“I was telling a good friend of mine that I wished I’d made the Ned Kelly movie, but they’d already done it with Heath Ledger” writer/director, Matthew Holmes, tells FilmInk on the line from the offices of his production company, Two Tone Pictures. “Then he said to me, ‘There are better bushrangers out there than Ned Kelly! Look up Ben Hall!’” So began the long, arduous journey of Matthew Holmes to make The Legend Of Ben Hall. With just one feature film to his credit (2007’s low budget drama, Twin Rivers), the ambitious young filmmaker decided to go large with his follow-up, and marked Ben Hall as his inspiration.
Though Ned Kelly might be Australia’s most wanted historical outlaw, Ben Hall certainly runs a close second. Daring and audacious, Hall pulled take-downs right across New South Wales, from Bathurst to Forbes, south to Gundagai, and east to Goulburn. He was a famous and fearsome figure, though most tellingly, was not personally responsible for any deaths during his crime sprees of the 1860s. A one-time grazier, Hall spiralled into a life of crime after the breakdown of his marriage to Bridget Walsh, with whom he had a son called Henry. In a two-year period, from 1863-1865, Ben Hall – with a variety of criminal associates – staged over a hundred heists, robbing multiple mail coaches and small townships in their entirety, and even conducting the theft of several prized racehorses. Betrayed by an associate, a lone Ben Hall was eventually killed at Goobang Creek, northwest of Forbes. Unarmed, temporarily separated from his gang, and taken by surprise, Hall was shot dead by a cadre of police officers who had been laying in wait in the bushes surrounding his campsite.
Ben Hall’s story is rich with incident and excitement, but it’s also threaded through with all manner of themes, telling of a time when crime was often the only option for displaced and desperate men, and when the powers of the law were brought down with a lethal finality. “I just fell in love with the material,” Holmes says of his initial research into Ben Hall, which he’d wisely undertaken at the suggestion of his aforementioned friend. That led him to visit the sites of Ben Hall’s most famous criminal trespasses, and to meet with various historical advisors, which in turn led to an on-and-off seven-year period of script work.
Champing at the bit to get on set and behind the camera, Holmes decided to start his journey into cinematic Ben Hall territory with a short film, throwing the concept into the heady arena of crowdfunding. In an astute move, the director had already cast his leading man. “A friend of mine sent me Matthew’s casting call knowing that I love biopics,” explains actor, Jack Martin, the man who would become Ben Hall. “I reached out to Matt and he got back to me immediately asking to learn more about me and for some footage. He seemed to think that I looked like Ben Hall, so I guess it worked out pretty well.”
A total unknown (he’d appeared briefly on Home And Away, and starred in a 2012 short called Judas The Peacemaker), the physically imposing and naturally charismatic Jack Martin became Matthew Holmes’ principal weapon when it came to his crowdfunding campaign. “Matt cast me before the Kickstarter campaign began so that I could be involved with the promotion of it all,” explains Martin, who eventually ended up with a producing credit on the film. “I flew down to Melbourne and we put together a costume in order to recreate the famous photograph of Ben Hall circa 1864, as well as shooting promotional stills and action shots. From there, I did a lot of travelling through regional central NSW – Ben Hall country – and we reached out to various media outlets to try to build a bit of a presence for the film.” Adds Matthew Holmes: “Jack was the second person to get involved with the film after me. It was very important to show the world who their Ben Hall was going to be when we went with our Kickstarter campaign. Jack was there right from the beginning, and was an essential part of the funding process.”
Holmes and Martin’s Kickstarter campaign certainly worked. The duo had a set goal of $75,000, which they actually jumped, ending up with an impressive pot of $130,000. “We were very lucky,” Holmes explains. “We had some very generous single investors who were very excited about the film, and who really wanted to see it happen. A lot of people wanted to see this story told…they’ve been waiting decades to see a movie about Ben Hall, and they saw this as a great opportunity. I also did a lot of research into what makes a successful Kickstarter campaign. I worked very, very hard for those six weeks to make sure that we got across the line. I put it down to good research, hard work, a topic that people wanted to see, and a few lucky breaks.”
With cash in hand, Holmes opted to make a forty-minute short film, with the hope that he might be able to sell it as a TV special. The short was based upon the last fifteen pages of Holmes’ initial long, epic Ben Hall script, and after shooting a trailer for the project, the famous bushranger’s cinematic ride took another surprising left turn. “I showed that trailer to [production and distribution company] Odin’s Eye Entertainment, and they were very excited about it,” Holmes explains. “They thought that it should be a feature, so we went out and started to privately finance that. We never actually finished the short film. We just picked up again five or six months later with the same actors when it had become a feature film. We raised the money for that quite quickly. It took about three months. We had investors from the Kickstarter campaign who wanted to keep going with it, and people could see from what we’d already shot how the film would look. They knew what the tone was going to be. We had enough proof of concept for people to believe in the film and get behind it.”
