Because of the degree to which this story gets its tension and drive from that intra-family set up, you want to just have that stuff there without feeling like it’s something that you’ve got to find or fake. The more that you have it at your fingertips, the better it is. It’s a bit like if you’re doing a show with someone and they’re going to be your best friend on-screen; maybe you need to hang out with them a bit so you can develop a genuine ease and chemistry, so you can bring that to the performances. Luke Ford and I particularly bonded for this film, and he was very into it. We would end up really annoying each other and carrying on. We did that, and we could bring that to the table when the camera turned on.”

Don’t get the feeling that this is a Boys Own show though – Animal Kingdom gets much of its unique amperage from the fact that the underground crime network portrayed here spirals around a maternal core. Weaver’s star turn is atypical of this macho genre, and proved a major point of difference for discerning audiences, even those reared on the works of Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese. “The temptation at first would have been to jump in and make her evil right from the off, and to play her as a bad woman and telegraph that right from the beginning,” actress Jacki Weaver told Cinema Blend of her approach to Smurf Cody. “But the thing about sociopaths is that they’re very clever. They know how to get around people. They’ve got no conscience, and they know how to behave in a way that’s charming enough to fool people. David Michod was so right about making me seem nice, and that’s probably why he wanted me to play the role. I’m a nice middle class girl in real life, and I’m a mum and a grandma, and I usually play sweet characters.” Says Michod revealingly on the film’s DVD audio commentary: “I called her Smurf because she’s little and cute.”

Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom.

It’s a truly fascinating piece of characterisation. “Well, it’s very different,” Mendelsohn said to FilmInk. “That’s what we were trying to spend our time doing beforehand when the cast got together, to make sure that our boats were all heading in the right direction. I needed to look at that core relationship like the one between me and Jacki Weaver’s character. I’d known her for a long time, so that was very, very easy. She’s just amazing, mate. I’d never met Luke Ford and James before – but, as I’ve explained to you just now, I treated those two boys rather differently from each other indeed!”

Guy Pearce in Animal Kingdom.

One experienced actor who was gentler to Frecheville was Guy Pearce, who portrays a kindly yet grimly determined police officer attempting to crack the crime dynasty wide open. Phoning FilmInk from LA just prior to the release of Animal Kingdom in Australia, Pearce was excited about the film and its prospects. Always an actor of unique integrity – picking roles for their quality, no matter what the size – Animal Kingdom’s part for Pearce was not the biggest role on offer, but it packs a truly muscular punch. “The way that I pick my roles always comes down to a number of things,” Pearce explains. “Certain things outweigh other things. I might really respond to a character, but I’m thinking, ‘I really don’t know about this director.’ Other times, I think, ‘Well, I can’t even really see the character in there, but the director has such a clear idea of what the picture is that I just have to do it.’ Sometimes there’s a great actor that I might want to work with. Each time is very different, but the absolutely essential thing is that they need to be honest responses. I trust my gut now. If I had a script that wasn’t great, but the director was trying to tell me that it will be fantastic, I’d probably go into it feeling dubious, and I’m certain that I’d give a dubious performance. With Animal Kingdom, this is a great role, and David Michod is an impressive guy. I ultimately just want to be part of great films. I’d rather be in ten great films for a minute in each film than in ten embarrassing films and be the lead!”

One element that never gave Pearce cold feet was Michod’s so-called “first timer” status – in his eyes, Michod was perfectly qualified to helm a picture of Animal Kingdom’s heft. “Watching David’s short film Crossbow cemented it for me,” Pearce explains. “I met David and found him to be an honest and lovely guy, and that’s a winner right there. I don’t want to work with someone who is a loudmouth talking out of their arse. That was great, because he’s a delightful human being. I was surprised though, because at first he seemed very quiet and seemed like he could be a little book nerd. Then I watched Crossbow and thought, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of dark, intense stuff going on in there.’ So you see, David wasn’t really a first time director at all. He’s a good communicator, and he’s highly skilled. He’d shown his skill set with that short film. I’m talking about the skills of using the camera and working with actors and constructing scenes and telling stories. Sometimes there are directors who have made twenty films that you feel less sure about. Really, as you get older, you begin to look at artists, and you start to realise that the people that stand out as great were pretty great when they were young. I mean, sure, almost everyone improves, but [silverchair’s] Daniel Johns was pretty amazing at fourteen, you know?”

Guy Pearce and David Michod on set.

