Prior to the making of their first feature Snowtown, writer Shaun Grant had never spoken to Justin Kurzel.
But when he met Kurzel to discuss taking on the movie, which was based on notorious serial killer John Bunting, the two quickly saw eye to eye: both knew straight away he was the right director for the gig.
Snowtown was not only an international success that made waves around the world, it also launched the career of Shaun Grant, making him one of the most sought-after and in-demand writers in Australia and internationally, across both film (Penguin Bloom, Berlin Syndrome) and television series (Mindhunter).
It also marked the beginning of the fruitful creative partnership and close bond between Grant and director Justin Kurzel.
Additionally, Snowtown laid the seeds of what would become Nitram, their latest effort, which examines the events leading up to the Port Arthur killings.
Starring rising American actor Caleb Landry-Jones in the lead role for which he won the Cannes Best Actor award, the movie follows the eponymic Nitram (the killer’s name backwards), who lives a life of emptiness and destruction, and is guarded by his parents (Judy Davis and Anthony LaPaglia) until he meets Aunt Helen (Essie Davis), with whom he strikes a friendship and keeps company. When that association ends, Nitram begins to spiral down a dangerous path.
Grant and Kurzel’s third collaboration, the film was the most arduous Grant has ever undertaken, due to its sensitive nature, and the writer’s rigorous steps to ensure the movie did not cause offence.
Nitram was close to a decade in the making.
We spoke with the writer to find out where it began, his close relationship with Justin Kurzel and the challenges of working with difficult subject matter.
This was a film which had been in development for close to a decade, and also, had a personal origin. What were the seeds of the film and how did it begin to take root?
“I guess it tracks all the way back to the day of remembering where I was when the [Port Arthur] incident occurred, the seismic event that it was in this country, the 12 days which followed and the gun reform that was made. It was always an exceptionally dark, yet important chapter in our history. So that had resonated.
“Post writing Snowtown, I made mention of it to Justin, but hadn’t given too much thought to it, until around 2018 when I was living in Los Angeles, a few incidents came up. One was a shooter who ran into my local grocery store, on the day that my wife was supposed to go shopping. Thankfully, she didn’t, as she was called into work. Then, there were two mass shootings, one in late October in Pittsburgh, and one in early November, in Thousand Oaks. Every time these things occur, news broadcasters and late-night hosts reference Port Arthur and it took my mind back to that place.”
The film takes a bold approach of putting viewers in Nitram’s shoes and tells the story from his perspective. Can you please elaborate?
“Over the years, I’d researched and looked at it from different ways, be it through the point of view of the police or through the point of view of the victims/survivors and multi protagonists, and for whatever reason, it hadn’t worked. Strangely enough, during the halftime break of a basketball game, I had heard two athletes, after these two mass shootings, have an argument about gun rights. One of them was arguing the point that they have every right to have an AR-15, which was the rifle used in Port Arthur and was used in those most recent cases. He kept saying ‘I don’t do any harm with them. Why can’t I?’ Strangely enough, it came to me in that moment, that what I wanted to do more than anything, was to do a film which would be an anti-gun film. I wanted to do it in a way where you were to walk in the shoes of an individual who should not be let anywhere near these sort of assault rifles. To be with them for 70, 80 minutes, then watch them walk into a gun shop, when they are at their most volatile and watch how easy it is for them to create an arsenal of weapons….
“It was all about, why am I telling this story? So, I had to figure out how could I best do that. And sadly, for me, because I think it’s the hardest way, was to step in the shoes of a mass shooter, so that you could warn people why we need to protect ourselves with gun reform and legislation. So, that, without a doubt, was the hardest thing. This individual that was talking about his rights, and for everyone that talks about guns in that way, why it’s okay for me to have them, I wanted them to have the opportunity to see how dangerous these weapons are in the wrong hands, because these individuals, to me, will always exist, sadly. So, we need to find ways in which to protect ourselves and the community.”
You’ve said that both you and Justin were extremely mindful and careful of the sensitive nature of the subject matter and continually questioned each other. Was this slow development process crucial?
“I’ll tell you what it was crucial for; it was crucial in that I interrogated why I was doing it for a decade. So, the film comes out in a few days and I’m confident in myself, and Justin is as well, we really interrogated that idea. Should a film about this be made? Are we doing it justice, and with sensitivity and intelligence? That was the important thing. It wasn’t as though I had an idea and just jumped straight into it.”
One of the most pivotal scenes in the film is when Nitram buys two rifles from the gun shop. How important was this scene?
