Three Great Things: David Michôd

The writer-director of the forthcoming historical epic The King on the special pleasures of his home country, music and the game of rugby.

Three Great Things is our series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the release of The King, his superb take on the story of Prince Hal’s journey to becoming Henry V, Australian writer-director David Michôd shared the things that make life special for him. — N.D.

The Ancient Isolation of Australia
After The King premiered in Venice, I spent two weeks cruising around Sicily with my partner Mirrah Foulkes and my producer Liz Watts. While we were in Palermo, I experienced a diagnosable syndrome that is most frequently suffered by antipodeans, a feeling of being overwhelmed by antiquity. In Australia, I regularly turn to Mirrah, for one reason or another, and say, “What a wondrous ancient wonderland we live in.” But it isn’t a European kind of built ancientness, it’s the stuff that’s around us; you can feel it in the air and the ground.

In Palermo, there’s a giant fig tree in the Giardino Garibaldi, a park which commemorates the unification of Sicily with Italy in the 1860s. The tree has branches that come out and drop roots that are everywhere. The tree reminded me so much of Sydney, where there are Moreton Bay fig trees everywhere. This was a particularly beautiful tree, and we later discovered that the parents of this tree were in the Botanic Gardens in Palermo, and that they were Moreton Bay fig trees from Hervey Bay in Australia, brought over in the 19th century. The tree looks prehistoric and I realized that it embodied that Australian antiquity, that feeling I have so frequently when I’m at home which is the product of a gigantic island country where what evolved has a singularity about it. Aboriginal culture is unique because it existed in relative isolation for tens of thousands of years.

I’ve been trying to work out what it is about going back to Australia that brings me not just such joy, but also great calm. I feel like I had an epiphany when I saw this tree, realizing that it’s about the beautiful, ancient isolation and wildness of the place. I’ve spent so much time in the last 10 years in other parts of the world – my last two movies were made primarily out of London, I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles and have a house that I share with friends there and I spend a lot of time in New York – but I just keep wanting to go back to Sydney, because I feel so part of the earth there in a way that I don’t everywhere else. There’s something about the light, the air, the water and the ancientness of the animals and the trees and the sounds of the birds that feels extraordinary.

The fig tree in Giardino Garibaldi (via c4r1n3b/Flickr)

There was a key moment in my life when I was about 24 when I had a job in Melbourne at the Department of Education. It was a job that I’d essentially stumbled into. I was perfectly competent at it and probably could have stayed there for a long time if I’d wanted to, but I was also aware I hadn’t chosen that job for myself. I’d done a liberal arts degree before that and I didn’t want my career – my life’s work – to be wholly an accident. So I thought, “If I could choose anything, what would it be?” I probably would have chosen to be a musician, but I was completely incompetent at playing any musical instrument, so instead I applied to film school.

I did a Q&A recently with Nicholas Britell, who did the score for The King, and was talking about how much I love working on music for films. Of all the stages in the process, it’s the one that brings me the most joy. I told Nick how I’d realized that I build these incredibly complex mazes that I have to walk through just to get to a musical place. I write these big films, raise all this money and gather all these people and endure weeks in mud and heat on weird locations, just so I can eventually end where I really want to be, which is in a room with a composer, talking about music. Surely there must be an easier way to engineer that situation.

On this movie, the music happened quite late. I was in Sydney and Nick was in New York. We were both finding working so remotely impossible, so I jumped on a plane and came over here. For the first two days of us together, we were trying to learn each other’s language and it was stiff, frustrating. But on day three, we clicked in. He was trying things out and then I latched onto something that I loved, and he could see why I loved it and the piece started evolving in front of us and, in the space of about 45 minutes, it turned into this amazing piece of music which became the primary theme of the movie. And then for the rest of our time together in New York, it was like we’d cracked the code as all the other music came easily and flowed. It was exhilarating. Nothing brings me greater joy than feeling like I’ve been a part of the creation of music that didn’t exist before.

I had a similar experience with with Antony Partos and Sam Petty on my first two movies and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on my last movie, War Machine. Warren is still always sending me things he’s working on and wants to know what I think of them. I feel such joy and the special privilege of being sent a new piece of music. He’ll play me parts of the new Bad Seeds record, and he just sent me a new thing he just recorded with the Dirty Three that’s just extraordinary; it’s not out in the world yet, but it’s in my ears.

I grew up playing rugby. In Australia, rugby is a private school game and I am a private school boy. I was a kid and wanted to run around and kick balls, so I would have played anything, but I grew to love rugby and played it all through high school. On Saturdays, I’d play for my school’s first fifteen and then race across town and play for my local club.

I was a halfback, because I’m not tall and halfbacks are traditionally zippy and small. I think it informed some of my personality today; as a halfback, you are acting as a conduit between the forwards and the backs. Even if you’re not the captain, you’re still reacting a lot and directing play. If I ever saw anything happen to any of my teammates in a messy ruck on the ground, I was the first one in – this little ferocious terrier would come out of me. It made no sense, because I was always the person most likely to have my head smashed in if I started anything.

I moved from Sydney to Melbourne after I finished high school, and I played for Melbourne University for a couple of years. I still loved rugby, but then I discovered vice and it all drifted away. I made a mess of my twenties, lived very unhealthily and lost all interest in rugby. Something happened when I cleaned up my act and got my shit together: I rediscovered rugby and came to appreciate how it gave me a great respite from the stresses of adulthood. Stresses that were, in some ways, newfound to me, as the weight of 10 years of neglected adult responsibility came crashing down. What I love about rugby is its complete abstract meaninglessness. I feel so invested in it – I’m an Australian, so I’m an obsessive watcher of the Super Rugby provincial competition and watch the Wallabies play anywhere, any time (in fact, two of the characters in The King, Beale and Hooper, are named after current Wallabies) – but, anyway, as soon as a game is over, regardless of the result, I let it go. I love that I can do that.

The Rugby World Cup is on at the moment and I’ve been struggling because I’m on the road, trying to find ways of watching games in weird time zones with VPNs. In some ways, it’s been a beautiful antidote to the stress of releasing a movie into the world. It’s impossible not to feel like some significant portion of my future rides on how The King lands in the world, and I love being able to check out: turn on the rugby and watch Australia play. I watched the Wallabies lose to Wales, and I didn’t care that they lost. It was a good game and I got to think about something else for a while.

David Michôd is an Australian film director and screenwriter known for his films Animal Kingdom, The Rover and War Machine. His latest film, The King, will be distributed by Netflix and stars Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily-Rose Depp, Sean Harris, Tom Glynn-Carney and Thomasin McKenzie. Michôd co-wrote the television series Catch-22, based on Joseph Heller’s celebrated novel, starring George Clooney and Chris Abbott. He was the editor of Australia’s Inside Film magazine between 2003 and 2006. He is a graduate of the University of Melbourne and Victorian College of the Arts School of Film & Television. (Picture by Mirrah Foulkes.)