Gold fever

Julius Avery gives us an inside view of Son Of A Gun.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Son Of A Gun director Julius Avery: "For me, it was all about showing that there's an honor code."
Son Of A Gun director Julius Avery: "For me, it was all about showing that there's an honor code." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Julius Avery's fired-up on the run Son Of A Gun stars Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites and Alicia Vikander with Nash Edgerton, Matt Nable, Eddie Baroo, Jacek Koman, Tom Budge, Damon Herriman and Johnny Boxer forming a remarkable ensemble.

At the Bowery Hotel, during my conversation with the director, a long line of fathers-in-crime came to mind: James Caan in Michael Mann's Thief, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge. David Mackenzie's Starred Up with Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn carry on familial ties.

Brenton Thwaites as J.R. and Ewan McGregor as Brendan Lynch: "He comes in with scratches on his face. I wanted it to feel like there was some scuffle that he'd been through.
Brenton Thwaites as J.R. and Ewan McGregor as Brendan Lynch: "He comes in with scratches on his face. I wanted it to feel like there was some scuffle that he'd been through.

McGregor is currently on stage in New York with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon in the revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and Thwaites was recently seen in Robert Stromberg's Maleficent opposite Elle Fanning and Angelina Jolie and in Phillip Noyce's The Giver with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. In Son Of A Gun, Brendan Lynch (McGregor) and J.R. (Thwaites) form a breakable bond.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did you see Ewan on stage in The Real Thing on Broadway?

Julius Avery: I did. I saw him last night! It was cracking. It was great. He came to a screening [of Son of a Gun at the Crosby Street Hotel] and we arranged for me to see it. I went backstage afterwards. It was a great experience, I've never actually been to a Broadway play.

AKT: How perfect to see your star. The role is of course very different from the one he plays in Son Of A Gun.

JA: Very different. It just shows how much range he's got. [In the film] he plays a hard bad guy.

AKT: The scene that encompasses this is the one with the helicopter and the machine gun. He must have enjoyed that.

JA: Yeah. You know, he did all his own stunts as well. It's him running over, grabbing the ski. It's him hanging outside the helicopter. He loved it all.

Brenton Thwaites at The Giver press conference: "After Son of a Gun he went to do The Giver and Gods of Egypt. He's a very busy boy."
Brenton Thwaites at The Giver press conference: "After Son of a Gun he went to do The Giver and Gods of Egypt. He's a very busy boy." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Your other star, Brenton Thwaites, was in quite a variety of films last year as well. Between Prince Charming in Maleficent and his role as Jonas in The Giver, where was your film placed time wise?

JA: I met Brenton in LA when I was casting the film there. I hadn't seen anything he'd done. I didn't know anything about him other than what I'd seen on tape. When I brought him into the room, I immediately felt there was something special. He had this innate charm, just like Ewan. We had already cast Ewan and I wanted the character he [Ewan] plays, Brendan, to almost see something about himself in the kid. After Son Of A Gun he went to do The Giver and Gods Of Egypt. He's a very busy boy.

AKT: You begin your film with J.R. entering prison. Was it always clear to you that you didn't want to do flashbacks and instead take us along for the ride without much explanation?

JA: I always wanted to set up this relationship in a prison. It's such a pressure cooker situation. This kid coming from essentially a petty crime which is never really revealed, the clue is he is only in for six months. So it must have been his first time doing something. The harrowing environment, really full-on, for him to really do this, there must be a serious threat. It has to be believable, and prison for me is a really believable set up. You can imagine that relationships are formed very quickly inside.

Son Of A Gun prison: "The stuff that happens in the prison is just the tip of the iceberg."
Son Of A Gun prison: "The stuff that happens in the prison is just the tip of the iceberg."

AKT: David Mackenzie's Starred Up also begins with a young man's arrival in prison. It then goes in different territory, although both share the father/son problematic.

