CS Interview: Director Justin Kurzel on True History of the Kelly Gang
ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with Australian director Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) to discuss his latest project, an adaptation of the Peter Carey historical fiction novel True History of the Kelly Gang starring George MacKay (1917) as the titular Aussie outlaw.
Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Carey, the film tells the story of legendary outlaw Ned Kelly (Mackay) as he leads a band of rebel warriors to wreak havoc on their oppressors in this gritty and veracious western thriller.
Mackay, who led the Oscar-nominated war epic 1917, is leading an ensemble cast that includes Oscar winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Nicholas Hoult (Dark Phoenix), Essie Davis (The Babadook), Sean Keenan (Puberty Blues), Jacob Collins-Levy (The White Princess), Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), Charlie Hunnam (The Irishman) and Claudia Karvan (Newton’s Law).
Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) has been developing the script for four years, starting shortly after completion on the adaptation of the Ubisoft game franchise, and is directing on a script from Berlin Syndrome‘s Shaun Grant.
Kurzel describes his desire to adapt the novel came from his time on the Ubisoft adaptation, looking back at being on the 20th Century Fox-produced set in the United Kingdom where he was “sort of missing home” and picked up the book again to reconnect with his country and found the desire to bring a new aspect of his homeland to the big screen, especially the “sort of mythical character” of Ned Kelly.
“I then thought, ‘Geez, I have to make this,'” Kurzel recalled. “It just sort of suddenly made sense to me that it didn’t before and I was also really keen to the idea of truth and sort of how the characters of history be shifted and changed to whatever we want them to be. The idea of a man sort of desperately trying to save his history and write to his unborn daughter kind of who he was and who he is was sort of really powerful to me. I think it really started from there. There was an emotional truth to the book, even though it was fictitious in parts. It just felt more real than any historical account that I’ve read of him, so I was really keen on bringing a different kind of point of view of what Ned is and connecting to him in a human way that hasn’t been connected before on screen.”
The former outlaw has been portrayed on the big and small screens by various stars over the years including Australian footballer Bob Chitty, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger and Oscar winner Heath Ledger, and Kurzel found the search for the next actor to take on the role to be “exciting,” getting to see the “next generation of actors in the UK and Australia.”
“You’ve got a role that you’re really really excited about and you get to see a lot of actors,” Kurzel described. “I worked over a series of six months with some really amazing talent, but it was very clear to me that when George walked in and started working on it, I could see that he’d done so much prep on it and so interesting. The idea of taking someone who has the goodness in them, which George does, and corrupting that throughout the film became really clear and I watched George audition through this, so it was an exciting time.”
After landing MacKay for the titular role, Kurzel got to expand his cast with the star-studded ensemble of Oscar winner Russell Crowe (The Nice Guys), Essie Davis (The Babadook), Charlie Hunnam (The Gentlemen), Nicholas Hoult (The Current War) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit).
“It was pretty crazy, as soon as I started shooting, I was sort of looking at Nick and Charlie and Russell and Ess and going, ‘Wow, I’m really privileged to have this ensemble of actors that are coming in with these incredible support characters and coming out of the film,’” Kurzel brightly recalled. “I was pretty humbled by it, the extraordinary parts are looking on set and thinking that this group of actors decided to come all the way to Australia and sort of be a part of this.”
Given the source material’s blend of history with fiction, the 45-year-old director found his biggest creative challenge for shooting the project came in “trying to realize the scope and ambition of it,” especially given its period setting, in which a filmmaker is “trying not to be shackled by that period” in a way that feels “truthful and exciting.”
“I think it was more trying to figure out how to do it production-wise, how to actually make this within that sort of very small budget that we had,” Kurzel explained. “There were a lot of smaller challenges from that given that period is so expensive and you can’t do everything in ambition and all. Some scripts are large, but how do you get that ambition on screen in a modest budget. That was probably one of the hardest things, as well as just being brave the whole time. I’m really much more interested in just pushing thoughts and ideas of ways that we shoot things, but that became quite exciting and inspirational in the end.”
In exploring the period piece nature and the bushranger nature of the titular outlaw, Kurzel got to explore more of the various wildlands and even mountainous regions of his home country, which he found was great as he found locations that audiences “don’t see on screen very much.”
“The Central Highlands of Victoria feel very dark and we found this amazing wetland in winter with all these dead trees that had perished due to the kind of flooding there,” Kurzel said. “I just knew when I saw these places that they would be very different from what people had seen before in Australia, and I think it’s exceptional for audiences to see snow in an Australian film. I think it all’s going to be very surprising and different and I wanted a more gothic landscape in the film to make it feel gothic and darker. It was a really lovely little treasure hunt. We had a massive dolly on the top of a mountain where all the boys had to wear dresses and we had literally two days to shoot on top of the mountain and really only took only three hours, in the end, to get through two days to pretty extraordinary effect. How everyone came together and desperately tried to get as much as we could knowing that we couldn’t go back, that’s when you start to see how people work under pressure.”
Prior to working on this film, Kurzel had made a name for himself with the period nature of his previous two films including the acclaimed adaptation of the William Shakespeare classic Macbeth and the infamous Assassin’s Creed film, but despite the streak of historical films, he finds the effort “really hard.”
“Every time I think about the next project I go, ‘Don’t make it a period piece, because it’s so fucking hard making them and you never have enough money to make them and you have to try and find ways to do them where it doesn’t look like you don’t have money,'” Kurzel laughed. “You’ve gotta work out really clever ways of creating scale of time and place. I think that if you go in trying to sort of bit by bit make a historically correct kind of film on a really small budget, you end up spending half the budget on things like buttons, so you have to be really kind of clever about it. So I like trying to find a way to see if a modern story could be told so that you could have more play with where the camera goes and it’s so much better in period pieces and you’ve got a set number of angles you can use and play with. I don’t know, there’s also a really great challenge in period pieces in how you make it feel familiar, how you stop them from becoming these distant films and how you kind of make them feel closer to modern-day without them being modern.”
True History of the Kelly Gang is set to hit digital platforms and VOD on April 24.
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