TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG: A Conversation with Justin Kurzel

George Mackay as “Ned Kelly” in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Justin Kurzel has made a career telling stories from the darker corners of life. From his debut feature The Snowtown Murders to Macbeth to Assassin’s Creed, his work has explored the human condition through notorious figures, often of ill repute. In doing so, he’s attracted talent such as Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Russell Crowe to his projects.

His latest film, True History of the Kelly Gang, tells the story of the legendary outlaw Ned Kelly, who leads an anarchist army to wreak havoc on his oppressors in one of the most audacious attacks Australia ever saw.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher talked to Kurzel about the project and how he brought a fresh voice to a familiar character.

John Bucher: So many of the projects that you’ve directed are centered around criminals. Your next project also looks to be centered around criminals. What was the origin of your interest in crime and why do those types of characters appeal to you so much?

Justin Kurzel: Nobody’s asked me that question. You’re right. Which says that I don’t think it was a conscious thing in me to go out and make stories about criminals. I’m always interested in what draws people to violence and darkness. It’s something in literature or film that I’ve always been interested in.

I’d grown up in Adelai and was very close to where the (Kelly) murders happened. It just felt very natural for me to do this project. It’s definitely something that I’m now, just because you said it, thinking about. It’s obviously something I’m interested in and curious about, but I think it’s been a little bit more organic than that. I must be drawn to it, but also I think people are drawn to me in regards to that sort of subject matter as well.

John Bucher: Were you familiar with Peter Carey’s book on the Kellys before you began this project? What was your introduction to this part of history?

Justin Kurzel: Yeah, I mean I knew of Peter Carey’s other book, but I didn’t know of the complete history. The producer, Al Vogel, approached me about directing it and adapting it but it has a bit of a poisoned well to make Ned Kelly’s story in Australia, and I don’t know why that is. I think it’s just a pretty high diving board to jump off with a film about Ned. But it was the book really more than anything else that convinced me. I never wanted to make a film about him, but the book has such an incredible point of view. For the first time I read the Ned Kelly character, I emotionally felt him and I loved the notion and the idea of someone trying to protect their own history.

The idea that it was almost seeing into the future how his life would become accountable, that he would become a myth and a legend, and then his desperate attempt throughout the book to correct that before he passes, was fascinating. It was really powerful and interesting. So, it says a lot about us as a country and maybe our insecurities as a country to place such a great importance on a 24-year-old bushranger. That was kind of interesting.

Russell Crowe as “Harry Power” in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

John Bucher: You’ve assembled an incredible cast in this film. When you’re working with actors who range from being very new to the industry to established legends like Russell Crowe, how do you approach directing a task like that?

Justin Kurzel: Just to help them as much as possible find a truth for them about their character and to make them feel as supported as possible in regards to being great with it. So every actor is different. I think as a director you have to really pivot in the job to who you’re with. Directing Russel can be very different from directing Earl Cave, who is the second gentlemen who played Dan Kelly. He’s 18. You’re working in very, very different ways with both.

At the same time, you’re still talking to them about character. You’re talking to them about ideas and you’re giving them the freedom within the takes to really be present and to be adventurous in what they want to do. I think if you’re passionate and you’re right there with them, you’re not sitting back in a tent. If you’re actually right there with them then I’ve always found that they know that you’re there to support them and you probably get a lot more out of them in regards to takes and in regards to the type of performance.

John Bucher: I was fascinated by the interplay and the relationship between Ellen and Ned Kelly. That may not be a part of history that people are tremendously familiar with. Did you work with George MacKay and Essie Davis to craft how that relationship would work on screen?

Justin Kurzel: Yeah, it was really prevalent in the book. It was the main relationship that was different from any other Ned Kelly film. The matriarch and the idea of Ned potentially outgrowing Ellen and what Ellen did to keep him. There was a sensuality about those two as well that Essie and George wanted to explore and I was really excited for them to do that.

It felt really young too. It felt really kind of fluid and lucid and Ellen had many lovers, and some of those lovers were the same age as Ned and that felt really unusual for those times. In a way she was incredibly rebellious and spirited and adventurous and very intimidating and powerful. So when you’ve got that sort of presence, in a film, it really does define the mechanics of the film a little bit and the story of Ned. That was something very different from any other films and literature that had been out there, and that was something that Peter (Carey) had really invested a lot of time in the book with.

John Bucher: Can you talk about why we find ourselves resonating with and relating to Ned, despite who he is? What do you think is the draw that people have to characters like Ned — these historical figures that we become so fascinated by?

Justin Kurzel: Well, I think definitely in Australia it’s the admiration of rebellion. I think the idea that someone stands up to authority and questions it. I think that theme is one that just continuously keeps on repeating itself and people, especially young people, really respond to it, whether that be in music or film. That becomes very infectious and has an energy to it that I think people really respond to.

John Bucher: This film seems to have something to say beyond just being an entertaining story or an interesting take on something that happened. What do you hope audiences wrestle with after having seen the film?

Justin Kurzel: Well I think everyone will get something different out of it. It’s a hard question to answer. I think the idea of truth and what is truth and how figures in history have been reshaped to what we want them to be. I think that is something that feels really resonant now. The idea of a character that is desperately trying to protect that truth and that history is something quite unique to Peter’s book and to the film. I think it asks a bit of the audience, and that’s something that we always knew was going to be divisive with this film. But I think at the heart of it is an incredible spirit that we think really comes from Ned and comes from that gang and that relationship with the mother that I think not many people have seen before.

True History of the Kelly Gang releases on digital and On Demand April 24, 2020.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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