WIND BACK WEDNESDAY FINDS JED KURZEL ON THE ROAD TO NITRAM



A powerful, disturbing film about a shocking Australian crime. Directed by Justin Kurzel, written by Shaun Grant, with a score by Jed Kurzel. Controversy surrounded it, questions asked about whether such a film should be made now. Whether such a film should be made at all.


Nitram, yes. But before that came Snowtown from the same team.


Wind Back Wednesday steps back 20 years to when Jed Kurzel, with his first film score, for his brother’s first feature film, was in consideration for a prize at the Screen Music Awards.


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JED KURZEL HAS WON ARIA AWARDS and the Australian Music Prize as part of the Sydney duo Mess Hall. He’s played hundreds of gigs, toured around the world and knows what he does well, and how to do it again whenever he needs to.


But when he began working on his first film score, for Snowtown, the tough and brutalising film about the “bodies in the barrel” murders in South Australia directed by his brother Justin, the comfort of familiarity was the last thing he wanted.


"The one thing I didn't want to do was come in and say this is what I usually do and we'll do that,” says Kurzel. "I had to think about the things I really like about film scores but hadn't been hearing a lot lately, and that was a strong sense of a theme. That's why I didn't use much of any strings because I thought, that's what most people would do. And there's not that much guitar in there because that's what you would expect.


“I guess in the end I put a lot of barriers up for myself but that is an important thing to do because it makes you push yourself in directions you wouldn't normally go.”



The pushing worked, with Kurzel's score for Snowtown (a film which had that noted cineaste and risk taker Richard Wilkins spluttering into his cornflakes that it was “'the most disgusting, horrific, depraved and degrading” film he’d seen) nominated for a prize on Monday at the Screen Music Awards.


On a night when music for film, television and advertising will have its rare moment in the spotlight, he will be competing with the likes of more experienced composers Guy Gross, David Hirschfelder and Bryony Marks.


While this is Kurzel's first nomination, it is not his first foray into composing. An increasingly avid follower of film music, the kind of man who refers to films and film moments by the music that accompanied them, while in Mess Hall Kurzel had been making music for screen and stage, beginning with independent short films and documentaries and then the Griffin Theatre production of Savage River.


On the strength of those he was approached by the producers of the pay TV series Spirited, Claudia Karvan and Jacquelin Perske. Initially it was to write music for the lead character, the ghost of a post-punk English rock musician “but then I went back for another meeting and they asked if I'd be interested in doing the score, which I had never done before”.



“I said yes and had no idea what kind of work was involved," he laughs. "I walked out thinking, what have I got myself into and how do I actually do this?”


The program helped him settle on a particular approach for his score work (using real instruments and human playing rather than synthesisers replicating sounds) and to develop confidence. But even so, Snowtown was a markedly different experience, even more collegiate than his TV collaboration but eye-opening as well as he was involved right from the start, spending days on set during filming.


"It was a really organic process,” says Kurzel. “A lot of times what happens with film is they go into the edit and they’ve used a lot of temp[orary] music and then it's given to the composer with the temp music as a guide. But we didn't want to do any of that. We wanted to let the edit and the music inform each other.


“I started writing from the day they started editing so the music sometimes was informing the edit. I knew I had to have a piece of music that was strong enough to hold the whole thing together, that you could use three times and it would evolve each time it was played, and put a stamp on the whole film.


"That to me was the biggest thing to find but once we did find it, it ended up changing the beginning and the end of the film in the edit."