Interview: Australian filmmaker Kriv Stenders on directing Lee Kernaghan’s concert film Boy From The Bush; “His story is still being told”

Part concert film and part road movie celebrating the life and music of multi-award winning and much loved Australian country music artist Lee Kernaghan, Boy From The Bush is a unique and personal insight into one of the country’s most celebrated artists.

Ahead of the film’s local release, Peter Gray spoke with its director, Kriv Stenders, to discuss his love of the documentary style of filmmaking, just why he said yes to this project, and what we can expect from him in the future.

I know of Lee Kernaghan but I wouldn’t say he’s an artist I’m familiar with. I always appreciate these kinds of films when I can go in and have no preconceived notions of who the person is.  Was Lee someone that you had always wanted to profile?

I just finished making Slim and I with my producers, Chris Brown and Diana Le Dean, and they were talking to me about another project and saying that they’ve been starting conversations with Lee Kernaghan’s management and if I would be interested in making a film about him. I kind of went “Well, look, I don’t know his work from a bar of soap. You know, I know of him and he’s iconic.” Maybe this is a chance to do a performance film. I’ve always wanted to do a concert film, a big concert movie like Shine A Light and Last Waltz. I’ve always thought It’d be fun to do a concert film.

So I pitched this idea about how (his) songs came about and what inspires him. And Lee loved it, because he didn’t want to make a film about himself. He just loved the idea of being able to make a film that spoke about what inspired him to write those songs. So it’s sort of a perfect kind of collision of the idea and the subject matter.

Do you think that having an outside view of him made it easier to make this film?

I think that having that sort of objectivity was (a good thing) and I was able to discover the music.  And now I’m a huge fan of (his) music.  I’ve been making this film for two years and I’ve heard (those song) about 20,000 time (laughs), but that’s real testament. The fact that those songs work.  I’ve developed, huge respect and an appreciation of that kind of music now, because it’s deceptively simple. It’s very hard to write simple songs.

As you said that you wanted to make a concert film.  If that’s not where Lee particularly wanted to go would you have been happy making a more straightforward documentary? Were you relieved when Lee was happy to do a concert film?

Yeah I was, because I really I don’t know if I would have gone ahead with it if I had to make a straight biopic. I don’t think Lee would have been happy either. Lee’s had a 30 year career, which is amazing and that’s a huge scope of time.  30 years is a long time.  But, unlike Slim Dusty, I think Lee’s legacy is still yet to be determined.  When you’re doing a biopic film, you need some kind of finality.  That’s a great way to end the story, because it ends. And with Lee, there isn’t really that story.  I think Lee’s story is still being told.  There’s almost like another act that is going to happen before you could actually do that.

Where did the the love for documentary filmmaking start for you?

My very first film was a documentary made in 1994.  It’s a 50 minute documentary film called Motherland, which won quite a lot of awards.  So yeah, documentary was really my first kind of pure filmmaking.  That was an incredible adventure. I’ve always loved documentary because I find (it) the purest form of filmmaking there is.  It’s what I call “live” filmmaking.

I liken the difference between documentary filmmaking and narrative to rock climbing and free soloing.  With rock climbing, like narrative filmmaking, you have ropes and support.  Documentaries feel like you have to have every move made out, because you could slip and fall.  It’s exhausting and challenging, but when you pull it off it’s incredibly satisfying.

Was there any one film or one filmmaker for you that was quite formative to you wanting to be a director?

Obviously there’s Errol Morris and The Thing Blue Line. But for me, it’s Spielberg, it’s Kubrick, it’s David Lynch…those sort of filmmakers. Even Jane Campion.  You know, when I saw Sweetie, I was like “Fuck, this is so unique. So fresh, so alive, so inspiring. I want to do something like that!” That’s kind of what always floats my boat.

Now that this film is completed, do you have ideas of where you want to go as a director?  Are you going to make another documentary film or are you going to return to narrative?

I mean I’m a slut, so I’ll keep on rockin’ (laughs).  I’ve got a couple of documentaries I’m trying to make. I’m making a documentary series right now, and I’ve got about three feature films in the pipeline, but feature films are very hard to finance now, and that’s why I’ve gravitated more to documentaries over the last few years, because they’re just a smaller footprint in terms of production.  You can make them with small crews.  And I like that. I have more autonomy. I have more freedom as a documentary film director than I do as a feature director.

Lee Kernaghan: Boy From The Bush is screening in limited release in Australian theatres now.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.