Wanted: $2.5m for 'definitive' Ned Kelly film

Quality: Original.
Film Title: Ned Kelly.
Photo Credit: Carolyn Johns.
Copyright: ???? Universal Pictures International 2002.
For further information: please contact your local UIP Press Office.
Quality: Original. Film Title: Ned Kelly. Photo Credit: Carolyn Johns. Copyright: ???? Universal Pictures International 2002. For further information: please contact your local UIP Press Office.

Mick Jagger, John Jarratt and Heath Ledger have played him. Sidney Nolan painted him. Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly and Johnny Cash have written songs about him. And Peter Carey won the Booker Prize with a novel about him.

While Ned Kelly has been an enduring character across all forms of Australian popular culture, filmmakers have been returning to the country's most famous bushranger for more than a century.

Australia's first feature film - and possibly the world's - was the silent The Story of the Kelly Gang way back in 1906.

And there have been at least nine movies and four television shows about the country's most famous bushranger since then (see panel below), including a dramatised version of his trial starring John Waters and comic versions headlined by Yahoo Serious and Abe Forsythe.

Now filmmaker Matthew Holmes has launched an ambitious bid to make another Ned Kelly film - aiming to raise $2.5 million through a crowdfunding campaign in the next month.

The director of The Legend of Ben Hall, which had a limited release in cinemas last year, wants to shoot what he calls "the definitive motion picture" about Kelly early next year.

Holmes has until the end of the financial year to fund The Legend of Ned Kelly in what he calls"the most ambitious crowdfunding film project ever launched in Australia". It's the modern equivalent of seeking private investors during the tax concession era in the 1980s - except with backers receiving rewards that include DVDs, memorabilia and set visits instead of tax concessions.

That sum will allow the film to be made - using the filmmaking incentive known as the producer's offset and funds from other private investors - for about $5 million. But if the Kickstarter campaign fails to reach $2.5 million, all funds will be returned.

"We'll be approaching government funding bodies if this succeeds," Holmes says. "It's a difficult road to go down with funding bodies - a long arduous road that can often lead to closed doors - so we're trying to take control of the project from the beginning."

So why another Ned Kelly film?

"We feel the Ned Kelly story has never been truly told historically accurately in the cinema," Holmes says. "If you look back at all the previous incarnations of Ned Kelly movies, none of them have been faithful to the history.

"We still believe there's this amazing story that people don't know because so much of the true story has been buried in a lot of false stuff."

Holmes is reluctant to say what the Mick Jagger or Heath Ledger versions, for example, got wrong.

"I wouldn't want to criticise another filmmaker's work," he says. "On their own, they're not bad films but looking at them from an historical perspective, that's where I feel these films fall down. They leave out a lot of elements or they combine things or they simplify things ...

"We want to take a much more complex look at the history and look at the bad side of Ned Kelly as much as the good, and we want to look at the good side of the police as much as the bad. The previous versions have looked at the story in far too simplistic terms."

Holmes is yet to decide who will play Kelly this time round.

"We've got our eye on some Australian actors that we'd love to work with and we'll be approaching them if the Kickstarter works," he says. "We're hoping to find someone of the Heath Ledger calibre."

The plan is to shoot the film in real life Kelly country in Victoria.

Holmes successfully used crowdfunding to finance The Legend of Ben Hall.

Seeking $75,000 to make a 30-minute Ben Hall film, he ended up with more than $100,000, which allowed him to extend it to feature film length. Largely privately financed, it opened on just 18 screens, taking $125,000 at the box office and selling to 22 countries.

Holmes hopes to make a series of bushranger films, including The Legend of Frank Gardiner and The Legend Of John Vane.

"Australia has got a very colourful past of both terrible and great things," he says. "These are just fantastic human stories."

Ned Kelly already has an indelible place in Australian cinema with The Story of the Kelly Gang becoming a landmark for all sorts of reasons. Following a least five popular plays on the subject, it was made only 26 years after Kelly was hung and starred American actor Frank Mills. And while it was the country's first hit - reputedly costing ??1000 and delivering a profit of ??25,000 - it was also the first banned film for mocking the police and glorifying outlaws. Remarkably, the ban on bushranger films was in place until the 1940s.

Ned Kelly on screen

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) played by Frank Mills

Ned Kelly and His Gang (1906) - Godfrey Cass

The Kelly Gang (1920) - Godfrey Cass

When The Kellys Were Out (1923) - Godfrey Cass

When the Kellys Rode (1934) - Leslie Hay-Simpson

The Glenrowan Affair (1951) - Bob Chitty

Ned Kelly (1959) - TV - Ken Goodlet

The Stringybark Massacre (1968) - short film - Rob Inglis

Ned Kelly (1970) - Mick Jagger

The Trial Of Ned Kelly (1977) - TV - John Waters

The Last Outlaw (1980) - TV - John Jarratt

Reckless Kelly (1993) - Yahoo Serious

Ned (2003) - Abe Forsythe

Ned Kelly (2003) - Heath Ledger

Besieged: The Ned Kelly Story (2004) - documentary - Peter Fenton