“It really is the moment. People talk about there not being the violence of the act itself in the film. And that’s because it’s almost as though this is the moment, not that. It’s almost as though once he’s got the weapons, the ending is inevitable, in a way. We have to cut them off at the pass. That’s where the decision was made. That’s where we’ve got to stop them. I remember being on set and looking across to Justin at the monitor when we shot this scene. There was a sense of relief and reassurance that this is what the film is about at the heart of it. So, I’m very grateful for everyone involved, particularly the two actors.”
Was this the most challenging film you’ve ever had to work on due to the subject matter?
“It was the most personally challenging film I’ve ever worked on from start to completion. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in my life, due to the sensitive nature. But the biggest reason it was greatest challenge of my life is because the film is told from Nitram’s perspective.
“It’s not fun. I would never describe it that way, to deal with these characters. You are in a room on your own, looking at the worst of humanity, and it really takes a toll.
“Snowtown was extremely challenging because the protagonist, Jamie, went on to kill four people, but it was really a corruption of innocence story. Snowtown also had that monster of John Bunting over his shoulder, which made it more digestible for a reader or an audience to watch. This didn’t have that. This is the hard truth, that you’re in the shoes of someone who did the most heinous of acts. So, it was hard. It’s hard to write. It’s hard to direct. It’s hard to act in for Caleb, it’s hard to watch. And it should be.
“Justin’s connection for me was really important. Going back to the first time we met to discuss Snowtown, one key thing he said, which I still remember, was he was from the area, and I wasn’t, and that was a huge reason why I thought he was the person to direct the film. And on this one, I knew Justin’s love of Tasmania and I don’t pretend to know anything about Tasmania in that regard. So, I knew that I could do the work and that he would go through it with a fine toothcomb. And not just himself but his wife Essie (Davis), who’s in the film, has lived in Tasmania her entire life, would go through it carefully and look at it with the sensitivity that a Tasmanian would.”
This is your third time working with Justin Kurzel. You were also a producer on this movie. Was the making of this film in some ways your closest collaboration?
“Absolutely. I’m very, very fortunate in that regard. It’s my sixth film, I’ve done three with Justin and three with other excellent, wonderful directors. And I’ve worked a lot in television with equally wonderful and talented directors. But the level of collaboration on a feature, is really at the behest of the director. And if they’re prepared to, which I think always benefits the material, then that is purely up to the director themselves, and their willingness to occasionally put ego aside and do that. And Justin is the most collaborative of filmmakers I know.”
Why is Nitram’s relationship with his mother and father and the roles they play so key to the story?
“There were three central relationships to the protagonist of Nitram and none are more influential than that of his mother and father. I very much saw Nitram in some way as a parents’ story, particularly when discussing parents dealing with especially challenging children. There’s an exhaustion within the parents that we wanted to convey. While the audience may be just coming into the story, these two people have been dealing with Nitram their entire life and it’s taking a toll on them both.”
You have achieved global renown as a writer and are able to pick and choose the films you work on. What makes you continue to choose stories with distinctly Australian topics and characters?
And, do you think these Aussie characters and themes are universal or are they unique and endemic to home?
“I’m proudly Australian and a passionate supporter of our local industry. Having said that, the main reason I continue to tell Australian stories is because they’re bloody good stories. They could come from anywhere, as I’m drawn to universal stories, they just often happen to be Australian. We also have some of the finest creatives in the world here, so why wouldn’t I collaborate with them, I’d be mad not to.”
You said that ‘evil ignored is evil repeated’. What do you hope will be the conversation which arises from the film?
“I’m a big believer that any nation should reflect on both the high points and the low points of their history. It’s all very well to celebrate the successes, but it’s equally important to reflect on those low points so we learn from them. I think history can teach us a lot of really important lessons about issues that we struggle with today. I think in terms of gun reform, there’s no perfect examples in what Port Arthur taught us 25 years ago.
“If these incidents didn’’t continue to occur, the film wouldn’t exist. But the sad state of affairs is that they do. So, I’d much prefer people be reminded about it through a scripted narrative than a news report. And sadly, that sometimes is the case as we’ve seen in New Zealand and in Canada, that nations kind of sit on their hands a little bit and wait until it happens on their doorstep. So hopefully, I think what art does really, really well, is attempt to make sense of the senseless and there’s nothing more senseless than what happened 25 years ago in Tasmania.”
Nitram is in cinemas September 30, 2021