Justin Kurzel had set the indie film world alight with his debut feature Snowtown, and its follow-up, Macbeth, seemed to confirm the arrival of a director whose vision was unique and stunning. That director returns to his brand of cinema this year with True History of the Kelly Gang, which adapts Peter Carey’s novel about Ned Kelly into a rip-roaring, contemporary-feeling fever dream about outlaws, identity and sexuality.
But, in between, Kurzel was distracted by a difficult time on Assassin’s Creed, his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, and his feelings of frustration in trying to pull it off. “Assassin’s Creed was an incredibly challenging film to make,” he says now. “I just got completely caught up in the maelstrom of that, and for a whole lot of reasons it was a difficult film to write, to make, and to land. Suddenly, I was missing home and just wanting to reengage with all the things I’d missed.”
Kurzel had fallen for Carey’s book, but mounting the project took some effort. Still, he saw the potential to reappraise Kelly, who has been the subject of so many films. “He’s incredibly notorious and everyone in Australia has an opinion about him,” Kurzel says. “He has become a way of identifying somehow who we are, in terms of that kind of false prophecy that he was offering. The idea that this bush ranger had been elevated to a kind of mythical platform somehow was a key to Australians defining who we are, and where we are as well.”
DEADLINE: What was your first encounter with this book by Peter Carey?
JUSTIN KURZEL: Well, it was a long time ago. I’d just done Snowtown and I was approached by the producer, Hal Vogel, about doing it in Australia.
There were two things: Ned Kelly, there’s been so many films made about him. He’s incredibly notorious and everyone in Australia has an opinion about him, and he has become a way of identifying somehow who we are, in terms of that kind of false prophecy that he was offering. That was a really interesting thing to me. The idea that this bush ranger that had been elevated to a kind of mythical platform somehow was a key to Australians defining who we are, and where we are as well.
So, there was a weight and a baggage to that that kind of intrigued me, but also set off alarm bells. I went, “I don’t want to add to another film that deals with this subject in the same way it’s been dealt with in the past.” That’s a very historical kind of context.
And then, when I read the book—especially from Peter, who I really deeply admire as a writer—it is such a unique point of view, that first person point of view of Ned Kelly and him as a writer, and seeing how sophisticated his outlook on himself and Australia was. Suddenly it opened up a tunnel there into this man, and especially Australia, that I hadn’t thought about before.
DEADLINE: It also marked a return home for you.
KURZEL: Right, I had been away from Australia for a long time. I was really missing it. I guess being away, it gives you a different perspective of your place in it. And there was just something in this point of view of Ned and his words that were provocative and were calling out a whole lot of things about Australian history and our past—especially as it relates to where we feel and sit now—that I thought just felt really fresh and different from anything that had been done about him in the past.
This gang of boys were really young. Ned was 25 when he died. When he was doing all this he was coming out of his teens. All the other boys were like 17 to 19. The book leaned into that, and it just felt so contemporary and familiar and renegade. I didn’t see these guys as cliched historical figures that were connected to a whole lot of wagon wheels and clouds. I suddenly felt their voices, and their attitude felt really contemporary.
I guess there were a whole lot of references that came into my head in the way they expressed themselves that just felt really tangible to me, but really loving. So that part of it, I think that whole banshee—dresses, taking on the world, getting to a point where you refuse to be the beaten dog and you start to bite back—there was an attitude in all of that that I think Shaun Grant and I, the writer of the screenplay, were really excited by.
DEADLINE: The film plays beautifully with the notions of truth and legends. Was Ned Kelly a villain or was he a hero? And your approach is very contemporary, too; there’s almost a punk vibe to the movie. Did you enjoy blurring those lines?
KURZEL: It just felt like that when I read it. At the time, Australia had a bad name. It was just being colonized. You had renegades from all over the place. The police were just as suspect as the bush rangers. That moral line of who’s right, who’s wrong, it was a blur.
I think in Australia we have that tradition where you will see things in film and in writing and in life of either side of the law mixing with each other. I still think it comes out of that period of time in Australia where everyone was forced to co-exist in a really quick way in the one place.
So, there was a kind of moral ambiguity to it. I think you can feel it in the film that there’s a class thing going on, there’s definitely a kind of prejudice at play. There were incredible massacres that were happening to indigenous people. There were really violent and brutal events happening that these characters were growing up in and amongst, and that kind of moral compass was pretty sketchy. That fascinated me about this story.
To me, the way Peter wrote it was like a fever dream. I think you can sometimes watch period films and they actually are so pastiche in a way. They’re appropriating a period so perfectly that they almost become fantasy. And I was really conscious of this, that I didn’t want it to be shackled and chained by a period. But I wanted the essence of it to feel true, and that it could be timeless. That the characters, especially the youth, felt familiar. We weren’t so concerned about the boys having thick Irish accents, and in fact there’s some proof that Australian accents developed extremely quickly over almost one generation.
It was just taking the shackles off and really allowing an audience to concentrate on an energy and honest spirit that they could recognize. And then allowing certain kinds of story dates and constraints within the time and place to allow the context of how the story’s playing out, but to be quite liberated in the energy and in the spirit of it.
DEADLINE: Amateur accuracy experts on the internet will have a field day.
KURZEL: I’m sure I’m going to get slammed by historians for this piece. But the film was never supposed to be about a film about Ned Kelly. It was a film about this book, and this incredible point of view.
