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'Nitram' portrays the upbringing of man who went on to kill 35 people in Port Arthur

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Nitram" is a film that won awards at no less than Cannes, stirred controversy, and caused deep, personal hurt among family members of the 35 people who died in the 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Caleb Landry Jones plays the title character, a young man - derided by peers as odd and bewildering to his parents - who lights fireworks to entertain children and explodes when an adult and his own father intervene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NITRAM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Come here. Hey, (unintelligible). Get inside.

CALEB LANDRY JONES: (As Nitram) What's wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hell are you doing?

JONES: (As Nitram) What do you mean?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Can't just be lighting off fireworks outside a school, Nitram. It's not appropriate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey, stop it. Stop it.

ANTHONY LAPAGLIA: (As Dad) Get in the car. Get in the car. Get in the car.

JONES: (As Nitram) We used to go to school together.

LAPAGLIA: (As Dad) I know. Get in the car.

SIMON: The film also stars Judy Davis, Essie Davis, and Anthony LaPaglia. Justin Kurzel, the film's director, joins us now from Tasmania, Australia. Thank you so much for being with us.

JUSTIN KURZEL: Pleasure.

SIMON: And you have family ties to Tasmania. We should explain at the top here. This is a story that everyone who lives in Tasmania and probably all of Australia knows.

KURZEL: Yeah. Look, I live in Tasmania now. I have for the last four years. I married a Tasmanian - Essie Davis, who's actually - plays Helen in the film. And our kids go to school here, and we've chosen this place to be our home. And yeah, look, as you said, it was a seismic event. It really rocked and shifted Australia enormously at the time. So everyone has a - has very strong feelings about that day and about the event.

SIMON: Hmm. So I have to ask you in that spirit because it's such a - I'll even put it this way - beautifully done film. Why pour your extraordinary talents into making a film about someone who committed such heinous crimes?

KURZEL: Yeah, I know. When I read the script by Shaun Grant, the writer - and we've worked together on a couple other films. It arrived in my inbox, and I opened it up and sort of knew straight away pretty much what it was. And you know, he was living in Los Angeles at the time. He had a couple very close calls with some mass shootings. And it made him, I guess, put a lens on the Port Arthur shootings and the lead-up to those shootings and - I guess trying to sort of get a better understanding of what were those days leading up to it but also what was that moment that allowed an individual, a pretty dangerous individual at the time, to be able to access very easily, you know, weaponry that wouldn't even be on a battlefield. But I had a lot of trepidation about it obviously living here and, you know, knowing how much this event has just changed people forever and, you know, is a very, very hard memory to discuss and talk about.

SIMON: It's very painful to see the young man's father - so beautifully played by Anthony LaPaglia - who truly loves his son but senses that he needs something and just can't seem to help him.

KURZEL: Yeah. Well, that's what I find interesting, is how both parents sort of, I guess, try to manage in very different ways. I mean, the father, I guess, manages as a sort of enabler, you know, the sort of character that, you know, brings out another lolly just to sort of calm the immediate tension and stress whereas a lot is sort of left in the mother's lap to sort of be the discipline and sort of be someone that's trying to somehow steer this, you know, child toward some kind of normality.

You know, we discussed that a lot - you know, parenting and kind of the different ways we go about it. And the film definitely sort of went from a film about gun reform to actually a film about, you know, family and about parenting and about the challenges of that as well.

SIMON: Yeah. Nitram - which we should explain is his name backwards - is taunted by his peers for what they perceive to be his oddness. But he is pretty hard to take. I mean, he's a bully and violent himself. I found my sympathy strained.

KURZEL: Yeah, I think it's the tricky thing in the film, is sort of when you feel empathy towards this character and when you don't. And it was always the hardest line to take especially with a character like this that does what they do at the end of the film. But I think in Australia, there's a want and a need from young men to be part of a tribe.

And in Australia, there's a very particular kind of tribe especially in the '90s that you wanted to be part of, which is, you know, a sporting tribe. It's either surfing, or it's football and so forth. And if you sort of don't quite fit within that tribe or accepted, you do start to, you know, become an outlaw. You do start to sort of fall between the cracks a little, you know? And it was interesting with this one that the community that did open up was the gun community here, which he became, you know, intimate with pretty quickly.

SIMON: This is a tough question I've got to raise with you. I'm sure you've run it through your own heart and soul, too, and especially because we are, you know, talking about a real person and we are taking pains not to mention that person's name. He is still in prison. He's serving 35 life sentences plus, I think, a thousand years. Are you concerned a story derived from his life just gives a mass murderer the kind of attention that he craves and, in a twisted way, feels he merits?

KURZEL: I think that's the - look, I think that's a really valid question, and I think it's probably the toughest question that has been asked of us. And all I can say is we felt as though the best way to tell the tragedy of someone getting firearms like this and to really kind of put a lens up into the absurdity and the horror of gun reform at that time in Australia was to be in the point of view of this perpetrator, was to take you step by step into those moments leading up to the buying of those weapons and to have a sort of sophisticated and deep conversation about gun reform, about what it means.

So, you know, we, at the same time, understood that as soon as you are suddenly in a particular point of view, that it's incredibly challenging. And it's going to be challenging for some. But that point of view was chosen to be able to have a discussion about a subject matter that both Shaun and I are incredibly passionate about. But I do - I understand that it's - you know, that it's tricky.

SIMON: Justin Kurzel, his new film, "Nitram," in theaters and on digital platforms for rent, streaming on AMC+, speaking from Tasmania, Australia. Thanks so much for being with us.

KURZEL: Pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMUNIST DAUGHTER SONG, "COAL MINER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.