The past twelve months have been, for want of a better word, tumultuous. In amongst it all we got two films tackling the Kelly story – True History of the Kelly Gang and Stringybark. The two productions could not have been more different in every aspect, but both made it over the finish line just before the fires and the pandemic took hold. Now the smaller of the two productions, Stringybark, has made its way onto the Ozflix streaming service giving home audiences that missed its limited cinema screenings an opportunity to check it out.
There’s no doubt that Stringybark will be confronting for some viewers, but behind every story told there’s a storyteller with a message they want heard. With this in mind I reached out to the film’s director, Ben Head, to discuss the process of creating his cinematic vision of one Australia’s most controversial true crimes and his take on the incredible Kelly story.
Thank you, Ben, for taking the time to have a chat about Stringybark. I think it goes without saying that the road this far has been quite an odyssey for you.
With Stringybark now available on Ozflix, you’re about to have your work accessible to an enormous audience, perhaps far greater than the film was intended for. Given that this is your debut feature, that’s a lot of pressure. How are you feeling about it all?
First of all thank you, Aidan, for giving me this opportunity, it’s much appreciated. Actually I always intended the film to have as broad a reach as possible and this has come to some fruition. I am feeling very chuffed with the response the film has had from all over the country. I’ve had fantastic messages of support and goodwill from many, and it’s heartening to read. I am feeling very proud of the fact that a story I have brought to the screen is touching the hearts of the many people who watch it.
This of course began life while you were still a film student. How did you settle upon the idea of doing something so ambitious as a depiction of one of Australia’s most infamous historical crimes?
Stringybark wasn’t a student film and was completely independent of my university studies. I just had to find time to squeeze it in between university commitments.
I had always wanted to tell this story, in fact ever since the story captivated me as a 10 year old boy after a holiday stopover in Glenrowan.
It’s clear that the intention was always to portray the story as authentically as possible. When developing the screenplay, what were the main sources that you referred to in order to learn and understand the story?
We read widely and sourced as much primary evidence as we could. I always wanted the film to be tackled in a scholarly way rather than basing it on the myth. It’s a story that’s never been told with any historical accuracy in a dramatic context, so I wanted to take a step up. Just by way of example, we consulted the royal commissions, original correspondence, cables, the autopsy reports of Doctor Samuel Reynolds, who performed the post-mortem examinations, and the memoir of Thomas McIntyre. And of course there are at least half a dozen novels all claiming historical insights and we read all of these as well.
There are some moments that are lifted almost identically from McIntyre’s account of the events, while others are clearly fictional but intended to fill the gaps in the historical narrative. How did you approach the process of adapting the known history and knowing where to draw the line with the moments where you had to invent a scene in order to make a workable film narrative?
We realised that the only part of the Stringybark tale that had been documented thoroughly was the ambush itself, and the events that followed. There was very little written about the lives of the police before the incident. We needed to show these men with their families and friends in order to create an audience connection with them, and to show them as real people. In constructing the scenes such as the relationship between the Kennedys, we relied on conversations with Leo Kennedy, the great grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, as well as a written statement by Bridget Kennedy made years later.
This is a very decidedly pro-police film, or rather it has a strong anti-Kelly Gang/anti-crime stance. Was this a response to the overwhelmingly pro-Kelly stance pursued in popular culture or was the story of the police just that much more compelling for you?
I would say that this film doesn’t take sides – it just tells the story for what it was. Yes – our protagonists are the police officers, but we didn’t need to embellish the story – it’s fascinating all on its own. I’ve had a lot of correspondence from Kelly supporters agreeing with this. I also wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the victims because it hadn’t been done before, and for such a brutal crime it’s curious that it’s always glossed over in popular culture. Perhaps it’s because it’s a bit too uncomfortable. Truth is so often stranger than fiction and this story is no exception: literally 3 young men, all in their mid 30’s, respected and well known members of the communities in which they lived, two with wives and families, shot dead.
Would it be fair to say that the character that was most compelling for you in this was Sergeant Michael Kennedy?
It would be fair, yes. Michael Kennedy’s life captured my imagination. He was a devoted family man with 5 children and in a happy marriage. It would have made for an anxious and trying time for him knowing he had to carry out a military style mission – that is, commanding an armed covert operation into the bush in search of dangerous criminals who clearly had the upper hand, both in terms of their intimate familiarity with the location and the benefit of local support. On top of this, his party was underprepared, under-resourced and untrained for the task.
Michael Kennedy is also easily aligned with the concept of what it means to be the Australian that we look up to today – working class, family man, made ends meet on a meagre salary and all in a law-abiding way under tough circumstances.
Doing a period piece is always a daunting task for a filmmaker, let alone doing it with such limited resources. Was there ever a time during production where you felt like you had bitten off more than you could chew?
Never. It was a big bite for sure but never more than we could chew! We strictly managed our time and budget and were blessed with an incredible cast and crew. The whole production experience was a pleasure from start to finish and we have forged fantastic friendships and professional relationships in the process.
