Australian director Justin Kurzel insists his upcoming film, The True History of the Kelly Gang , will make “Baz Luhrmann’s Australia look like Mary Poppins. ” Talking over the phone from Down Under, he says, “ Kelly Gang is a brutal look at Australia’s past. I didn’t say the Mary Poppins line to be disrespectful towards Baz. But Ned Kelly’s story happens 40 to 50 years before Baz’s story. It is about the early, colonial days when Australia was still a penal colony. It was a tough world.”
With a reputation for strong visual storytelling (drawing from his background as a theatrical designer), Kurzel had debuted in 2011 with the disturbing Snowtown — for which he won the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) award for best direction. His most recent project was last year’s Assassin’s Creed. Elaborating on his new period film, he says, “I have been attached to it for the last four years. It is based on a book by an Australian writer called Peter Carey who won the Booker Prize for it. It is a true, unfettered, uncensored history of Ned Kelly, probably Australia’s most brutal bushranger. The book is about his history, what he did and how the country views him now. He is a very important part of our history. Set in colonial days, in the 1800s, I would describe it as a gothic western.”
Fair is foul
Kurzel is not new to adaptations, of course. While Assassin’s Creed took off from the video game, in 2015 he had worked on an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth . Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, he admits that it was “the idea of Michael playing Macbeth” that got him excited. “I was also intrigued by the adaptation of the play, where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have lost a child,” he shares, explaining that while in the play losing a child is alluded to, he put that up front in the film to give the audience some context. “The grief, him coming back from the war, soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress... I thought that was an interesting beginning point. I wasn’t interested in ambition coming out of greed as much as I was interested in ambition coming out of loss. That became the cornerstone of our adaptation,” he adds.
While Kurzel hasn’t watched the adaptation of Macbeth set in a Michelin star restaurant — where James McAvoy plays head chef, Joe Macbeth — or Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool , he has watched “Polanski’s famous production from the 70s. I watched a lot of theatre productions of it; probably more theatre than film. Also Orson Welles did an adaptation that I saw.”
The 42-year-old director says freshness is one of the reasons he picks a project. “I had never done a video game before and the concept of Assassin’s Creed felt fresh to me. The story of Snowtown scared me. The True History of the Kelly Gang is the story of how Australia was formed. It is not about genre, it is not being an auteur, it is about whatever genre, character or style that I become engaged with,” he states.
Though all his three adaptations are different, he feels there is also a similarity. “While adapting, you try and find the story. You work out what the point of view of the main character is going to be,” he says. So what was the easiest to do, the book, play or game? “I can tell you the toughest — the video game. It was a complete reinvention of character. You were trying to take sophisticated concepts that you couldn’t even format in a cinematic story,” he says.
Passionate about Australian cinema, Kurzel believes that the critical and commercial success of George Miller’s Mad Max reboot, Fury Road , signals a renaissance. “I think it is fantastic that George is continuing the trilogy of Mad Max , an inherently Australian story. However, a renaissance to me would be new voices from Australia that you haven’t heard before. There are a lot of very fresh and new directors that are just sort of popping up and making an impact internationally,” he concludes.
Catch Kurzel’s Macbeth on Sony Le Plex HD on May 8, at 12 pm