It’s been a long and uncertain apprenticeship for Julius Avery. The Australian director made his first short film in 2002 and won a prize for his sixth, Jerrycan, at Cannes in 2008. Yet here we are a full seven years later, only now awaiting the imminent release of his debut feature in the UK.
It was back in October that Avery arrived to speak about Son of a Gun, showing at the 2014 London Film Festival. A gold heist thriller, it sees a young criminal spark up a friendship in prison with an armed robber leading them into a dangerous bid for riches. On an unreasonably early Friday morning, I meet Avery tucked away in a windowless room at the May Fair Hotel. He’s sat looking relaxed with crumpled shirt and unruly black beard. In one front pocket a pack of cigarettes peaks out. Having flown in from Australia a couple of days previously, he tells me he’s just about recovered from jet lag, though a day full of interviews might put that to the test.
We launch straight into the six year gap that followed Jerrycan and the premiere of Son of a Gun. He smiles wryly when asked why it took so long to bring his first feature to fruition. “I won at Cannes and it opened a lot of doors. Did it open the door to the bank vault? No, it opened the door to their office and they gave me a lot of water and I sat down on couches. It was a good six months but the financial crisis happened and there was no money. Medium budget films basically overnight disappeared”.
Sent back to the drawing board to try and find a story that could give him his first directing gig; he began to work on two ideas. “I had a script which was sort of first draft, and I also had the idea for Son of a Gun. They’re both thematically similar; both have a father/son type relationship in them. I always knew Son of a Gun was going to be a bigger budget so I went with the other more fully formed idea. It was basically Romper Stomper in the bush. It was very brutal. That literally at the eleventh hour fell over”.
“I came out of that in early 2009 very depressed not knowing what to do and eventually pitched Son of a Gun. With my executive producer, we went to Screen Australia with a treatment and went through three or four drafts with people like John Collee [an experienced writer who’s worked on the likes of Master and Commander and Happy Feet] who helped steer me towards a more commercial way of thinking. I loved action films as a kid and the level of action we try to do in this film doesn’t get made very often in Australia”.
It shows on screen as well. One of the most startling things about Son of a Gun is the fresh approach it takes to the action thriller genre. Playing within normal conventions but working outside Hollywood, Avery brings gloss and grit in equal measure. Given his previous difficulties finding funding, I ask how he managed to do so for a film requiring more money than the one he’d previously seen collapse. The answer is Ewan McGregor.
“It was always risky to try and do this film unless we got a star. We knew we had to have a really strong character driven action film as well, and that’s what attracted Ewan. He was very interested in the father/son relationship”.
McGregor certainly throws himself into the part, putting in a commanding performance as the violent bank robber seducing Brenton Thwaites’ character into joining his crew for a prison break and gold heist. Given Avery was just starting out, how did he get McGregor on board?
“In 2012 we went to the Cannes market and got a lot of sales agents excited. They asked if we’d been out to anyone for the lead. I share the same agent as Ewan and I said I had him in mind. I sent him a letter which was very personal as the relationship at the centre is based on a true story of mine”. Avery pauses at this point before smiling. “The relationship, not the breaking out of prisons or blowing shit up that is”. Another pause and chuckle “Well the blowing shit up maybe”.
“Actors like it when something feels real and truthful and I think he responded to that letter and felt it came from an honest place”.
The unhealthy father/son relationship resonates strongly throughout Son of a Gun, clearly coming from a dark place in his past. It’s not one he refuses to talk about.
“I grew up without a father. He died when I was six so I was always searching out father figures in movies and real life. I was always looking for acceptance and a way into the boys club. Eventually I fell in with a really bad crowd run by this older guy, a Machiavellian, Fagin type character. He was both parental and the most menacing guy you could imagine. He’d take you on missions of destruction which were pretty full on. He was very charismatic and everyone loved him and was really loyal. That relationship formed this film”.
The concept of the boys club takes centre stage in a very male dominated film. Aside from a relatively small role for the fast emerging star Alicia Vikander, women don’t get much of a look in. I ask him if he intended it to be this way.
“Absolutely. I don’t want to shy away from the fact that I’m a Michael Mann fan. It’s about men’s business. I am a romantic at heart and I believe in love, I really do. With this type of film, there isn’t much time for sitting around and talking about emotion. There’s a lot of action and you learn about characters as the action unfolds. The moments Alicia comes into the story, it slows down and makes you reflect. I think the moments she’s in the film are very powerful. She did a really great job. But I guess I am fascinated by men’s business and I don’t want to shy away from that”.
With his strong cast led by Ewan in place, the film began to come together until it developed into the overdue debut Avery should have had years ago. While he has been very candid discussing his difficulties finding a directing job to date, I comment that he’s also written everything he’s made. There’s short shrift given to the idea of him as a writer/director only willing to work from his own screenplays though.
“I want to direct, I don’t want to write. It’s too much of a pain. I have no aspiration to be a writer. In Australia, there’s like a few A list writers and they are always busy in Hollywood. As soon as someone does anything decent they go to Los Angeles so it was just out of necessity”.
“It doesn’t mean I can’t give good story notes and work with a writer. I loved working with John [Collee] but it takes so much time. I went to art school and started as a painter and I moved into photography because I had no patience for painting. I was ok at it, I just didn’t have the patience. I love the immediacy of photography and that’s what I also love about directing. Writing feels too much like painting. I respect it, I love it. I love great writers and there are many greater than me”.
As much as Avery expresses a love for directing, it’s still his first full length feature so his experience operating at this level is limited. He agrees that the process threw up unexpected challenges.
“Nothing on the page is secure. You may write it and it may get finance but that doesn’t mean you shoot it. We had to reinvent two set pieces for the better. The script you write changes when you shoot it and changes again in the edit”.
It’s clear for all the alterations and detours it may have caused, the process didn’t faze him. “Anything is up for grabs when you’re shooting, nothing is set in stone. It’s the exciting part of filmmaking”. The only concession comes in the lessons learned. “There’s a lot I would change going into the next film. I’ll go in much more prepared”. The wry smile returns. “The only thing is if I’d have done the smaller film with no stars first and fucked up, no one would see it”.
Now he’s got the first one out the way, I ask what’s up next. Surely we aren’t going to have to wait over half a decade until he has something new to show. He laughs before answering. “If I’m talking to a UK producer I want to shoot in the UK, if I’m talking to an American producer I want to shoot in the US”.
Ultimately, he’s optimistic about the future. “I’m writing to these father, son, brotherhood relationships so for me there’s the opportunity to take that into a studio system and into an independently financed film as well. It [Son of a Gun] did really well in the states with the studios. They feel safe within the conventions and the beats we have in the film, but they also feel excited by the edginess of it. They see the potential and I think I could do quite well in that arena with the skillset I have now”.
Son of a Gun is released in the UK on 30th January 2015. Culturefly’s review can be found here.