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Justin Kurzel Interview

Author: Darryn King
Monday, 28 July 2008
Justin Kurzel, one of the filmmakers in Sydney talent factory Cherub Pictures, graduated from the Victorian College of Arts in 2005 and had his film screened at Cannes within the year. Since then, he’s branched out into music clips and television commercials, but he has his sights set on film. Kurzel speaks to Darryn King about making it in an increasingly well-populated industry. Justin Kurzel, one of the filmmakers in Sydney talent factory Cherub Pictures, graduated from the Victorian College of Arts in 2005 and had his film screened at Cannes within the year. Since then, he’s branched out into music clips and television commercials, but he has his sights set on film. Kurzel speaks to Darryn King about making it in an increasingly well-populated industry.

How did you develop your passion for film-
Well I was a production designer for theatre and film. I studied at NIDA for three years and started collaborating with a fantastic theatre director, Benedict Andrews. His worlds were highly visual and quite filmic. After that I decided to get behind the camera and direct music film clips.

How long did it take you to turn it into a viable career-
Quite a while. I found it really tough to make things at first. I made a Tropfest film which did quite well – it came second, which gave me the confidence to keep on going. To be honest, it was much easier to get involved in music clips. I only really started concentrating on storytelling after I went to the VCA (Victorian College of Arts) for a year. From the time I finished design to the time I graduated from VCA it was probably about five years.

What was the Cannes experience like for someone so young-
Well for me it was pretty incredible to see how many films are made a year, and how many films will be made the next year… The biggest thing for me is seeing how filmmakers are treated overseas. I felt guilty for how interested people were in the film and how well we were looked after. The biggest thing about seeing a festival is you see so many films, and you see that the filmmakers that take the risks are the ones that get noticed, and their work is celebrated the most. So that was a big learning curve for me.

Do you spend a lot of time in the office-
I think I’ve spent just as much time in a car looking at locations, or on set filming, or then in a dark room or an edit suite. But we do spend quite a bit of time here, Ben (Briand) and I, and that’s quite new for Cherub, which is great because it means the other directors are out doing their own film work.

So you say it’s easier to get work in music clips-
It depends. I’ve been very lucky: I work with my brother’s band, the Mess Hall. Jed lets me do what I want – he has no amity about the band looks like, or how many shots should be in there, or whether it should be backlit, which usually comes with a lot of bands. His primary focus is on the relationship between the visuals and the music, which is an extraordinary gift, because it just doesn’t happen.

So with other acts you’re more likely to be creating a clip to a brief-
Yeah, you kinda get a vague brief – and it’s basically to make the band look shit-hot. As soon as I hear any inkling of that I try to stay away. Fortunately with this band I’ve been able to do some really interesting things. I don’t do clips for vanity: ‘Oh, this is a great chance to show off my directing skills’. My clips involve a lot of movement, dance and situations all shot in one shot that relate to the music. That is how I always approach it, that the visuals should be responding to the particular song. I kinda learned that from doing the Mess Hall and them allowing me to just experiment.
We’ve had a couple of groups that have come in lately where they’ve just said, you guys go for it, and that’s great.
So what we usually do we maybe spend a week or two coming up with an idea, and then write it down in a treatment form.
To do music clips now you’ve really got to love it. You actually have to pay to do them – the budgets are ridiculously small. Michelle Bennett from Cherub says there was a time when you’d get 400 grand to make a clip. Now you’d be lucky to get a clip for a big band over 30 or 40 thousand. Mess Hall clips were like, minus 10. There was 15,000 for two clips.
It’s really hard work doing clips and you’ve got to get a lot of favours, and if you’re doing it with a band or a label who just want a vanity clip, you’ve got to ask yourself, why am I doing it-

How different is that to working on television commercials-
Well, with TVCs you’re working with a particular client and they want a particular thing and the agency has written a particular script, so it’s much more formulated when it comes to you. You have a pretty detailed script and from that budget you can assess whether it’s a project you want to be involved in, and put a treatment in. It’s much more worked out – and there’s more money.
Having said that, we’ve done some works for charity, or projects on a lower budget, but the ideas have been really exciting, so there’s something there, creatively, that you get something out of.

So with all these notches to your belt, what do you see yourself pursuing in the future-
It’d be narrative stories – film – because of the challenge and the space to explore a story. The films I’ve made have only been about ten minutes, so the challenge of actually having an audience for a full 90 minutes is something I’m really looking forward to.
I’m just interested, at the moment, in anything that has good ideas.

I’m guessing you also have the freedom to do what you want nowadays-
Well I’m certainly more picky than I used to be – when I first started in advertising, you kinda needed to have an ad on your reel to show your experience. I think that landscape has changed since I started, which is only three years ago. I think that creatives are much more willing to have directors that are doing something distinct and exciting.

Is your work more independent or collaborative-
I have four or five people that I usually work with. They all have a similar kind of process and a similar aesthetic in their work that I really admire and respect. I’m a bit of control freak, so I have a very strong idea of how I want something to look, and I think when I started working with actors I realised that this is such a true collaborative form, and even thought you might come in with a strong vision of something, you have to trust everyone to bring something to it that will surprise you, that will make your work and your choices better.

What advice would you give to any aspiring filmmakers-
Every time I try to approach a project I just try to trust my instincts and strive for something a little left-field and something different. Don’t worry so much about whether people are going to ‘get it’ or what people are going to think about it. Have patience, passion and drive. It’s pretty tough out there.


Get more career advice and read more interviews like this in Career FAQs Entertainment, or online at careerfaqs.com.au
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