Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.
Directed by Justin Kurzel and backed by Film4, True History of the Kelly Gang takes a riotous and revisionist approach to retelling the story of the infamous Australian outlaw. Starring 1917’s George MacKay as legendary Ned, the resulting film is at once mythic and startlingly contemporary.
We got in touch with the other Kurzel — composer and musician Jed — to talk about scoring his brother’s film, embracing happy accidents and using landscape to make music. As well as working on the likes of Slow West, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed.
What was your path to becoming a film composer?
It was something I enthusiastically fell into. As a kid I was obsessed with music and film scores were a part of that. I was definitely one of those people who noticed the music in films and didn’t consider it a background thing. If I liked something I’d go out and find it. I’d been playing in bands and also making music for myself, which felt more in line with film music. Justin had heard a lot off of it over the years and when he began working on his first feature film Snowtown asked if I’d try making some music for it.
I thought it would be a one off thing…..I was wrong!
Where do you start when composing a score?
Great/interesting films know exactly what they want, they easily shrug off music that ‘sort of’ works and push you to look for something unexpected. They offer a lot of inspiring roads to go down. Sometimes the landscape or place of a film is enough of a launching off point, other times it might be an amazing performance. I also think some of the best scores have been written off picture, when a director embraces all the happy accidents and everything just works, there’s no need to question it.
How do you and Justin work together? Does he express what he wants from the score?
We’ve developed a short hand over the years. I don’t think we ever have “meetings”. We’ll usually be talking about something completely unrelated to the film, if it’s Winter it’s probably Australian Rules Football, and eventually find ourselves on the topic of music.
We always listen to what the film wants in the edit. Filmmaking is such an ever-changing process from the script to the shooting to the edit that any pre-conceived ideas about the music usually become redundant by the time you get to the edit. I’ll start making music and send it to him and it becomes apparent pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t.
We’re very close and being brothers we’re afforded the luxury of being brutally honest with each other with minimal repercussions. It’s amazing how much time you save when you’re not tip-toeing around each other.
The score for True History of the Kelly Gang resonates with menace but also playfulness, how did you go about achieving that balance?
I wanted some playfulness in the score to balance out the darker elements.
I’ve always been a fan of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings. They’re so ahead of their time and treat the folklore as comic and kind of ridiculous. Peter Carey’s book covers similar territory and I could also see elements of it in the film. I love Looney Tunes cartoons too, so I’m sure they went into the pot as well.
Listening to ‘The Hold-Up’ is a particularly tense and clamorous experience, can you talk me through composing this piece and adding in all these different textures?
Australia is a loud place, particularly in the bush but even in the cities the birds are raucous. It’s one one of the first things people notice when they arrive. I love it, I think it’s has a huge influence on the general character of the people and the place.
Australian films generally turn all of this noise down in the mix, like it’s a nuisance. Justin made it a feature of the film, so we wanted the score to feel a part of that. ‘The Hold Up’ is an extension of this idea, that the music is somehow a product of the landscape. I wanted the strings to whistle and squawk like Magpies and the percussive elements to feel like they were built with bark.
I particularly love when soundtracks have specific compositions for different characters. What palette of sounds did you employ for composing ‘Mary’ (played by Thomasin McKenzie) and what do you think this conveys about her character?
It’s mainly viola and vibraphone with a kind of angelic string drone. It was one of those pieces I’d written off picture, we put it against the scene where Ned first meets Mary and it worked. I guess it conveys a sense of innocence lost amongst a pretty brutal landscape.
The film has taken quite a punk rock approach to the story, did that factor into your score at all?
It’s weird, punk rock has so many different connotations these days. I’ve never really heard it as a sound, it’s more a way of life, 100% free expression no matter what anyone thinks. I attempt to factor that into everything I do…With varying results.
I felt some similarities between True History and Slow West, although the latter takes a more minimalist approach, did they compare for you at all?
They are pretty different scores, similar instruments but a different approach. I loved doing Slow West, John wanted something melodic and bit more structured, something he could whistle, with THOTKG I wanted to make something a Magpie could whistle.
I’d also love to talk about Macbeth — what were the main themes or emotions you were looking to draw out in that score? And how do you weave in a sense of landscape? Macbeth’s score sounded like it had Scottish timbre, and is that also something you were looking to create with THOTKG (but with Australia)?
Macbeth was very much a response to the landscape. The music worked best again when it felt like a product of the landscape, the sound of a curse or something conjured up by the witches. THOTKG and Macbeth definitely feel like companion pieces. There’s a nod to Scottish music in Macbeth but it’s not overt, it’s in there enough to give you a sense of place but its main purpose was creating a tone and acting as a kind of poison in the fabric of the film.
THOTKG was similar in terms of responding to the landscape. It’s such a vast and incredible place, it’s humbling and makes you feel very small at the best of times. It also feels somewhat cursed due to it violent history. I guess these kind of environments are impossible to ignore when you’re approaching them musically.
Does the process differ at all when you’re working on studio projects like Alien: Covenant and Assassin’s Creed?
The process always feels the same. Every film feels like another mountain to climb no matter what the budget and they all come with their own surprises. It’s fantastic to be able to make music knowing you have a budget to be able to do anything but I’ve always been a fan of limitations too. Boundaries can force you into really tricky/interesting corners.
The genres of these two films are also quite different from your previous work, did they allow greater scope for experimentation?
Absolutely. I was lucky enough to work with two directors who encouraged experimentation on a canvas that size. They’re the best kind of directors to work with, unafraid and collaborative. They value the process almost more than the result and their enthusiasm is infectious.
What do you enjoy most about the composition process?
Happy accidents. Approaching something one way, making a mistake and suddenly finding that the mistake is the kernel of an entirely different approach. You can’t force it to happen but hope that it will….before the deadline.