Matthew Holmes and The Cost Benefit of Indie Filmmaking

October 8, 2023
With his latest film, The Legend of Ben Hall director, goes contemporary, delivering an airtight revenge thriller with a difference.

“I’m not a fan of exploitation cinema, I never have been,” says Matthew Holmes when we ask if The Cost fits into the traditional revenge thriller genre. “In general, films that sensationalise or glorify violence turn me off and I can’t sit through them. I consider myself a sensitive viewer, so The Cost was definitely a journey out of my comfort zone. On the other hand, I’m not opposed to on-screen violence, if it serves a genuine narrative purpose – in fact, I think it’s quite necessary in some cases. But if violence is depicted as something to be thrilled about – then it feels nasty and exploitative. As a filmmaker or an audience member, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in emotions and characters. We wanted the violence in The Cost to be shown for what it is – completely abhorrent. The characters on-screen are just as horrified and affected by it as the audience are. Our film isn’t asking the audience to be entertained by violence – it’s asking them to question our relationship with violence. Just as some of the most violent war movies are defined as anti-war films, I would argue that The Cost is a violent anti-revenge movie.”

The Cost is about two men, one a husband (Jordan Fraser-Trumble), the other an older brother (Damon Hunter), who team up to avenge the assault of a young woman (Nicole Pastor). The brunt of the film takes place in the bush, where the men try to teach the assailant (Kevin Dee) a lesson, but are soon interrupted by an unexpected witness (Clayton Watson).

“The seed of The Cost took hold in 2017 when I read a UK news article about a convicted man being released early after murdering someone’s daughter,” Holmes says. “I imagined what would the father want to do to that man if he ever got hold of him. That felt like a very interesting scenario to explore – but from a very real context. While revenge is very common in movies, it’s often sensationalised or glorified as a noble pursuit, or the story set in times and places that are unfamiliar to us like war or ancient times. I wanted to explore what a violent revenge would look like if it were carried out by someone who could be your next-door neighbour. Several years later, when looking for a low-budget film to write, I pitched the concept to my screenwriting partner Gregory Moss and he immediately loved it. Our first draft was written in a matter of weeks.”

“Personally, I was quite affected by the Jill Meagher murder case from 2012, along with several other similar cases in Melbourne that followed,” Holmes continues. “I found myself both enraged and disgusted that these crimes were happening so often in our city. I also felt a great deal of empathy toward the families affected by these crimes, knowing they must be carrying an incredible burden of rage and loss. What I find so interesting is that collectively as humans, our first instinct towards perpetrators of violent crime is to wish the same violence upon them. It’s a dark yet undeniable undercurrent of our nature – yet it’s also closely interlinked with a righteous sense of justice. There’s no easy answer in dealing with violent offenders, and when there’s no easy answer to something – for me, that feels like a topic worth making a film about. Strangely enough, this year, there was a news article that came out about several people in Gippsland who carried out a revenge killing in almost the identical way as The Cost depicts… that was mind-blowing to read. It told me that our story was tapping into something that is very real.”

It’s been a few years since you made The Legend of Ben Hall (2017). How was it to get back in the director’s chair for The Cost? Was it frustrating to have to wait so long to follow up your last film, which was quite an accomplishment?

“It’s been a very frustrating process getting another feature off the ground after Ben Hall. We had several close calls on a number of projects, but those fell apart – as they so often do in this country. Greg and I wrote The Cost to be a small, achievable, low-budget project so I could get back into the director’s chair without having to wait for someone to give us the green light. It was about taking back control of my career whilst giving ourselves the creative freedom to make a film exactly as we wanted, with no outsiders trying to impose their agendas on it. We had no idea if The Cost was going to work narratively – we just knew it this was the kind of movie we wanted to see ourselves and it meant something to us on a personal level. But it is a brutal tale, and it is definitely the riskiest film I ever made. But looking back on it now, The Cost really was the most pure filmmaking experience I’ve had so far and by far the best one. The cast and crew were just incredible, there were no third parties dictating opinions on the film. But the demands of the script stretched me as a director, which is exactly what I wanted.”

Jordan Fraser-Trumble and Damon Hunter in The Cost

How did you go about getting such committed performances from your cast?

