“There is a great untold Australian story of tragedy and triumph that has been covered in a mountain of myth”: Darren K. Hawkins and Leo Kennedy Interviewed

The Ned Kelly story remains one of the most popular and enduring in Australian history, but there are always multiple perspectives from which to look at it. One of the most overlooked perspectives is of the families of the slain policemen, whose spilt blood cemented the Kelly Gang in infamy. Of these men, Sergeant Michael Kennedy was the most distinguished, and now independent filmmaker Darren K. Hawkins wants to tell his story in film – and not just the tragic ending. The project is supported by Leo Kennedy, a descendant of the policeman, whose book about Ned Kelly from the perspective of law and order, Black Snake, has become one of the most popular currently available titles on the subject.

Darren and Leo both took time out of their schedules to discuss the project with Aidan Phelan, exclusively for A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

Thank you for taking some time to have a chat. To open up, let’s talk a bit about Michael.

How would you best describe what you are aiming for with this project?

Darren: It’s multi-layered. First and foremost, Michael and Bridget’s story being told to a wider audience, cinematically.  Michael Kennedy, and two other police were murdered by the Kelly gang at Stringybark. This is something that has never been disputed by history, even Ned’s own words in his trial for the murders, yet Michael has been consigned to a mere footnote of history.  I’d love that people who watch the film begin to find out about the REAL Michael Kennedy to begin with. He wasn’t the stereotype of the “bad cop” that a lot of the police in the Kelly narrative have been tarred as being. This is a narrative that has to be corrected. The community support for his wife Bridget was overwhelming too. If the Kennedys were bad people, this wouldn’t have happened. This amazing woman became a tower of strength for her young family. There’s just so much to unpack, the more you find out about them.

If I can start a conversation for people who watch the film, to ask themselves about the REAL story, for them to do the research, find out more and draw their own conclusions, then I will have achieved something special.

Leo: The [aim is] telling of Michael and Bridget’s story to a wide audience, cinematically; and also a retelling of one of the darkest chapters of the Kelly Gang. Michael Kennedy and two other policemen were murdered by the Kelly gang at Stringybark Creek. Despite the remarkable police career of Michael and life of Bridget outside of their area their story is not widely known. But the Kelly Gang story and Stringybark Creek murders have now become unrecognisable and distant from the real history. It is sad that Michael has been consigned to a mere footnote of history; and the villain of the piece is now incorrectly feted. If only people could watch a film and begin to find out about the REAL Michael Kennedy. He wasn’t the phoney Kelly narrative of a stereotypical “bad cop”. This is an opportunity to correct that narrative. The community supported his wife Bridget and family very generously and caringly. This generosity sprang from the Kennedys’ own kindness being repaid. This amazing woman became a tower of strength for her young family. She also played a large and influential part in the community. I hope the film ignites people to reconsider our history and go after the REAL story for themselves. That is one of the reasons I laid out as many references as possible in my book, Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly. People can do the research and draw their own conclusions. Between my book and this movie I hope myth can be replaced with true history.

What was it that drew you to the story of Sergeant Kennedy?

Darren: As a young boy, naturally, I was drawn to stories about our history, I was fascinated by stories of the bushrangers.  As an adult, I began to discover that not everything that had been presented to me in the past was consistent. By chance I saw Leo Kennedy on a television show talking about his great grandfather and something struck a chord with me listening to him talk.  I started researching Michael Kennedy and discovered that here was a man that was not only respected by his community and peers, but in many ways was ahead of his times. It’s in those moments that you realise what sort of a significant individual he was, that his murder, the loss of his life, well, you just feel the incredible loss of a life that WOULD have been so much more.

