Writer and director David MichÃ´d’s gritty gangster drama, Animal Kingdom, has already cleaned up at Sundance and the AFI Awards — and he’s even caught Hollywood’s attention.
David MichÃ´d could be forgiven for perpetually pinching himself. He, more than anyone, knows that Hollywood dreams rarely come true.
Before making his feature film debut with the critically-acclaimed crime-drama, Animal Kingdom, the 38-year-old Sydneysider was editor of Inside Film magazine.
“Given what I know about filmmaking, movies are so incredibly hard to make and they’re even harder to get right,” says MichÃ´d.
But get it right he did. The film, set in Melbourne’s criminal underworld, has already bagged the top prize at last year’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and won ten gongs at the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards.
Aussie acting stalwart, Jacki Weaver, was even nominated for an Oscar. Not bad for his first attempt.
The film centres on 17-year-old J (played by newcomer James Frecheville), who is taken in by his grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) after his heroin-addicted mother overdoses.
The blonde matriarch oozes maternal warmth, but when Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) comes knocking following the murder of two policemen, Smurf will go to any length to protect her criminal offspring — the quietly menacing Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), volatile drug-dealer Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and baby of the family, Darren (Luke Ford).
After finishing an arts degree at the University of Melbourne, MichÃ´d began working for the Department of Education, a “worthy” but ultimately unfulfilling job.
On a whim, he applied to film school in Melbourne.
“I got in on the first attempt, which apparently is unusual. If I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have pursued filmmaking any further,” he says.
Back in Sydney a couple of years later, a chance encounter at a Baz Luhrmann party in 2001 gave him his first break in the movie business — answering phones at the Inside Film magazine office.
“It wasn’t my love of film, or my love of magazines either, that got me there — it was my desperate need for money,” he laughs.
“I spent six years there and learnt so much about the business and met an enormous number of people,” says MichÃ´d.
During this time, he started working on the script for Animal Kingdom, inspired by the Walsh Street murders, one of Australia’s most notorious — and unsolved — crimes.
In 1988, two young policemen were ambushed and shot dead in the leafy, inner-city suburb of South Yarra in a revenge attack for the death of a bank robber at the hands of police.
“I started imagining what the hours and days and weeks immediately before and after an event like that might have been like,” MichÃ´d says.
Then in 2002, Australia was gripped by another Melbourne gangster tale — Underbelly, the TV series about drug-dealer turned hit-man, Carl Williams.
“Yeah, there were a couple of moments where I thought I’d been gazumped,” he laughs.
“But when I saw Underbelly, it came as a relief because it felt so clearly like television and I knew Animal Kingdom was going to be a movie — I wanted it to feel cinematic.”
MichÃ´d slaved over the script for eight years, writing the sociopathic characters of Pope and Smurf with Mendelsohn and Weaver in mind, and it’s their restrained performances that steal the show.
“I had a lot of conservations with Ben about what kind of character Pope was,” he says.
“He was the most terrifying character in the film, and we had both known terrifying people. They don’t need to act scary — if anything, they’re like drunk people who feel they have to pretend to be sober.”
Getting Guy Pearce on board was a major confidence boost for the filmmaker.
“I had never met him before, but I sent him the script. Fortunately for me, he kept himself available for about a year as we were trying to raise the money.
“To have someone of his stature read my script and say ‘yes, I want to do it’ was very encouraging,” he says.
MichÃ´d has spent the past 12 months promoting the film across the globe, culminating with a ticket to last month’s Oscars in LA, but is still surprised by his own success.
“I wasn’t expecting this at all,” he laughs.
“I just wanted the thing to be, not just good, but really good because I’m very aware of how difficult it is for directors to forge careers,” he says.
With industry bible, Variety magazine, naming him a ‘Director to Watch’, somehow we think he’ll do just fine.
Animal Kingdom is in cinemas now.