“I simply cast the best actors that I knew. I’ve been wanting to work with Jordan Fraser-Trumble in a lead role for over a decade now, so we wrote the part of David with him in mind. I also really wanted to work with Damon Hunter and Nicole Pastor, so they were the first and only people that were offered those roles. In the case of Kevin Dee, we had to search around for him as several actors passed on the role of Troy due to the mental and physical demands required. From the first reading we did, I told my cast that the film would ‘live or die on their performances’, so they knew that the performance were my #1 priority. Each of them were 100% committed to the reality and authenticity of the film. It was also a hugely collaborative effort – I gave everyone a great deal of ownership of their character, to interpret the material as they saw fit. Clayton Watson was cast very late in the shoot when the lockdowns prevented our original actor from entering Victoria, and Clayton took that role in a more unique direction from what was on the page – but it absolutely works. So, each actor has a lot of their own DNA in their role. If we ever disagreed about something, our solution was simple: ‘let’s shoot it your way, then shoot it my way – and let the edit decide’. The leads were always making revisions on set – always trying to make it just that little bit better. It was dedication like I’ve never seen before because they believed in the story we were telling and were excited to sink their teeth into such intense material.”

Kevin Dee in The Cost

The shoot must have been intense. How did you handle some of the more sensitive aspects?

“Thanks to COVID, our 3 month shoot expanded into 13 months because we had to ride out several lockdowns. We shot mostly on weekends or in 5-day blocks – so it was a very long, arduous production which took its toll, but it did allow us to edit, revise and reshoot scenes as we went along. The shoot days themselves were also incredibly intense – not only because we were mostly outdoors in the elements (hot, cold, rain, wind, bugs) – but the material was often very emotionally draining. The key to handling these intense scenes was maintaining good communication with the actors and being sensitive to what they were going through. There was never a First AD or Producer shouting at them to ‘hurry up’, so we could move onto the next scene. We took the time we needed – which is one of the best aspects of indie filmmaking for me and something you don’t get on bigger budget productions. We gave the actors what they required to do their job to the highest level – plus gave them a safe environment to try new ideas and play with the material. The actors all looked out for each other as well. Their level of professionalism was exemplary, so the process was a joy for me as a director, despite how grimy some of the scenes were.”

Clayton Watson in The Cost

Do you know if the film will be released overseas, where we imagine the genre backbone will resonate quite strongly?

“Last I heard, The Cost will be released in the UK and the US around December. I can’t wait to see what overseas audiences think of it. We’ve already had several critical reviews out of the UK that are all uniformly positive and it’s just been selected for the Richard Harris International Film Festival in Ireland. It also has festival screenings in France and Iceland soon, so I’m hoping it will get picked up by more European countries for distribution. It will be fun to compare audience reactions between the US and Europe – I think they’re very different audiences in many ways and will respond to the film for different reasons.”

Nicole Pastor in The Cost

What’s your story, in terms of how you got into making films and what your inspirations are to make films?

“I knew since I was 13-years old that I wanted to make movies. I’ve always been the storyteller in my family, with a life-long interest in drawing, photography and performance – so filmmaking was the natural melding of those interests. For years, my career was firmly in stop-motion animation, but as I hit my twenties, I wanted to move into live-action drama and make movies like the ones that inspired me growing up like Gallipoli and The Man From Snowy River – both of which are heavy influences on my first feature Twin Rivers. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to be but a filmmaker. It’s the only occupation where I feel like I am doing what I was put here to do even when the job is difficult. Filmmaking is a compulsion more than anything else, because directing is not an easy career path – in fact, I’d advise anyone against doing it unless you absolutely love it, otherwise you won’t survive. Many times, I have entertained the notion of quitting, but I’d be fooling myself to think that there’s anything else I want to do.

“As for my inspirations – they come from anywhere, all the time. Other films, history books, legends, conversations – even my personal experiences. Ultimately, film ideas always come from that curious voice in my head that is forever asking ‘… what if?’”

The Cost screens at Sun Theatre Yarraville on Sunday October 8, Cameo Cinemas Belgrave on Wednesday October 11, Theatre Royal Castlemaine on Thursday October 12, Mecca Arts Centre Warburton on Friday October 13, Wallis Cinemas Mitcham on Saturday October 14, Cinema Nova Carlton on Sunday October 15, Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace Cremorne on Tuesday October 17 and Ritz Cinema Randwick on Wednesday October 18

The Cost is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital from October 18