At first glance, you wouldn’t suspect an action-packed extravaganza such as “Son of a Gun” would have emerged from a personal place, but in the case of Julius Avery, you’d be wrong.
“My father died when I was quite young, so I was always looking for father figures, not only in real life but also in the movies,” said Avery on a recent visit to Los Angeles from his native Australia.
There were many for Avery to choose from as he was raised on a steady diet of the particularly manly era of late ‘80s/early ‘90s action cinema, but when he decided he was actually going to go into the business himself, he found one specifically in Michael Mann, whose desire to place bombastic action in the most down to earth reality as possible made him a kindred spirit. Certainly, Avery has infused his feature debut “Son of a Gun” with a propulsion and machismo that would make Mann proud, but in combining a variety of elements that individually could serve as the climax of an action film rather than mere building blocks leading up to it – a heist, a prison break, an epic gunfight – the first-time director has created an entirely different beast and seems to be relishing every minute.
Yet as much fun as Avery has, it’s not so much for the young man named JR (Brenton Thwaites) at the center of “Son of a Gun,” sent to the pen for a six-month stretch where he witnesses horrors inside far worse than any crimes he committed on the outside. In order to survive, he finds his way into the confidence of Brendan (Ewan McGregor), the most feared man on the block and after surviving his stint, embarks on an elaborate scheme to bust Brendon out and set himself up for life with a beat on some unprotected gold bullion. But to pull off the plan, he requires the help of a Russian mobster (Jacek Koman) and one of his molls (Alicia Vikander), finding himself in over his head as he’s drawn further and further into the underworld.
For his part, Avery doesn’t seem daunted by upping the level of danger that JR finds around every turn, keen to let bullets fly, cars crash or even let the liquid metal flow at the smelting plant where the gold is stored. He fills every frame of “Son of a Gun” with personality, whether it’s in distinctive casting choices in every role, giving noted wildmen Damon Herriman (“Justified”) and Nash Edgerton (“The Square”) a chance to shine, or constantly moving from one locale to another removed from polite society. Fortunately, as Avery’s career seems to be on the up and up, he took the time to sit down and talk about making the leap from shorts to his first feature, how the most outlandish parts of “Son of a Gun” were the most accurate to reality and turning to film after he was led astray himself in his youth.
When coming up with the story for “Son of a Gun,” did you intentionally want to create something that could include so many different genres? There’s a prison break, a heist, a romance, a paternal drama…
I’m a romantic at heart, so that’s why I wanted the love story. I’m also a huge fan of setting up a relationship that feels believable, and the way that this kid goes out and basically does what [Ewan’s character] asks him to do is completely found in this truthful world of the prison. I’ve met with a bunch of prisoners and talked to quite a few people about the relationships that are formed in prison, and they happen really quickly, almost like a mentor-apprentice thing [where] all the older thieves take the younger thieves under their wing and train them up. I wanted to explore that in a really intense way, then get on with the rest of the story. Prison felt like a great place to start because there’s a brutal world [where] this kid is actually compelled to do these things because it really is a do-or-die situation. I didn’t realize that I was making a bunch of different films, but I’m a first-time writer as well, and I just wanted to make the film that I wanted to make and try and have fun.
I’ve read you actually had Brenton meet with a 19-year-old in the prison you filmed at who was in a similar situation as his character is in. Did you actually get anything out of that?
Well, I fell into the wrong crowd when I was growing up as a teenager, and I fell under the spell of this Machiavellian Fagan-type character. My father died when I was very young, so I was always looking for father figures, and [this person] was very paternal on one hand and on the other, send me out on missions of destruction, so I had exposure to these characters. They’re not one-dimensional bad guys. They’re quite charismatic. They groom you, they make you fall under their spell, and they make you do things without actually any violence, and that’s what I wanted Brenton’s character to have — an actor who could play it [that way], so we found Ewan, who played it perfectly. That’s what informed the father-son story in “Son of a Gun.”
But in terms of Brenton [playing his own character JR], we wanted to bring in some guys that have of the stories of JR, who have been to prison, and there was one particular guy that we found that was very similar. He went into prison at 19 for a misdemeanor like car stealing, and he basically was taken under the wing by like a senior guy in prison. Subsequently, he was in and out of prison for the next 10 years because he became a better thief by going to prison, and things became more heightened. We brought him in [to talk to Brenton], and he actually ended up having a small part [in the film as] one of Jacek Koman’s [crime boss character Sam’s] henchmen. You can see him in the first scene where [JR] meets [Sam] and he leads [JR] into the room. He was really good. Basically, he informed [Brenton] of what it feels like to be in prison and the hierarchy and how it all works.
We also brought in a very infamous stand-over guy in Australia because Ewan and I had a discussion about a particular scene where he finds out one of his guys that he was close with in prison is actually a rapist, and he beats him to a pulp. [Ewan] questioned whether he would go as far as he does on screen, and I went, “Well, let me bring in someone and we’ll talk about it.” We brought in this guy and described the scene to him, and he said, “Oh, this is exactly what happens. A guy has done something wrong, you go to him and you break every bone in the face. They look in the mirror and they see all the scars. They’re reminded of you and not to come back for revenge.”
