Celluloid dreaming

By Amy Russell 30 January 2017
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We look back at how the landscapes and legends of our continent have shaped Australia’s movie industry.

UBIRR, AN OUTCROP and vantage point across Nadab floodplain in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park, houses a sacred gallery of rock art more than 40,000 years old.

These paintings of Dreamtime stories are part of the longest continuous documentation of any culture in the world. But this location also played a lead role in another type of narrative – it featured in the most successful Australian film of all time.

“This is my backyard and over there is the ­Never-Never,” says actor Paul Hogan atop Ubirr in a memorable scene from the original version of Crocodile Dundee. The character he is playing, Mick Dundee, is leading American journalist and city slicker Sue Charlton on a tour of his outback homeland. When it was released in 1986, the film reportedly grossed $400 million globally. It had a modest production budget of $8.8 million, but a powerful ­premise – it told the story of a man we had come to identify with, from a place we were proud to call home.

In the documentary 40,000 Years of Dreaming, George Miller, the director of all four Mad Max films, described Australian cinema as “public dreaming”, suggesting the strength of our films is in the fact that they reflect who we are. “Our movies are the songlines of white-fellas’ Australia,” he said. “Like the songs of Aboriginal creation fathers, they sing us into being.” And nothing sounds more familiar than the rhythms of the outback or the melodies of the bush.

Trailer: Crocodile Dundee (1986). (Source: Paramount Movies/Youtube)

As I stand atop the iconic rock that was the stage for an Australian legend, I hear this music for myself. The day fades into pink and red along the horizon and I feel moved by the beauty of the scene. I am walking in the footsteps of the traditional custodians of this part of Kakadu with Selone Djandjomerr, a Kunwinjku artist from the Bolmo clan. Selone’s grandfather appeared as an extra in Crocodile Dundee, and, as we visit locations from the film, it’s clear to see how the ­natural power of this place cast a spell over filmgoers – particularly those overseas who had never before seen the outback portrayed so vividly.

Mick Dundee’s story was shaped by this great floodplain, the red dirt, pock-marked escarpments and shaded waterholes, in a way that echoes how our landscapes framed the first Australian films, and how they continue to do so today.

THE SUCCESS of Crocodile Dundee ­coincided with a boom in Australian filmmaking, the likes of which had not been seen since the turn of the 20th century. Back in 1910, when Hollywood made its very first full-length feature film, Australian studios had already produced ­dozens of their own.

By then, ‘going to the pictures’ had become commonplace for many Australians, some of whom had been captivated by this engaging new medium since the early celluloid ‘magicians’ began screening and touring films to towns and around the bush in the 1890s. With some of the world’s first dedicated film studios producing early ­feature-length films, Australia was at the forefront of the industry until commercial complications and studio closures stifled its impetus.

However, a persistent crew of filmmakers kept cameras rolling. ­Documentary makers such as ­Francis Birtles and Frank Hurley shared their adventures and audiences still ­cherished the cinema. But mostly screens were lit by ­Hollywood films.

In the period between 1952 and 1966, our industry was making an average of just two films per year. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that government investment encouraged a revival. “There was a real desire to make [films] again,” says Sally Jackson, ­curator of film at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in ­Canberra. “Funding came about because of that and because we were making films people wanted to see.”

sally jackson nfsa

Sally Jackson is the curator of film at the NFSA, where Australian movies are deposited, restored and filed away. Visitors can view a wide range of films, from historicals to documentaries and new releases. “I have a real love for the cinema,” Sally says. “How it has affected people, and how we have made it part of our everyday lives.” (Image: Michael Amendolia)

With the rise of state film bodies, a new wave of filmmakers emerged. The South Australian Film ­Corporation was particularly active, supporting such ­classics as Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Storm Boy (1976) and Breaker Morant (1980). According to George Miller, we had begun to tap into our heritage with movies that spoke of who we were – and where we’d come from.

This cinematic storytelling tradition – a celebration of landscape and a kind of divergent heroism – harks back to what is accepted by many historians as the world’s first feature-length narrative film. The Story of the Kelly Gang, produced in about 1906 and shot in Victoria, brought a legend back to life. It was a blazing success and would go on to have an irrevocable influence, kick-starting a genre that connected to the heart of the Australian audience with its portrayal of our landscapes and bush culture.

“The film tells of an outlaw who fashioned a helmet and flak jacket out of iron, took on an entire police force and became our foremost icon,” Sally says. “Instead of Abe Lincoln and Winston Churchill, we have Ned Kelly. No other Australian figure has been the subject of so many movies.”

