The Australian director and Cannes winner breaks into features with an ambitious crime movie starring Ewan McGregor and rising actor Brenton Thwaites.
16 Oct 2014 - 11:45 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:30 AM

“I wanted to take the audience on a wild journey”

Julius Avery’s Son of a Gun has a daring prison escape, shoot outs and car chases and generally displays an ambition that has been uncommon in Australian films in recent years. (The action thriller genre is not de rigueur.)

“I wanted to make a film that was a ripping yarn,” says the first-time feature writer/director. “I didn’t want to do something too introspective. I wanted to take the audience on a wild journey, to include intimate relationships in the film but also provide an entertaining, thrilling ride.

“I wanted to do something that spoke to the films that I loved as a kid,” he says, naming Michael Mann’s Heat and more recently, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet as some of his main influences.  

Son of a Gun draws on the bullying and brutality that thrives in prisons, the extreme risks of being part of the world of high-stakes crime and the scale of activity that is integral to Western Australia’s mining sector. (It was principally filmed in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Fremantle, although cast and crew spent some time in Melbourne.) At the core of the story is JR (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who is expected to pay heavily for the protection he receives in prison from the dangerous and charismatic Brendan (Ewan McGregor).

Avery named producer Tim White, whose 30 years of film credits include Death in Brunswick and Oscar and Lucinda, and one of the executive producers, John Collee, who wrote Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, as his key collaborators during the scriptwriting process.

“They helped me realise the film’s commercial potential but both were also aware of the heart of story I wanted to tell. Tim would often bring me back to the story in a very grounded way and John in a heightened away, which was good because it needed to be over the top in places.”


Mining your own backstory

“I drew on the experiences I had when I was a kid growing up in the country. The juice for me is the stuff of my formative years and I felt I never quite belonged. I was born in Pemberton down south in Western Australia and then moved to Mount Helena. It was only an hour outside of Perth [on the urban/rural fringe], but for a kid that doesn’t drive, it felt like a lifetime away. I felt very isolated.

“In the country you are destined to be put together with kids you might not normally hang out with. You try to be part of the boys’ club and that club includes your best friend and your worst enemy. I was always looking to get guidance from the older kids and did some stupid things and fell in with a pretty bad crowd. But I also enjoyed all those thrill-seeking things we did. These memories are also what I drew on for [Avery’s Cannes Jury Prize and AFI Award-winning short film] Jerrycan.”

Filming in a prison helped add to the reality of JR’s early encounters with Brendan and of the way he fell under his spell. “You just can’t recreate that,” says Avery. “You know things have gone down in that place and the actors respond to that.

“It is common to have to partner up with more experienced guys to survive. When you meet some of these hardcore crims – and I’ve met a few now – they are quite charming. They are hard as nails but they also have an innate magnetism.”


Ewan the charismatic bad guy

One of the big attractions of Son of a Gun is that McGregor is indeed playing the opposite of his usual nice guy persona. His character, in Avery’s words, is Machiavellian.

McGregor has said that his role of Brendan “totally fits the bill in terms of doing something that was different for me”.

“There’s something really interesting about how hardened he is and how clever he is and manipulative… He was a chance to play somebody who’s unwaveringly in charge. Nobody really questions Brendan. That was good fun.”

In the movie’s press notes, McGregor said that he reads a lot of scripts that are just versions of other movies but this one had a complicated coming-of-age story at its heart. He was further intrigued when he read a letter that Avery wrote him to explain how he had lost his own father at the age of six and that the script was an expression of his search for a father figure.

“Because of that complicated personal element in the script, the whole movie becomes something other than just another shoot ‘em up. It’s got something quite deep in the middle of it and I think that holds the whole thing together.”

Avery says that he’s most proud that Son of a Gun “contains the conventions and story beats of a heist films but this co-dependent relationship [between JR and Brendan] is the core and I had to make it ring true for me.

“It got Ewan over the line and me over the line, too: I always went back to what is motivating this kid.”


They’re not just a bunch of blokes

Son of a Gun adds to JR’s complexity by introducing his growing independence in scenes with Tasha, an off-limits love interest played by Swedish actor Alicia Vikander, who starred in A Royal Affair and can be seen in Pure (watch it here).  She had not been to Australia previously, but saw Avery’s short films and has said she was “struck by how authentic, real and emotional they were. Even the actors he had used, I questioned if they were actually actors or not”.

Brenton Thwaites is fast becoming one of Australia’s most in-demand 20-something actors. The former Home and Away star turned 25 in August and has already acted alongside many Hollywood heavyweights: Angelina Jolie in Maleficent; Laurence Fishburne in the extraterrestrial thriller The Signal; Jeff Bridges and Meryl Street in the science fiction story The Giver; Helen Hunt in the yet-to-be-released comedy Ride, which Hunt also directed.

Most recently he had a long stint on Alex Proyas’s mythological blockbuster Gods of Egypt, which filmed at Fox Studios Australia and is scheduled for a 2016 release.

Son of a Gun is Thwaites’ first lead role. He has said that he seized upon the “opportunity to just go in and really try to give a deep life to JR. He’s lived on the streets as a kid and at 19 he’s had such a hard life already. It’s so far from me because I’ve had a great life, but I thought it was a huge challenge and a great opportunity to just jump into.”

“I know a lot of people who have taken the wrong path – a few friends of mine. My Mum always says: ‘You’ve got until 11 as a parent and once they’re 11, that’s it!’ I saw that in JR; he’s got a great heart and he’s a good kid, but he just made some slightly wrong decisions and they had huge consequences.”

Son of a Gun is in Australian cinemas from today and screens in competition at the London Film Festival on October 17, 18 and 19. Watch the trailer below: