Justin Kurzel on 'The Kelly Gang,' Australian Gothic Mythology, and the Perfection of George MacKay

We chat with the filmmaker about bringing the emotional truth of an outlaw icon to the screen and the process of capturing a very different side of Australia.

Kelly Gang Bts
IFC Films

Hero. Killer. Villain. Vigilante. Ned Kelly can be a very different figure depending on who you ask. In Justin Kurzel‘s True History of the Kelly Gang, the (in)famous bushranger is stripped away from polarizing singular descriptions and laid bare as, above all else, a man. He’s a man formed by childhood experiences, hellbent on carving out a space for himself in an everchanging world, and he’s at the center of one of the most electric films in recent memory.

The film marks a return home for the Australian director, known for Snowtown, Macbeth, and Assassin’s Creed. True History of the Kelly Gang is an adaptation of a 2000 novel of the same name written by Peter Carey and is a fictionalized account of the very real 19th-century outlaw whose legend has grown more akin to those from mythology rather than history. The book plays fast and loose with fact, but in doing so, it captures the spirit of Kelly’s exploits.

Roger Ebert once noted, in regards to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, that her anachronistic inclusions were criticized by many as “jarring intrusions of the Now upon the Then. But no one ever lives as Then; it is always Now. Many characters in historical films seem somehow aware that they are living in the past. Marie seems to think she is a teenager living in the present, which of course she is.” Upon seeing True History of the Kelly Gang at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and being absolutely blown away by it, I found myself mulling over this idea.

Indeed, Kelly (portrayed by George MacKay in Kurzel’s film) and his compatriots embody the notion of living as it is Now. The film spends the entirety of its first act detailing Ned’s childhood and is firmly intent on reminding us of the complex and thorny life that Ned lived before his death cemented him as an icon.

Ahead of the film’s release, I spoke with Kurzel about the years that went into creating True History of the Kelly Gang, what it meant for him as an Australian to make this movie, and why MacKay was perfect for the role.

I saw that you first read the book when you were making Snowtown, so you had some time to sit with it and then come back to it. I wondered how that process went, specifically how you approached the truth of this story with truth being both emotional truth and historical fact. How did you examine all the mythology and history of this story and parse through those ideas?

It’s quite a formidable book in Australia. Peter Carey is one of the most, if not the most, celebrated authors in Australia. So, when I hadn’t read it, I couldn’t understand how you could have a fresh perspective on Ned Kelly because everyone knew who he was. He’s a historical figure that we all latched onto in terms of forming our identity as who we are.  All of that baggage was part of the first read that I had of it; it was part of why I was hesitant to make it.

At first, we couldn’t get the script right, but we teamed up with Shaun Grant, who I did Snowtown with. Then I was distracted doing Macbeth and then Assassin’s Creed. I wasn’t looking at it, but Shaun had been working on it. I didn’t think I would make it, to be honest. But then I finished Assassin’s and I was really homesick. I picked it up again and thought, “Oh my god, this is incredible.” It spoke to me like it didn’t before.

I guess I had more clarity into what the film was about, having your history stolen, fighting against people creating myths for you. That started to get me excited. And then I read what Shaun Grant had worked on and the part with the boys wearing dresses. I found that really interesting in terms of masculinity, especially Australian masculinity. And I sort of just knew that I had to go back to Australia and make this.

Something I’ve noticed in your films is an interest in the effect of trauma. The perspective in Macbeth of him as a soldier with PTSD is really brilliant. With Kelly Gang, I was so struck by how much time we spend with young Ned, how we see the way his childhood formed him. It isn’t a footnote or an afterthought; it’s such an important part of who he is. When you were thinking of how to structure the film, what was the approach with creating these chapters of his life?

One of the most exciting aspects of the book was his childhood and those relationships with his mother and Harry Power (Russell Crowe). They were critical. And so many interpretations of Ned Kelly before have been about him as an adult. I’m interested in those figures that come into your life and shape you for good or bad when you’re a kid.

That’s why we cast George MacKay, as well. He captured that feeling of this being a guy who was changing and evolving through his environment and the people around him, as opposed to something innately built in him to want to kill. And I’ve never, ever believed that people are born bad. I’m really curious and interested in what leads to violent actions. Who are the people around those figures during those formative times of their lives? It’s something I keep coming back to.

Shaun has definitely written about that in his own work, it’s something we gravitate to a lot. So that’s in a lot of the childhood section, and we knew we then wanted to time jump into him being a man and then this kind of ironclad monster in the third chapter. So we knew we’d have these three chapters in how we show his life.

My understanding of Ned Kelly is that in Australia he’s something different to everyone. Some see him as a killer outlaw and some see him as a hero. I get the impression that a lot of how you read his story is how you read yourself in it.

Yeah, definitely. Especially now, people are like, “Is he a cop killer? Is he a Robin Hood figure? Is he someone we want to associate ourselves with?” But we have an awkward relationship with him. We don’t mind putting him in Sydney’s Olympic games. We don’t mind having his face everywhere. There are three artifacts from him. There’s a mask made of his face made after his death, a green sash he got as a kid, and his armor. They’re in museums, but we don’t fully understand who he was and how we feel about him.

That’s what was so exciting about the book. There was an emotional truth to it. There was something familiar about the point of view there that I just got. Before, there were people making a judgment about his life and trying to give an explanation of why he was the way he was. Peter’s book was from the inside out. It was the first time I read something where I could hear Ned’s voice and I could understand his frustrations, his pain, his ambition. That was really unique and different. In a weird way, even though it’s fictitious, it felt more real than anything that came before it.

I also want to talk about the filmmaking process. I’m going to out my ignorance here as a Canadian who’s never been to Australia, but I found the way you captured the landscape in this film to be so different to how I’m used to seeing the country depicted. The imagery of the trees in the wilderness really stands out to me; it feels jagged and abrasive. There’s a distinct coldness here. How did you approach these locations in the film?

Yeah, I wanted to stay away from the cliche of Australia. What’s fascinating about Kelly country is that’s it’s very wet and kind of Gothic, very atmospheric. At times when I was doing Macbeth, it actually reminded me of that. This side of Australia rarely gets on screen. We picked an area where fires had happened, not the recent fires, but previously. So, we were able to find incredibly scarred landscapes. The trees obviously hadn’t grown back their foliage, and it really was like coming out of a Tim Burton film. We were really fortunate to find this landscape that I knew people hadn’t really seen before in Australia. It would be new for overseas audiences and would fit the psychology of Ned.

With Ned as a character here, I have to ask about George MacKay, who just disappears into the role so perfectly. What was the process of casting and working with him?

His father’s Australian, so even though he grew up in the UK, he has a strong connection here. He worked with an amazing voice coach and put in a lot of work. He spent a year here before we started shooting getting physically prepared for the role. And of course, he’s hungry; he loves acting, he lives and breathes it. Some actors are in it for other reasons, but George is absolutely in it for the craft of acting. That’s exciting to be around and I knew that was going to be important in the movie.


You can see the result of Justin Kurzel and George MacKay bringing Ned Kelly to life on VOD platforms, digital, and at select drive-in theaters on April 24th.

Horror movie junkie, fan of Old Hollywood, defender of Grease 2.