For director Justin Kurzel, the title of the book he was adapting, “True History of the Kelly Gang,” meant less than the story — and the many that have come before it.
The life of Australian outlaw and bushranger Ned Kelly (1854-1880) has inspired filmmakers since the earliest days of the medium, when in 1906 Charles Tait delivered what many believe to be the world’s first feature-length film, “The Story of the Kelly Gang.” Dozens of versions have followed, with wildly divergent interpretations of Kelly’s exploits, characterizing him as everything from a folk hero to a ruthless cop killer, played by everyone from Heath Ledger to Mick Jagger. For IFC’s “True History of the Kelly Gang,” based on Peter Carey’s 2000 novel, Kurzel (2011 thriller “Snowtown”) prized mood over historical accuracy to deliver a visceral, punk-infused addition to Kelly’s growing cinematic legacy. It stars George MacKay (“1917”) in the title role, with support from Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam and Russell Crowe.
“We weren’t so interested in how many buttons were on the period costume or [whether] the wagon wheels were right,” Kurzel tells Variety. “It was really about creating an emotional truth for that character. And if you gotta do a Ned Kelly film, the last thing [screenwriter Shaun Grant] and I wanted to do was repeat what everyone knew.”
Production designer Karen Murphy drew not only from Carey’s fictionalized account of Kelly’s life but from Australian artist Sidney Nolan to devise a palette for Kurzel’s adaptation, which debuts April 24 on digital and on demand. “We needed to create our own little world, because there wasn’t much interest in just being purely historical,” she explains. “Peter Carey’s text was a jumping-off point, but Sidney Nolan did paintings of the Kellys, and there’s a lot of red, a lot of strong blue and the texture. They put us in a visual place that was different than the reference points for the other historical films about this person. And then from there we went into the punk aesthetic.”
Kurzel directed Murphy and DP Ari Wegner to investigate Australian musicians from the late 1970s for inspiration. “Those bands, their silhouette and their attitude — what they kind of looked and felt like — were exactly what some of those photographs in the 1870s looked like,” Kurzel says. Adds Wegner: “It was quite a group between myself; Justin; Karen Murphy; and Alice Babidge, the wardrobe costume designer. There was almost [an improvised] kind of approach even in terms of, if a denim jacket looks good on someone, why not put that in?”
Cinematographer Wegner further focused the film’s subjective point of view by slowly shifting the aspect ratio and collaborating with Murphy to create spaces that reflect Kelly’s narrowing outlook. “Ned is obsessed with this idea of justice and getting his story out, and throughout his life he becomes more zoomed in on this obsession,” says the DP. “Karen got windows and stuff that have that [claustrophobic] shape to them, and we would find that shape wherever we could — a kind of armor, but also a prison that traps and protects him at the same time.”
Murphy credits Kurzel’s leadership and the film’s collaborative atmosphere for being able to create a cohesive world on a limited budget. “I tried to do things that used the available resources and the environment,” says the production designer. “All of that detail adds to what you see on-screen, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it cost a lot of money. So creating a richness through economy came from Justin and his incredible vision, and we never strayed off of that path.”