One true believer in the project was Greg McLean, the Australian director of the crocodile thriller, Rogue, and the iconic Wolf Creek films. McLean had been working with Holmes on another project that never got off the ground, and he instantly jumped aboard what would eventually become The Legend Of Ben Hall when he saw the ninety-second trailer constructed from the initial shoot. “He said, ‘This has to be a feature film. What can we do to make that happen?’ We started spit-balling ideas,” Holmes explains. “He helped bring money people to the table, and he helped guide us through that whole process. He provided whatever help he could along the way, and he was a great sounding board on the film, particularly during post, when he gave me lots of advice through the various cuts of the film.”
Though they received a little money from Film Victoria (with the state filling in for some of the historical NSW locations), Screen Australia – the largest funding body in this country – knocked Matthew Holmes and his production back. The director had only gone to them late in the process to lock down a segment of post-production funding, but was met with zero interest. “We just needed to plug some holes,” Holmes says of his request to Screen Australia. “It’s always disappointing to be knocked back by Screen Australia, but we just saw them as another avenue through which to raise finance, and when that door closed, we just looked for another one. We found a private investor within 48 hours, and there was no red tape and no one telling us what to do. Private investment gives you a lot of freedom. I’m certainly not stamping my feet about Screen Australia. I’ve never worked with them, and they haven’t supported any of my projects, so I don’t know what it would be like to work with them. Film Victoria have been very helpful, but on the whole, I’ve tried to carve out a career without the involvement of the funding bodies. I don’t want to have to rely on them and then have to stop when they don’t give me finance. Filmmaking is about always finding another way.”
Though he’d successfully raised the finance to mount a feature film, it wasn’t nearly enough to cover the costs of what Holmes had envisioned in his original Ben Hall script, which drilled deep into the life and folklore of the bushranger, and was set up as a lengthy, all-bases-covered biopic. Shifting gears, Holmes returned to his script, and opted to instead look solely at the last months of Ben Hall. “I essentially ended up expanding upon the last act of that initial script,” the director explains of his cost-cutting measures. Holmes wasn’t daunted, however, by the film’s period setting, despite the fact that this is where much of the budget is chewed up on historical films. “It just meant that we had to get creative, and that we had to get the right people to work on the film,” Holmes says. “I’ve got a solid understanding of the period, and I had to surround myself with people who had a similar passion for the project. But the budget was very low, and we had to be very, very creative. We had to make every dollar look like twenty dollars. It was difficult, but it teaches you to prioritise. I planned the film meticulously, so we’d only build sets that we needed to see…there was a lot of forward planning.”
While Holmes’ canny planning meant that the daunting nature of mounting a period mini-epic never bore down too heavily on him, his leading man had to deal with a different set of expectations and challenges. “I felt a huge sense of responsibility to represent Ben Hall in the most accurate way possible,” Jack Martin tells FilmInk. “That meant doing as much research as I could, and becoming familiar with everything that he would have been familiar with. I wanted to learn the skills that he would have had in order to survive. I also paid great attention to making sure that I created a character that was a real person and someone that audiences could connect to, rather than taking just the events and actions that were recorded in history.”
That sense of history, however, played a huge part in Martin’s construction of his cinematic Ben Hall. “To start with, I read every book that I could find on Ben Hall,” the actor responds when FilmInk asks what kind of research he embarked upon. “I then divided my preparation time into learning the script, informing myself of the Ben Hall character, and familiarising myself with the skills and tools necessary to carry out the role. As mentioned, I spent a lot of time in regional NSW visiting the places that he once roamed through, and I spent a lot of time working with horses. I visited Ben Hall’s grave and, of course, his cave in the Weddin Mountains,” Martin says of the famous spot near the NSW town of Grenfell where the bushranger hid out after robbing a gold coach of what would now be more than a million dollars outside the hamlet of Eugowra.
“I also made a big visual timeline of the events in the script across a whole wall of my room in order to make sure whereabouts in the story my head needed to be,” the actor adds. “I felt as though the preparation I did leading up to the shoot really came in handy when drawing upon who Ben Hall was. We had to shoot so much in such a short amount of time. This meant that I was shooting ten-plus scenes a day, every day for the eight-week shoot. I had to not only look different for different scenes at time, but I would also be in a different emotional space over and over again in one day.”
