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Inside ‘Son Of A Gun’ with director Julius Avery
January 29, 2015
During the latest BFI London Film Festival, back in October, I had the pleasure of chatting with first time feature film director Julius Avery about his debut, heist thriller Son Of A Gun, which finally opens in UK cinemas this weekend (here’s my review). Starring the iconic talent of Ewan McGregor and the rising star of young Aussie Brenton Thwaites (who has recently starred in The Giver, Maleficent and the upcoming The Signal), Son Of A Gun is a con movie filled with exciting and entertaining action but also intense character moments. And I’m not just talking about the inevitable love story sub-plot between Thwaites’ young thug and a Russian mobster’s protege played by (another rising star) Alicia Wikander. The true emotional core of the film is the mentor-apprentice relationship between McGregor and Thwaites’ characters which clearly has a father-son subtext.
The friendly Aussie filmmaker immediately delves into the process that led Son Of A Gun to become his feature debut after the success of his Cannes-winning short film Jerrycan (2008) which you can watch here if you want to get a sense of the themes this talented up and coming filmmaker likes to tackle.
After Cannes opened some doors, I got inevitably asked what other projects I had on deck and there was a script that was ready and then an outline for Son Of A Gun. They both had a similar father-son relationship as the emotional core in them but I personally thought that Son Of A Gun was expensive and as a first time filmmaker I wouldn’t have been able to score that sort of budget. The thing is I’m a romantic at heart and Son of A Gun has a lot of action but also a love story. My other script was this brutal ‘Romeo and Juliet’ kind of tale set in the country that had a lot of racial tension. The project got attention and all the finance was ready but at the last hurdle it fell over and I was very depressed, especially coming off the high of Cannes with everyone telling you how amazing you are and then instead being told you’re not good enough in this instance and so being asked to go back to the drawing board.
The executive producer on the project, Tim White, knew of my other script in the works aka Son Of A Gun, and he knew that thematically was very similar so he offered to work on that together. I obviously said yes but I was skeptical about being able to get funded but we went to Screen Australia with a treatment they loved and developed with us for a couple of years. I worked closely with another screenwriter and friend, John Collee, and he helped me realize this was a commercial film and guided me to keep that tone and yet still have this sort of father-son central relationship between Ewan and Brenton’s characters. Essentially we have this kid who’s looking for a place to belong, he wants to be accepted and be part of the boys’ club and my short film Jerrycan is pretty much about that with all the pier pressure and bullying involved.
A theme that I’ve always been interested in is ‘what does it mean to be a man’, and especially in Australia the concept of machismo, of good vs bad that is all wrapped up in there. I had a good thinking about what I enjoyed watching as a kid and it was action films. In Australia though we have a tendency to not make this type of films, it’s a bit of a cultural fringe out there. But I wanted to do that kind of film and yet throw it in a different setting and also have this mentor-apprentice relationship at the center whilst making sure the regular audience felt save and came away from it, feeling like they were in good hands. I could’ve gone and made a very dark and full on brutal film that no one would’ve watched. That’s a genre many Australian filmmakers do really well and my piers have done it so well but I wanted to do something different and try to speak to an audience that’s a little wider. So now I’m quite excited but also extremely nervous since recently it seems like in Australia people don’t go see many Australian films.
The interesting mentor-apprentice relationship at the core the film is aptly captured by a duo of performers that coincidentally are in a similar position in their acting careers with McGregor being the navigated professional and Thwaites the promising newbie. Avery talked about how he came about to work with them and what a wonderful experience it was.
Ewan came to this project with a really open attitude. He knew that this was an exciting role as he got to play the bad boy and do something he hadn’t been doing for a while, pretty much since Trainspotting (1996). He’s been doing lots of leading roles next to beautiful women while here he gets to play against a bunch of sweaty blokes and he gets to fire machine guns and do something that has the excitement of the action and yet this father-son relationship which he loved. When I wrote him a letter, he responded to my personal story that inspired the themes. But then in terms of working on set he was just perfect for the role cause he’s knightly charming and the character has this duality of being Machiavellian and yet grooming people and making them feel really welcome like he does by taking Brenton’s character under his wing.
Speaking of Brenton, I needed to have a kid that Ewan’s character would see a little bit of himself in, in order to use him for what he needs but also cause he sees the potential in this kid and wants to try him up. That’s what happens in the criminal underworld, this big tradition that senior crew guys take on junior crew guys and try them up. So when I was casting the film in LA, Brenton came in and he immediately blew me away. I hadn’t seen anything he’d done cause most of his main stuff back then was still in post-production hence I purely cast him for what he was doing in the room. Then I took him to meet Ewan and they got along immediately and you could tell their chemistry was great. I think their performances in this film are quite edgy cause Brenton hadn’t done anything this raw and it’s great to see him coming around so well, whilst I think it’s exciting that Ewan is going back to a grittier role and I hope audiences will agree.
To wrap our nice chat, the lovely filmmaker has some humble words of wisdom when asked about what kind of advice he’d feel like giving to young aspiring filmmakers out there.
Well, I’ve barely done one film so I still need advice myself but I reckon you just need to find something that feels truthful to you and then you can make any film you want to make as long as you understand the emotional core and everything else from there falls into place. If you’re truthful to yourself, I think, everyone can recognize that and is going to want to get behind it.
Son Of A Gun is released in UK cinemas on January 30th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor