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To director Gregor Jordan, Australia’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly was a natural, charismatic leader of men who could have risen to great heights in politics – had circumstances been different. That’s part of the tragedy, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

Take another look at Gregor Jordan’s film of Ned Kelly, and look into Heath Ledger’s eyes; when Ledger looked into Kelly’s eyes in a portrait photo, he saw dignity, pride and courage. Filmmaker Gregor Jordan also saw natural leadership qualities, a determination and charisma. It’s a story of doomed youth and of a life that could have been – and in different circumstances, Ned could have risen to great heights, even perhaps political leadership. 

“When researching his life,” says Jordan, “I got the feeling that Ned could have been a great leader of men; he was a natural leader and a very charismatic guy. His grasp on the media and politics was very natural. Under different circumstances he could have been a great union leader or a politician. That to me is part of the tragedy.” 

But it’s not as if Gregor Jordan had set about telling the Ned Kelly story in an attempt to reconstitute the man in his own image of the Kelly that might have been. Ned found him. Irish writer John McDonagh had been to Australia and had heard about Ned Kelly. One day, browsing through books on a shelf in a shop, he came across Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine, a hypothetical work that imagined Ned Kelly ruminating on his brief but dramatic life while holed up at Glenrowan, on the eve of the fateful clash with 100 police after him and his small gang.

The book’s structure is like fragmented memories and anything but linear. McDonagh was inspired by it, enough to write a screenplay based on it. It was this first draft that he took to a friend who worked at Working Title, the UK based film company. Working Title showed interest, and had just set up its Australian arm under producer Tim White, who showed Gregor Jordan. At the time he had not read Drewe’s book. 

"an unusual way to tell this story"

“So it was in script form and with a big production company already wanting to do it when it came to me. His adaptation gave it a linear structure, telling the story sequentially, but he kept the stream of consciousness feel to it. And he was inspired by Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) which served as his reference. That’s a story about a psychopath and his girlfriend who go on a cross country killing spree, but weirdly, it feels like a beautiful poem. He took that as an interesting way of telling this story. And that’s what impressed me about it: an unusual way to tell this story. I thought if you were going to tell this story, you have to have a ‘take’. If you make it in a conventional way you’re likely to bore people. I wanted a way into the story. [This way] it takes you inside Ned’s head.”

Like the book, the screenplay was less interested in the story than the emotions of the man. But Jordan did rework the screenplay to inject more of the story, to make it as accurate as it is feasible to make a biographical film which compresses a score of years into a couple of hours. “I don’t think I’ve been irresponsible in terms of telling the story, but primarily we were still interested in finding the emotion of the character. Ned as a politician or a revolutionary was something that came out of his personality and his circumstance. To me the movie is about doomed youth – but it’s also about lost opportunities. The life that could have been.”

Ned Kelly is Jordan’s first large budget, ‘studio picture’ and he learnt a lot about studio politics, about shooting for a specific market audience and about working to a deadline. And he found it “a fantastic process”.

Made for about US$17 (A$28.5) million, it’s a huge budget for Australia. “It seems like a lot of money but when you think what we’re trying to do. . .basically an 1870s road movie, so there’s very little from modern day you can use. You quickly find that you have to build everything. Even the facades of buildings… there were no paved roads in those days, for example, even in Melbourne. If you want boots for the policemen, you have to hire a bootmaker to make 200 pairs of boots . . .So to get the sense of the period right was really expensive and very difficult in terms of the shooting.”

"not enough money in the budget"

It was the familiar story of not enough money in the budget. “We had massive fights over budget that went on throughout pre-production. We were saying we had to have this and they’d say no, you can’t have that. In terms of getting the film to a budget level everyone was happy with, it’s the most difficult film I’ve done.”

As always, the end result was always a compromise. “They say to you there is absolutely no way we can give you any more money. And you say there’s absolutely no way we can do the movie for what you’re giving us. You all scream at each other and they go and find a bit more money but it’s not as much as you’d have hoped for…it’s no different to any other film,” he adds with a laugh.

As for Heath Ledger, Jordan knew he was perfect for the role. “He is right for the role: he is the right age, he’s the right size – and most importantly he’s Australian. He also has the star power that was needed. Potentially there are a couple of other actors you could cast, Josh Hartnett or Leonardo di Caprio, say, but I just said it will be an unmitigated disaster if you cast an American in the lead. And I personally don’t think the movie’d be worth making.”

Jordan felt strongly enough about this to have it written into his contract that if Heath Ledger did not play the lead role, he, Jordan, would be “off the movie as well.”

It’s indicative of Jordan’s filmmaking policy, which he describes as “have my cake and it … in other words, making a movie that is about something and has some sort of artistic merit, visually appealing, with a mood and a tone that is evocative. But can also potentially reach a wider audience. I am not interested in making films that are pure money-spinners; nor in films that are going to be seen by ten people.”

"the fickle hand of fate"

With Ned Kelly, Jordan has made a film “about the fickle hand of fate. It’s about tiny events that if they had played out even slightly differently, none of it would have happened. I want the audience to go away and think about that – about fate. There are no inherently evil characters in this movie: it’s just a tragedy.”

Published April 3, 2003

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Gregor Jordan


... on set

... with Heath Ledger

... with Naomi Watts

Flashback: 1999 interview

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