With its cult following continuing to build momentum, the word “Sleeper” appropriately describes director Matthew Holmes’ 2016 bushranger film The Legend of Ben Hall. Originally conceived as a short film, the project’s overwhelming crowdfunding campaign allowed Holmes to expand the story into an epic historical odyssey likened to classics such as The Last of the Mohicans and Open Range. It was an Australian historical drama, fused with tropes of the western genre, and told the true story of notorious bushranger Ben Hall, whose exploits were largely overshadowed by the legendary Ned Kelly.
The film was made outside of the regular funding systems, on a smaller than usual budget, which meant that the incredible production design and historical authenticity was created out of absolute passion and sheer audacity. Being an independent production without the advantages of marketing and promotion, the film gained little traction upon its limited theatrical release and relied on the home entertainment market to find its audience. Released on DVD and Blu-ray through a small distribution company called Pinnacle Films, the film was – once again – reliant on word of mouth and positive reviews. It has since been released in other territories including the US and UK, and is finally wowing viewers all around the world.
It’s none too surprising that The Legend of Ben Hall is as meticulously crafted and spectacular as it is when we discover that it is, in fact, Matthew Holmes’ second feature-length film following his mostly unknown 2007 film Twin Rivers.
The story of two brothers (played by Holmes and his actual brother, Darren) who embark on an intrepid 500-mile journey from Broken Hill to Melbourne, Twin Rivers fermented Holmes’ love for the Aussie battler and the rich tapestry of history that the bush has to offer. Filmed over the course of 4 years, with mostly friends and family, the film was made by the skin of Holmes’ teeth, shot on DVCAM and enduring a further 2 years of post production. It was, for all intensive purposes, the ultimate DIY film made by a young man who learned the ropes as he went.
The most notable fact about Twin Rivers is the addition of famed director Rolf De Heer (Bad Boy Bubby, Ten Canoes) as a producer. Matthew Holmes recently spoke with Screen Realm to elaborate on De Heer’s involvement.
“I had a camera assistant who worked with Rolf on another film and he introduced us. Rolf kept in touch and when the South Australian Film Corporation refused to support the film, he took me under his wing, determined to see the film completed. He convinced three guys he worked with to help complete the sound and he supervised the recut of the film over several weeks. He even wrote the film’s voiceover because I was struggling to make it work.”
Ambitious in scope and with confident execution, Holmes’ love for the Australian story is as undeniable as his grasp for the medium. Keen observers will recognise influence in his work, with notable cues taken from the likes of Banjo Patterson, and it is this love for a bygone era, combined with natural storytelling abilities, that elevate Holmes’ work beyond the various limitations. To comprehend the micro-budget restraints of Twin Rivers, Holmes offered further insight to the production and what it took to bring his original story to life.
“We had virtually no crew at all, except on a few days when we had lots of extras, and so the crew was basically me with a DVCAM on a tripod with a mic mounted on top. There was no wardrobe, no makeup and no standby props. No assistant directors, no production designer and no art department. Myself and the few actors we had did all of the work ourselves. In fact, the entire production was more or less run from the back of my 1984 Corolla as we carried everything from one location to another.”
To have made a film at all under those circumstances is an incredible feat, but to have executed such a distinguished and atmospheric portrait is astonishing. While casting himself and his brother was done out of necessity, the result was ultimately genuine and authentic. Their onscreen rapport was not only sincere; it gave the film an overwhelming charm.
“My brother is a natural actor. He had no training and he just went with it. He basically followed me on the journey, without question, and he rocked up wherever I needed him. He sacrificed a lot of time working on Twin Rivers over the four years we shot it, and we never had a cross word.”
More than 15-years have passed since Holmes first rolled camera on Twin Rivers, and having directed The Legend of Ben Hall there is no doubt that he is, himself, one of Australia’s unsung legends of cinema. When watching his two films back-to-back there is a strong sense of nostalgia, and his voice is perhaps more profound than many who make films on an international scale. He works outside of the system and while faced with the limitations that come with fully independent filmmaking, he produces a quality of entertainment worthy of wide theatrical release.
Thanks to another successful crowdfunding campaign supported by devoted fans, Holmes has returned to Twin Rivers to present an all-new limited edition remastered Blu-ray release. With painstaking detail he has created an all-new experience for audiences, with additional insight including a ‘Making Of’ documentary, two all-new audio commentaries and an abundance of deleted scenes and outtakes.
By revisiting the movie, Holmes has preserved its archival significance and kept it from falling into obscurity. It is more vibrant than ever before and secures its place amongst some of Australia’s great debut feature films.
As for the future, Matthew Holmes is never short of projects. With a handful of completed scripts under his belt, including his continuing bushranger “Legends” saga, an outback creature feature called Territorial, a new adaptation of Blue Fin and a proposed television series, he’s never one to rest on his laurels and proves to be a renegade of independent Australian cinema.