As with Jack Martin, historical accuracy was also a top-tier priority for Matthew Holmes, who had been rummaging through the Ben Hall history books for over a decade, as well as talking with various experts on the subject, including Peter Bradley, a descendant of the Ben Hall family who has undertaken broad research into the 1860s bushranging era, penning The Judas Covenant (which looks at the circumstances surrounding the death of Ben Hall) and Stories From The Hard Road (a full colour book which chronicles the life of Ben Hall). “He’d read the script, and make comments on where I was straying off,” Holmes explains. “By the time it came to shoot, he’d signed off on everything, and I was comfortable with the era and the historical facts. I felt that the true story was far stranger and more fascinating than anything that I could come up with, so I stuck to the facts. I don’t like it when historical films stray from fact, and when they warp and add to the story. I find that frustrating as an audience member, so it certainly wasn’t something that I was interested in doing. I loved the story as it was. It was actually liberating to just follow the history. I had to condense timelines a little, and nip and tuck a bit here and there, but that’s necessary to make it work and run as a movie. Real life doesn’t run like a movie, so I had to shape it. But I didn’t bend history…I didn’t add any new characters, or add any events. You can open the history books and see the direct parallels with the film. I also knew how passionate people were about Ben Hall, and I really wanted to be respectful of that.”
Holmes had also learned a few lessons from the chorus of historians’ boos that had met Gregor Jordan’s contentious 2003 biopic, Ned Kelly, which was widely criticised for its freewheeling approach to history, particularly with regards to a wholly apocryphal romantic subplot in which Heath Ledger’s eponymous outlaw incongruously charms Naomi Watts’ wealthy land owner’s wife. “I know how poorly received that film was by historians,” Holmes says of Gregor Jordan’s film. “I knew that if I pleased the many people who had a very studied interest in Ben Hall that I would immediately have some very vocal allies. That said, we obviously wanted the film to be accessible to everyone, and not just to those who had already had an interest in the subject. I’ve had people throwing arguments at me for years that you shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, but I really believed that the story was great enough as it was. That’s why I stuck to it.”
The film has certainly been striking a chord so far. “It was fantastic to have the world premiere in Forbes, NSW which is the epicentre of Ben Hall country,” Jack Martin tells FilmInk. “We visited Forbes during the Kickstarter campaign, and the council supported us, so it was great to bring it back there. The whole town really welcomed us, and so far, the response has been really good.”
Filled with big moments, and exciting action sequences, Matthew Holmes keeps plenty in the tank for the film’s climax, when the unarmed Ben Hall – a man who has never actually taken the life of another during his criminal rampage through NSW – is met by an angry, fame-hungry posse of overzealous rural police officers looking to take out Australia’s most notorious bushranger. With TV news bulletins now consistently shot through with images of cops with guns drawn, and lifeless bodies on urban streets, the final moments of The Legend Of Ben Hall have a powerful resonance, and feel decidedly contemporary in tone.
When FilmInk puts the matter of this resonance to the enjoyably no-nonsense Matthew Holmes, the director refuses – point blank, we might add – to be drawn on the subject. “I did not have any attitude toward the movie at any point where I was trying to take any modern social issues and input them into it,” he says. “I had no agenda with this film, on any level, other than to tell the story of Ben Hall in the truest form that I could. Things happening in the modern world were of no concern to me in how I approached this movie, but sometimes things do present themselves to people when the film comes out, and they do find some relevance there. I think that’s often just a coincidence of telling a great human story, and that’s what the Ben Hall story is. People might find many things in the movie, but with regards to commenting on today’s world, that’s nothing that I intentionally put into it.”
With Holmes and the film now moving around the country for a round of publicity interviews and post-screening Q&As, the director has found himself on the opposite end of much thorny and probing enquiry. “People will often ask, ‘Why Ben Hall? Why is this an important story?’ People are often looking for this political reason behind why I’d want to make a film about Ben Hall, and why I think this figure has importance to Australian culture. It feels like they’re looking for some kind of agenda, but there is no agenda. It’s just a great character, and a fascinating story. It’s got relatable human themes, and that’s why I love it. There’s nothing outside of that. There’s no greater purpose here. This is about making an entertaining movie about a wonderful slice of history that I’m quite in awe of. But yes, we do see police brutality today, both overseas and occasionally here too, and that’s just typical of human nature. Nothing’s changed. The cycle goes on…the violent insanity goes on,” Holmes laughs.
Talking to Matthew Holmes, the filmmaker’s fascination and respect for the figure of Ben Hall is palpable and inspiring, and with his bushranger mini-epic set to raid cinemas around the country, the director can now continue his clarion call for one of Australia’s most famous outlaws. It’s a big story that Holmes holds close to his heart. “The nicest surprise during filming was how much the cast and crew developed a love for the story as well,” the director says. “I’d always had this passion for the story of Ben Hall, and I was very much driving the project, so it was great to have crew members coming up to me with books they’d just bought on Ben Hall saying, ‘Matt, did you know this about Ben Hall? And what about this?’ Some of them found out things that I didn’t even know about! Seeing them embrace the history really gave me that inner smile. It was becoming infectious, and that was the nicest surprise for me. That was certainly something that I wasn’t expecting, and it was nice to have that, because filmmaking is a hard slog, and there’s not much that’s pleasant about it. But this was the film that we wanted to make, and it was certainly worth it.”
The Legend Of Ben Hall is released in cinemas on December 1.