The massacre that ‘shifted everything in Australia ... It’s taboo to discuss it’

Justin Kurzel’s Cannes prizewinning film, Nitram, deals with an Australian tragedy — the Port Arthur Massacre

In late April 1996, Martin Bryant, a 28-year-old intellectually disabled man, walked into the Seascape guest house in the seaside town of Port Arthur in Tasmania and killed the owners. Afterwards, he went for lunch at the terrace of the Broad Arrow Cafe, the historic site of Port Arthur prison colony and a popular tourist attraction.

He then entered the restaurant, and began shooting with a Colt AR-15 rifle, killing 22 people. He continued his killing spree in the parking lot. The drivers and passengers of two tour buses, and a mother and her two small children, were among the victims. Bryant then retreated to the Seascape guest house, where an 18-hour stand-off with police ensued before his capture.

When screenwriter Shaun Grant — who also wrote Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown and True History of the Kelly Gang — presented director Kurzel with a script dealing with the Port Arthur Massacre, the filmmaker had many thoughts.

“It’s still spoken about in very hushed tones here,” says Kurzel, who lives in Tasmania with his Tasmanian-born wife Essie Davis. “It’s almost taboo to sort of discuss it and sort of talk about it. And we faced really strong resistance to making the film. A resistance which we would never have faced before.

“Even when it came out and was released here, it was a very, very sensitive time. And we tried to kind of approach it as gently as possible in regards to, you know, not not putting it in people’s faces. We tried to give people the option here to watch it or not, but quietly. It’s very difficult to talk about it and difficult to make in terms of funding. It felt as if it was a subject that you couldn’t make a film about. The sort of controversy that followed the film, especially when it was revealed that we were shooting it, was also very difficult. You know, living here and my children growing up here and loving this place, like I do, I probably never thought so much about whether or not I should do a film, like I did with this one.”

The shootings are not depicted on screen in Nitram; the film instead attempts to understand the strange life of Martin Bryant, as eerily essayed by the American actor Caleb Landry Jones, in the months leading up to shootings. Bryant is not even named in the film: the title merely alludes to him by spelling his first name backwards. In the film, Nitram lives with his mother (Judy Davis) and father (Anthony LaPaglia) in suburban Australia in the mid-1990s, unable to fit in with the world until he unexpectedly forms a close friendship with a reclusive heiress named Helen (Essie Davis).

Screenwriter Shaun Grant focuses not only on Bryant’s intellectual disability and unusual circumstances, but on the ease that the killer was able to buy semi-automatic weapons. Indeed, the impetus to write the script came from two mass shootings which occurred in the US within less than two weeks — the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and the Thousand Oaks shooting — at a moment when Grant was living in Los Angeles.

“Shaun’s script was just so powerful,” says Kurzel. “I believed and trusted in Shaun’s intentions. I remember the first time reading it and there was something about the scene in which he walks in to buy the guns, that really shocked me and moved me and stayed with me. And that same scene had the same impact we were shooting, and when we were in the edit, and eventually, when we saw it with the first audience. That was what the film was about. But it was still tough to think about.”

For all the care taken, Nitram has turned out to be “probably the most controversial film in Australia”, as Kurzel has it. Justin Wooley, a survivor of the Port Arthur Massacre, responded to the production by recalling that he “was 12-years-old when that guy tried to shoot me. Our family was amazingly lucky given we all walked away”. Not interested in “exploring this dark chapter of Australian history” or the “study of a man driven to do this.”

Former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said that he was “unnerved about the revisiting of the Martin Bryant case. It’s a long time ago. But such is the horror of that day it has scarred us as a nation”.

“I think there was a whole lot of discussion about the film that was about what the film wasn’t,” says Kurzel. “I think people thought that we were going to bring the massacre to the screen. And I think that the Port Arthur shootings are in Australia, are like September 11th, where were you on that day and time? It very much shifted everything in Australia. At the time in 1996, it was the worst single mass shooting. I think the residue of that is still extremely strong to this day.”

The film ultimately received eight prizes at the 2021 Australian Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Direction, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Following the film’s Cannes premiere as part of the Official Competition, Caleb Landry Jones was named best actor by Spike Lee’s jury. It is an extraordinary performance from the Texan.

“I think a lot of Caleb’s approach to the character is the difference between empathy and sympathy,” says Kurzel. “I think that is an important distinction and a tricky one with a character like this. I don’t think you should be playing either. But I do think that there is something familiar with this character, I do think it’s a character that you must have an audience relate to in some way. There has to be a familiarity.

“They have to feel as though you’ve seen this person before so you can understand the events leading up to what happens at the end of the film. The film quickly almost became a family drama. There was a lot of conversation about family and about expectations of a mother and a father. Caleb is very immersive. Unbelievably focused. He doesn’t have an off button. There was a physicality about him, right from the start. We went to meet him and it was just one of those things. He was peeling some eggs at a restaurant, and it was the way he was sort of eating the eggs and listening to us that was really engaging.

“And then it was just about whether he could deliver the accent. And he came over during Covid, and went into isolation for two weeks in a hotel. And something interesting in how his bubble reflected a sense of isolation in the character.”

Kurzel is no stranger to controversial subjects and dark psyches. In 2011, Snowtown, his feature debut earned a special jury prize at the Cannes Critics’ Week. Set in the same squalid Adelaide suburb where the filmmaker grew up, the film chronicled serial killer John Bunting from the viewpoint of an abused, and finally complicit teenager. The filmmaker has subsequently directed an anguished Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, a punk, cross-dressing adaptation of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and a big screen adaptation of Assassin’s Creed. Of the latter, he notes: “It wasn’t a great experience. I think if I was going to go back to do something on a large scale like that again, I’d probably want to be involved a bit earlier on and know more what it was.”

“I started out doing commercials that were mostly comedy commercials,” says Kurzel. “There was always a set of filmmakers that I was really attracted to as a young man: Kubrick or Scorsese, or in Australia, you know, Peter Weir or Geoffrey Wright or George Miller. So I think it’s always been a fascination. I didn’t set out to look a real life crimes. It just sort of happened. My first film was offered to me out of the blue. I was very lucky. It also happened to be set in a place where I grew up.

“And after that I started to be offered certain things and Macbeth was definitely something that spoke to me about the evil of men. Where does evil come from? Is it the shirt? Or is it innate? Is it something that grows with you? So I’ve ended up making three films about killers with Shaun, who’s written them. We have a certain sort of lens on a particular kind of young white male in Australia. There’s a lot of unanswered questions about violence in Australia, and about a very violent history that feels really close.”

There is, he says, a positive effect from his excavations of grimmer episodes in Australian history.

“The actual making of them is incredibly rewarding creatively, because you’re in the throes of doing something really important about a subject matter that’s really important. You can feel that focus on a set when there’s a story that’s powerful. Everyone feels the stakes are high. When I’m shooting I’m immersed in that and just creatively trying to get the best thing out of it. It’s probably only afterwards that you have the anxiety of people’s responses and the responsibility of being sensitive and respectful as much as you can.”

Nitram opens July 1st

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic