Interview: Justin Kurzel, True History of the Kelly Gang

Last month, Justin Kurzel’s return to Australian stories, True History of the Kelly Gang, dropped on Stan.

Ahead of its Australian release, Double Feature’s Luke Saunders sat down with Kurzel to discuss many of the choices he made throughout the film, which without his explanation may seem confusing or historically inaccurate.

Luke also reviewed the film, which you can read here.

We are two days away from this film dropping on Stan, so I’d like to first start by just asking you, how are you? How does it feel to reach the fruition?

Oh, it’s great. It’s been a massive, long passion project. Stan approached us about releasing it on their platform, and it was really different. I was really excited by how they were going to platform it, how they were going to present it, and it being released on Australia Day, I felt really excited by how this could be seen.

So yeah, I’m feeling really excited. And it opens in the UK in the next month as well, and then the US, so it’s all sort of really happening all at once. I’m really intrigued to see how the punters view it.

Yeah absolutely, I’ll be very interested also to compare the international audiences to the Australian audiences; do you think there will be a big separation in the reactions?

Yeah, I think in Australia you can already feel it. It’s very personal, the Ned Kelly story, because it means so much and is so different to everyone.

Everyone’s got a very particular opinion about that story, and the legacy of Ned Kelly and what it means to them today.

So, I think Australians are much more intimate with it, but also there are people who have a much more visceral reaction to anything to do with Ned Kelly.

Overseas he is still quite unknown, so people are watching it in a very neutral way, and you know, lots of movies have been done on Ned Kelly, and there’s obviously lots of books, there’s lots of different interpretations of his story, which is kind of what the film is about.

The film is about his history being stolen, and how an individual can suddenly become a sort of legend, or a sort of myth, something a lot bigger than they were.

So, I definitely think Australians have a very coloured history with Ned Kelly, and an awkward history with him as well.

We don’t quite know whether to celebrate him, to banish him, to make fun of him or to sell things with him. We don’t quite know what to make of his history and how he defines us now.

You touched on the mythology, which is something that is very intriguing; was there something about playing with mythology that drew you to this project? Because you’re a very visual director, were there key images that you had early in the project, or structural ideas, or anything that drew you in?

Yeah, when I was reading the book and it started going into the history of Ned Kelly and the idea of the gang being inspired by these men wearing dresses, and banshees, and what that kind of Irish mythology was.

I thought that was a fascinating take on the Ned Kelly story, and there was just a kind of an angle to it all that felt different from anything I’d read or seen before.

You know, maybe there was also a predestined idea that Ned was never going to be able to outrun his name.

Never going to be able to outrun his story, and sometimes in life, there are those figures that can’t outrun their own history and start to become much bigger, different, more mythological than they actually were as human beings.

That’s definitely something that Peter Carey was poking at in the book, even with the title, The True History of the Kelly Gang, I always saw that as ironic; I mean, what is the true history of him, and what was real and what was not? Does it even matter in the end?

The biggest fight Ned has in the film is to kind of preserve his own history, his name, and to make sure the writings to his unborn daughter are true accounts of who he was.

So, yeah, the film is a provocation of what mythology is, and how it happens, and why we do we need these sorts of figures in our life to define ourselves and even the country we live in.

Speaking of Peter Carey’s book; you’ve adapted Macbeth in the past, a very different style of adaptation, being a classical theatre piece by the king himself. Were there lessons learned that carried over into adapting a modern novel?

For me, it’s always finding a vision, especially for material that’s been done before, or that is really well known, you have to find a new voice in it.

So, with Macbeth, for me, it was about how ambition can come out of grief; that if you played with the idea that this couple have lost their child, and that this was a man surrounded by war and violence, then how can the idea of killing a king be a distraction to the sort of grief that he’s going through?

With Ned, it was always about the relationship with his mother. And that Glenrowan had a sense of momentum and conviction in it that wasn’t just about the guys being held up in the inn – that they were doing it all for something and someone – and for me that was always Ned’s mother, to get her out of prison.