The way he was talking about it was very matter-of-fact. He wasn’t gloating. He was just very mechanical, and as you can see in the film, Ewan bashes this guy in, then goes and eats a burger, and it’s not done for comedy. It’s just like the job done. He knows if he says anything, he’s done for. So he has this burger and he hasn’t had a burger in 10 years. So there is a real honor code, which we really wanted to put into the film.
So the amount of danger you created for yourself in pulling off this film is in line with the stories you heard…
[laughs] It was a pretty big film to get stuck into it on a first film. We were being really risky in terms of what we wanted to set out to make. We tried to throw everything we had at the screen, but unfortunately, the way we were shooting in the middle of nowhere…the people in Western Australia are really talented, but it’s not a big film community, so we had to bring a lot of people over — you couldn’t hire in a stunt guy for a day, you had to hire him for a week — and it was really expensive shooting it.
I grew up in Perth, and it’s one of the most isolated cities in the world, which makes it really an interesting place to shoot and there’s a vibe you don’t get anywhere else in [a lot] of crime films that are shot in Sydney or Melbourne, and Perth had never had a film like this being shot in it. In fact, the Western Australian police had never had a film there shooting blanks in guns, so there was time there where they were saying, “You can’t be shooting blanks in our state.” They ended up changing the law for us, so it really is truly the first action film that’s been shot on that side of the world.
All those limitations [actually made it] really exciting. I had to rewrite two set pieces, cut out 20 pages of the script and it was really challenging to make sure things all made sense in the end. Some things because of those changes aren’t as good as they could’ve been, but other things are better.
For instance, the escape out of the prison was written as a sneaky breakout at night and the producers came to me the week before they were supposed to shoot it and said, “We can’t afford this because it’s $100,000 worth of lighting.” So I remembered that I’d spoken to the prison warden, and he was telling me how this Colombian drug lord [who was] on prisoner exchange there was going to be broken out by this SAS elite team with machine guns and a helicopter. They ended up doing a police raid and capturing him just before [he could flee] and when you go into these prisons, it actually makes sense. It’s impossible to do those [the] conventional movie breaking-and-sneaking-out-at-night things. It’s much more real to do an over-the-top ridiculous thing like a helicopter escape. Some people go, “Oh, that doesn’t feel real,” but actually it’s more real than the other version, so I was excited by that. I took it to the producers, and on paper, it looked more expensive, but we got the helicopters for free and I think it ended up being a third of the price.
What was also impressive was how it never seemed like you were in the same location twice, which gives the film a lot of energy, but also must’ve been difficult to do on a tight budget.
Doing all the reading on these characters, they never really stay in one spot for very long because that brings heat. Brenton’s character is never comfortable and I like films that have an energy to them. I don’t want to sit around in a room talking about feelings and emotions. I’d rather just learn about a character through action. I don’t know if I put too many locations. I probably did. [laughs] If I had to put less locations in, it would’ve been a lot easier [because] you can actually go back and reshoot a scene. Literally, I was only having one go at everything, and there was no going back. We couldn’t afford to do pickups.
If you had an upbringing that was similar to this, how did you actually begin to consider making films?
I grew up in a country town, like an “At Close Range” sort of town. There was definitely a criminal element to it. I had a mother who was an artist, so at a very early age, she encouraged me to paint and had given me canvases and paints, so I did that, but none of my friends really understood. They thought it was a pretty uncool thing to do. Still, it was something I was really interested in and wanted to pursue, so I ended up submitting my work to one of the best art colleges in Western Australia. I was 15, and i was the youngest to ever be accepted, so I got out that way. Some of my friends are now either in jail or dead, so it was a good thing for me.
At our school, I had a video camera, but where we grew up no one had a video camera and It was that weird time between Super 8 and video not really being that accessible, so it was like an awakening for me. The immediacy of it was amazing. In painting, it took forever to do things, so picking up a camera and getting really quick results was so exciting. Then going to one of the top film schools in Australia, VCA Film School, my classmates were [“The Snowtown Murders” director] Justin Kurzel and [“Top of the Lake” cinematographer] Adam Arkapaw, and Adam and I discovered an aesthetic together that we used for “Jerrycan.” That went to Cannes and Sundance and got him noticed, got me noticed, and … the rest is history.
In “Son of a Gun,” JR carries a collage of his dreams on a piece of paper like James Caan’s character in “Thief.” Was that an homage?
Yeah, that was a kiss to “Thief.” I actually stole that for “Jerrycan,” too. There’s a few kisses in there. Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” inspired me for the chopsticks scene where [JR] can’t eat with them. There was some discussion about whether or not it was believable that the kid can’t eat with chopsticks, and I said, “Well, if Michael Douglas can’t in ‘Black Rain,’ then my kid can’t.” [laughs] That’s also the great thing that we do as filmmakers when we’re watching films over the course of our years is that we’re constantly programming and putting their own spin on it. This is just another version of that.
“Son of a Gun” opens in limited release on January 22nd. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It’s also available for rent on DirecTV.