Film Director Justin Kurzel
by Stephanie Williams
From Hollywood to Hobart and back again, film director Justin Kurzel works with some of the biggest names in the business. His latest film True History of the Kelly Gang, was written here.
When you and your wife, Tasmanian actor Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Mysteries, The Babadook, Game of Thrones) met you were a theatre designer. I met her on a show we were doing for Belvoir Theatre in Sydney. It was an Arthur Miller play, A View From the Bridge. We were pretty young. I must’ve been 20.
What was the catalyst for changing to directing and how did you do that? I’d been working as a theatre designer and had a really great relationship with Benedict Andrews who was a big theatre director, back in the early 2000s. I was surrounded by actors so much that I really wanted to start directing them. In theatre, you get to be in the rehearsal room for six, seven weeks so you get to understand actors a lot more. Then my brother wanted me to do some music clips for his band that had just started called The Mess Hall, a two piece band in the early 2000s. I gained confidence and started to do some interesting stuff with clips and then moved into directing.
Has storytelling always been a part of your life? Yeah, I think so. My mum’s an art teacher and my father was a meat inspector, he was a Polish immigrant. But I remember as a kid, our nights were big, with lots of people around the table, me being under the table listening to all sorts of stories. I was fortunate in that my parents and grandparents took me to a lot of films. Films are really important to them. It was around that time too that ABC were doing Australian films on a Saturday night. So you’d get two or three films a night, like early Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir films and so forth at a really seminal age of nine or 10. That had a massive effect on me. I was definitely surrounded by an appreciation of storytelling.
Your first feature was Snowtown, for which you won the AACTA Award for best director. It’s so dark. Yeah!
How do you go to that place mentally to share the story the way that it needs to and then get on with your normal life? It was pretty hardcore reading. The research was pretty confronting. I had an in. I grew up in Gawler, really close to where the murders happened. To me it wasn’t a film about serial killing, it was a film about a disaffected community and what happens when someone really dangerous comes into that community. And Snowtown was a cautionary tale to that. It’s very strange because it was an incredibly beautiful experience making it. A lot of the people in the film were non-actors. They’d never acted before and I cast them off the streets or in pubs.
That’s amazing. Even though it was incredibly dark subject matter, I have quite fond memories of making it, apart from the few days there where it got a bit heavy. I just knew it was important. I was trying to do it in the right way. That’s what got me through some of the more confronting elements of that story. It’s a very full-on film, but it needed to be.
Working with actors who had never acted before, how did you brief them on such a confronting topic? A lot of the people we cast knew a lot about the subject matter and what it was to be disaffected. They could lean on a lot that was sense it’s kind of easier. Whereas I think Dan, who played John Bunting the serial killer in it, he had a tougher time because that character was so foreign to him.
You recently released The True History of the Kelly Gang, based on Peter Carey’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. How do you go into creating work that’s based on the story that people think they know so well? The novel’s a provocation of mythology and legend, and how this 23-year-old bushranger became one of the most prominent historical Australian figures. I think Peter did that through writing from Ned Kelly’s point of view. The book and film is about having your history stolen. It’s saying be careful because you might end up on a beer mug, on a road sign, or as a 20 foot character on the side of the road. What really interested me was the idea of owning your own history and how that can be kind of sort of taken from you. It was a very liberated approach to a story that we all feel we know so much about. I don’t think I would’ve done it if it was just another straight Ned Kelly film. It was just so left field, and a really unique take on it. I’d been living in London with Essie for about five years doing a couple of films, and just really homesick. There was something about this book, and the voice of Ned that made me really excited about doing a film back here.
The cast is diverse and fascinating in itself. We’ve got George MacKay, Russell Crowe, Jack Charles, Tilly Lawless, and of course Essie. How soon into a project like that does the casting start? As soon as I read the book, there was something about Ellen Kelly that I saw in Ess. I’d really wanted to work with her and just hadn’t. And then Russell was really clear – I saw no-one else as Harry Power. So once Russell was keen it started to get a bit of momentum. George MacKay, we auditioned. He came in with a really beautiful audition that was very innocent yet you could see how he could evolve into the ironclad monster at the end.
Was it challenging to get Russell on board? I definitely went through a process here. I mean he doesn’t choose just anything. And it wasn’t a quick email. He’s very considered in what he does and I definitely had to seduce him.