Many films made in the following years were about bushrangers. The lifestyles and livelihoods of these rebels were dictated by the land, and the bush became a backdrop against which tales of struggle played out. Through the continuation of these narratives in films, songs and ­literature, this ideal has become entrenched in our national identity.
“Australians are mostly city dwellers; they always have been. So the bushman is a highly romantic figure. When we’re not nostalgic for his uncluttered lifestyle, we’re looking to him for a good laugh,” George said. “We delighted in his naivety and his home-spun wisdom and we hankered for his purer, childlike view of the world.”

With the resurgence of Australian filmmaking in the 1970s and ’80s, the bushranger was reborn as an anti-­authoritarian rogue facing the hardships of a grown-up nation. And just like their forefathers, these new leading men – such as Mick Dundee and ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky – were inextricably linked to the land. Wanderers at heart, they were also comfortable being alone.

A former medical doctor from Brisbane, George is himself considered a kind of rebel for his unorthodox style; he cut the original Mad Max (1979) like a silent film to “get the rhythms working for the eye”, before adding sound. In this, the first of the series, Max faces a crazed biker gang terrorising a post-apocalyptic Australia. It wasn’t until George made the third film that he realised he was perpetuating a universal ‘hero myth’. When he sought permission from Aboriginal elders to film at Kata Tjuta, in the Red Centre, he says they recognised their own mythology in his modern warrior’s tale.

Trailer: Mad Max (1979). (Source: Youtube)

Following the success of Crocodile Dundee in 1986, our particular breed of ‘anti-hero’ became synonymous with Australia in the eyes of international audiences. Mick ­Dundee was a man of the wild, a larrikin and somewhat naive – but, like Mad Max, he was also very capable.

Born in Lightning Ridge, NSW, Paul Hogan had already established an international platform before he wrote and starred in the film. His success was in his humour and authenticity; he’d gone from being a stand-up comedian to the face of various ad campaigns and the host of his own TV show simply by telling jokes and behaving like a bloke down the pub. He went one step further with Mick ­Dundee by modelling him on various ‘outback outlaws’ from the NT (the character is said to be based on the real-life exploits of Rodney Ansell).

The challenge for Craig Bolles, location scout for the film, was to find a setting that could match such a man. Craig worked for the Aboriginal Arts Board before ­moving into the film industry in the early ’80s and had experience sourcing talent and locations in remote Australia. He ­completed aerial surveys in a helicopter over the Top End and explored Western Australia’s Kimberley in his four-wheel-drive, before settling on Kakadu for Crocodile ­Dundee. “It was really just the visual aspects of the place,” he says. “It had never really been seen before.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the region’s remoteness also became a thorn in Craig’s side. Comfortably housing 200 crew seemed unlikely until he found Ja Ja camp. The empty settlement for a nearby mine had more than enough accommodation, including a main house – complete with a 20-seater dining table – for Paul Hogan. Next, Craig and the crew not only dammed a waterfall so it would flow strongly on filming days, but also recut roads.

“In those days it was a rough old dirt track in – most of the places we went to we had to get graders and front-end loaders in to regrade the roads,” he says, adding that there were, however, areas into which they wouldn’t venture. “I found amazing places…but there was the whole croc issue where I had to be 100 per cent sure they could swim in the pools without being eaten, because even when I was flying in the chopper we could see croc tracks in bizarre places.”

And it is likely because of this unbridled wildness that Kakadu is more than just a set in the film, but a character in itself. There are various ways a landscape can help shape a narrative, Sally says. “It can be a rival to overcome, a thing of horror or a luscious backdrop mirroring a love story.” These techniques hark “back to the days of Charles ­Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew [1949], and Franklyn Barrett’s Breaking of the Drought [1920] – big sweeping stories about rural ­Australia”, she adds. George Miller agrees: “Mind-numbing emptiness, the vastness, the spectacle, and the silence, these are the chords that lay down the base rhythm against which our movie stories are played.”


The wilderness of Kakadu National Park is more than just a set in the iconic film Crocodile Dundee, but a character in itself. (Image: Amy Russell)

For Mick Dundee, Kakadu was an ideal counterpart, enhancing his charm and grit and providing an ­unmistakeable sense of place all at once. From that portrayal, Australia’s
Top End was thrust into the spotlight. Ultimately, Crocodile Dundee did for tourism in Kakadu what The Man from Snowy River (1982) did for the High Country. Suddenly, places previously little known to tourists became star ­attractions with the launch of ‘follow-in-their-footsteps’ Snowy Mountain horse treks and the construction of now-famous infrastructures such as Kakadu’s Croc Hotel.

“Ours is a very different landscape and it has an element of fear about it…survive here and you can survive anything. When a film uses that and it does it well it draws attention,” Sally says. That ‘fear’ is intrinsic to ­Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Set in the early 1900s, it’s based on Joan Lindsay’s story of a group of boarding-school girls. Seduced by Hanging Rock – a volcanic formation in ­central Victoria – they disappear into its ­shadows.

Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Boyd helped create the film’s dreamy, romantic mood. Russell, ­originally from Geelong, was also director of photography on ­Crocodile Dundee and Gallipoli (1981). Now 72, he began as a roustabout on sets, but has always been fascinated by light, which he attributes to an ­appreciation for ­Melbourne’s renowned Heidelberg School of landscape painters.

“I used to sit in a room and look at shadows falling through venetian blinds and how it moves through the day and how it would react with people’s faces,” Russell says. To achieve the natural backlit look he wanted for a key scene on Hanging Rock, Russell realised the light was only right during one hour each day.

“I thought I was going to get fired,” he says with a laugh. “It took five days, but if we’d shot that scene in one day…it wouldn’t have had the same effect.” Russell also placed a net that had been painted yellow over the camera lenses, to soften the image. “I thought it was fitting for that period,” he says. “It helped with that impressionist, painterly look.” Voted Australia’s most significant film of all time for its breathtaking cinematography, Picnic at Hanging Rock gave the industry here some much needed credibility and saw Russell receive critical acclaim for his ­artistic talents. It also imbued the Australian landscape with a subtle malevolence.

picnic at hanging rock

A still from Picnic at Hanging Rock. (Image courtesy Australian Film Commission)

“I love shooting landscapes and I guess it’s because if I have any creative tendencies they are in that area,” Russell says. “When you’re making a film you don’t know whether it’s going to be successful… But Picnic captured the hearts of a lot of people, in Australia and overseas.”

SITTING ACROSS FROM SALLY JACKSON in her office at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, I learn of other ways cinema can have an impact. Sally, who’s worked for the NFSA for more than 20 years, holds a small black container in her hands. It’s just one of the many Australian films she’ll sort this week.

“The current crop of films and documentaries and shorts the industry is making turn up on my desk. Our role is to process them and make sure they’re here for posterity… There’s people’s lives and creativity in this,” she says. “And that’s what makes it special. It’s their tears and sweat, and we get to keep it for the nation.”

It’s the NFSA’s job to safeguard our audiovisual memories – movies, past and present, are restored and digitised; ­artefacts and memorabilia like costumes and props are housed in vaults; and personal histories in the form of scripts, set sketches and story plans are sent here to be filed away.

“The level of personal involvement from everyone who is part of these teams is enormous,” Sally says. “I don’t think anyone in the film industries just does it for a job, I think they invest something of themselves in their tasks – from the top job down to the bottom, because they believe in what they are doing.”

Since the flourish of filmmaking in the 1970s and ’80s, the health of the industry has continued to fluctuate; like any great story arc, we’re still experiencing highs and lows. According to Screen Australia – the government funding body that supports the production of more than 50 per cent of the nation’s films – 2015 was the best year at the Australian box office for our movies in 14 years, with $88 million generated from local content.

Today filmmakers are still championing our larrikin image (the low-budget, but hugely successful film The Castle, 1997, about the working-class Kerrigan family, was voted in 2010 as the film that best represents ­Australians), but we’re also diversifying. Horror stories Wolf Creek (2005) and The Babadook (2014) have been international hits, while Aussies have also been involved in the fields of animation and computer-generated imagery (CGI) on local movies and those produced overseas. Thriller Red Billabong, released in August of this year, was promoted as one of the first Australian films to use a CGI character in a lead role.

Trailer: The Babadook (2014). (Source: Youtube)

Our screen icons are also growing up. Mad Max: Fury Road was one of the top performing films of 2015. It won six awards at the 2016 Oscars, after being nominated for 10, including best costume and production design. ­Sydney-based Jacinta Leong worked as an art director on the film. She designed some of the custom-built vehicles for characters such as ­Furiosa, played by actress Charlize Theron.

“Her vehicle had a prime-mover, a tank and a pod. These components had to work well as a design, but then also function as a machine,” Jacinta says. Once drawings were finalised, she oversaw construction, working closely with mechanics and engineers. “The storytelling elements besides the characters are the sets and the look of the films. They are meant to transport you to another world where you can live for a couple of hours,” she says.

As a backdrop the outback is multi-layered: it’s alive with colours and textures and sounds. By incorporating the fantastical production elements – costumes, make-up and lights – our modern filmmakers continue to tell stories of offbeat, rebellious characters, albeit in creatively different ways. A busload of sparkly drag queens drives across the arid interior in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), while, in The Dressmaker (2015), ­Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage, a seamstress with a flair for high fashion played by Kate Winslet, seeks revenge upon the residents of Dungatar, a seemingly quintessential outback town.

As these stories are pushed to the limits of our ­imaginations, artists such as Jacinta are given greater scope for creativity. She recently finished working on Alien: Covenant, the latest in UK director Ridley Scott’s sci-fi series (and sequel to 2012’s Prometheus), shot at Sydney’s Fox ­Studios. It’s likely that international filmmakers such as ­Ridley Scott choose to work in Australia because our crews are hardworking, with solid reputations. Our only problem, says ­Russell Boyd, is keeping the talent here.

