Today marks the release of the Australian crime sensation 'Animal Kingdom' which won the won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

After his mother ODs, young Joshua "J" Cody is sent to live with his grandmother and uncles -- where he discovers that his family is a collection of Melbourne's most notorious armed-robbers. Tensions run high as the police ruthlessly begin to enclose the family, putting "J" in danger. He's torn between working with a noble police detective (played by international movie star Guy Pearce) and remaining loyal to his family. But in his family, there's the growing menace of uncle Andrew (played by Australian veteran Ben Mendelsohn) whose quiet, unhinged relationship with his nephew may be the most deadly thing in "J"'s life.

Director David Michod and Ben Mendelsohn talked with Moviefone about the film's international success, the unique performances, and the menacing true story at the heart of 'Animal Kingdom.'

Today marks the release of the Australian crime sensation 'Animal Kingdom' which won the won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

After his mother ODs, young Joshua "J" Cody is sent to live with his grandmother and uncles -- where he discovers that his family is a collection of Melbourne's most notorious armed-robbers. Tensions run high as the police ruthlessly begin to enclose the family, putting "J" in danger. He's torn between working with a noble police detective (played by international movie star Guy Pearce) and remaining loyal to his family. But in his family, there's the growing menace of uncle Andrew (played by Australian veteran Ben Mendelsohn) whose quiet, unhinged relationship with his nephew may be the most deadly thing in "J"'s life.

Director David Michod and Ben Mendelsohn talked with Moviefone about the film's international success, the unique performances, and the menacing true story at the heart of 'Animal Kingdom.'

The True Crime History Behind 'Animal Kingdom'
"I started writing it pretty much when I left film school, and I started writing it because I needed to do something after film school that was on that trajectory," Michod recalls. "I just started, and there was one hook at the center of 'Animal Kingdom' that I just couldn't shake. This story I had read about from Melbourne's criminal history in the late '80s, which was the random revenge killing of two young cops by a particularly vicious gang of armed-robbers. That idea was so chilling and shocking to me, that I just formed the core of what I hoped would be a big sprawling Melbourne crime story. I couldn't shake it."

As a veteran of Australian cinema, Mendelsohn explains: "If you grew up in Australia, if you grew up in Melbourne, you can't help but feel this stuff because it's very much an aspect of the culture."

"I had a sense of where in the great canon of crime film from both here and Australia where 'Animal Kingdom' might sit," Michod says,"which in a way was me wanting to work out what might make 'Animal Kingdom' different from other crime films. I knew I wanted 'Animal Kingdom' to be a really menacing crime film, to at times almost play like a horror film."


The Dark Moral Code of 'Animal Kingdom'
To tell the story of a young man whose only family is made up of ruthless criminals willing to kill, character of "J" would have to be forced to make choices most people could never expect. "On a thematic level," Michod says, "I set out to make a film about a young man forming that moral compass in a completely moral and confusing world, such that in a particularly toxic and morally corrupt environment, he can hit a point where the spectrum between right and wrong can shift so dramatically into strange territory. What might be 'wrong' to you and me can seem profoundly 'right' to someone ... when the framework within which they're working is so dark and dangerous that that compass can be quite skewed."

The Sundance Victory

The film has quickly captivated audiences around the world, with its biggest success -- so far -- at the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival. "People like Guy and [actor] Joel [Edgarton], they are the true unspoken heroes of the Australian film industry," Mendelsohn explains. "Because without those boys, this film may not have gotten it's financing. So getting Guy to come in and do the job that he did, and he's f***ing great. And Guy is just great as a human. This is people using their money power to get something really f***ing great made."

As a first-time feature director, Michod felt that Sundance was "overwhelming. I wasn't at the awards ceremony because I had that feeling of 'mission accomplished.' That feeling we had at Sundance -- firstly, getting in the competition, but also how amazingly received the film was there, had me feeling, when I left there, like I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve. And the award was this beautiful extra surprise at the very end."

"That's when it slapped us in the face; that's when we said 'Wow, we really have something here,'" Mendelsohn recalls, "it gave us a platform, a really good platform."

A Dangerous Family
One of the film's most remarkable aspects is the fact that the part of "J" is played by undiscovered 17-year-old James Frecheville. As a rookie actor, Frecheville had to play against some of Australia's biggest stars, and his relationship with Mendelsohn was especially unpredictable. "His relationship with Ben was colorful," Michod tells us. "Basically Ben just decided early on that it would be in the kid's best interest to not get too close to him, and effectively avoided him for the entire rehearsal and pre-production, and then spent the first week of the shoot calling him 'John' instead of 'James.' To keep James on edge, to not feel like he was chummy and comfortable. James' discomfort was very important for the character and Ben is extremely good at making people feel uncomfortable when he wants to [laughs]."

Watch Young "J" Navigate the Deadly World of 'Animal Kingdom'

"With James I had that beautiful relief that the actor I was working with intuitively skilled enough and right for the movie, such that I didn't need to handle him with kid gloves or give him lots of extra special attention," Michod recalls. "James' performative skills are just really well-honed and detailed, which I think is surprising of a kid who is 17, and he had to navigate a pretty murky territory to make the shoot work with him."

Ben's grim and suspenseful approach to the murderous uncle was never far removed from the real-life danger of Melbourne's crime world: "I'd known people from growing up in Melbourne, and when David and I were doing the homework putting this thing together, we drew from a psychological idea of what this person might be like. There were a couple people that both of us had known from here and there that had done fair stretches and there were two in particular that I liked for this. One of them was a very quiet and shut-down kind of a guy, and the other was very much explosive and genial. But both of these people were very dangerous people in different ways. And that informed things, it gave it a background."

Cinematic Legacy
To make a crime film as epic and savage as 'Animal Kingdom,' Michod pulled from an epic cinematic masterpiece: "In a way, when I think about it, I'm sure I've absorbed influences subliminally from all over the place, and one that I think is most apt is 'Apocalypse Now' as strange as that sounds ... Obviously, I'm trying to achieve this with fewer resources than Francis Coppola had, but [there's] that sense of it being both sprawling and big and classic and yet full of detail and interesting character. And having the ability at moments to pull back from the narrative drive for a moment of dark and beautiful cinematic poetry ... It has a scale but a very unsettling sense of impending doom."

The Shocks and Surprises of 'Animal Kingdom'

The film plays out like a roller-coaster ride for the viewer, building in nervous terror like climbing the first ascent. Once "J" is fully immersed into Melbourne's dangerous crime world, the film feels like a never-ending freefall full of surprises that come out of nowhere. Loyalties are betrayed and characters do not survive to see the ending -- a shocking final blow that leaves the viewers reeling.

Mendelsohn couldn't be happier with that: "That's the way I'd love it, for people to just go in cold and not know anything, and let it capture you. Because David has done such an amazing job, there's story, there's characters, but cinematically it's just like 'Boom!' ... I think the thing about the ending is that it's a wonderful completion. It raises questions that stay with people and it's a very affecting ending. I think people are going to be surprised first of all, but it really opens it up for a question of 'why?' and continuity: What would happen after that? ... It's really effective the way he lets you out because it's like 'till next time.' And a lot of people take the ride two and three and four times. We've had a lot of return visitors to our magic mountain [laughs]."