Director Justin Kurzel Brushed Aside Tradition to Make Feverish Outlaw Drama ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

There is nothing traditional about the family saga told by director Justin Kurzel in his scorching new film “True History of the Kelly Gang.” Arguably, the best film to be released on VOD this month, it uses a punk revisionist lens to tell the story of Ned Kelly, an infamous Australian “bushranger” from the 19th century. Told with the same visual intensity found in Kurzel’s other films such as “The Snowtown Murders” and “Macbeth,” the movie features a controlled, slow burning performance by George MacKay as Kelly, who looks like a cross between Billy the Kid and Iggy Pop. Essie Davis, who has starred in films like “The Babadook” and Kurzel’s own “Assassin’s Creed,” plays Kelly’s mother Ellen, a woman shaped by an unforgiving colonial world where men in power do as they please. Kurzel and Davis, both natives of Australia, also happen to be married. They both sat down with Entertainment Voice to recount their own saga in making “True History of the Kelly Gang.”

For Kurzel it began with a book, namely the Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name by Peter Carey. “I was really interested in engaging with Australian voices again and characters,” said Kurzel. “I read the book again and really got it. I got that it was this poetic mythology and what makes a legend and the idea of this man trying to save his own history by writing to his unborn daughter, making sure his truth was the one that carried through. I liked that it was from the point of view of Ned Kelly. It felt emotionally true, like a character I already knew. One early distraction is that there’s been a lot of Ned Kelly films, so I wondered why I am going to put myself out there with another one. But then I realized how unique this version was.” 

Davis became involved through a combination of marital ties and punk rock. “The great director happens to be my husband,” she said with a knowing smile. “He was reading Peter Carey’s amazing Booker Prize-winning novel and said ‘there’s a great part for you in this!’ We had been wanting to work together on something for a really long time and were trying to find the right project. It became a real passion project as we moved back to Australia to sort of come home and make something that originated in our roots, Australia’s roots. I have to say he is one of the best directors I have ever worked with. He has a whole manifesto of things to do to prepare, lots of reading and things to watch. He had the whole ‘gang’ pick up rock instruments and play a live gig at a music venue in Melbourne before he started shooting. They had three weeks to write a set of punk songs, two of which ended up in the film. The songs they wrote are magnificent. Ben Corbett who plays Ned Kelly went up there, he’s also a punk musician and has the band Six Ft. Hick, and he does these amazing performances full of Jiu-Jitsu dancing, self-flagellating, bottle smashing, body contorting, spit-singing. He was training us in that world. We were in a rehearsal room just wearing dresses and charcoal faces and just making music in this Punk-spirited world.” The slapped together punk band, Fleshlight, featured MacKay on vocals and in a nod at Australian rock royalty Earl Cave, son of Nick Cave, who plays sibling Dan Kelly on bass. “Justin said this is how I need this gang to be formed.”

“I was looking at a whole lot of photos of the time and of that particular period in Australian music, late ‘70s, early ‘80s that I really loved. I was looking at band photographs and they looked very similar to photos of bushrangers from the 1870s in Australia,” said Kurzel. “There was an attitude to them that felt very familiar and much closer than a kind of ‘period piece.’ And I think we all just didn’t want to do a sort of classic period film or biography. We wanted to see if we could find something that was more point of view than pastiche period piece. I let the shackles off a bit. After making ‘Assassin’s Creed’ and ‘Macbeth’ I was interested in engaging with how much you can really play with cinema. Most of the team were new collaborators. It was an opportunity to just have some fun and go for it. New possibilities opened when we decided not to be shackled by the period so much.”

Even with a timeless, fresh approach to the material, nonetheless “True History of the Kelly Gang” remains based on lives actually lived. “Even though it’s based on a novel, there is of course massive amounts of history about both Ellen and Ned Kelly and the gang. They have inspired movies for decades and those amazing Sidney Nolan paintings of Ned Kelly. Although the film opens with the statement that ‘nothing you’re about to see is true,’ a lot of it is based on fact and things that actually did happen. One thing that is definitely true is that Ellen did marry later someone the same age as her son, and had three more babies with him. She was a notoriously brilliant horse rider. I imagined her as very much a passionate and sexual being who must have been incredibly attractive, which she had to be to be marrying men the same age as her child (laughs).”

Among the strong cast are also short but impressive appearances by Russell Crowe as an older, scruffy bushranger teaching a young Ned the ways of outlaw life and Charlie Hunnam as a cruel, unforgiving constable. “We were very lucky the material connected to Charlie Hunnam and Russell Crowe. There was something in those supporting roles they felt inspired by. Yet to cast Ned it was a real search, we looked at hundreds of actors. George just came in and instantly felt right. He was sophisticated and yet there’s this physicality about him that’s dangerous. I could see how he could evolve from this truly nice guy, which is George McKay in a way, into something that felt much more corrupted and much more brutal.” 

“There was this kind of deeply connecting, profoundly kind of truthful way of being together that was filled with this punk music, and we would improvise a lot together. Each of us was doing a dialect different to our own,” said Davis. “I was on set pretty much the whole time, I had my ‘gang’ of children who were all amazing. It felt like a family connected all of us. Each of us connected in the gang, from the children to the grown up children, to all the lovers I have in my life! Each few days someone new would come in and be welcome into the set. Charlie Hunnam arrived and he was incredible, Russell Crowe was incredible.”

Davis also had the unique experience of making such a fierce and passionate film together with her actual partner. “Justin and I are very lucky that we were very well together. We met while working together. He was the production designer on a play that I was in a long time ago. We really dig each other’s work. We have always been a touchstone for each other in terms of work, reviewing each other’s work and testing things out with each other…he’s the only other person where I’ve had that level of connection with. It’s a mutual appreciation of taste as well as trust.” 

Making a film about a legendary outlaw leaves the artist with particular perceptions or observations. “There’s the Ned Kelly in our film and the book, then there’s the Ned Kelly who is what he is to Australia, there’s a Ned Kelly museum, some people see him as Robin Hood and others as a cop killer. Others see him as an outdated, brutal character in history we shouldn’t have any interest in,” said Kurzel. “I think what interested me in this character for the film was exactly the idea that in these colonial, pioneering days there was this potential for you to be anyone, to be anything. The foundation of the country in those times was based on this. You wonder if life had gone differently could he have been an author, or the prime minister? There were all these things throughout the book that challenge that idea of ambition, and that idea of your destiny and whether you’re in control of that.”

True History of the Kelly Gang” premieres April 24 on VOD.