Interview with The Leunig Fragments Director Kasimir Burgess – On Idols, Filmmaking, and Becoming Michael Leunig

I awake at 6am and lay in bed waiting for the moment where my body will drag me out of bed and to the kitchen to prepare a coffee. My dogs’ batteries have sufficiently recharged overnight and my moving body excites them to no end. For them, a new day exists full of wild possibilities. My cat yells at me for food, and I diligently and robotically oblige in an attempt to stave off any further feline abuse. I turn on my laptop, anticipating another unexpected Windows update that might lunge my scheduled interview into jeopardy. Sitting down, letting the coffee wash my body and mind in a wave of warmth and manufactured energy, I prepare for the future. 

I’m about to interview Kasimir Burgess, director of Fell and the new documentary The Leunig Fragments.

I’m not prepared. 

In fact, I’m never prepared. 

I feel that my approach to interviews is not like most interviewers. You – the reader – don’t need to know how the soup is made, but I tend to explore the person I’m talking to in a naturalistic way. I let the conversation guide the questions I’ll ask, rather than having a list of pre-written, prescribed questions. Most of the times it works, sometimes not so much. It is a growing, evolving process that I’m sure I’ll never perfect. Some may call it lazy, or maybe disrespectful, but it works for me, and hopefully for those I talk to as well.

I respect and admire Burgess immensely. Fell was – or rather, is – a complex film about the machinations of grief and revenge, of trauma and loss. I consider this film a lot and have contemplated its existence deeply after the horrific habitat loss over the East coast of Australia due to the devastating bushfires.

I was then fascinated by Kasimir’s pivot to documentary filmmaking with the existence of a movie about iconic and controversial Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig. 

I grew up reading and admiring Leunig’s comics. The playful and childlike imagery made accessing them easy for young and old alike. Somehow, Leunig manages to shift a smile, skew a frown, and evoke an emotion with grand ease, turning the most outwardly simplistic imagery into a reflection of our own personalities. Yet, as a child, the intensity and deeply human aspect of them was lost on me. As an adult, their complexity provokes thoughts. These thoughts conjure emotions: anger, frustration, distress, concern, and sometimes (but more infrequently now), joy. 

The scheduled interview time of 7:00am ticks over to 7:01, then 7:02, and for a moment, I wonder, did they mean 7:00am Eastern states time? Was I supposed to be up at 4am to do the interview? I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. I’m not doing this for myself, I’m doing this as a part of the promotional run for a film’s release. I am a tool in the wheelhouse of film media. I exist to make people aware of the films existence. 

7:03 ticks around and I think, well, maybe this one’s not going to happen today. When you have an anxious mind, you can’t help but overthink these things, with every second lingering for longer than its fleeting existence will tell you it does. An hour later, 7:04am arrives, my phone rings, and I answer the call. 

When I connect with Kasimir, he excuses himself for possible tiredness, attempting to lower expectations for the interview. As a father of a one year old, Kasimir is understandably dealing with an interrupted sleep schedule. With a PR cycle that demands invitational interrogation by way of interviews like this one, I try to allay his worries by telling him that this will be nice and easy. After all, I’m still waiting for the coffee to do its thing. 

Not to stoke my ego more than I already have, but in many ways, my interview process is similar to that of a documentarian like Kasimir. He embarked on the journey of documenting the legacy and myth that is Michael Leunig because of his respect and admiration of the artist. I kicked off interviewing Australian filmmakers four years ago, mostly as a way of trying to be a better conversationalist, but also to help spread awareness of Australian films. I respect and admire these filmmakers, and through my interviews and coverage, I hope I’m able to honour and respect their work, and ideally, elevate awareness of their films. 

The difficulties of getting a feature film off the ground are complex and frustrating within the Australian film industry, so it’s a little easier to pick up a camera and film a subject that already exists. I’m reminded of the transient skills of Australian filmmakers. Overseas, most filmmakers stick to one format, with documentarians routinely sticking to documentaries, and feature filmmakers sticking with that world. Here in Australia, the world of filmmaking feels more fluid, with directors flitting between features and documentaries with ease. Warwick Thornton, Rolf de Heer, Donna McRae, Kitty Green, and now Kasimir Burgess. In some ways, if you have a willing subject, the financing for documentaries flows smoother. If it manages to find an audience at the cinema, then great, but if not then it will find a home on the ABC or SBS.

The Leunig Fragments isn’t your traditional documentary. 

Sure, Kasimir sets up the camera and interviews his meek subject, one that almost recoils from the camera at times, requesting that Kasimir be respectful, and not to change his story too much. But then he also dramatizes earlier moments of Leunig’s life. Kasimir and Leunig liaise with each other over what kind of child should portray the youthful artist, and in a fascinating moment, a parade of kids auditions in front of the camera. In each one, there’s a world of possibilities. They settle on one kid who we’re told carries the spirit of a young Michael Leunig, but only Leunig himself can attest to this, so we have to trust the decision, and in turn, the recreation of his early life. 

