Interview: Justin Kurzel talks True History of the Kelly Gang
James R | On 01, Jul 2020
Justin Kurzel isn’t a man to take a project lightly – from Macbeth to Snowtown, his work is distinctive, both in terms of visuals and subject matter. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang is his latest film. A bold, visceral take on the story of Ned Kelly, starring George MacKay, Nicholas Hoult, Russell Crowe and Charlie Hunnam, it is out now on digital platforms in the UK.
We sat down with Justin (virtually) to talk history, masculinity and streaming shows in lockdown.
How aware of Ned Kelly were you growing up? How much of a national hero or legend was he?
Ned Kelly has quite a profile in Australia. He is something for everyone I have found. Good and bad. I remember having Ned Kelly pies as a kid (bacon egg and mince). I think the book really questions who he is and this notion of history being stolen from people. Ned’s attempt at writing his own history is really compelling part of the book and why we wanted to make the film.
When did you become aware of Peter Carey’s book?
When the producer Hal Vogel sent it to me and we met up at the London Film Festival after Snowtown premiere. It was years later, though, that I really got the book. Feeling homesick for Australia, the read had a different effect on me.
Was the way the book wrestles with identity and truth part of the appeal? Or was it the challenge of turning that into a screenplay?
Yes, this sense of a man struggling with his own destiny or fate. Was he always going to be a Kelly? The struggle of someone running from who they were to become intrigued me. That actually helped us with the screenplay – it focused what we thought the film was going to be about.
That reinforcing and undermining of myth reminded me of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – there’s a lot of Western in the movie’s tone and look. What kind of touchstones did you have genre-wise?
Yes, I love that film. I think the Western genre was a big influence but then we sort of turn it on its head midway through. To me, it becomes more like The Warriors with the gang’s energy.
I had no idea George MacKay was half-Australian until seeing him in this. How did you cast him? Were you aware of his work?
He auditioned and he was great, but I knew him from other films and he also read for a part in Macbeth. He is just such a good guy. He has great virtue and I thought it would be interesting taking that feel of him and turning in on its head at the end of the film. I also think George is a great writer; he is authored and that was an important aspect of the character.
George is very physical in the film. How tough is it to direct an actor to sustain that level of performance, of physicality?
It all comes from the actor and how much work they put into the role. George was obsessive with his physicality in the film. He did a lot of work to shape who he thought Ned was to him.
Ned’s a product of his time and situation, but there’s also perhaps a sense that he’s proving he’s not a coward, not his dad. Was that aspect of masculinity in your mind when writing it?
We were definitely prodding and poking away at Australian masculinity and questioning what that is and was. Growing up both Shaun Grant and I felt a strong sense of having to be alpha males, strong, hardy, tough. Any other side was not encouraged. We wanted this film to be quite liberating in the sense that Ned embraces a kind of freedom in him. Sure, it comes from having to be the Iron Clad Monitor but you feel that he enjoys the sudden sense of anarchy and spirit, which lifts him from any sense of what he thinks he should be.
Your cast is sensational – did everyone get the idea and tone of the project from the off? Was it a difficult pitch?
I was just really lucky that they thought the characters were interesting and different. I think in the end if you have something actors can see is reaching for something different, then they consider it more carefully. But yes, I am a lucky director to get a calibre of cast like this.
Your films always have these stunning visual moments – you’ve often worked with Adam Arkapaw as your DoP, but here you’ve got Ari Wegner. How was that collaboration?
Amazing! She is extraordinary and I have never worked with someone who is so calm and considered on set. She is a true artist and I can’t wait to work with her again.
The final shootout with the strobe lighting is almost silent movie-like. How much of that kind of spectacle is planned in your head at the start of a project? Is that an entry point for you, or does it happen during production or post?
That came from us not being able to stage the scope of the siege like we intended. So point of view became really important. Transforming the audience into Ned’s lens. Ari and I always saw the siege as a fever dream to be experienced within Ned’s imagination.
One of the other things I love about your filmmaking is your collaboration with Jed, who’s superb at crafting atmosphere. How early do you get him involved?
Jed is usually the first person to see the rushes and he starts to be informed by the images. I am really lucky as he is always sending me sketchers and little riffs on what he is seeing, so the music plays a big and early part in the edit.
The film’s being released as a Stan Original film in Australia. What are your views on the role streaming platforms play in the modern entertainment landscape?
I think platforms like Stan have kind of picked up the independent film scene. Many distributors are now nervous about different films. Stan came to us with a very generous marketing campaign and they promised the film would be visible and they honoured that promise. I think they have become a hugely important part of new voices in Australian cinema.
You’re also working with Apple TV+ on Shantaram. Can you give us any updates on what the next step is for the project?
The rest of the scripts are being written at the moment.
And, more generally, how have you found working in TV vs film? Do you have any plans for further series?
Yes, I am developing with Shaun Grant The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. It is a masterpiece of a book and Shaun has done a great job on the scripts. Fremantle are producing and I hope to do it soon.
And finally, what are you watching now in lockdown?
My girls are obsessed with Sherlock the TV series so we have gone through that one. They are also really into horror films at the moment, so the Alien films have had a run around the block.