JA: Yeah, I only saw it very recently. They're saying there's always two great ideas happening at the same time. The father/son relationship is really important to me. The relationship is based on a relationship I had when I was growing up as a teenager in West Australia in the country. I'd fallen in with the wrong crowd and become part of this crew of kids who were working for this particular guy who was a very Machiavellian Fagin-type character. He took me under his wing. I'd lost my father quite young, when I was about six and so I was always looking for father figures.

On the one hand, he was very paternal, and on the other, he sent me on these missions of destruction. That relationship informs the one that I wrote in Son of a Gun and the relationship between Brenton and Ewan is based on it. That stuff we were doing was petty and I grew out of that and ended up going to art school. That relationship was something that Ewan was very interested in when he read the script. I wrote him a letter and told him about that man that was in my life. There's moments, I think, of true tenderness between the two of them and moments when you don't actually know if he is going to kill the kid.

 Brendan Lynch and J.R.: "The father/son relationship is really important to me."
Brendan Lynch and J.R.: "The father/son relationship is really important to me."

AKT: There is a scene when JR visits the gun dealer/drug dealer. It is very intense because of the music and the character himself. It's difficult to top the aggression of the prison scenes but this does so in all its confusion with the music blaring Forever Young and Tears Don't Lie. Where did that scene come from?

JA: I lived in the country and there's crazy people like that everywhere scattered throughout Australia. A lot of these characters are people I've met. This particular gentleman is based on someone.

AKT: Is he still out there?

JA: He is out there. He used to be an ex-serviceman, came back and basically embezzled a bunch of arms from the army and sold drugs and lived in the Outback. The thing I remember about him is that he wanted friendship. He was very lonely and he would always be very welcoming. Damon Herriman plays him [Private Wilson] as someone who wants to make friends.

AKT: He is offering the drugs as if they were candy.

JA: It's like following the rabbit down the rabbit hole.

AKT: Great use of the car radio, I thought. We get the information at the same time with the characters about the other. That scene is excellent.

Alicia Vikander as Tasha: "We all want to flirt with the idea of being in that world without actually being in it."
Alicia Vikander as Tasha: "We all want to flirt with the idea of being in that world without actually being in it."

JA: For me, it was all about showing that there's an honour code. There's a code in criminal society. There's definitely a delineation between the real scumbags of the world and the thieves. He is found out to be something that he is not and he is dealt with in a very real manner. We brought in criminals to chat with the actors. One particular character was a stand-over guy.

AKT: What is a stand-over guy?

JA: His job was to punish people. Basically, he inflicted pain on people, that was his job. I brought him in to speak with Ewan. Ewan and I had a discussion about the believability of how much he hurts this man that's betrayed him. And this guy explained to him in a matter-of-fact way: When you teach someone a lesson, you break every bone in their face, you smash in the eye-socket, break their jaw, smash in their ear drums so they can't hear very well. So every time they look in the mirror, they are reminded of you and basically they won't come back for revenge. But you also don't want to bash them to the point of death because that means cops and that's bad news, too. He was very matter-of-fact about it.

This is just what you do. So when [Brendan Lynch] is teaching this man a lesson and then he goes and eats the burger, it's the business. These moments are of extreme violence but it's very real to the world. The same with the prison. The stuff that happens in the prison is just the tip of the iceberg. I spent a lot of time in the prisons researching, meeting with people and we worked in a real life prison. All the prison guards are real. It's an insane place where insane things happen. It would make your skin crawl if you heard some of the stories.

 On Ewan as Brendan Lynch with J.R.: "You know, he did all his own stunts as well."
On Ewan as Brendan Lynch with J.R.: "You know, he did all his own stunts as well."

AKT: So you had to limit it and tone it down?

JA: It's a possible version that people could stand. There is this feeling when you go into a prison for the first time and the door closes upon you, it's a loud tchutchunk. And you're locked in. It's like jumping off a boat into deep water, there's a very small chance that a shark will come and get you. There's a thousand people in there that could potentially kill you. When Brenton goes to prison for the first time, it's the first day of the shoot. It all comes out in the performance.

AKT: His hair is also cut at that point? It changes him drastically.

