‘I was incredibly scared of it’: Justin Kurzel on making Port Arthur massacre film Nitram

Ahead of its cinematic opening, the creators of a controversial film examining a dark chapter of Australian history explain their motivation

Purely disturbing and hypnotically disquieting was how the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described Justin Kurzel’s film about one of Australia’s darkest days in living memory.

Variety hailed it as a devastating study of atrocity that may come to be recognised as one of the finest exemplars yet of its genre.

The critical acclaim that Nitram received at Cannes festival earlier this year appears to have quelled – for now – the widespread outrage that greeted the news last year that production had begun on a film about the lone gunman at the centre of the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, where 35 people lost their lives. At the time it was the largest single shooter killing ever, a trauma that still resonates through the national psyche; many in Tasmania still don’t use the gunman’s name.

Nitram (his first name spelled backwards) will open 30 September in cinemas around Australia that are not impacted by Covid restrictions – everywhere, that is, except for Hobart, where cinematic release details are still being discussed. “We want to ensure any decisions … are made with the utmost sensitivity to the community, and hope to have confirmed details in the coming days,” a spokesperson said. The film will open in Launceston at the Star from 14 October, and will stream on Stan later in the year.

‘I have never worried so much about making a film’

As a Tasmanian resident himself, director Kurzel knew that he would have to tread delicately.

“I was deeply aware of just how large the wound still is here,” he tells Guardian Australia.

“When the script arrived in my inbox, I took a really deep breath. I was incredibly scared of it, and very, very apprehensive about how and why we should tell the story.

“I have never worried so much about making a film. And the last thing I want to do is bring trauma to a place that I absolutely adore and love and have decided to bring my children up [in].”

Caleb Landry Jones as Martin Bryant in Nitram
‘When the script arrived in my inbox, I took a really deep breath,’ the Tasmanian-based director Justin Kurzel says. Photograph: GoodThing Productions

The shootings are not depicted on screen in Nitram, which focuses on the life of Bryant in the months leading up to the atrocities – a life cloaked in aimlessness, boredom and an unfulfilled yearning for acceptance in his community.

University of NSW forensic psychologist Lee Knight told SBS’s The Feed the film could help increase awareness about the warning signs of criminal behaviour, but many others have condemned the filmmakers’ decision to shine a spotlight, no matter how sullied, on a mass murderer who craved attention.

A witness to the shootings, writer Justin Woolley, warned the film would inevitably attempt to humanise the main character.

“Not interested in ‘exploring this dark chapter of Australian history’ or the ‘study of a man driven to do this’,” he posted on Twitter after production began.“We do not need a study of the motivations of the perpetrator of this crime. We know them already.”

Yep. I was 12 years old when that guy tried to shoot me. Our family was amazingly lucky given we all walked away. Not interested in "exploring this dark chapter of Australian history" or the "study of a man driven to do" this.

— Justin Woolley (@Woollz) November 30, 2020

Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein told parliament in December he felt “highly uncomfortable” about the film, and his arts minister, Elise Archer, had refused to meet with the filmmakers. The state government-run Victims Support Services also refused to cooperate.

“Tasmanians continue to be deeply impacted by this event, especially survivors and victims’ families, and conversations about this film may be difficult and traumatic for many,” Tasmania’s justice department said in a statement to the Guardian.

‘That’s when I knew what the script needed’

Screenwriter Shaun Grant says he spent almost a decade tossing around a Port Arthur screenplay, but struggled to find a way into it.

All he knew was that it would have to be a very different approach to that taken on other projects with violent themes he had collaborated on with Kurzel – The True History of the Kelly Gang and Snowtown, based on the notorious “bodies in the barrels” serial killings in South Australia in the 1990s.

Then in 2018, while Grant was living in Los Angeles, two mass shootings occurred in the US within less than two weeks: the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and the Thousand Oaks shooting in California.

The two events claimed 24 lives, and sparked a fresh round of public debate about firearms control in the US. The Port Arthur massacre frequently arose in that debate: within two weeks of that tragedy, Australia had managed to dramatically overhaul its gun laws.

Grant recalls watching a half-time argument between two sports commentators at a televised basketball match. One said he had a right to own an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle – the same assault weapon common to all three mass shootings – because he was a responsible gun owner.

“That’s when I knew what the point of view was that the script needed,” he says.

“I wanted everyday responsible people to walk in the shoes of someone who should not have a weapon ... and watch them walk into a gun shop and see how easy it was.”

Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis as Maurice and Carleen Bryant
Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis as Maurice and Carleen Bryant. Photograph: Madman Entertainment

Nitram ends as Bryant finishes his fruit cup at the Broad Arrow Cafe and opens fire. The previous slayings of David and Sally Martin at the nearby Seascape Guesthouse also take place off-camera.

It could be argued that the climax of the film happens much earlier, when Bryant, played by American actor Caleb Landry Jones, walks into a local firearms retailer with a sports bag stuffed with cash.

Shot in Geelong during Covid-19 lockdowns – the option of shooting at Port Arthur was never on the table, Kurzel says, due to locals’ sensitivity – the Cannes screening was the first opportunity for him and Grant to gauge an audience reaction of more than four people. The change of collective emotion in the auditorium during the gun shop scene was palpable, the director recalls.

“Everything led to that,” he says. “The understanding of the horror and absurdity of someone like that being able to accrue weaponry, in the easiest possible way.

“And you could feel a sort of incredible shift in that moment, where people were going, ‘hang on, I want to get out of the car now’. And you know you can’t, because these choices have already been made.”

Essie Davis as Helen Harvey in Nitram
Essie Davis as Helen Harvey. Photograph: Stan

Melbourne-based filmmaker Neil Triffett, who grew up near Port Arthur and was eight years old when the shootings took place, encapsulated the concerns of many Australians when he wrote in December 2020: “35 people didn’t die simply to offer Americans a cautionary tale about gun control”.

Grant responds to the criticism by arguing he’d much rather the cautionary tale was told via a narrative scripted feature film than by another grim news report.

According to 2019 research by the Australia Institute, the number of firearms reported in Australia in 2017 (3.6 million) is now higher than prior to the 1996 National Firearms Agreement (3.2 million firearms).

“There’s chinks in our armour as well,” says Grant.

“It’s not just a film that needs to be made for the universal world, but actually closer to home as well.”

Kurzel says he was astounded when he discovered how many young Australians working on the Nitram set were unaware of the Port Arthur story before becoming involved in the film.

“They hadn’t been born ... and this is a dark, dark memory in the shadows,” he says.

“But I do feel that as a society we need to face and question and talk about our dark chapters in history – and in Tasmania, this goes way back before Port Arthur.”

Caleb Landry Jones takes the lead

One of those young people unaware of Port Arthur was the Texan born and raised actor who played the perpetrator in Nitram, Jones, who was unable to be interviewed for this story.

Caleb Landry Jones, director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant at the screening of Nitram at the 74th Cannes Film Festival
Caleb Landry Jones, director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant at the screening of Nitram at the 74th Cannes film festival. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Kurzel and Grant had discussed the possibility of an Australian actor playing the Bryant role, but Caleb Landry Jones’s name kept popping up. The actor’s interpretation of the Bryant persona certainly appears to be an amalgam of two previous roles – an inarticulate loner desperately trying to find his place in the world in Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers (2019), and a dysfunctional and sadistic misfit in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).

Within 24 hours of meeting with Jones in Los Angeles, Kurzel and Grant had decided he was perfect for the role.

“Perhaps stupidly, we never even considered whether he could do an Australian accent.”

Jones won best actor at Cannes, and much attention was paid to the actor’s mastery of the accent.

Kurzel says that was largely due to Jones’s dedication to the project, the work of voice coach Jenny Kent (who also worked on the True History of the Kelly Gang) and Kurzel’s own insistence that while in quarantine once arriving in Australia, the actor spent his time watching re-runs of 1990s episodes of Hey Hey It’s Saturday, Neighbours and Home and Away.

“There’s a slightly different accent [back then],” Kurzel says, “so hearing him speak on set, it was like being in a bit of a time warp.”

As a screenwriter, Grant acknowledges that the key to a successful protagonist, no matter how flawed, is finding an aspect of the personality that the audience can empathise with.

This film may prove to be a rare exception to the rule.

There is no empathy for the young man his school peers and wannabe surfer mates teased and called Nitram. There are no excuses and no reasons why a boy, impossible to love even by his own mother, decided to exact revenge on society with such a random, devastating act.

But there is a kernel of understanding the film forces on its audience: that what happened in Port Arthur is a fundamental part of Australian history, and evil ignored could be evil repeated.

• Nitram is released in some cinemas around Australia on 30 September, and will arrive on Stan later this year

Contributor

Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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