By Rochelle Siemienowicz
What’s it like to play one of Australia’s cruellest and most notorious serial killers? Or the teenage boy who helped him torture, murder and dispose of eight bodies in barrels of acid? Or for an even more subtle challenge, what’s it like to play the mother of the boy, who lives with these murders happening under her nose, yet turns a blind eye because she wants to keep her family together?
Here we talk to three of the actors who bring to life these historical characters in the new Australian film Snowtown, directed by Justin Kurzel, written by Shaun Grant and produced by Anna McLeish and Sarah Shaw. It’s a grim and shocking story to be sure, and certainly not a film for those with weak stomachs. But the performances, by a predominantly untrained Adelaide cast, are powerful and convincing.
Daniel Henshall plays John Bunting
Daniel Henshall is one of the few professionally trained and experienced actors in the cast of Snowtown. As the sociopathic John Bunting, ringleader of the serial killing gang who operated in Adelaide’s northern suburbs in the 1990s, he’s chillingly charming, disarmingly ‘nice’ in fact. With his round pleasant face and warm brown eyes, it’s easy to see why a lonely single mother and her ‘lost boy’ sons might fall for him. Henshall graduated from the Actors Centre Australia in 2006 with an Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts, and since then has appeared in television shows including All Saints, Rescue, Out of the Blue and in theatre productions for Belvoir St Downstairs, Paramatta Riverside and the Seymour Centre. He will also be seen in the upcoming feature Any Questions for Ben? from Working Dog Productions, directed by Rob Sitch. Snowtown is Henshall’s first feature film.
AFI: As one of the few professionally trained actors on set, did you find yourself helping and mentoring the others?
Daniel Henshall: I was in constant amazement, actually. They blew me away at every step, to be honest. Everything that I thought I knew was given back to me tenfold. These guys were just brave and brilliant. It was very much a team effort, and this was fostered by the three-week rehearsal period where we just spent so much time hanging around together, really getting to know each other and form these real relationships.
AFI: Was it daunting to be playing somebody so evil, and yet trying to give them a human face?
Daniel Henshall: Yes, yes! It was daunting for a number of reasons. Daunting because it was my first feature film;
daunting because of the way we were working, very improvised-based, and spending twelve weeks out there, in a place that I hadn’t been before, and coming into a community where I was an outsider. And also daunting because of the responsibility of being one of the more experienced actors, and having to play this central character in the story. But it was a challenge, and I was ready for it and excited by it.
AFI: A lot of detail about the historical events and characters has been supressed for legal reasons. Were there any key details or facts that gave you the opening to understanding and playing John Bunting?
Daniel Henshall: Yes, from the outset it was helpful to meet people who had met John during time he spent in prison, or people who knew about him through six degrees of separation. It was always going to be an interpretation. We were never trying to mimic, but were trying to make it believable and make it fit in my skin. The fact that he was a father figure who believed that he himself was integrity. He also had a vulnerability. There was something in Debi Marshall’s book [Killing for Pleasure] which made him seem like a child who hadn’t gotten the love he deserved and made him constantly search for a family, and when he got it, he held onto it, and thought he was going to save the day. All this beside the fact of the bloodlust and the psychopathic inhumane human that he was.
AFI: Did it give you nightmares to have to depict such disturbing acts and having to access such dark emotions?
Daniel Henshall: I think one way of dealing with it was that we laughed a lot between takes – not to take anything away from the sensitivity of the story or events, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but we had to support each other and be very open about what we were doing, checking in on each other and making sure everyone was okay.
Lucas Pittaway plays Jamie Vlassakis
18-year-old Lucas Pittaway is on his way to Cannes right now, to attend Snowtown’s screening in the prestigious Critics Week program. It’s a world away from his local northern Adelaide shopping centre where he was discovered buying jellybeans at the Reject Shop by Snowtown’s casting director. Working odd jobs, with vague plans to become an army mechanic, Pittaway’s life has been transformed by the role of Jamie Vlassakis, a vulnerable boy living in a poor single-parent household, groomed and corrupted by John Bunting.
AFI: What was it like to see yourself up on the big screen for the first time when you saw the finished film?
Lucas Pittaway: I was shocked. I didn’t know how to react. I was watching myself with criticism and thinking “oh, don’t do that!” But then the second time I saw it I was able to watch it as a film.
AFI: What were the key pieces of information you used to create your interpretation of this character, given that so little is known about him due to legal supression?
Lucas Pittaway: It was actually quite hard because there wasn’t much to grab hold of and use. It was more just following the script and taking direction from Justin [Kurzel] – reacting to events that were depicted, and imagining how he was before and after these things had happened.
