The Director Speaks: Matthew Holmes Interviewed

In 2017 Matthew Holmes’ dream to create a bushranging epic for the big screen was finally realised with the theatrical release of The Legend of Ben Hall. Though it was a limited release, it gained a strong following and has since added fans from around the world to its fanbase. Now the call to action has rung out as Holmes endeavours to create a new cut of the film that is closer to his original intention than was previously possible. However, in order to make this project come to fruition he has taken to Kickstarter to raise the funds needed. Those who have followed the journey of the film will know that it was crowdfunding and an army of volunteers that made it possible to make the original film. A Guide to Australian Bushranging sat down with Holmes to discuss this monumental project, what he hopes to achieve and how.

It’s been almost three years since The Legend of Ben Hall was first released, and since then it has been distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming all around the world and has met with a great reception. What made you decide to bite the bullet and have a crack at making the definitive version of the film?

Holmes – I was committed to the idea of a Director’s Cut while I was editing the Theatrical Cut in 2015-2016. It was clear that we were going to have to lose a lot of great material in order to bring the run time closer to 2 hours. After all, our first assembly edit was 3 hours and 40 minutes long. Because we only had the money to finish one version of the film, the theatrical release version took priority and any scene that had to go, I would say “that’s one for the Director’s Cut!”

Now three years since its release, the film has done really good business in the home entertainment market, especially in the USA. I pitched the concept to my distributor Pinnacle Films and they really liked the idea. So it seemed like the right time to try to get the Director’s Cut completed. Plus the fanbase has really grown and there definitely seems like there’s a demand for it. I ran a poll on Facebook last year and 500+ people said they would support a crowdfunding campaign, so that showed there was definitely interest in the possibility.

What will the director’s cut bring to the table that is different from the version that we’ve already seen?

Holmes – There will be around 30 new scenes and 48 expanded scenes in the Director’s Cut. Essentially it’s the same story as the Theatrical Cut, but there’s more stops along the way. The film will move at a less frenetic pace. In the Theatrical Cut, my editor Caitlin Spiller and I were editing each sequence within an inch of its life to bring down the overall run time. People thought were absolutely crazy for releasing a 139 min version as our Theatrical Cut and were telling us to cull it to 90 minutes. So a lot of great character moments and little nuances got lost in the edit simply for timings sake.

My plan with the Director’s Cut is to make a far more immersive and sensory film experience. It will cement the audience more in Ben Hall’s world and allow them to sit with those characters in the environment, rather just punching along to the next event. I think it will give me the chance to really play with sound design as well, to get a feeling of what it was like to live in the bush. The Director’s Cut will absolutely be one of those films you watch over the course of two or three nights, rather than all in one sitting. The experience of the two versions will be vastly different.

Jack Martin as Ben Hall

Are there any particular parts of the original screenplay that you wish you had been able to film?

Holmes – There are many historical moments I wanted to include, but couldn’t. I only wrote scenes that I thought we could achieve with our very limited budget. Some historical moments had to be scaled down or omitted completely. There’s a great moment where four brothers fought off the Hall Gang from the back of a travelling wagon – that would’ve been an amazing action set piece to include. But it would’ve taken three days to film and cost a fortune.

I did write an interesting scene where the Hall Gang pillage a camp of Chinese miners and we really see the cruelty and racism inflicted on the Chinese in that period. It showed Gilbert to be a really nasty piece of work – as he really was to the Chinese. But ultimately I just didn’t have the time or budget to do it. But I promise – if we get over $110,000 on the Kickstarter Campaign – I will film that scene and put it into the movie. So get pledging, folks!

To outsiders, it might seem strange that you’ve gone to Kickstarter to get the money together for the director’s cut when we see Hollywood movies getting director’s cuts of films all the time with no apparent fundraising. Can you explain why Kickstarter was the best option to enable you to make this new edition?

Holmes The Legend of Ben Hall is in a totally different league to Hollywood films. Hollywood productions have the budget, time and resources to make both a Director’s Cut and a Theatrical Cut simultaneously. I really don’t think people realise how little we made The Legend of Ben Hall for. Our budget was barely a million dollars. For a film of that scale, that is unheard of. In the end, I was dipping into my own pocket just to complete it. For example, I paid for half of the miniature set build simply because we’d run out of money at that time. So the only way we can afford to produce a whole new version is if the fans support it. Raising money for films is even harder than it was when we filmed the movie back in 2015. People often assume that just because we made a film that we have this bottomless pit of money to draw on. It’s quite the opposite actually.

Among the rewards on Kickstarter are brand new books about the film and the weapons used by the bushrangers and their pursuers. Can you talk a little about what pledgers should be expecting from these books?

Holmes – The weapons book will cover many of the unique guns that feature in the film, which are different than your average Western. Because it’s set in 1865, the guns were a little older than those you’ll typically see in Clint Eastwood films. The guns used in Australia at the time were largely from English gunsmiths rather than from America. I think The Legend of Ben Hall may be the first film to show someone using a Tranter Revolving Rifle. I’m certain it’s the first Australian film to ever show the Tranters being used on screen.

