The story of Ned Kelly and his gang is the focus of director Justin Kurzel’s new film, but the Australian bushranger isn’t new to the cinema. The Story of the Kelly Gang, released in 1906, is considered the first feature-length film, clocking in at 60 minutes. Mick Jagger later played Kelly in 1970, as did Heath Ledger in 2003. 

Despite the character’s recurrence in cinema akin to the likes of A Star Is Born, tastemakers and Kelly experts believe there is yet to be a definitive Ned Kelly picture. Kurzel’s depiction of the outlaw, featuring George MacKay as a hairless, androgenous Kelly, has been divisive for its factual inaccuracies (the film opens with a title card stating that the story is, in fact, not the true history of Ned Kelly and his gang). Yet the director keeps the allure of Ned Kelly alive by refusing to capture his image in a “Holy Grail of a great Ned Kelly film,” as he tells us. Rather, he believes he’s captured Kelly’s essence. 

Kurzel spoke with The Film Stage about how COVID-19 changed True History of the Kelly Gang’s theatrical plans, Ned Kelly’s role in shaping Australian masculinity, shooting the electric Australian landscape at night with cinematographer Ari Wegner, and Australian critiques of his film. 

The Film Stage: How has the path you charted for True History of the Kelly Gang changed since theaters closed due to COVID-19?

Justin Kurzel: It opened in London and we were three weeks in it being in the cinema before cinemas went into lockdown. It has an interrupted time over there which is unfortunate because it really started to play and find an audience.

We were planning on releasing on screens in the U.S. as well. Now it’s streaming, so it’s a very different world we live in after a month and a half, so it will be interesting how people are viewing things and their viewing habits. We’re really excited that there is an audience in the U.S. at the moment that’s really wanting new content. Hopefully a lot of eyes in the States get on the film.

Much of Kelly Gang unpacks Australian masculinity. Why is it important to understand Ned Kelly?

Kurzel: Australian masculinity is considered quite out there and always projected as white alpha male. Ned Kelly, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of that masculinity. There’re many people in Australia, when you go to the local swimming pool, that have quite a lot of tattoos of him on their bodies so it’s interesting how he’s always been looked at as the quintessential Australian male. Peter Carey’s book definitely played with it as a provocation. It was deeply inspired by the idea of dresses being worn as warfare and how rebels used to intimidate the English by dressing up in dresses and painting their faces. I was curious about where that would go. Are the boys wearing them consistently? Is that an expression of their individuality, imagination, sexuality? 

Growing up in Australia it was football, football, and surfing. If you weren’t playing those then fell between the cracks of what makes an Australian male. That was something I was definitely poking a stick at. It’s interesting in Australia because a whole football season will go by and then we have these things called Mad Mondays where the Monday after the last game everyone parties. Most of these footballers wear dresses. I’ve always found it really interesting here that the most alpha, masculine Australian male in his off time gets in a dress for and celebrates with a whole bunch of other guys. It’s a strange part of our current culture and was something that screenwriter Shaun Grant and I gravitated to. It was provocative in the book and also felt really exciting to explore that in the film.

In the movie, when Ned’s getting bad press, he said “a myth is more profitable than a man.” Will you talk about that quote in relation to how you’ve reimagined the Kelly Gang? 

The reason why we made it is that in Australia, Ned Kelly is a carnival. He’s bigger in Australia than Jesse James is to America. Ned was perceived as a Robin Hood-type figure and then later on as a cop killer. You had Ned Kelly pies growing up, he was part of the Olympic Games. His face is everywhere in one region. There’s a 20-foot Ned Kelly in one of the towns. Growing up he was this myth. You didn’t know much about him or how you should think about it, but there was some connection that we all had with identity and Ned as the bushranger that somehow we kept latching on to. I think the book is a riff on what happens when you have your identity stolen. When you have someone else write your story. When the person you are becomes something for everyone else. There was something quite profound in the idea of Ned writing to his unborn daughter who he is, what his history is and that became a central core to why we were making it, what we found interesting about it and why. 

I don’t think we’re interested in doing another Ned Kelly film. I’m really interested in the idea of mythology and who Ned Kelly is to us, and what we’ve made him out to be–as opposed to some biographical journey of the guy that he was and whether he was good or bad.

How do you have dramatic license with a story that Australians know so well?

We definitely had our critiques from the Australian press. It’s really interesting. It was received completely differently in Toronto and in the U.K. I wonder whether that bit of cultural distance from the story helped people watch it in a neutral way. In Australia and New Zealand I guess people didn’t like the style of the film and the playfulness about the mythology, legends, and story. They were looking for this Holy Grail of a great Ned Kelly film, which has never really happened in the eyes of Australians. I don’t know whether that has to do with each individual film or with people’s expectations of it. It is a little bit like you get up on the diving board and you announce to everyone you’re making a Ned Kelly film and everyone stands around the pool waiting for you to do a belly flop. You can really feel that before you make the film.

I think it’s been interesting. Young audiences here really responded to it and saw the playfulness of it and understood that it’s not a piece of reality–we’re not making a biopic. This is a real play on mythology and identity in Australia and why we don’t have to wrap ourselves up in this 24-year-old bushranger.

There are a few aerial shots of Ned and the gang riding horses at night. It’s like dark overhead but the ground is lit up green. How did you make them?

Ari Wegner, our cinematographer, talked about the film being electric. That as Ned formed and turned into an ironclad warrior at the end, that the stars and the lights had electricity in the air. We didn’t have the money to deck out the landscape with lamps, but what we wanted to do was make it quite terrestrial. It felt electric and it felt like it was alive, buzzing. It was shot with two drones. One was flying and one carried the light. We used a lot of strobing throughout the movie, especially towards the end, as it becomes a lot more impressionistic.

The Australian landscape at night is really electric. The light is extraordinary because in those areas there is no city light pollution. You get these incredibly clean nights that feel like someone plugged in the stars.

True History of the Kelly Gang is now available digitally. Listen to our podcast discussion on The Film Stage Shobelow.

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