Snowtown Interview: Daniel Henshall

Snowtown, the unforgiving account of the “bodies in barrels” murders which happened in suburban Adelaide, Australia in the late 90s hits our screens this week.  Daniel Henshall plays John Bunting, a charismatic man who takes control over a small community and leads an impressionable few down a dark path.

Henshall’s worked on a number of TV soaps in his home country but Snowtown marks his big screen debut.  He talks to Jez Sands about the long road to getting into character, working with a cast of first-time actors and fighting the powers that be to get the film made.

It’s really strange seeing you without the full beard because that makes you seem so much more intimidating in the film.

Also the 20 kilos…

Did you have trouble putting the weight on?  Was there a strict diet?

Nope. We tried to do it healthily but it’s just boring, incredible boring.  And almost depressing because you’re eating so much and you’re just eating carbs. It’s bloating and tiresome, so I was like fuck it, let’s do it anyways possible, so it was all MacDonald’s and pizza.  I lived in the area for about three months before shooting and as you can imagine there’s no a lot of great cuisine out there.

So how did you get involved in the project in the first place?

Well I’m sure you’re aware that the majority of the cast are first-timers so there’s a very untraditional sense of casting.  But for me it was very traditional.  [Director] Justin [Kurzel] had probably five or six actors in mind that he was toying around with and he got them in to read the part and he’d never heard of me and I was definitely not on that list.

So the casting director who I’m indebted to with my life, she’s a beautiful woman, she fought to get me in the room, got me in the room and I was fortunate enough to get an audition.  Then I got a second audition that didn’t go so well, so I wrote Justin a letter and that seemed to improve matters, so I got a third and landed the role.

You mentioned going out there to live before filming.  Was there any particular preparation that you did?

The film was incredibly authentic and it had to be because of the way that Justin wanted to tell the story and for it to work and be an honest depiction and not a judgement.  I’m a Sydney boy from a middle class, white background – just an average Sydney guy, so I had to go an immerse myself in that community and become part of the community.

So I lived out there for three months and did quite a lot research initially but I quickly threw that in the water because it was about forming relationships with the cast and making that as real as possible.  So we got to know each other extremely well.  I know those people very well and they know me very well.  It was integral to have as much trust before we stepped on set so that we could be as courageous as possible and the family we created – and I don’t mean to sound clichéd – was extremely tight.

Was it very difficult to step back between takes?

No, unconsciously there was this sense of humour inbetween takes and I think that was the blow-off valve. And not to be insensitive to the subject that we’re trying to portray, it just happened that way. There were a lot of funny people on set, laughing and joking around.  I’ve never had that much fun making a film, although some days were incredible intense and exhausting.

I was so informed by being one of the only actors on set.  I was given a leadership role from the outset so therefore I had to be, sort of that character.  John [Bunting] comes into a community that he’s not part of.  I come into a community that I’m not part of. I’m one of the only actors. John comes in and promises something.  They look up to him; they started looking up to me.

Especially I would imagine with some of the younger cast members.

Oh yeah, we went camping together.

Did that feel like a massive responsibility, to be a sort of surrogate father?

It did, it did.  It was a lengthy process so I got my head around it with the help of Justin and the cast because they were constantly informing me of who I was trying to potray and how you could do that honestly.

Was there any particular past performance that you looked at for inspiration?

There was a style.  Justin kept talking about a sense.  So I watched films that he had mentioned like Ballast which featured a lot first time actors.  The Dardenne Brothers’ films feature a lot of understated performances which are nevertheless observed.  And also, being part of the casting process, I learnt very quickly what didn’t work.

I helped on the street going up to people and going “hey, we’re doing a film, what you like to come in, are you interested” and whatnot.

What were most people’s reactions?

Mostly, initially it was, “are you taking the piss?” because it’s really weird and that kind of thing doesn’t really happen but the longer we were there, the more and more the word got out, the more and more we were taken seriously.  And we got a really positive response from people who would eventually become part of the film.

They embraced it.  They took ownership of it.  They wanted to inform us about what it was like to be there.

I suppose their feeling was that if someone was going to make a movie, then they’d want to see it done right.

It was really positive. They were like “oh you’re telling a story about what it’s like to be here?”  Generally I think they don’t have a voice in that community and I think as soon as you give them the time of day, there is this want to express themselves and tell you what it’s like.  I think it’s a forgotten part of Australia and I’m sure it’s the same in the UK, where people like us that come from a metropolitan area can point the finger at these demographics and say, “you’re all bad. This is how it is out there, it’s terrible” when in fact if you actually go and talk to someone, you actually understand their situation. 