One of the things that serves Stringybark well is that it really feels like it’s own thing. In the lead up to making the film did you study any of the other existing Kelly films?
My intention was always to focus on creating something new so I really avoided looking at previous films during my contemplation and writing of this story. The real stimulation came from unearthing a cable or some other piece of written correspondence from the time and using those fragments to underpin the feel of the film.
How did you go about getting the sets and costumes given that you weren’t really able to hire costumiers and set builders?
Wardrobe was supplied exclusively by Warwick’s Militaria in Melbourne and we avoided set building by using existing locations.
One shot that really stands out in my mind is the bodies being brought back from the shooting site. It really looks like the contemporary illustration brought to life. Did you find it at all difficult to manage strapping bodies to the side of an animal with bags over their heads?
Thank you! That shot was very important to me – I really wanted to recreate that old woodcut of the bodies strapped to the horses and bring it to life. It is such a tragic and brutal image and speaks to the finality of the event. Contemporary accounts describe the pack horses being very unsettled when the bodies of the police were roped to the harness. During shooting, our pack horse also became very unsettled when the dummy was attached to the saddle. The scene that unfolded before us that day won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
The first public premiere of the film was at the Lorne Film Festival. What was it like seeing the fruit of your labour on the big screen at such a big event?
Stringybark had been shown at an investor only event at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne in April 2019 so I’d seen it on the big screen already but the premiere at Lorne was a fantastic validation of the effort that had gone into the production. Having a cinema full with an interested, intrigued and supportive audience watching the film was an awesome experience and one I’ll never forget.
One of the things we’re seeing becoming increasingly a trend with Australian film is the use of crowdfunding to get things off the ground. What was the motivator to have a media and crowdfunding campaign for this film?
Film finance is a complex domain and Australia isn’t awash with support for independent film, especially for those without a track record like us. We needed a budget and crowdfunding was a straightforward way to kick it off. Crowdfunding as an approach isn’t a sure fire way of achieving a budget though – word of your project needs to reach investors other than through the crowdfunding site. We were very fortunate to have received media support early on and this really made the difference.
Are there things that you wish you had approached differently or things that you wish you had been able to include but had to cut due to time or budget?
There were technical learnings along the way but I’m generally happy with how things came together. I would have liked to explore some of the relationships in greater depth, particularly the longstanding friendship between Michael Scanlan and Michael Kennedy. The pair had been mates for a long time and it would have helped create a stronger on-screen bond. I would also have liked to explore the Kennedy family dynamic some more.
The Kelly Gang in this depiction could be seen as quite over the top in some respects. They are far more aggressive than are usually shown and seem to enjoy bullying McIntyre in a way that even goes beyond the way McIntyre himself described. Can you explain a bit about what steered you towards that portrayal?
The gang’s portrayal is based on contemporary descriptions of the characters – even by their own words. The Jerilderie letter in particular provides an invaluable insight into the prevailing psyche. I also had them approach the camp in the way McIntyre had described – weapons drawn and intent on the business of the day. They were hard men intent on winning the day by force of arms. We know this. To portray them as some latter day gentlemen of the bush would have just perpetuated the popular story that really doesn’t align with their own personal histories.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the armoury. It’s clear from your other film projects that you have a keen interest in militaria, did that play a part in helping you track down and get a hold of accurate weaponry?
I’ve always had the view that if you go down the path of making an authentic period production, then every aspect of it should be as authentic as you can reasonably make it. This goes for wardrobe, saddlery and tack, language and of course firearms. We had the services of an excellent armourer who thankfully also shared an interest in historical accuracy.
Your dad, Tim, gets the starring role as Sergeant Kennedy – and does a sterling job too. What was it like directing him?
Fortunately no different to any of the other actors! Everyone that was a part of the project brought everything they had to it and a little more.
Naturally a film that tackles such a divisive story in a very partisan perspective is bound to get critics based purely on the side you’ve chosen. Unfortunately it’s a nasty trap that people often get stuck in where the Kelly story is concerned. What do you hope Stringybark can bring to the table to help bring some equilibrium and perspective back to how we examine these events, and what do you think that the pro-Kelly people can gain from watching your film?
I like to think that I’ve simply looked at the story through a different lens – one that nobody has previously wanted to look through. There’s a lot to reflect on if we can get past the mythology. Primarily we could focus on the impact of violence in the community that’s almost always felt first hand by our women and children. Kelly’s actions resulted in the deaths of 3 men, leaving 2 women widows and 9 children fatherless. The cost to the community of such an outcome is hard to reconcile. It’s also a situation that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1878.
Once again, thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and give people a bit of an insight into the process and the ideas behind Stringybark. Hopefully this is a first step into a fruitful future for Ben Squared. If people would like to keep tabs on your future projects what is the best way to do that?
Thanks, Aidan, really appreciate the time! Follow us on instagram @bensquaredfilms to keep up to date!
Stringybark is available to rent on Ozflix now HERE
A massive thanks goes out once again to Ben Head for taking the time to be interviewed and for providing production stills for this article.