The A Visual Journey book will be filled with images. No text. We have so many amazing photographs from the movie, they deserve to be in a coffee-table style book. Like the Director’s Cut, that book will be an immersive piece.

Why did you choose Kickstarter over similar crowdfunding websites like Pozible and GoFundMe?

Holmes – I’ve run several campaigns in the past and the ones that succeeded were on Kickstarter. I prefer their website and the way they do things. They also have better international reach.

I don’t approach my crowdfunding campaigns as a charity. I’m offering a product to my fans, I’m not asking for a handout. That’s where most crowdfunded film projects get it wrong; they treat their film like a charity cause and beg for people to help realise their dream. Their focus should be on what the pledgers stand to get out of it. With my campaign, the pledgers are essentially pre-ordering the Director’s Cut before it hits the shelves.

In the last decade we’ve seen a big increase in independent Australian genre films such as Occupation, Arrowhead, Wyrmwood, and Stringybark getting off the ground thanks to crowdfunding. These are films that frequently get overlooked by federal funding bodies, yet there’s obviously a demand for them, especially as some of them even got sequels. Do you think that it’s a sign that the Australian film funding bodies need to evolve to meet the demands of the audiences?

Holmes – Crowdfunding has been a saving grace for many indie filmmakers like myself. It allows us to go straight to our audience. When you have government funding bodies standing between you and your audience, that’s a no-win situation. They hold the keys and their opinion of the market (and your film) will dictate if you get their funding or not. Crowdfunding allows filmmakers the chance to bypass them, which I love.

The Legend of Ben Hall would not exist if it wasn’t for those wonderful people who pledged on my Ben Hall short film campaign back in 2014. That was the catalyst that ignited the feature film. Screen Australia was never going to get behind a Ben Hall feature film, and certainly not one directed by me. When we approached them to help us with some post-production funding, they refused to support the film even after it was shot and edited. 

Also, the funding bodies typically avoid genre films in favour of whatever is socially or politically popular at the time. So sci-fi, horror, western, action, comedy – or any combination of those – are not going to be looked at favourably. Most of Australia’s most interesting, upcoming directors have had to launch their careers outside of the government funding system. Crowdfunding is a big key to doing that.

At around three hours, it’s going to be quite a long film.

Holmes – Yes, but it’s not going to be abnormally long. Wyatt Earp, Dances with Wolves, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Once Upon a Time in America – these are all very long films. Perhaps too long for theatrical release, but perfect for the home entertainment scenario where you can pause the movie, get a cup of tea and snacks and come back.

We’ve seen that films like the Avengers films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy increasingly have hefty run-times that people are happy to sit through. Do you think that this signifies a return to movies being a kind of event rather than the disposable entertainment that has flooded the market in recent times?

Holmes – I believe an invested audience is happy to sit through a longer running time. In the case of The Avengers or the Lord of The Rings, those films have a hardcore, established fanbase who want as much as you can give them. The Legend of Ben Hall has such a fanbase that is, of course, more niche but no less enthusiastic. People will binge 3 or 4 episodes of television in their homes, so I don’t see a 200 minute movie as being any different.

The Director’s Cut is not being made for the regular film goer; this is absolutely one for the fans or for those who love these types of sprawling, historical epics. Impatient or casual viewers should stick to the Theatrical Cut! Personally, this will give me the chance to make The Legend of Ben Hall the way I always wanted it to be, which is not very commercial.  This version will let history play out rather than be driven by movie conventions. Not having to argue or debate with anybody as to what should stay or go gives me full creative expression as a filmmaker, which I felt I lost making the Theatrical Cut.

I believe people will find the Director’s Cut a very different movie because of that. 

Jamie Coffa as the “flash Canadian”, Johnny Gilbert

Adapting history for film is not easy; how do you go about selecting what gets shown and what is left out?

Holmes – In my case, it came down to budget and what I could afford to show. But I also knew that the film had to focus on Ben Hall’s inner journey as much as his outer journey, so I selected historical moments that had a profound impact on his personal life. That was my best guide as to what should stay and what should go. In the end, a film is about characters, not plot. I focused the scenes more on the characters rather than worrying about the external narrative drive. Sure that made it more episodic, but I don’t think that’s something to be criticised. Many of my favourite films are hugely episodic, yet they are considered modern classics.

One of the more noticeable changes that you made that history buffs would notice was that you merged the characters of “Old Man” Gordon and John Dunleavy. Was that always the intention or was it a matter of practicality come production time?

Holmes – That is something I wish I could go back in time and fix. Adding John Dunleavy to the First Act would’ve added another character in an already burgeoning cast and I was forced to make some cuts due to our constricted budget. 

If you were able to, would you do a “George Lucas” and digitally insert an actor portraying Dunleavy into those scenes retroactively, or indeed use digital magic to add shots that you had not been able to first time around?

Holmes – Absolutely. If we over-finance on the Kickstarter campaign, I’ll magically weave John Dunleavy into the Director’s Cut – that’s another promise! I’d pay Jack Martin and Andy McPhee to reprise their roles and actually film some bonus scenes to make that work. It’s entirely possible if I have the funds for it. So get pledging, folks – the sky is the limit! The more money we raise, the better the Director’s Cut will be. In fact, I might make Dunleavy’s appearance and the Chinese Miner scenes as Stretch Goals.

There’s dialogue in the Theatrical Cut where Johnny Gilbert explains that he would dress in women’s clothing as a disguise. Given that this is something that he was known to do, was there ever any thought to finding a way to include Gilbert in a dress in the film?

Holmes – We actually had a scene written with Gilbert disguised in women’s clothing. We even had a yellow dress picked out along with a silly bonnett. But on the night we planned to shoot it at the Maldon Historical Village, a huge storm blew in and rained us out. It shut production down for several hours, so we had to abandon the scene. It was at the head of the ‘Forbes Brothel’ scene (which will be restored in the Director’s Cut.) 

Gilbert often dressed in women’s clothes when going into a populated town, as 2 or 3 flashy young men riding down the main street would catch the attention of local police. Dressing as a woman to disguise oneself was common practice amongst bushrangers in those days. There was nothing more to it than disguise and practicality. I find it very silly that a certain other bushranger film has attempted to make wearing dresses out to be a bigger deal than what it was.

Father McCarthy is a character that plays a significant role in the story of the gang, historically having directed John Vane of the original Gilbert-Hall Gang to turn himself in to Superintendent Morrisett. He was included in early promotional material for The Legend of Ben Hall, but didn’t make the final cut. Are you glad you have the opportunity to reinstate those scenes?

Holmes – I’ll be hugely excited to see that scene reinstated. I always felt it was a pivotal one. It was one of the last and one of the hardest scenes to delete, because it carried so many of the film’s central themes: choice and the consequences of it. It had so much foreshadowing and let the audience see what was driving Ben Hall’s decisions, to understand the difficult position he was in. It was heart-breaking to remove, but we were being heavily pressured to get the first act moving faster. I know actor Peter Flaherty, who played Father McCarthy, is very happy about its return, as he gave a wonderful and earnest performance. And he really nailed the Cork accent.

The theatrical cut of The Legend of Ben Hall tended to show Hall as essentially a good man who is driven to change his ways because he realises the consequences of his own behaviour and doesn’t want his son to think of him as a villain. Will the director’s cut explore that aspect any further?

Holmes – The Director’s Cut will show a much darker side to Ben Hall, that’s for sure. There were certain moments and lines of dialogue that were lifted from the Theatrical Cut because we had feedback that viewers were losing empathy for Ben Hall, particularly during the middle of the film. I showed Hall to be quite ruthless at times and revealed that war between good and evil raging in his soul. Personally, I loved that aspect of the character and Jack Martin showed both sides of his personality really well. I wanted to show Ben Hall as he was – torn and conflicted. But that doesn’t bode well with those who are used to having their movie protagonists portrayed as squeaky clean. For the Director’s Cut, I won’t have any of those restrictions. That will be liberating and I think will make for a far more complex and engaging character.

Jack Martin and Zane Ciarma as father and son, Ben and Henry Hall

Has there been any movement regarding the other films in the proposed “Legends” trilogy?

Holmes – Just in the last two months, we’ve received some really solid interest from the USA in the first prequel film The Legend of Frank Gardiner. Ironically, there’s been no interest from Australian investors or funding bodies. I also have two new producers onboard who are working on sourcing the finance and attaching cast. That film will introduce three new lead characters – Frank Gardiner, Sir Frederick Pottinger and Kitty Brown, Biddy’s younger sister.

If that film goes ahead, many original cast members will be reprising their roles such as Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, Joanne Dobbin, Nick Barry, Angus Pilakui, Gregory Quinn, Adam Willson and Tom Beaurepaire. It will be an absolute dream come true if Gardiner happens. We’ll be able to show things that weren’t possible in the first film. Plus we are also planning to film it all up in Ben Hall country in the Central West of New South Wales. So fingers crossed!

When will the Kickstarter campaign be winding up for those looking to make a pledge?

Holmes – Our Kickstarter ends on March 29th, 2020. I’m running it longer than usual because it’s a big target to reach. If we don’t reach $90,000, the Director’s Cut won’t ever happen – it’s that simple. That would be a tragedy, because I believe this Director’s Cut will be a superior film to the Theatrical Cut in every way.

But in the end, it really is up to the fans. But that’s the way it’s always been with this film. The fans kickstarted The Legend of Ben Hall back in 2014; I just hope five years on, the fans are still with me for one last ride. We shall know in a few weeks time!

Ben Hall (Jack Martin) and Mick Coneley (Adam Willson) in a deleted scene from The Legend of Ben Hall

To learn about the rewards on offer and make a pledge to the Kickstarter campaign for The Legend of Ben Hall Director’s Cut, follow this link: http://shorturl.at/fnuPY

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s