And how does that have an effect on things from a business point of view? Having a name like that. Or does it pile on the pressure? It helps you get the money! Any actor with a profile allows your film to get finance much quicker. It’s always harder when you’re working with unknowns, or actors that are just on the rise. I mean George MacKay is a prime example. When we worked with George, no-one outside the UK knew him very well. And now he’s starring in an award winning film (1917). So it really does depend on timing, but Russell was a huge part of us being able to secure the finance.
And your latest project is Shantaram, which was very popular in the 2000s. How’s that project been for you? It’s good. We just shot the first two episodes, so I was in Mumbai for the last three or four months. We were shooting in the slums of Mumbai, so that’s pretty incredible. It’s been amazing working in some very rural communities.
And how are alternative platforms like Netflix and Stan changing the industry? Because that one was for Apple TV+, wasn’t it? It is. Well, massively. Studios are becoming less and less brave in the work that they choose. You definitely can feel in some of these streamers that they’re looking for those films that the studios used to make or that are really challenging and different pieces of work. It’s a very exciting time if you’re a filmmaker, writer or producer because these streaming companies are wanting really good content, and there’s a real appetite for it at the moment. It’s definitely changing the landscape. We had that with True History. Stan was incredibly supportive of the film and wanted to really get it out there. And for a film like Ned, that has a particular bent to it, five, six years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to. In the old days, if your film went straight to streaming or video, it would be seen as a negative, but now it’s seen as something else.
How did you end up in Hobart? What was your first impression of Tassie? Wild and rugged and incredible and like, why the hell haven’t I been here before? When I first visited here 20 years ago real estate was really low, and everyone was leaving. It’s been extraordinary seeing the transformation. Most recently, we came back to get our passports renewed, and we were looking at going back to London. Then the kids just suddenly started going to school here and started sailing and rock climbing, and had these incredible outdoor experiences, and surrounded by family. We suddenly went oh shit, this is a really amazing place to grow up. So we were here just to make True History, but we’ve really fallen in love with the place again. I’m trying to work out how we can have international careers and at the same time live in the best part of the world! I’ve had writers come and spend three weeks writing here. We wrote True History of the Kelly Gang here. It’s a very vibrant place and there’s something very special about it. It still feels very connected to the mainland, to the rest of the world, even more so now. Our challenge is trying to have careers overseas and trying to give the girls a really solid sense of place and time here. So maybe 10, 15 years ago that would be much more difficult. But definitely now it’s becoming a little easier to kind of juggle.
“The reason that people want to come here is because it’s not like the mainland.”
What do you love and hate about Hobart? How the sea meets the mountain in Hobart is just unlike anything else. And you feel a community here, in all senses. The thing I hate is people in positions that can really change this city wanting to destroy what it’s naturally got going for it. The idea of putting a cable car up the mountain. The idea of building large multi-storey buildings in the middle of the city. It’s always astounded me how it’s taken for granted – the reason that people want to come here is because it’s not like the mainland. It doesn’t have high rises everywhere. It doesn’t have cable cars destroying the view of the mountains. It’s astonishing. Essie and I, we do travel a lot and see so many cities. We understand just how unique and special Hobart is. And then when you start to see that they want to put high skyscrapers in the city and put bloody cable cars up the mountain, you think ‘how can we be so ignorant to how much that’s going to destroy what people love about this city’. I hope everyone fights to keep what’s so original and beautiful and unique about this city that makes people from the mainland and all over the world want to come and enjoy it.
Where do you like to head out for dinner, drinks and coffee? We eat a lot at home. I go to my local down in Bellerive, called the Three Little Ducks. Love Templo. And Boodle Beasley, we just go there and play board games.
Favourite Hobart secret? Essie’s dad, artist George Davis, takes us to the Otago Bay ship wreck to fish. He has painted it many times and I love the shape of the wreck and how it reaches out of the water. Also Heart of Darkness is my favourite book so the fact it was author Joseph Conrad’s boat inspires my imagination.
And what are you working on next? We’re finishing off Shantaram and right now, I’m working with Richard Flanagan and Shaun Grant on a television series of his book, The Narrow Road. We’re developing that into a one-off series. ■