Kriv Stenders: Crafting Boy From The Bush

June 22, 2022
Prolific director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Slim & I) takes a refreshingly unusual approach with his Lee Kernaghan concert biography film Boy From The Bush, which will premiere at The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival.

Kriv Stenders is without question one of this country’s busiest – and most gifted – directors currently working. While many filmmakers around him struggle to mount projects and still stagger around in a post-Covid haze, the Sydney based helmer is completing fascinating, finely tailored, and richly constructed film and TV projects at a rate of knots. The prolific, acclaimed director of films such as Red DogBoxing DayKill Me Three TimesLucky Country, Danger Close, Australia Day and TV’s The Principal and Wake In Fright has not only recently been navigating the world of high-turn-over TV with eps of Doctor Doctor and Bump, but has also created a second career for himself as a highly skilled and inspired documentarian. The likes of The Go-Betweens: Right Here, Brock: Over The Top, Slim & I and ABC-TV’s Going Country have highlighted a director just as comfortable with non-fiction storytelling as he is with taller cinematic tales.

It was Stenders’ masterful work on the 2020 doco Slim & I – which told of the extraordinary relationship of Australian country music icon Slim Dusty and his gifted songwriter wife Joy McKean – that led directly to his latest project, Boy From The Bush, which deals with a more contemporary Australian country icon in the swaggering, black-hatted form of Lee Kernaghan. When Slim & I producers Chris Brown and Diana Le Dean started looking for directors after striking a deal with Lee Kernaghan’s management team on a film project, they sensibly returned to the well, and asked Stenders to pitch them with his own ideas for the film. What the director came up with was more-than-slightly against the grain.

Kriv Stenders at work.

“I wasn’t really wanting to do a straightforward music bio-doc,” Stenders explains down the line, already busily at work on his next project. “I wanted to do something more adventurous. I wanted to do a different take on the concept of the concert movie. I thought that the best way to do anything about Lee was through his songs, simply because they’re just so iconic, and also because they speak so specifically to the Australian rural experience. I wanted to weave Lee’s story into the story of his songs. I wanted to use the concert as a template and then have these interstitials between each song, where he would tell the story of the song about to be played. That, in turn, would then tell Lee’s story too. I thought that was a great device and a great piece of machinery to tell the story. We pitched that idea to Lee and his management, and then we were off and running. They trusted us and let us move forward with that approach.”

With the concept in place, Stenders set up a two-night, six-camera, thirteen-song concert shoot at The Tivoli in Brisbane specifically for filming purposes. “It was essentially a live performance,” Stenders explains. “We had an audience, and they bought drinks and everything, and they were basically then treated to a three or four hour concert performance from Lee where the songs were repeated a few times, because we sometimes needed a few passes to get all of the coverage that we needed. It was an audience of hardcore Lee Kernaghan fans, so they were pretty much in heaven. The crowd was fantastic. They were really energised, and they knew the songs back to front. I really appreciated that, because I was able to see the real love that Lee has garnered over his career, and the following that he has. I could also see the love that was out there for these songs, which I didn’t really know until I started on this project. Every song touches the audience in a very different and specific way and I was really astounded by that.”

Lee Kernaghan on stage.

As well as capturing Lee Kernaghan in all his authentic, energetic glory on stage, Stenders and his crew also travelled with the singer across different parts of Australia, to witness his connection both to the Australian rural landscape and the people that live it and work it. “We shot a whole bunch of encounters with Lee on the road,” Stenders explains. “We also had a DOP shooting in The Northern Territory for us. It was an epic production in that way, as we had people all over the country filming for the documentary. Lee didn’t want the film just to be about him…he wanted it to be about what inspires him, which is the land. The film is very much a love letter to rural Australia and rural Australians. That’s really what Lee’s music is about. It tells the stories of the people that have been his fans for the last thirty years. I thought this was a great way to capture the legacy of his thirty-year career.”

Though essentially a music performance piece, Stenders – who also utilises dramatic aerial drone footage, as well as more esoteric imagery captured by his various crews working around the country – has a very surprising admission to make when it comes to Boy From The Bush. “I actually like to think of this as my most experimental film,” laughs the director of unusual and highly original cinematic treasures like The Illustrated Family Doctor, Blacktown and Boxing Day. “When you’re dealing with music, you’re essentially dealing with poetry, and the film’s much more of a tone poem. I’m a huge fan of films like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka, and this was my chance to almost do something like that. You wouldn’t think of Lee Kernaghan being avante garde, but it’s turned out exactly the way I wanted it to when I pitched it. Lee and his team really had to trust my vision for the film, but it’s very much a rumination on rural Australia through the lense of Lee Kernaghan’s music.”

The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival, where Boy From The Bush will premiere.

Though unable to make it because he is – of course – busy with his next project, which will be shooting in nearby Ayr, Boy From The Bush will very appropriately make its bow at The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival in the town of Winton in rural Queensland. “Winton features a lot in the film, so it’s great that it will have its premiere there,” Stenders enthuses. “Lee visited Winton last year and did some concerts there, and we captured those in the film, and also caught him chatting with some of the locals, so I’m so chuffed that the film is premiering there. It’s the perfect place for the film to kick off. It’s a great festival, and it’s a really great town. What they’ve done there is really quite extraordinary. It’s one of those truly great festivals that will hopefully become part of the cinematic fabric of this country.”

Boy From The Bush will premiere at The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival on Friday, June 24. For all ticketing, venue and session information, click here.

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