You can’t just point a finger, they are three-dimensional people with emotions and they do go through life just like you and me in a completely different set of circumstances, so it’s not as easy just to point a finger. But it was brilliant, I’ve never been more welcomed into a community.

Was there any opposition to it?

Yeah.  But not within the community.  Snowtown the actual town gets a bad rap. Only one murder took place there.  None of the murderers are from that area, it just happened to be the last storage facility but the name is synonymous with the murders, so unfortunately they get branded with it.

But not everybody was happy.  I’d say 90% of the people we approached were extremely positive about the idea of the film and the way we wanted to do it, casting locals.  As soon as they saw the genuine nature in which we wanted to make the film and were casting real people from the area, they were like “Right, this is our film!”

It was people outside the community that opposed it.  Religious lobby groups that thought we’d sensationalise the area.  And the housing commission didn’t want us to shoot in certain areas and certain houses.  The government secretly, unofficially gave us the nod, and said that we can, but if you get caught, you have to piss off.

We were up against it.  We were in these locations, like the Vlassakis household before John moves them over to his house – that place was knocked down two weeks later.  If we’d used that later in the film, we would have lost that location.  And the housing commission could have come past at any time and told us to piss off.

Justin must have been shitting himself.

He was! We all were!  We all were!  In a good way, because it forces you to be brave and creative. We wanted to film the film with such integrity and he was so earnest about that – it was his first film, so he wanted to do a good job about telling the story.

Well, it’s not only Justin’s first film, it’s also yours.  Was that a daunting feeling?

I had the blessing of being out there for three months so I got to relax into it and put those fears to bed.  You never do fully.  Sometimes you come home and you’ve got your head in your hands and you think “what the fuck have I done today?”

Really?  You’ve got such a confident and charismatic screen presence that it seems incongruous that you would feel that way.

Oh yeah, I mean, you doubt yourself a lot. It’s my first film; I was working with first time actors; I was portraying a man who is widely known as the worst serial killer in Australian history.  It was pretty scary.  But I think the time out there gave me confidence.

I think the performance is brilliant.  There’s a real believable sense that this guy is their saviour as well as their downfall.

Yeah, I don’t think it was too dissimilar to that, the way we interpreted it.

It’s based on a book correct?

Yeah, it’s based on two books.   One’s quite factual and the other’s a lot of interpretation.  I found that book wonderfully informative and insightful.  Debbie (Marshall – author of “Killing For Pleasure”) spent five years interviewing people directly involved with the murders.

You didn’t want to meet Bunting himself?

No way mate!  That guy.  That guy’s lost.

When you were reading about it, did you find anything about him that you could empathise with?

Well, we didn’t play him as a serial killer.  We played a guy who thought he was helping them, who had a disgusting bloodlust.  In those scenes where he’s saying what he’s saying, it appears that he becomes this guy.  For me, it was approaching from in a way that he’d been rejected by his community, that here he wanted to do the best thing and that he had this deep love.

And he really loved getting off on power man!  I mean fuck, power is an ego driven thing, it makes you feel good when you have control and it’s where you take that.  And as an actor, I had a chance to take it to different places.  I found that very enjoyable.

I felt that there was a sort of magnanimousness to him, almost smugness, like a chicken looking after his brood.

Yeah, I can do whatever I want, I’m fucking John Bunting! <Laughs>.  And yet there’s this everyday normality, this domesticity…

That makes it more terrifying.

Doesn’t it just?  It comes out of nothing.  They’re eating Chinese take away and watching TV and the boys give him a hug and they’re having a laugh and then suddenly, you see a dead body.  What? Let’s have a cup of tea in between murdering somebody.

Did you see Animal Kingdom?

Oh yeah, of course.

That’s a film that has this malevolent lurking presence.

Talking about Ben Mendelsohn’s performance in that, that’s the best thing he’s been in.  Ben’s an amazing actor and I love him but the way he portrayed Pope, there was always something going on, that wasn’t quite right.

So what have you got coming up next?

I’ve got a romantic comedy coming out which is out in January called Any Questions For Ben?

Wow, that’s going to be really weird to watch.  Are you planning to make more feature films?

Fuck yeah if it happens!

Got a taste for the movie? Read our review</strong>.

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