Leo: I grew up hearing stories of Sergeant Kennedy, the exemplary policeman and his stoic widow Bridget who raised their five children. My mother also instilled in me a great interest in history. I was drawn to stories about our family and Australian history. Going to secondary school I was confronted by others who had been presented with a fictionalised account of history; and was shocked by the awe in which they held a murderer. Unfortunately it did not stop there. The situation got even worse when places sacred to us were taken over in the name of tourism and our family members and police officers were maligned. I started to step up and called out the errors and mistruths; and restore pride in our murdered policemen. They deserved much better than to be villainised and their murderer be lauded. It is a gross travesty. Michael Kennedy was respected by his community and peers; and was both influential in his tolerance and extending the hand of friendship to all people in this fast expanding colony; and innovative in policing. A man ahead of his times.  His impact was significant. It is very sad such an individual was cut short and his family impacted so dreadfully. The violent loss of his life changed our family’s course in history; and has had ramifications for generations.

How do you see the character of Michael Kennedy, and what qualities will be at the fore in this interpretation?

Darren: An honourable man, loving, loved, respected, devoted to his duty and his community.  Michael Kennedy for my mind was not only the sort of man you WANTED to be your local police officer, but you’d want as a friend.

Leo: Michael was an honourable man, loving, loved, respected, devoted to his family, duty and his community.  Michael was held up to me as the sort of man I should aspire to be. I recall former Chief Commissioner Ken Lay reading his record and saying that “this is a remarkable record, it is what we would want all our police officers’ records to be”.

How will the other members of the Mansfield party be woven into the narrative?

Darren: Michael Scanlan in particular will play a large part.  Kennedy and Scanlan had a close bond, a close friendship . In this telling of the story too, when Kennedy and Scanlan are tasked with apprehending the Kelly’s , the first people that they think of are Lonigan and McIntrye . I want to show a fun comrade between Kennedy and Scanlan too.

Leo: Michael Scanlan should play a large part.  They were close and had a great friendship. There was a lot of fun and camaraderie between them.

How important for your vision is it to concentrate on the Kennedy family rather than simply the incident that deprived them of their breadwinner? 

Darren: His murder, and again, let’s be blunt, that’s what is was, I don’t want to dwell on it and glorify it. For too long that part has been the only time Michael was mentioned. This man was more than that. His wife Bridget was more than that.  Their story is what needs to be told. These were amazing people in quite the cultural melting pot of colonial Victoria. The community reaction to rally behind Bridget and her young family (as well as Lonigan’s widow Maria let me add) shows just how much of an effect she had too.   The fact that the community continued to rally and petition the government for years to help her, that she and Maria were the FIRST to receive a legacy pension, these men, their wives, their families, were so much more and deserve so much more.

Leo: In past tellings of his story his murder unfortunately overshadows all he was and did. For too long that event has been the only mention of him. He was so much more. And Bridget has an inspirational story too. Their story needs to be told. A story of love, doing good, overcoming grief; of pressing on. All in the cultural melting pot of burgeoning colonial Victoria. It would be fantastic to capture the community reaction and to see them rally behind Bridget and her young family. As they did for Lonigan’s widow Maria and family. The community would not let their dire situation continue. They rallied and petitioned the government for years to help her. That Bridget and Maria were the first to receive a legacy type pension, this established a precedent that has since been followed. These policemen and their wives and families were so much more than how they have been portrayed and presented. They deserve much more attention and consideration.

Given the recently released short feature Stringybark, which ostensibly covers the same ground as what you are looking at with Michael, comparisons will be drawn. What separates what you are aiming for and what has gone before?

Darren: I have to be honest, I haven’t had the opportunity to see the other short (especially with so many festivals closing their doors due to Covid), so I can’t comment on what ground it covers. If, however, it just covers Stringybark Creek, the large difference will be that Michael, while showing what happened at Stringybark Creek, aims to not concentrate upon the Kellys, and focuses upon the human side of the tragedy, the Kennedys in particular, something that I truly [believe] to be unique in any past cinematic retelling of any part of the Kelly story.

