David Black interviews Matthew Holmes for The Australian Short Film Network Journal
The first that I heard of Matthew Holmes was when he was speaking at a local indie film networking night. Suffice to say that I was totally blown away. For most of the readers here, this is the man behind the epic Aussie film, “The Legend of Ben Hall”. He has also done so much more that I hope to shed some light on his talents and achievements.
DB – Thanks for taking the time to chat to me today Matthew. When I was fairly new to the indie industry and still doing extra roles, I was hearing about “The Legend of Ben Hall” on almost every set. Most people won’t be aware of this, but they probably knew your work already from your animations, long before you started your epic film.
You were the animator on the “Dogs go Whacko for Shmacko’s” and “Dogalogue” ads! Can you tell us a bit about your animation work?
MH – I became interested in stop-motion animation as a young teenager because two of my favourite films “Jason & the Argonauts” and “The Empire Strikes Back” used that technique and it fascinated me. So I began to make stop-motion animation movies at home and later on, for high school projects. I’ve always been very artistic and stop-motion allowed me to combine my love of drawing, sculpture, model making, performing and photography. From the age of 14 I knew I wanted to be a professional filmmaker.
Straight out of high school I was fortunate enough to get casual work at an animation studio in Adelaide called Anifex. It was mostly just low-level jobs within the Art Department. I had done work experience there for my Year 12 and because was so enthusiastic, they felt I was employable to some degree. Because I was the youngest person employed there I was affectionately nicknamed ‘The Fetus”. I continued making my own animated films in my spare time and just kept showing Anifex my work and learning the craft. Eventually, they offered me year-long apprenticeship followed by a more permanent position. Over the years, I worked my way up the ladder, eventually becoming one of their lead animators and sculptors. I worked on TVC’s mostly, which included Schmackos, Louie the Fly, Mr Reach and of course, Home Hardware (the Dogalogue ads). I worked on hundreds of TVCs and several short films during my time at Anifex and learned so much about the craft of filmmaking.
DB – You were really successful as an animator and probably could have just lived comfortably doing clay animation for the rest of your life. What was it that motivated you to take such a big chance with making indie films?
MH – By 2010, I’d reached a decision: take the next step up in the animation world and seek work for company like Aardmann in the UK; or pursue my greatest passion, which was live-action narrative drama. Honestly, I’d lost my zeal for animation because I had done it for years and would only get a few minutes of screen time for hours of work. I once spent 3 years working on a 13-minute animated film called “The Scam”. The work-to-reward ratio didn’t feel justified. Plus, the animation landscape was changing rapidly from traditional techniques to CGI, and since I had no interest in learning CGI it was time to head to Melbourne and pursue live-action features. I was always making live-action film projects alongside my animation ones anyway. I shot my first two features while working at Anifex.
DB – Before you jumped in with your epic feature, “The Legend of Ben Hall”, you made a few short films. I recall seeing one about “black eyed children.” Your IMDB lists a few too. Can you tell us a bit about your short films?
MH – Outside of animation, I’ve never taken short films all that seriously. I’ve only made a few shorts. My goal has always been feature films, so I decided to make those instead. Technically “The Legend of Ben Hall” is my third feature, though it’s often considered my second. I made an experimental comedy in 1995 called “The Biscuit Effect - which was an attempt to shoot an entire feature film in one day. It kinda worked, but because it never received an official release I consider it more a curious footnote in my career than a legitimate feature.
My second feature in 2007 was “Twin Rivers”. That was self-financed and made over a 6-year period. I was fortunate enough to have director Rolf De Heer (“Ten Canoes”, “Bad Boy Buddy”) take me under his wing and help guide the film through post-production, simply because he believed in me. The South Australian Film Corporation and Screen Australia had no intentions of helping me get it completed, so Rolf was instrumental in getting that film done. He was a mentor to me for a couple years. He really opened my eyes to realities of what it means to be an independent filmmaker in this country. I asked him one day “how does someone become a film director?” Rolf’s answer was simply… “You have to have a little bit insane.” That statement grows more real to me with every passing year.
My short about black-eyed children was called “The Artifice”. It was actually a proof-of-concept for a horror feature I was developing at the time. By 2014, I was mostly just writing feature scripts and trying to get them financed. I was desperate to just go out and get my hands dirty again, so we decided to shoot “The Artifice” as a demo, because I had some interest in that script from L.A. But when that ended up going nowhere, sadly.
DB – And now for the biggie that everyone is dying to hear about … “The Legend of Ben Hall”. What an amazing film! It reminded me a bit of “The Man from Snowy River.” What a massive undertaking that film must have been! I think that most of the actors in the Melbourne indie film industry must have been in that one. I know that a short interview like this couldn’t possible cover everything about it, but can you tell us what is most on your mind there?
MH – Just before finishing my feature “Twin Rivers” in 2007, I was looking for a follow-up feature idea. I discovered the Ben Hall history and quickly fell in love with it. By 2008, I had a massive 300+ page screenplay. It was epic. But almost everyone around me agreed that I would never get Ben Hall financed, especially not as my second feature. That script would have been a $30 million film, it was massive. I resigned myself to perhaps making Ben Hall in about 20 years time and began writing low budget genre scripts instead. Ironically, none of which have found funding.
By 2014, I wanted to make a short film about Ben Hall as a way of generating future interest in my feature version. The script was actually getting nibbles of interest from the USA. So I decided to crowd-fund a short film for $75,000. I honestly did not think I would hit that target. But when it raised over $120,000, I decided to make it a 40-min film so it could be sold to TV or something. After filming was done I cut a trailer and I showed it to Odin’s Eye Entertainment, who was developing other features with me. They said “Looks amazing – can you keep going and make it into a full-length feature?” I was very reluctant to do that at first, because it could never be the big-budget, star-studded Ben Hall epic that I had envisioned back in 2008. I had to scale the story back, which is why “The Legend of Ben Hall” only focuses on his last nine months and not his entire outlaw career.
To mine (and everyone else’s) surprise, we were able to raise just enough finance to keep going and take Ben Hall to a full-length feature. Honestly, we were crazy to even attempt it. And the fact is – we did not have anywhere near money required to achieve what we weer aiming for. But what I did have was so many terrific people willing to jump on and work for deferreds and favours. That was the only way we managed to pull it off.
I think that’s the key for emerging filmmakers – surrounding yourself with great people who believe in you and who you also believe in. Together you can go out an achieve something and maybe - just maybe – impress the film industry enough to throw you a bone next time. If you want to make it professionally in the film industry, you must take Rocky’s words to heart ….
“It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are. It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it… but it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done.”
DB – Matthew, thanks for taking the time out to chat to me today. Where can our readers follow your work?
MH – I don’t actually have a website. It’s been on my ‘to do’ list, but I haven’t got around to it. Best way is to follow my Facebook pages for “The Cost” and “The Legend of Ben Hall’. I keep my followers updated there regularly. Thanks for the interview!