I think that sometimes we get caught up in historical accuracy actually being the truth, when it sort of ignores truth at times. I don’t really care what the wagon wheel looks like. What I really care about is the inherent truth of the character, and how those times could have felt. When we made that decision, it was really liberating, and a lot of that was inspired by the spirit of the book.
Two of those young guys in the gang, they reminded me, especially in Australia, of a particular period in music and a particular punk scene in Australia that was a hugely creative, interesting time with bands like The Saints and Birthday Party.
There was a sensuality to that time, and there was an enormous kind of creativity. A real attitude and a rebellion. That spirit and humor I borrowed enormously for Ned. To see those characters be that young and that assured in what they were doing, especially Ned, and that sophisticated in the way they saw the world and the way they thought of it. That excited me a lot.
DEADLINE: It is an unashamedly sexy film. Almost your entire principal cast is naked at various points, and you lean heavily into the imagery of the Kelly gang in dresses.
KURZEL: The dresses were worn as armor. They come from the legend of the The Sons of Seive, and the Irish using dresses and makeup to give the appearance of going mad. What could be crazier for an English soldier than a mad Irishman in a dress? That’s half the battle won.
So, there’s that aspect to it, but at the same time, we can see it throughout history, and especially in music and in bands, that dresses can also become an extension of personality, and there is a sexuality to them and it’s liberating.
I think we just had fun with the idea that maybe they enjoyed wearing the dresses. Maybe there was something about putting on a dress and riding a horse that would be incredibly cool and sexy and just very natural. It didn’t need to get caught up too much in the reasons why and how. There was a lovely legend to it that was sort of borrowed, but it was also used as a creative moment of self-expression. Some of the first paintings that Sidney Nolan did of Ned Kelly, in that time, you’d see in the background, Steve Hart wearing a dress. It was like this little code.
It ties in nicely with the notions of masculinity, especially Australian masculinity, which is a particular thing. Australian masculinity is so alpha and physical, but at the same time I think a man putting on a dress after he’s just ridden a horse and been out surfing, it’s a great juxtaposition there that I think has always been interesting in our culture. I loved the fact that it wasn’t too tied up into questions about their sexuality. It was really tied up into a sense of creative and self-expression. And I thought that was really interesting where that thing goes, in terms of their own sexuality. That’s their journey. I love that it came out in the first place. It was almost creative more than anything else.
DEADLINE: You lean heavily into the visual poetry too, setting the Kelly house in the middle of a burned-out forest. Shooting everything through letterbox slits, echoing the famous armor the Kelly Gang wore during their final stand. It feels of a piece with the work you did on Snowtown and Macbeth. You used the phrase “fever dream” earlier to describe the book. Is it fun for you to play with that kind of imagery?
KURZEL: I think those three films are about destiny and fate. In Snowtown, it was about the transformation of an innocent into a killer. And in Macbeth, a transformation of ambition into madness and evil.
In this, I love the idea that that ritual point of view of Ned Kelly, which has been so celebrated in Australia, of looking through the slit, looking through the armor, that was almost a premeditated point of view that we played with throughout the whole film. This idea that, can you ever outrun your fate and destiny? Are you always going to be pulled towards what you were meant to be?
And no matter how hard you kind of wrestled with that, it’s an impossibility to detour. I love the sense, especially with the framing, that everything is kind of leading Ned towards that final moment. He’s a man who could have had many choices. He could have become Australia’s Prime Minister. The way he wrote, he could have been Peter Carey. He had an extraordinary talent. He saw things in a very different way. In some ways, he was a visionary.
But he couldn’t outrun the curse of what his father was. He couldn’t outrun being Irish in Australia, and the mythology that started to build, and in the end his only kind of freedom was to embrace the thing that he was trying to run from. Once he did that, he then fully accepted it, became it, and was the dog and the nightmare that everyone was scared of actually turning him into. I do like those kinds of premonitions that start to steer you, that start to subconsciously work on you, especially in music and the visual world.
DEADLINE: There’s a scale to this film that feels like a huge step up even from Assassin’s Creed, which was your first dance with Hollywood. But Assassin’s Creed feels more like an outlier now that this film connects so much with the first two movies you made. How do you reflect on that Hollywood experience, and the kind of films you really want to be making?
KURZEL: I think there was definitely a calling with this to a particular type filmmaking that I missed, and I wanted to reengage with. I had been living in London for four or five years. I had just come off doing Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed was an incredibly challenging film to make. I just got completely caught up in the maelstrom of that, and for a whole lot of reasons it was a really difficult film to write, to make, and to land. Suddenly, I was missing home and wanting just to reengage with all the things that I had missed.
True History had been in my life for a long time—had been sort of sitting there—and I guess I’d been overseas and so distracted with what I was doing that I just put it aside. So when I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, and who am I—what am I—as a filmmaker, it was just sitting there and I started reading it again in London and really missed Australia and the ideas and thoughts I had about cinema that I probably had explored in Snowtown, and that I really felt like I wanted to reengage with.
It was a really hard journey. It took me two or three years to get Kelly up, and it fell over a couple of times. It’s a really ambitious piece. It’s a challenging piece. But at the same time, it’s period and there’s a certain scale that I feel like you needed. It’s an absolute love project for me. It was extraordinary to get back to that place of feeling quite liberated and challenged by cinema again, and this was a perfect project to do that with.