Leo: I am forever grateful to have been involved in Stringybark. It covers a section one of what Darren is covering in the life and times of Michael and Bridget. As the title indicates it covers a short lead up to the party forming and heading to Stringybark, the three murders, the escape of McIntyre; and the finding of the bodies. The difference here will be the deep dives into the lives and who these people are. Key is the focus upon the human side of the tragedy. The impact of the tragedy on the Kennedys, the Lonigans, Scanlans and the McIntyres, in particular, has never been explored or exposed before. This is quantum shift in the telling of history. The victims’ story. The story of those who carry the grief.

Leo Kennedy

Naturally, people are going to be interested in how you will portray the Kelly Gang, Ned in particular. What is your interpretation of them, and how will they fit into the film?

Darren: The Kelly gang are bit players in the film. This will be Michael and Bridget’s story. I know t.his may get a lot of the Kelly supporters upset, but I’m not going to glorify the actions of a man that, by his own words in his trial, admitted to hunting down and then murdering a wounded man who begged for his own life. Those were Ned’s own words in his trial. People can serve that up any way they want, but those were Ned’s own words.

My interpretation of the Kelly gang, and this is from a man who, when he was younger, like many Australians, saw him as some “hero fighting for the freedoms of others”; as someone who played both Dan Kelly and Steve Hart on stage; from all my research, I no longer see the Kellys as heroes.

Leo: As this is Michael and Bridget’s story; the Kellys are minor and correctly cast as the villains of the piece. I hope there is an insight provided into a young man brought up to be anti-establishment and longing for the bad old days. A man in denial of the fast growing reality that wild colonial life is coming to speedy end. He is a relic clinging to a past that he had romanticised; haunted and taunted that he was Power’s pup and only holding the horses. His cattle and horse thieving empire has just imploded and his impetuousness and recklessness now have him facing an attempted murder charge and his mother who was an accessory has just been gaoled. He is at the end of the road – but won’t surrender. There is no glory in the path he takes or his actions. This is a man who steals from the bodies of those he has murdered. He is a very low man, if a man at all. A man who murders a husband and father who has pleaded for his life. Ned’s own words and deeds make him who he is. The Kelly gang were not heroes

In the Kelly world there’s a constant tug of war between whether the story is viewed with a pro-Kelly or pro-police slant. What is your view on that, and how will it be reflected in the film?

Darren: Good question! I know that what we’re doing with this film, it will be seen as having a pro-police slant.  From the simple point of view that I’m telling the story of one of the police that Kelly murdered.  I’d like to think that what I want to do with this is to have more of a “pro-history” view and let the audience decide as to where they fit.

Leo: I am hoping there is no slant; just a straight telling of a tragic story. There are plenty of historical primary records on which to base this movie; instead of the embellishments that have been added for over a century. It is one where a man new to this country works hard to make it a better place; his life is ended too soon when he is one of three policemen that Kelly murdered. A balanced presentation based on facts. One that enables an audience to take in information and form a view.

There’s a lot of potential in telling this story to be able to create a sort of bridge between the camps. Do you believe that Michael will be able to please people on both sides of the divide and highlight the things they can all agree on, rather than pushing one perspective as the entire truth?

Darren: Yes, there will be some dramatic licence.  We don’t have any digital recordings from the people that lived through everything that happened in those days, but what we DO have are plenty of documents.  Newspapers, gazettes, hansard from parliament, written record of events as they happened. That’s where I’m taking this film’s core from.

Leo: The only camps I know of are families and non family story (all too often myth) tellers. A factual telling will heal the families and restore their confidence in media makers. When I have spoken to people about Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly and about Michael and Bridget; I have sensed a genuine interest in them and their story. The “pro-Kelly myth” narrative is tired and tarnished. The families long for the real story to be told; not a collection of embellishments and false stereotypes. The telling of real history is long overdue. It is time for the telling of Michael’s story.

You’re currently raising funds to get a short feature made, what’s the game plan like once you hit the funding target?