Pearce’s faith in David Michod proved to be well founded. There was a lot of “heat” around the film prior to its release, and Animal Kingdom really caught fire when it won the coveted World Cinema Grand Jury prize at The Sundance Film Festival. “How drunk was I? Um, yeah…extremely drunk,” David Michod laughed to FilmInk when recounting the heady hours following his much-discussed win. “I didn’t go to the award ceremony,” Michod explained. “I was actually in LA while it all happened. The finishing line was only ever about getting into the festival. I’d been there for my screenings, and then left once I’d done that business.”

Michod had a hint that he might score a win, however, but was too superstitious to pounce on an invite proffered in his direction. “Some organisers from the festival offered to bring me over for the awards ceremony, so I thought that something might be up, but I’m a bit superstitious,” Michod laughed. So rather than sitting in a tux in Row 3, Michod was splayed out on a couch, sinking cans of beer, and keeping just one eye on an internet stream of the event. Needless to say, the beers starting flowing more liberally when his debut film was announced as a winner in the World Cinema Dramatic section. “I was stunned. The phone starting ringing immediately. I just had to do my best to talk about it, even though I had quite a few drinks on board at that point! Quite a few. The phone kept ringing for 24 hours, and then suddenly it stopped. I knew that the world moves in 24-hour news cycles, but I didn’t think that would prove to be true to-the-minute! It literally went from interviews all day to absolutely nothing. That’s life in the 21st century – something is hot for a day, and then people are looking for a new thing.”

Sullivan Stapleton in Animal Kingdom.

Sullivan Stapleton – who plays the wild, out-of-control Craig Cody – noted first-hand how the film grabbed audiences by the throat at Sundance. “Within the film industry, whether it’s in Australia or America, every couple of years something comes along that everybody loves,” the actor told FilmInk. “We had no idea. Then it won Sundance. Then a bunch of us boys were walking down the street in Sundance and people looked scared! So we knew it really hit home! It really touched people. We had a lot of fun making the film. There were scenes we had to do in one take, and that’s how it was. And it worked. During ADR, they wanted us to make animal noises – I think I’m barking on the audio track of the film! It was a good time. It was a great thing to be a part of, and it was great to see how it really affected people.”

The buzz around Animal Kingdom continued to sizzle, with the film scoring rave reviews from the world’s critics. “A movie whose focus on the personalities of its criminals suggests an Australian answer to Goodfellas, minus the wise-guy humor,” wrote The New York Times’ Stephen Holden. “A kingdom of wounded and dying animals – that is, animals of the most vicious, dangerous kind – is what director David Michod portrays here, and this is maybe the nearest we’re going to get to an Australian Goodfellas,” said The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “It is a tense, violent and supremely watchable crime drama.” FilmInk was equally enthusiastic. “Animal Kingdom is not about the flashy, bullish nature of crime. The film ingeniously presents its criminals as blue collar workers, and charts the mundane nature of their lives, which is only occasionally punctuated by flashes of violence. The actors play into Michod’s scenario beautifully, delivering performances of quiet power (Mendelsohn and Pearce are both particularly mesmerising) instead of cheap scene-stealing. The result is a film that grinds hypnotically toward a shattering climax while taking a fascinating clutch of detours along the way. Make no mistake: Animal Kingdom is a film to get very excited about.”

The Animal Kingdom crew cleans up at The AFI Awards.

The film went on to triumph at The AFI Awards, picking up gongs for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Ben Mendelsohn), Best Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Supporting Actor (Joel Edgerton), Best Editing and Best Score, and nominations in a fistful of other categories. It also received a host of major critics’ awards around the globe. In a major, startling coup, the film also saw Jacki Weaver score an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, something unseen for an Australian film. Though a very familiar face in Australia, Weaver was now a player on the world scene. “I’d already been acting for nearly 50 years,” she told FilmInk in 2020. “I’ve done about 90 plays and I’ve probably done about 15 films and quite a lot of TV, including a couple of series in Australia that were written specifically for me. I was content and in fact, I thought I was ready for retirement when suddenly David Michod made the call…the siren call. I was more surprised than anyone.”

The role was so different for Jacki Weaver, and her performance as Smurf Cody is a towering piece of slow burning menace. “I’ve played murderers and evil people and I’ve played really nice people and I’ve played virgins and nymphomaniacs and lesbians and the whole gamut,” Weaver told FilmInk in 2020. “If I do get a script where the character’s different from what I can remember ever doing, I’m always eager to. I started acting in my teens in 1962, so I’ve been acting professionally for 57 years. The first few decades, because I always looked such a baby face and because I’m very small in stature, I was still playing children and virgins into my thirties. I used to get so frustrated saying I want to play a woman and a woman of substance. I came into my own later on when I played probably the worst mother of all time in Animal Kingdom. I don’t look like I’d be evil, but in fact she was a horrible piece of work, ordering the murder of her own grandson!”

