Brad Webb chats with Matthew Holmes and Aidan Phelan
You have the runs on the board thanks to a successful season with The Legend of Ben Hall. Obviously such an undertaking granted you valuable insight in production, distribution, and a number of other factors – so what lessons from that event do you plan to bring to the set of Glenrowan?
Matthew – The Legend of Ben Hall was an amazing learning experience. Beyond just the lessons I learned during the directing process, it taught me the importance of building and maintaining a fan base early. It also taught me so much about how release a film – or more accurately, what the pitfalls are. And the the learning still continues to this day. The Legend of Ben Hall really gave me a good foundation to look at challenges that lay ahead with this genre and to be better prepared. Every film is a massive learning experience, and sometimes the lessons can be very painful – but always helpful.
Aidan – The Legend of Ben Hall was a landmark event in bushranging history and Australian cinema, demonstrating that it is possible to create a film based on the historical events rather than the popular perception of them and make something special. I doubt anyone can sensibly argue that it wasn’t leaps and bounds ahead of bushranger films like Mad Dog Morgan and The Glenrowan Affair and it’s thrilling to think that the Kelly Gang are finally going to be treated with the same degree of respect. Matthew Holmes is definitely the fellow to do it.
Your cinema interpretation of Ned Kelly will be centred around the Kelly Gang’s last few days of freedom as they lay siege to a small railway town. Given the near hysterical scrutiny previous film adaptations have come under, what do you believe are Glenrowan’s main points of difference?
Matthew – Firstly, Glenrowan will be the first Ned Kelly film that does not the take the standard ‘life story’ biopic approach. That’s been done to death in my opinion, and his story is too complex to cover in two hours. By focusing only on the Glenrowan siege, it gives me the space to really get into the historic details of what happened. A normal Ned Kelly movie has twenty to twenty-five minutes for the Glenrowan incident. We have two hours to watch this event unfold, bit by bit. There’s no need to skip over the details and we can also show this event from many different perspectives as well. Secondly, our portrayal Ned Kelly himself will be very different. Traditionally, Ned Kelly films are loaded with biased storytelling, heavily in his favour. When writing Glenrowan, Aidan and I threw out any agenda to make Ned appear as a victim or a hero, but neither did we set out to make him a monster. We don’t consider ourselves anti-Ned, but neither are we pro-Ned. We simply find him fascinating, and we don’t agree with all his choices and actions. It’s like making a film about Henry Hall (Goodfellas) – you love watching him, you empathise with him – but you certainly don’t agree with the choices he makes! We just wanted to portray this man exactly he was, with all the positives and negatives, because that’s more interesting cinematically. We’re not afraid of having our audience have conflicted feelings toward Ned Kelly. Our goal to make the most historically accurate version we can, and we believe our script is as close as possible. The one thing I’ve received consistent praised for on The Legend of Ben Hall was that we didn’t glorify or demonise the characters – we just allowed them be real. And thirdly – we love this story! We are the biggest bushranger history fans, so we’re coming to this with a deep-seeded respect for the history and putting that above all else. We want to make an entertaining and emotionally-engaging movie too, but never at the expense of the history. Were confident audiences will feel that passion coming through.
Aidan – Glenrowan is not just about Ned Kelly, it’s an ensemble piece in a way previous films haven’t been. While Ned is obviously the central character as it’s his actions that drive the tragedy, we felt it was impossible to tell the story without concentrating on the rest of the gang, the police and civilians as well. For example Ann Jones is usually portrayed as an avuncular archetypal ‘barmaid’ character who genuinely loves having the gang at her inn whereas the truth is that she was far more wily and courageous, trying to turn this trepidatious circumstance to her advantage and our screenplay reflects this. All of the people are fleshed out and have roles to play rather than just being satellites around Ned as we’ve seen over and over since 1906.
Most Australians hold an opinion on Ned Kelly and many of these are perceptions based on what they’ve seen on the screen (be it TV, cinema, or the web). You’ve selected a vital period in the Kelly narrative but how do you plan to fill the viewer in on the rest of the Ned’s story?
Matthew – There’s really no way we can fill the viewer in on Ned’s entire backstory, so we don’t attempt to. We’ve designed the script so someone with absolutely no knowledge on Ned Kelly can still understand it. For those who are already familiar with Ned’s story, they’ll just have an even richer experience. Like Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, we mention key events that inform what led to this event, but we never to attempt to cram his entire history – because that’s impossible. Our story is about the Glenrowan siege – not Ned’s life story. No doubt, many people will want to know more after watching it and we hope it motivates them to explore the story themselves. God knows there’s enough books and websites out there!
Aidan – The trouble most Ned Kelly films have is cramming this story into a single two hour film and the results usually butcher the story in some way in order to make it work. That was what inspired this approach. By concentrating on Glenrowan, which is what most people think of when they think of Ned Kelly, we have a chance to explore the themes and characters without having to speed through the events. It was more respectful to the audience and the story to not stumble into the same trap nearly every other approach has taken.
Location filming has always been of major interest, and contention, for Kelly dramas – be it cinema or television. Are you planning on filming in Victoria’s north-east and if so how will issues such as weather conditions and access to sites effect production planning and logistics?
Matthew – All I can say is, we will be filming in regional Victoria, but we don’t know where yet. It may be in Kelly Country, but it may not be either. The important part for me is that it looks identical to the photo reference we have of Glenrowan at the time of the siege. The district we film in is not as important as how accurate it looks onscreen. Plus the beauty of our story is that it takes place all in one place – Glenrowan. So from a production perspective, it makes it a lot easier to manage because were not moving the team to dozens of locations. Our plan is to build a perfect replica of Glenrowan, right down to actual distance between buildings.
Aidan – Naturally you face difficulties when you have to replicate such an iconic location as Glenrowan in 1880 but with modern film-making we can do amazing things. It’s important to stay as close to Kelly Country as possible as it truly is a unique region. Matthew’s idea for how we’re going to be creating the sets is going to blow people away. It’s something we haven’t seen done in Australia cinema before and a little audacious.
There have been some impressive books written about the siege at Glenrowan including Paul Terry’s The true story of Ned Kelly’s last stand and Judith Douthie’s I was at the Kelly Gang round-up. Given the amount of literature already written on this subject what, in your opinion, are the requirements needed to create a great Ned Kelly script?
Matthew – Between me, Aidan and Steve – we’ve read every book on Ned Kelly that exists. I think it’s important to have a broad knowledge and to compare books to work through the history as best as you can. We often compared texts and debated over things whilst writing. Often we went straight to the police records or eye-witness accounts. The key to making a great Ned Kelly script is be truthful and to approach it without bias or agenda. We embraced the controversial. We revel in the moral contradictions these characters have. The script becomes more honest that way, and the characters become richer because were not trying to manipulate them to suit our outcome. Those who have read the script have been really surprised at just how different it is to any Ned Kelly film they’ve seen, and how much depth our characters have.
Aidan – The key to a great Ned Kelly script is not to be too slavish, but to steer clear of taking too much artistic license. If our original draft of Glenrowan got made we’d have an almost four to five hour long film and nobody can sit through that. I love superhero movies but the runtime of the most recent Avengers movie had me squirming, and so it is with historical films as well. So you’ve got to be concise, you’ve got to maintain consistency in tone and you’ve got to stay true to what happened.
Much like your previous effort with Ben Hall, the story of Ned Kelly is quintessentially Australian. Given the nature of global cinema, and international finance, how important is it that we present a story that resinates with our local market but is also of interest to an international audience?
Matthew – It was of vital importance that I make films that resonate beyond our borders, because the Australian market is too small. From the very beginning, we wrote this story make sense to someone who knows nothing of Ned Kelly. Because many people overseas simply don’t know about him. All they know is that he’s an outlaw who wears a funny helmet – that’s it. The interesting thing is that The Legend of Ben Hall was far more financially successful in the USA than it was in Australia. That’s another reason why we chose to focus only on Glenrowan, because it doesn’t require much backstory. ‘An outlaw gang arrives in town to derail a train and it all goes to hell’ – that’s the story. The gang’s motives and reasons you learn as the film unfolds. I truly believe the best historical films are the ones that narrow their subject matter. Spreading it out in a two hour film is spreading it too far. I could barely cover Ben Hall’s final nine months in a 139 minute film, how can anyone truly encapsulate Ned’s story in 120 minutes?
Aidan – Introducing this story to an audience with no knowledge of it is part of the appeal. We know that this is a truly spellbinding story and there are millions out there who are just about to find out. Glenrowan is full of universal themes but it actually conforms to the format of a Greek tragedy tremendously well, as at its core this is the story of a man’s hubris bringing death and destruction, so that will really reach audiences worldwide thanks to the utilisation of some of the oldest and most effective storytelling tools ever devised.
I notice one of your lead actors Callan McAuliffe is roughly the same age as IronOulaw.com which got me thinking about feedback I’ve received over the past twenty odd years including one from a young boy called Aidan Phelan from 2001 when he was 15. When you add Steve Jager to the mix, the wealth of enthusiasm and knowledge should ensure the story is told in it’s truest form. But many people don’t just want to watch another documentary so how hard is it to balance the historical events with the entertainment factor?
Matthew – Callan McAuliffe is the perfect actor for Ned – not only because he a phenomenal talent – but he’s almost the same age as Ned was and he’s exactly the same height – 180cm – which we all thought was very cool to discover. That Aidan Phelan, Steve Jager and myself came together on this project was inevitable. Our love for bushranger history clearly magnetised us together during the making of Ben Hall and this collaboration has flowed very organically. We work together well and challenge each other, because we all have the same goal – to get it right. We’re very aware that audiences don’t want to watch a Ned Kelly documentary – nor do we. We want to make the kind of Ned Kelly movie we’ve always wanted, but never got. Our intention from the outset was write a great motion picture that gets bums on seats. Personally, I’ve never had a problem balancing history with entertainment. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. The key is keep the story focused on the characters and relationships and keep the story cracking along. The Ned Kelly story lends itself to such wonderful drama, so it’s ripe for cinematic entertainment. That’s probably why there have been twelve movie adaptions of Ned Kelly since the dawn of cinema. The fun for us is dramatising what we read in the history book, imagining those big moments and designing them in a way that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. From the feedback we’ve had on the script already, we’re confident it’s going to be the most emotionally engaging Ned Kelly film ever made, and probably the most traumatic… but in a good way.
Aidan – My love of Ned Kelly and film are inextricably connected as it was The Last Outlaw that really lured me into this incredible world. As a kid just entering the Kelly world one of the most exciting things was hopping online and seeing that old Ironoutlaw logo zooming towards me. I still have Ironoutlaw bookmarks littered throughout my personal library! Since then I’ve developed a passion for all bushranger stories and my work on A Guide to Australian Bushranging helped me to really get used to researching and finding sources. I must have spent days trawling through century old news articles and the 1881 Royal Commission to verify things from the books we read and questioned and it churned up some intriguing conclusions. This film is about challenging the legends fostered since that fateful time in 1880 and showing that as exciting as the oral histories can be the truth is even more incredible. That’s what has always inspired me, and I believe that to be true of my colleagues from the way they have approached this very daunting undertaking. There will be some things in this film that will surprise even the most dedicated Kellyites on either end of the spectrum and we can point to the historical record to explain our choices. I’m very excited to see history come alive… and with no circuses in sight.
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