Darren: I’ve been very lucky that I have a LOT of very talented people that have already committed themselves to the project, so I feel quite blessed that I don’t need to do a search for the talent. A number of the locations have been scouted, so in many ways, we’re ready to roll. I have a target that will get the film made, funding past that, and like any target, we’d all love to go past the target to ensure the belt doesn’t have to be as tugged tight. Should the fundraising REALLY excel, then we can move towards the feature version, which is the endgame.

Darren K. Hawkins

You’ve had a lot of experience, Darren, in front of and behind the camera, would you say this is potentially the most ambitious undertaking you’ve pursued to date as a filmmaker?

Darren: I would have to say that it is.  This is a period specific piece too, which provides it’s own set of challenges, but something that I’m not only relishing the challenge of, but embracing. This project is something that I’m very passionate about, I don’t think I’ve worked on something that’s quite lit the fire in my belly the way this has. I suppose it’s not only because I’m a bit of a film geek, but I’m a bit of a history nerd too!

Have you got anyone earmarked for the cast and crew yet?

Darren: Indeed I do!   I’ve got a brilliant actress in Lauren Hamilton Neill already to play Bridget and a soon as the fundraiser is done, I’ll be heading to the casting director (who has been in the industry since the 1980’s) who has agreed to get onto the casting of Michael for me.

Crew wise, the amazing Casimir Dickson who was the DOP for Legend of the Five and is a multi award winning DOP and my executive producer, Sara Joyce just finished working with Alex Proyas on his latest film. These are just a couple of examples of the incredible talents that have committed to this film!

Lauren Hamilton Neill is slated to appear as Bridget Kennedy

The project has clearly been given a great deal of support by Leo – who reached out to whom first?

Darren: I tried getting in touch with Leo via Email some time before recently, but the mail was probably lost in the ether!  After my interview with 3AW, Leo reached out to me via email and I’ve been blown away by his generosity with his time since.

Will you be using Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly as the basis of the screenplay, or will you be looking to a wider range of sources?

Darren: Both. I’ve drawn on information from a number of sources for the initial screenplay. The internet has some great source material that you can find via digital records these days, records that were once only on microfiche or in the back room of a library. Newspaper articles and the actual records of the legacy payments to Bridget Kennedy and Maria Lonigan are right there for all to see. Leo’s book, Black Snake, has also been an amazing reference source too. An absolute WEALTH of first hand information, and more importantly, direct family information, how it affected their family and there’s a treasure trove of information that had just never really been presented.  His book is a MUST for anyone wanting to get a broader understanding of the narrative.

As I move towards the feature, my hope is that I can spend some quality time with Leo and other members of the Kennedy family (and indeed the familes of Lonigan, Scanlan and McIntrye). A story like this isn’t complete without their input.

Leo: I deliberately included tomes of references in my book, Black Snake, to assist anyone to undertake their own research. Many are internet references to make people’s research easier. My book addresses the many misunderstandings of the time and the people; and that is done by accurately quoting from the original sources. I have offered to assist in the research of the characters and history.

What would you say is the most fundamental message that people need to take away from this story?

Darren: First of all , to know that there’s more to the story they’ve been used to hearing. Then secondly, to see, feel and understand the greater human story and tragedy that befell those families. To be able to listen to another perspective of the Kelly narrative. To be able to walk away from watching the film and want to find out more for themselves and form a more rounded opinion on one of the most iconic stories in Australian history and culture.

Leo: There is a great untold Australian story of tragedy and triumph that has been covered in a mountain of myth. It is the untold story of the Kelly Gang’s victims. Here is but one of them. Michael.

What can people do if they want to support the project?

Darren: Go to the website, www.australianculturalfund.org.au , search “Michael”. Donations would be amazing; all donations over $2 receive a receipt that is tax deductible. Share the project on their social media, or write to us at info@lonelyhillfilms.com.au 

The project is on Facebook, “Michael – movie”, give us a follow there and you can find all the information about how to access and donate to the ACF campaign there too.

Darren K. Hawkins and Leo Kennedy, thank you very much for your time and best of luck with Michael. Hopefully we will be seeing this story play out on the screen very soon.

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