Jacki Weaver and Sullivan Stapleton in Animal Kingdom.

Weaver’s performance led to much interesting work in America, with the actress getting roles in films like Woody Allen’s Magic In The Moonlight, Park Chan Wook’s Stoker, James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, Steve McQueen’s Widows, Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, which won Weaver a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. “I always had loads of work, but I never had a yearn to go to America because I was perfectly content with my career in Australia,” Weaver told FilmInk. “And I was mainly a theatre actor. I’ve done about 90 plays and about 15 movies and lots and lots of TV. But yeah, it was so unexpected, and it was because of Animal Kingdom, which did so well at Sundance. And then I got offered other stuff. So, after that, there’s always been work for me. I get offered a lot more work in America than I do in Australia.”

The film proved to be a big-time career launch-pad for everyone involved. DOP Adam Arkapaw is now one of the most highly regarded young shooters in the business (his work on Season 1 of True Detective is truly dazzling); Joel Edgerton has gone from strength to strength as both an actor and a writer/director (The Gift, Boy Erased); Guy Pearce has continued to forge a fascinating body of work; James Frecheville has made interesting films in Australia (Adore) and abroad (The First Time, The Drop, Black ‘47); and when FilmInk asked Ben Mendelsohn (now a regular in Hollywood, and a part of both the Star Wars and Marvel universes) in 2012 if he’d felt a change in perception about him overseas since Animal Kingdom, the actor roared with laughter. “What do you think? It’s night and day…it’s just like a whole, different thing for all of us. Take Jacki Weaver; she’s been a staple of Australian entertainment – on stage, screen, and television – for a very long time. It wasn’t like anyone was desperate to work with Jacki in the states. But they go and see Animal Kingdom, and say, ‘Oh my god, oh my god!’ All of a sudden, it’s all about that! It did good things for everyone, so it’s like night and day.”

Poster for Animal Kingdom.

For Sullivan Stapleton – who has featured in the popular international series Strike Back and Blindspot, along with the big screen actioner 300: Rise Of An EmpireAnimal Kingdom was a huge game-changer, and he marked it by getting the title tattooed on his body. “It’s in Thai script,” Stapleton told FilmInk. “I love Thailand. I was covered in animal tattoos for the film, and when I was thinking of getting a real one, I wanted an Asian one, but a snake or a dragon just seemed too cliché. It was around the time of Animal Kingdom that I was actually thinking of quitting and becoming a grip or a full-time builder. Thank god that Animal Kingdom happened, because it’s a hard industry.”

David Michod – the man from whom this darkly criminal enterprise sprang – also enjoyed the success of the film. “There were lots of things coming at me from all sorts of directions and I was encouraging it,” he told FilmInk in 2014 of the aftermath of Animal Kingdom. “I decided after Animal Kingdom that I wanted to keep myself open to the possibility of the next movie coming from anywhere. So I did a lot of meetings, and got offered a number of movies, but you know those offers. A lot can go on with offers. But what I found in every case – even when I found projects emotionally interesting – was that I always had problems with the idea of leaping onto a film that had, for me, already been half made.” Michod has stuck to his guns since, only working on films that he has scripted, including 2014’s The Rover (his scorching, Aussie-shot post-apocalyptic follow-up to Animal Kingdom), the 2017 Brad Pitt-starring military satire War Machine, and 2019’s bold historical epic The King.

The cast of the Animal Kingdom TV series.

Animal Kingdom not only expanded the careers of everyone involved with it, it also expanded outward itself, when TV producer John Wells (ER, The West Wing, Shameless) adapted the movie for US television. Now in-production on its fifth series, TV’s Animal Kingdom transplants Melbourne’s Cody clan to the Californian coast, with the boys now surfing bank robbers with a taste for high adrenaline crimes. The richly entertaining show keeps many of the film’s character beats (Ellen Barkin is great as a decidedly more unhinged Smurf), but departs wildly in terms of tone and narrative.

The influence and effect of Animal Kingdom has indeed been huge, and it now rates as a true Australian crime classic, right up there with Chopper and Two Hands. “Who would have thought?” Michod sighed to FilmInk in 2014. “It’s quite extraordinary for me to see the way that it penetrated the industry, especially in America. At the time I had finished it but hadn’t shown it to anyone, I was scared that it was going to die a horrible death. But then it went to Sundance and it all went nuts and it was so exhilarating, and that exhilaration lasted for quite a long time. But it’s still amazing for me after a number of years, to see the effect that it had on a whole number of careers.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on the making of Two Hands and Ned Kelly.

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