So, I never worry so much about historical accuracy, I’m more worried about what is real and true to the characters in the story.

Once Shaun Grant and I found that in the Ned Kelly story, we really sort of understood why we were telling it and what we were heading towards. I think that’s when we decided it was something we really wanted to make. And that was the same with Macbeth, we were like “well okay, if we’re going to do this story again, and on-screen with many films that have come before it, what is the kind of new angle on it?”

The one thing that’s really stuck with me since listening is the score for this film; it feels like a kinetic, strobe-like trance, which is just incredible. This was done by your brother Jed Kurzel, who you’ve worked with for every film; what was different this time with your collaboration? What were the key elements you two wanted to find for the score?

A lot of it was the landscape. I think we always approach things through landscape. Jed sees what the landscape looks like and sometimes it tells you what it wants to be, and Australia has a very, very particular landscape, and especially this film did with the sorts of locations we chose.

There was a sort of fever dream to it like it had been scored by instruments that could actually exist in that world.

There’s a lot of percussions, and you can imagine a lot of tools or whatever that were there, to build the house or cut down trees, that could be played. And then birds became a really big inspiration. Australian birds are such a huge part of the sort of sonic scape of Australia; they’re so loud and they’re so robust, and on set we were kind of continuously surrounded by the screeching of Cockatoos and Lyrebirds.

Jed was really fascinated by how some of these kind-of echoey, percussive bird sounds could play with the music, so that became very clear when we started looking at the material and the images, and they certainly evoked a certain vision for Jed’s music.

On the topic of frequent collaborators, your amazing wife Essie Davis is in this film; is there a charm to frequent collaboration that you find with your methodology, or more that you love just putting those that you love in the work that you do? Do you find that those frequent projects bring out another level of potential?

I don’t know, I’ve been really lucky with casting because I’ve always worked with people I’ve really wanted to work with and been really great admirers of.

Essie is just someone I’ve wanted to work with for so long. We’ve known each other since our early twenties when we first met. So when I read Ellen Kelly I just instantly thought of Essie and believed that she had a softness and confidence, but also a sort of vulnerability in her that would be really right for the character.

That was really premeditated, I knew it as I was reading the book and trying to decide whether I wanted to do the film or not, that I saw Essie in it no matter what.

That was the same with Russell Crowe, we just instantly saw Russell as Harry Power. George MacKay – who played Ned Kelly –  he was a find, he was someone that we saw in an audition that evoked the qualities straight away that we wanted for Ned.

But sometimes there are actors that you go, “I’m writing this for you and I can see this for you, and it’s really clear,” and others are surprises that through the audition process, reveal to you the character that they have to be, and it becomes really clear, for everyone else too, that you need to cast them.

You’ve mentioned George MacKay, and I just saw 1917 which he was absolutely brilliant in, and you’ve mentioned that you like to look for these truths inside the character, so, can you describe the task of trying to cast Ned Kelly? What were you looking for?

For me, it was about someone who you could feel could be virtuous, someone who could write some of these writings that are in the book, that it could be someone with many possibilities.

I always sort of thought if Ned went one way rather than the other, he could have been the Prime Minister of Australia, you wanted to sort of hope and feel that he had the potential in him, that he had ambition in him, that there was something good in him.

That’s what I saw in George, he’s an incredibly beautiful human being. He’s quite angelic, but there’s still something very masculine about him, and he’s a sort of poet, he writes all the time. So, there’s the idea of taking someone like that and corrupting them and turning them towards a kind of violence that you wouldn’t expect.

For me that was really important, I didn’t want you to kind of look at him at the beginning and go “ah, right, so Ned’s gonna go like this,” and towards Glenrowan I wanted it to feel like it was going to be a surprise, and that a good person was sort of being formed and changed by the people and the place around them.

Want more? Luke also reviewed the film You can read that here.

True History of the Kelly Gang is out now on Stan in Australia, with a UK and US release coming soon.

Image by Jarrod Pettit