“Really?” asks a genuinely surprised Daniel Henshall when informed that at the day before’s private screening of his first feature film, Snowtown, a significant number of hardened press walked out, including this viscerally affected journalist who left the theater for a much-needed breather, encountering a representative of the Media Alliance hysterically sobbing outside. “I don’t think we can really say how an audience will react,” Henshall adds. “I mean, we can say what we hope, but we’ve got no right to tell people what they should or shouldn’t feel.”
It seems oddly appropriate—yet slightly unnerving—that our interview is occurring in what feels like an interrogation room at the film distribution company’s industrial-style headquarters in Melbourne, Australia.
Henshall portrays charismatic sociopath John Bunting who infiltrates a disenfranchised northern Adelaide community during the 1990s, forming an unlikely father-son relationship with vulnerable teenager Jamie Vlassakis, played by 18-year-old newcomer Lucas Pittaway. Bunting’s puritanical hatred leads to the grisly dismemberment, torture, and skinning of his victims—suspected pedophiles, homosexuals, junkies, and the mentally disabled.
When putrefying bodily remains were eventually discovered in acid-filled barrels in a former bank vault, Australia’s most notorious serial killings were dubbed the “Bodies in Barrels” murders. Bunting went undetected for almost a decade and although eventually convicted, the real crime case remains shrouded in suppression orders. The film allows the macabre murders to seep onto the screen in full focus. “Lots of people don’t want to see that fictionalized in 3D. I can understand that. I don’t know if I would,” says Henshall, fidgeting with the shredded remains of his takeaway coffee cup.
Looking like an edgier version of Heath Ledger, co-star Pittaway was cast after being spotted at his neighborhood shopping center just 10 minutes away from where the murders occurred. He hadn’t given acting a moment’s thought since failing high school drama. Yet, Justin Kurzel’s low budget directorial debut, featuring a cast full of local first-time actors, recently received accolades at International Film Critics’ Week at Cannes, and was snapped up by IFC for distribution in America.
“Pretty crazy,” says Henshall.
“Pretty crazy,” echoes a beguiled Pittaway.
Today, the duo appears a far sight different from their celluloid selves. Henshall’s appearance has altered drastically; he’s now a self-confessed “pesci-fucker” (fish, but no meat) after piling on 22 pounds for his role. “Initially it was difficult because we tried to do it a healthy way,” says Henshall. “I saw a nutritionist, but it sounded boring and depressing, so I just ate horribly. It was fucking brilliant. We’d go out and I’d just be like, ‘Two burgers, two fries.’ I loved it. I mean, when you get the chance… But then I lost weight during the shoot because of the stress and the smoking.”
Even Pittaway looks more diminutive in person, although he insists the only major difference he made to his looks was shaving his hair. “I had dreadlocks and they almost didn’t cast me because they weren’t too sure I’d get rid of them. But I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll get rid of them for a movie!’ I’ve still got a little bit of dreadlock at home—”
“He’s waiting to sell them on eBay, aren’t you, brother?” teases Henshall, who moved to the area where the murders took place prior to filming. By embedding himself in the town, Henshall discovered some invaluable insights into Bunting’s persona. “I connected with people that knew John or had six degrees of separation from him,” he says. “There were lots of stories, so I pilfered what struck home. But even with people I thought were genuine, such a contradictory man was presented: ‘Oh, he used to fix our car; he used to come ’round and make us dinner; he was never untoward; just a really simple, nice guy.’ And then guys would come out of Yatala—the prison he was in—and had either bunked with him or been with him and you’d get these mixed stories.
“It was always going to be our interpretation,” continues Henshall. “I was never going to mimic the man. It was always about us trying to be as real and genuine as we could in this situation. So, that was about relationships, not about the psychopathic man. I never wanted to forecast that.”
There’s no modus operandi for transcending into the depths of depravity, so instead of over-rehearsing, Henshall and Pittaway were encouraged to forge real-life relationships in order to develop on-screen rapport. “Lucas and I spent hours, weeks together,” says Henshall. “We went to lunch, movies, went to see bands. I went to work with him, hung out at his place with his brothers, went to parties together. There’d be nine of us cooking dinner—Lucas would bring his girlfriend. I thought, ‘God, thank fuck we get along.’ It was just an involved, hands-on experience. The familiarity and the bond was apparent in the first take.”
Snowtown’s darkness is rooted in the haunting banality of its violence. Juxtaposed against Mr. Whippy ice cream vans and the raw South Australian landscape, rape and violence occur. The backdrop is prosaic suburban drudgery: church, videogames, and cricket. “What makes it so menacing, without even trying, is the normality and mundanity of it. You’re having this conversation and all of a sudden a dog’s shot. Didn’t see that coming,” says Henshall of the film’s incredibly restrained stillness which is often, and unexpectedly, punctured by moments of intense brutality.
Fittingly, the PR clock-watcher jolts us with a stern interjection of “Two minutes!” Our time is nearly up. Only recently plucked from obscurity, young Lucas Pittaway now has agents, scripts, and editorial photographers hot on his trail. “I’m letting it come slowly,” concludes Pittaway, “because I might get overwhelmed by it all, and I don’t want that to happen. Because that happened first time on set and I had to just stop and think and try and be cool about it.”