These recreations of moments of conjured memory are filmed with exceptional skill from one of Australia’s great modern cinematographers, Marden Dean. I probe Kasimir about this decision, given it’s so rare to see a documentary so immaculately shot. 

To be honest, because he was involved in the scripted dramatic re-creations, it was very similar to working with him on Fell, in that was just a very intimate, intuitive relationship. We have a shorthand, an ease of communication. I was shooting the doco, interviews and just observational stuff with Michael but working with actors, casting boy Michael these sorts of things, Marden came in and did beautiful work once again. [He’s] sensitive to the subject matter and responding to the light, working with a limited budget to make something that was… poetic and immediate. 

There was a challenge in incorporating recreations into a documentary. And just finding it a place, a good home for that, sort of more elevated that poetic re-creation world with the more immediate, real, observation doco style.

Given the almost necessary level of hagiography that comes with needing your subject to sign off on the project, I can understand the hesitation and difficulty that comes with probing into difficult, complex areas. But, the title of the film is The Leunig Fragments, and in many ways, this is the assessment of the available fragments of this mans life. 

Footage of Andrew Denton interviewing Leunig on Enough Rope is interspersed within the film, and it’s the presence of this footage that leaves a weight hanging over the film, especially when a title screen appears informing the audience that Leunig’s family declined appearing in the film. These elements say more than the film itself ever does. 

Which leads me to asking Kasimir about why he wanted to make a documentary about Michael Leunig. After all, the ever-escalating controversies surrounding the man would make many wary about making a documentary about such a figure. I ask about the title, The Leunig Fragments, and how there are moments of his life we are not privy to because of family members not wanting to talk, or Michael not wishing to explore certain areas. I’m curious about how Kasimir approaches these fragments. If he has built trust in Michael, a person who is already having trepidation about having his life story told, then how do you not lose him by exploring these controversies? 

I guess, just to be sensitive and tactful. And as respectful as possible. It was easy to approach, you know, historical controversies as the film does delves into several but the ones that were happening in the moment, over the years that I was filming, were harder to capture because, you know, Michael was sort of protecting himself from me and from, from the public in those moments. He kind of retreats. So, how do you show that? You can suggest those moments and I kind of prefer films that post questions rather than give answers or show things overtly. So you get a sense, I think, in the film how Michael deals with controversies. And there were times I felt like it would be great to be in Michael’s kitchen now as the controversy around, you know, antivax is breaking or, you know, or the mother with phone and pram cartoon, but the access is limited in those moments because Michael retreats. 

I respond saying that I can respect the difficulty in working hard to get access to someone’s private life. I let him know that from my perspective, The Leunig Fragments delivered an understanding of how somebody becomes so closed off, and uses their art as their voice. I let him know I felt conflicted at the end of it. I let him know that the film is not what I expected. While I’m writing this piece, the answers are disjointed, like I’m building a narrative that works to colour my view on the film, Leunig, and Kasimir. 

The interview is due to wrap up in minutes, so I throw an easy question out, a reliable one.

The Leunig Fragments had screened at festivals around Australia in 2019, so I ask him about the response it had. It’s a stupid question in many ways, because of course the director of the film is going to say they had a positive response, but fortunately Kasimir meets me at my level and gives more than mirrored praise for his own film. 

Overall, it had an overwhelmingly positive response… I think that there are always going to be people who want the definitive expose on Michael, that gives answers to family dilemma…

Then, Kasimir says, mid sentence, something unexpected…

…which you may or may not choose to write about in terms of some of the complexity with the relationships in Michael’s immediate family

I eagerly cover this, and I was always going to regardless of whether Kasimir had mentioned it or not, but it fascinates me that he’s keenly aware of the optics of Leunig’s mythology.

He continues:

You know there were people who kind of wanted me to get closer to Michael and to really see him cry and break him but I was never really interested in doing something that exposed Michael and unravelled him in that sort of, really personal way. The film celebrates Michael as an artist. 

I came to it, I guess, as a fan. And I do, now, have more of a complex understanding of Michael. More nuance. But I never wanted to take him down. 

Then, back on to the question at hand, his voice a little muted now:

Yeah, yeah, I guess it was a good response. That was maybe the one thing that I heard from several people was “aw, well, y’know, I just wanted to know what happened in the end”. Well, you know, there are mysteries in family dynamics. And sometimes you can’t remember how something began. And I think that’s ok. But the films not about that. There was some preoccupation in and around that. 

Kasimir jokes about me editing his ‘rambling’ into something coherent, but this is what I wanted. This is what I had hoped to get. A look into the mind of the filmmaker in some regard. I have a thought in my mind that I need to shut up more when I ask questions. As I write down this interview, I see myself rambling through the question for a minute, elsewhere a minute and a half on others. I tell myself that this helps endear me – the interviewer – to the subject, that I’m showing that they’re not just talking to someone who has an article to write, but a person who is genuinely interested in them and their work. As I write this, I am amplifying my paranoia and wonder whether it is genuine. 

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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