Jacinta Leong

Art director Jacinta Leong discusses her computer-generated plans with builder Matt Weston at the Wild Sets workshop in Botany, NSW. These drawings were used to create the otherwordly vehicles that featured in Mad Max: Fury Road. “I pinch myself every now and then,” says Jacinta. “These are iconic films and to be involved is a privilege. It’s hard work, but it feels very satisfying and rewarding, especially if you feel you belong in this industry. I can’t think of anything else I should be doing.” (Image: Michael Amendolia)

At the height of his career in the ’70s and ’80s, Russell says Australian filmmakers would make a handful of films here before moving on. “But nowadays, if someone makes a successful film – not only in the box office but with critical acclaim – they will often be seduced by Hollywood straight away,” he says. “It’s a bit of a pity that that’s what happens because it means there’s a brain drain heading across the Pacific these days, more so than those earlier times.”

Our ‘we can get it done’ attitude is what really sets Aussies apart, says Mark Wareham, a director of photography who has worked on films here and overseas. Based in north Queensland, Mark recently finished shooting an adaptation of Australian author Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel Jasper Jones. Filmed in Pemberton, a small town in south-western WA, it centres on the friendship of two boys in 1965 – one of whom is Aboriginal and accused of ­murder.

The film’s director, Aboriginal filmmaker Rachel ­Perkins of Blackfella Films, has spent much of her career focusing on indigenous stories. Before the 1980s, Aboriginal culture was largely absent from, or misrepresented in, Aussie films, but successes such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), The Sapphires (2012) and Rachel’s own Bran Nue Dae (2009) have ­promoted the work of indigenous filmmakers. For Jasper Jones, Rachel looked hard for the ideal landscape.

A former logging town, Pemberton is ­surrounded by karri forests, and has a kind of a bygone-era charm. Adjustments to the townscape had to be made – solar panels and other telltale markers were hidden – but largely it remained untouched. Much of the narrative plays out in the forest at night, where the darkness and shadows enhance the mysterious plot. Being in Pemberton, however, meant being far away from the nearest city.

“With that distance and beauty come complications and expense,” Mark says.
“Working in an isolated area, where there’s ­nothing to draw upon if you don’t have the right things, is the biggest challenge we have,” says ­costume designer Terri Lamera, who finished shooting Breath, based on Australian author Tim Winton’s popular novel, in May this year. Filmed in Denmark, a coastal town 360km south-east of Perth, the narrative unfolds amid the surf culture of the 1970s. Before shooting began, Terri sourced vintage clothing from all over Australia. Many pieces also had to be dyed or made from scratch to suit a muted colour palette that would complement beach scenes.

Terri, whose father was a keen diver, grew up in the region, and knows how integral the Southern Ocean is to the people there. “I have a big love and affinity with that coastline,” she says. “I also have a lot of friends that are old surfers from that period and I really felt like [director] Simon Baker did – that we needed to translate the story in a very real sense, and true to how it was at the time.”

ALTHOUGH WE’RE NOT the only nation to be inspired by our landscape to this extent, our outback, coastal and wilderness settings have a unique flavour, and are still some of the most remote locations for filming in the world. With improved technology and access, shooting in these places is easier compared with the days of Crocodile Dundee, but there are still difficulties.

last cab to darwin

Still image from Australian film Last Cab to Darwin (2015). (Image credit: Wendy McDougall)

A lack of accommodation in some outback towns saw the crew of Last Cab to Darwin (2015) sleeping in swags under the stars; while the creators of Tracks (2013) had to simulate Robyn Davidson’s trek across the desert and accommodate trailers, trucks, equipment and a crew of 80 people.

“What I found fascinating…was how many landscapes the director, John Curran, managed to extract out of one place,” says cameleer Andrew Harper (see AG#125), who trained actress Mia Wasikowska to work with camels for the film. “People assumed we’d travelled around a lot, but most of the shooting was in the Flinders Rangers in South Australia – you can’t just take 70 to 80 people and plonk them in the middle of the Gibson Desert,” he ­reasons.

Regardless, the setting proved to be a fitting backdrop. “It was interesting how the landscape came to the fore, but not necessarily the landscape you [expected],” Andrew adds. “You could probably only get away with that in Australia.”

This originality will likely remain our hallmark as the next generation of films is released. And these modern songlines will keep on ­adding to the fabric of our ­mythology, said George Miller. With each new, sweeping landscape drama, we will continue to be defined by this colourful country, with its vast wilderness and a home-grown humour that is unashamedly offbeat.

This article was originally published in the Nov-Dec 2016 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#135).