AFI: You come from the area where this film is set, in Adelaide’s tough northern suburbs. How would you describe this area to people who have no idea what it’s like?
Lucas Pittaway: It’s unlooked after. It’s just been left. Many years ago it was probably the next big thing, but it’s just been left alone and now it’s run down.
AFI: What do you think is the reaction of the poople from the area who have seen the film?
Lucas Pittaway: I think they have a sense of pride and a sense of recognition. It’s so real – the performances, the people, the locations, the way we speak and act. They know it’s not just someone from Victoria coming over and pretending to be ‘in the know’. No, it’s local cast, and they’ll be like, “there’s a face I recognise from the IGA the other day!”
AFI: How did you unwind after shooting the more gruesome scenes in the film?
Lucas Pittaway: I’d go home and talk to my brother, and watch a bit of comedy on TV, just to take my mind off things. You had to learn to separate yourself from it. Also, there were a lot of happy days on set, especially around the start of filming, and then the heaviness gradually built up. There was heaps of support, and often I’d get a phonecall when I got home after a heavy day, from either Justin or Dan, checking in and giving me a boost.
AFI: We hear you are intending to head down the acting path as a career now?
Lucas Pittaway: Oh yeah, I’m already down that track. I’ve got myself an agent and started auditioning for roles. I’m working on a short film with Max Doyle, who is a photographer for Vogue magazine and that starts in a couple of days. So hopefully this is something I can continue to do. Right now I’m getting ready for Cannes and it’s my first time overseas, so that’s very exciting.
Louise Harris is Elizabeth Harvey
What kind of woman would let a killer into her home and into the lives of her young sons? The answer of course, is complicated: desperation, poverty and a desire for love and security. It’s a tough ask for any trained actress to depict such a character, yet Louise Harris, a complete beginner, brings an amazing combination of pinched vulnerability and wilful blindess to the role. Harris, an award winning chef turned full time single mother was out shopping at the local deli when she was spotted by director Justin Kurzel and asked to audition. The experience was life-changing.
AFI: How did it feel to see yourself up on the big screen in this role?
Louise Harris: I was gobsmacked! Seeing myself up there looking as hard as Elizabeth does, it was a bit scary. [It should be noted that Harris is much prettier and softer in person than the hardbitten woman she plays on screen]. But watching it through the second time, I was able to appreciate what we’d made and the effect we’d had. It was awesome. I’m really proud of what we’ve done.
AFI: What is your understanding about why Elizabeth let a man like John Bunting into her life?
Louise Harris: Well I think John Bunting played up his family-oriented ideals, and that’s exactly what she was looking for when he came into her life. I think she felt she didn’t have that family structure, and he brought routine and a bit of structure for the children. He made it into more of a real family than she’d ever experienced. And he was charming, and had a way with words. He was not a stupid man.
AFI: She turned a blind eye to what she knew was happening, didn’t she?
Louise Harris: I think she didn’t want to know in the beginning. I think she suspected, but she wanted to believe in the knight in shining armour that had come into her life, and then once she knew for sure, she didn’t know how to handle it at that point. When he let her down, there wasn’t really much she could do.
AFI: You come from the area in Adelaide’s northern suburbs where most of the action takes place. How would you describe it?
Louise Harris: I’d call it the Harlem of Adelaide. It’s primarily lower income and higher crime rate. It’s a housing trust kind of area. Not the sort of place where you walk around dressed in drag and get away with it. It’s pretty much people keeping to themselves. You sort of keep your eyes down. Not that it’s all negative but you do have to earn people’s trust.
AFI: And what was your work life before you acted in the film?
Louise Harris: I’m a qualified chef and I primarily worked in the hospitality industry until I fell pregnant with my son. He’s just started school, so yeah, I was a single mum.
AFI: Did you ever have any acting aspirations?
Louise Harris: Not at all. This was the first and only time I’ve ever acted. I didn’t even take drama at school. Not that I wasn’t interested, it’s just that I’d rather have done sports or something. I didn’t think I had it in me. But to be honest, after this experience I would just love to have another go at it.
Snowtown releases nationally in Australia on 19 May.
Director – Justin Kurzel. Producers – Anna McLeish & Sarah Shaw. Executive Producers – Robin Gutch & Mark Herbert. Writer – Shaun Grant. Cinematography – Adam Arkapaw. Editor -Veronika Jenet ASE. Sound Designer – Frank Lipson MPSE. Compser – Jed Kurzel. Production Designer – Fiona Crombie. Costumer Designers – Alice Babidge & Fiona Crombie. Casting – Allison Meadows & Mullinars Consultants. Filmed on location in South Australia.
Watch the trailer for a taste: