When Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang arrived in 2000 it exploded the myth behind Australia’s most celebrated bushranger and forced a country to stare back into its own vicious past. Never has a piece of writing come close to revealing the raw, powerful truth of Ned Kelly, and now through Justin Kurzel’s visionary eye, we see a film which refuses to be familiar or sentimental but instead throws you into the world of this extraordinary outlaw and his tragic descent into the heart of darkness.
This is a punk story for our times; a journey from the innocence of a boy wanting nothing more than to protect and provide for his family, to the iron clad terrorist who builds an army to destroy everything in front of him to free his mother. Shot by award-winning cinematographer Ari Wegner ACS (The Kettering Incident), the film focuses on the tender and volatile relationship between Kelly and his mother, Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis), spanning both the younger years of Ned Kelly (Orlando Shwerdt), to the time leading up to his death, played by 1917’s George MacKay.
Ellen is a matriarch, whose own loneliness controls the destiny of her eldest son; feeding him with love and affection when she feels him drifting away, guilt and shame when he reaches for a better life. Haunted by the maddening decline of his tortured father Red Kelly (Ben Corbett); groomed and nurtured by the infamous bushranger Harry Power (Academy Award-winner Russell Crowe); hounded and hunted by the forces of the law like Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam), Ned Kelly is a man desperately trying to carve out his own true history through the tip of a pen and the barrel of a gun.
Along with Ned’s brother Dan Jelly (Earl Cave) and friends, Joe (Sean Keenan) and Steve (Louis Hewison), they become the Kelly Gang, driven to rage by circumstance, fuelled by youth and the blurred boundaries between the law and those classed as outlaws. Kelly’s rage, but also curiosity, will be directed toward Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) and the search for connection in the barren landscape. The true motivation and truth will lie in the bond between a mother and a son and the lengths sought to reconcile it.
In 2011 Hal Vogel, producer at Daybreak Pictures was in a meeting with author Peter Carey’s agent. Vogel, an admirer of Carey’s work noted the True History of the Kelly Gang sitting on the agent’s desk. Having been previously optioned, the rights had reverted back to Carey.
Describing the book as ‘extraordinary’ work, Vogel set about seeking finance. He had a few knockbacks but then came a screening of Justin Kurzel’s film Snowtown, shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw ACS ASC, at the London Film Festival in 2012 and that all changed. “I was blown away by the filmmaking,” Vogel says of Snowtown. “It’s an incredible piece of cinema. But there’s also a lot of resonances in the themes in Snowtown with Peter’s book and a sensibility that I thought would really be interesting in terms of discussing True History of the Kelly Gang with Kurzel.”
Vogel points to Kurzel’s involvement as the catalyst to getting the film made. “It was really Justin coming onboard that made the real difference and shifted how people perceive what one might do with that story,” says Vogel. The idea of True History of the Kelly Gang in the hands of a director like Kurzel suddenly becomes a very different and very clear proposition.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner ACS joined the crew. “I knew Justin socially from VCA and and we had done one charity commercial together,” says Wegner. Screen Australia and Film Victoria boarded the project, joining Film4 to continue the development of the screenplay and support early pre-production work and location scouting in Victoria. Locations secured included Melbourne Gaol, the State Library, Wangarratta, Dandengong Ranges, Marysville, Glenrowan and a beautiful old homestead called Mintaro. While this is the heart of traditional Kelly country, just as in Carey’s story, Kurzel and the filmmakers sought to harness landscapes that serviced the essence of the True History of the Kelly Gang.
“Kurzel told me about his vision for the film when I first met with him,” explains the cinematographer. “Ned Kelly with a punk approach. Not just in the storytelling but in the making of a film as well. We knew that our vision was going to be ambitious for the budget and we wanted to embrace that ‘reach’, to find a punk solution to a problem when a traditional one wasn’t within our budget. We wanted to capture the spirit of the Kelly in Carey’s writing, which doesn’t follow grammatical rules or convention. In the back of my mind, I was hoping to make a film that the Kelly Gang would have enjoyed.”
An incredible piece of landscape called the Winton Wetlands was utilised for what the filmmakers describe as the ‘playground for Kelly’. Culturally, the location holds huge importance for Indigenous communities, and elders took the production around, explaining that it was a meeting site where hundreds of Aboriginal peoples have met and that in Kelly’s time it would have been a supermarket, providing shelter, food and water. It has a varied history environmentally, having been damned, then dried up and subsequently all the trees started dying, although it is now also an amazing habitat for flora and fauna. While currently under restoration, it presented a gothic and scarred backdrop for the Kellys’ home.
On shooting True History of the Kelly Gang, Wegner talks about her choice of equipment. “I love the Zeiss Super Speeds for a lens that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself, it’s a beauty which is very understated,” she says. “They are also super compact, light, fast and have great close focus, which are very practical factors but make them super versatile. Camera wise, when shooting digitally, the Alexa sensor is pretty much all I know, and when embarking on a big project with a lot of unknowns, ‘known’ is a huge drawcard.”
Production designer Karen Murphy and costume designer Alice Babidge spent a lot of time in pre-production working with the cinematographer, honing in on some core ideas. “Our hope was to make the film visually contemporary and exciting in its risk,” says Wegner. “Several themes emerged: the dramatic juxtaposition of black and white with splashes of red, avoiding browns and sepias which felt too much like traditional period dramas.”
There’s also a strong visual theme surrounding ships, specifically warships, they are an obsession of Kelly’s and the filmmakers wanted to carry that though into the design of the sets, especially the Kelly House which features a ship-like shape. For Wegner, that also involved portals, one of which is Kelly’s iconic helmet. This helmet slit shape is a reoccurring theme, going all the way to the aspect ratio which slowly slides from 1.85 to 2.40 over the course of the film as Kelly’s world view and obsessions narrow.
“I was fascinated with the monitor and iron and metal and I guess that aperture that Ned Kelly eventually kind of becomes,” says Kurzel. “The whole idea of the film coming down to two eyes looking out was something we thought would be amazing as a premonition throughout the whole film, if there were little framings and little ideas that made you feel that aperture.”
The landscapes the characters go through are incredibly varied in the film. On shooting at the Marysville location, one notes the rarity of snow in Australian cinema in general. There is something about seeing rural Victoria under snowfall. Shooting in Marysville – the actual Kelly Gang would’ve ridden through here – the landscape is extraordinary now after the fires, and there is a tragedy about that place and a beauty about it, that seemed to encapsulate this kind of story.
“Our major sets were builds on location,” says Wegner. “Murphy has my utmost respect for such beautiful work, they were a pleasure to shoot in. It was very important to us to have the elements feel present and be able to see the landscape from inside. The Kelly House, the police station and Harry Powers’ bunker in the snow were the locations that Murphy designed from scratch, the other locations we scouted and adapted. Felt very lucky to be able to shoot the final scene in the old Melbourne gaol.”
Encapsulating the poetry of the story also flowed through to those final images at Glenrowan, Kurzel saying “I didn’t want it to be a kind of wooden-inn, I wanted Glenrowan to represent the football club rooms my Dad would take me to as a kid. Everyone would write their names on the walls and I loved that idea, especially because it’s Kelly writing his own history and of past travellers marking their names and statements. It was about not being so caught up in what was true at the time but what felt psychologically right for the characters and the story.”
Wegner wanted to thank all the crew, too many to mention here, but specifically gaffer Ruru Reedy, key grip Glen Arrowsmith, first assistant camera Ron Coe and all their teams. “We we out in the elements literally every day of the shoot, children, animals, snow, blazing sun. Their endless energy and positivity is the reason this film looks as great as it does,” says Wegner.
Servicing this story meant not being bound by rules of time and place, which was a through line for all the visuals in the film. Kurzel pointed out that Peter Carey had created a timeless world in the novel, noting that the cultural vibe of the characters makes them feel very present day and this subsequently shone through in the costuming.
“What I think is really important is silhouette and the silhouette that I saw in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, especially on men, was really similar to the silhouette in the 1870s,” said Kurzel. “It was taking my favourite period in Australian music, and art, and fashion and combining it with the 1870s and seeing where that sweet spot hit. The aim was to create a timeless feel and look at each character in a really specific way – I was fascinated by colour, I was fascinated by the attitude of the costume – there being a sexuality about it. For example I was determined that Ellen Kelly be in pants and boots as opposed to big frocks and corsets, referencing Patti Smith.”
True History of the Kelly Gang saw Olivier Fontenay as colourist, who Wegner had worked with on Ruin (2013) and The Kettering Incident (2016) and who the cinematographer loves to work with. It was Wegner’s first experience with the Academy Colour Encoding System (ACES) and that was very positive. “Our approach was that as the film has some very distinct and different chapters and even at times different genres we were liberated from creating one ‘look’ for the whole film. There is a storybook feel to the first section of the film, a kind of social realism to the middle section and a nightmarish ending so each was able to have its own palette and tone.”
“I am really really happy with the Glenrowan sequence in the film,” says Wegner. “We really went out on a limb visually and conceptually with it and it achieves the exact effect I had hoped for; overwhelming and nauseating.” Wegner wanted the audience to feel trapped in the nightmare that Kelly was and create a physical experience for the viewer. “It’s quite an assault on the senses at times, in a cinema especially suddenly the whole room is pulsating. I have to thank Ruru Reedy and his lighting team for supporting wholeheartedly the unconventional approach, when I first mentioned strobe lighting on a period film, he didn’t even flinch.”
Wegner says the overall vision of a director and the unique perspective of a cinematographer are one and the same. “Perhaps in early pre-production we all arrive with ideas, but by the time it comes to shooting we’ve narrowed it down to the absolute key ones and lost sense completely from where each idea originated,” says Wegner. “On this project especially it was a collaboration of the truest kind, a totally open forum to share ideas and then the slow distillation down to the ones that best served the story and let a viewer gain an insight into a character’s mindset.”
In summing up, True History of the Kelly Gang spans the younger years of Kelly’s life to the time leading up to his death. The film explores the blurred boundaries between what is bad and what is good, and the motivations for the demise of its hero. Youth and tragedy collide in the Kelly Gang, and at the beating heart of this tale is the fractured and powerful love story between a mother and a son.
Wegner is currently shooting The Power of the Dog for director Jane Campion DNZM.
Ari Wegner ACS has won multiple awards for her cinematography, including a British Independent Film Award for her work on ‘Lady Macbeth’ (2016)
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.