FILM BASED ON PORT ARTHUR MASSACRE AIMS TO TAKE A SENSITIVE APPROACH
If director Justin Kurzel ever needed a reminder about just how sensitive the subject matter of his new movie Nitram is, he only had to cast his mind back 25 years to his wife’s reaction when news emerged of the horrific Port Arthur massacre.
Kurzel met his now wife, Tasmanian Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries star Essie Davis, about a month before what was, at the time, the world’s worst mass killing, when Martin Bryant opened fire at the former penal colony turned tourist attraction, murdering 35 men, women and children in cold blood. The pair were in Sydney at the time and Kurzel vividly remembers his wife’s visceral response to the monstrous act.
“The phone rang and it was her parents,” he recalls from their home on the Apple Isle. “Her brothers were supposed to be down there for the day and Essie just started screaming – she was terrified. I thought someone within the family had passed away or that a terrible thing had just been told to her about a family member and she said ‘there’s been a mass shooting at Port Arthur’.
“It’s so small here. Everyone knows everyone and everyone is interconnected and there was an initial response of ‘where is everyone? Has anyone been down to the Tasman Peninsula? What’s going on?’. It was seismic. That and September 11 are two days where you remember where you were.”
Unsurprisingly, when writer Shaun Grant came to Kurzel with a script for a movie based on the events leading up to that fateful day of April 28, 1996, his first reaction was fear and trepidation. The pair had first collaborated a decade ago on Kurzel’s debut film Snowtown, about another dark and grisly chapter in Australia’s history, the infamous bodies in barrels murders in South Australia.
And for sceptics wondering why anyone would want to make a film about such an act of evil that many would prefer forgotten, and despite Nitram’s rapturous reception at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kurzel is “still questioning every day why we made it”. He and Davis have lived in Tasmania with their two children for the past four years and know just how raw and sensitive the topic remains.
“The last thing we want to do is bring trauma to a place that I adore and love,” he says. “I really cherish this place.”
Los Angeles-based Grant had been inspired to write the script after his partner narrowly missed a 2018 shootout at the grocery store she normally went to every morning, as well as the ongoing gun control debate in that country, which is home to hundreds of mass shootings every year.
It made him cast his mind back to Port Arthur: Bryant had bought his deadly, unlicenced semiautomatic weapons frighteningly easily, leading to a gun buyback scheme spearheaded by then prime minister John Howard that yielded results in just 12 days. But Grant was also shocked to discover that some of those laws have now been wound back and there are now more guns in Australia than in 1996.
It was the anti-gun message, and particularly the scene where the increasingly isolated and disturbed Bryant – never named in the film and referred to only as Nitram – buys the weapons that convinced Kurzel to come on board, although he knew he could only direct if the shootings themselves were never depicted and it was filmed in Victoria rather than Tasmania.
Anthony LaPaglia, who plays Nitram’s father (Maurice Bryant), was in the US when he heard the news about the massacre. Having lived there for more than 30 years, the Golden Globe winning actor was almost numbed to the gun violence that occurs in that country with a depressing predictability but was shocked that something so brutal could happen in his own country. As well as taking a role in the film, he also signed up as an executive producer, providing crucial support when few others would (Film Victoria and Screen Australia both declined to fund Nitram due to its sensitive subject matter).
“I have a thing – especially with Australian movies – I like material that is unpopular,” he says from North Carolina, where he is shooting the Netflix drama Florida Man.
“When we did Balibo, that was unpopular and people really didn’t want us to make that movie. But when I feel like there is a legitimate story to be told … look, it’s easy to make movies about comfortable subjects, it’s much more difficult to make movies that hold a mirror up to society.”
After meeting Caleb Landry Jones in an LA restaurant and being impressed by his commitment, research and slightly oddball manner, Kurzel was convinced the Texan star of X-Men: First Class and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was the right person to take the difficult title role – if he could get the accent right.
“Funnily, I started to get him to watch a lot of ’90s Australian shows like Hey, Hey It’s Saturday and old episodes of Neighbours.”
LaPaglia says he never heard Jones speak in his native accent until after filming but there were times when the American actor’s immersion in the twisted mindset of a murderer grated on his cast mates. According to LaPaglia, “there wasn’t a second on or off the set where he was not Martin” and his well-earned Best Actor Award at Cannes came at a price.
“I remember one morning getting in the van to go to work and he was so into character he was playing some death metal and I just turned around to him and said ‘you turn that f..king shit off – it’s five o’clock in the morning, you can do that when you get to your f..king trailer. I’m not listening to that’.”