JA: Yeah, we brought in the lady who actually cuts all those boys' hair. She gave him the buzz cut. He is a pretty handsome kid.

AKT: You gave him a slash on the cheek as a beauty mark? As a kind of branding?

JA: He comes in with scratches on his face. I wanted it to feel like there was some scuffle that he'd been through.

AKT: Wounds and scars on the face make for interesting heroes such as Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Aside from the realism, did you have cinematic references? Noirs, perhaps? When the car doesn't start, I thought of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. You also give us your version of the femme fatale [Tasha played by Alicia Vikander], where we don't know which side she is on. Did you think of classic crime stories?

Son Of A Gun gang: "Where there's gold, there's greed."
Son Of A Gun gang: "Where there's gold, there's greed."

JA: I really love Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge.

AKT: So the style of Jean-Pierre Melville influenced you more than, let's say, Anglo-Saxon filmmakers?

JA: I'm a huge fan of Michael Mann. Thief with James Caan is one of the best explorations of what it is to be a man. I really love muscular directors. There's a father-son relationship in there as well. Willie Nelson and James Caan. He doesn't get into any histrionics of where it's from. You learn about him as he goes through his process. He is a man of no history. I kind of like characters like that. I don't want to hear too much backstory. Heat is obviously a film that I was heavily influenced by. Like the scene with starting the car, now that you mention it - all the things you don't know are inside you from a film do come out. The scene with the chopsticks, the girl, Alicia, teaches him [J.R.] how to use them and people would say that's not believable. Yeah, it is. It just popped into my head, Michael Douglas in [Ridley Scott's] Black Rain. Great scene where he can't use chopsticks in Japan.

AKT: You very quickly have the audience on the side of the "bad guys" who plot to escape. As we want for Norman Bates to be able to sink the car.

JA: We all want to flirt with the idea of being in that world without actually being in it. I think that's why we love crime films. It's a world you would normally run a thousand miles away from in a real set.

AKT: How many takes did you have for your beautifully shot sinking of the burning car?

Son Of A Gun poster
Son Of A Gun poster

JA: The burning car in the quarry? One take! We had one car, one take and that time of day as well. That was one of my favorite shots.

AKT: The scale of things valued becomes important in a scene when they end up with six bars of gold after a horrible ordeal.

JA: Six million dollars worth of gold. The thing about these mining operations is that this is very real. They can pull up to forty million dollars a day in some of these places. That's not fictionalised on screen. They don't look like laboratories and it's very low-fi but very well secured. The gold community out in West Australia has a very strong tactical force that will respond in minutes. They are armed and heavily trained. The thing about gold is - Perth in West Australia, it's like a modern day version of Deadwood.

Where there's gold, there's greed. All these amazing characters come from all around the world. Gold creates a lot of wealth in Australia. West Australia creates 85% of the rest of the country's wealth through mining. There's something about gold. Gold fever, it actually is real. Gold has a magical power about it and people will do anything for it. It's far more interesting than money because of what it does to people.

AKT: One also learns from your film that as a priest in a wheelchair is a good way to travel in disguise.

JA: There's a little bit of a wink there. I read a lot about it. People being on the run, travel by air very easily and that's how they get around. There's one particular chap who escaped from jail and was one of our biggest bank robbers. He used to constantly travel in business class all around Australia and avoid the cops. He used to dress up in all sorts of costumes. It all comes from a real place.

AKT: And the symbolism sneaks up on us afterwards. Cousin Thomas in Darwin and the story about the monkeys.

JA: If you want to just sit back and have an enjoyable ride and not think too much, the film can do that. On another level it can do something else.

AKT: What is coming up next for you?

JA: We just closed a deal yesterday and I can't really say what it is. It's building on thematically what I was doing with Son Of A Gun. It has a father and son relationship in it. The age difference is a lot closer this time, very much like a Stand By Me kind of relationship. It's a big epic adventure, much bigger canvas. It's really exciting because I've got to do a studio film but still retain what I was working with on Son Of A Gun thematically.

Son Of A Gun will be released in the US on January 16 and in the UK on January 30, 2015.

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