Blockbuster action, high-intensity thrills, and dashing romance may not be the first things that spring to mind when Canberra is mentioned — but still Peter Bakos wanted to know whether any Hollywood movies had been filmed here.
He asked Curious Canberra to investigate the on-screen history of the ACT.
“With Hollywood productions, movies are set and filmed in the actual location, but sometimes they are playing dress-up for another location, such as The Wolverine, where part of it was filmed in Sydney, trying to masquerade as Tokyo.”
Unfortunately, the answer to one part of that question is pretty cut-and-dry: Nobody with knowledge of the local film scene can recall any big-budget American films shooting in Canberra.
But Canberra is home to a burgeoning film industry.
To learn more, we took Peter along to the set of The Furies, a horror movie being shot on Canberra’s outskirts.
With a budget of $1.5 million, the production of The Furies is far smaller than any Hollywood film, but it does give a taste of what Canberra can offer to film makers.
The bush setting — an abandoned gold mining village — is just 25 minutes from the city centre, though it feels a million miles away.
The set was developed by Canberra company The Film Distillery, which is aiming to produce films that can use the ACT’s natural advantages.
“This whole set would be millions of dollars to build, if you were to build it,” Film Distillery chief executive Andy Marriott said.
“We don’t have a studio — we just don’t use scripts that need studios — we also don’t have a city skyline, we don’t have an ocean, there’s a lot of things we don’t have, that doesn’t stop us making films.”
While, as Andy says, there are many things Canberra doesn’t have, Screen Canberra chief executive Monica Penders said the city has its share of benefits.
Canberra’s size, or lack thereof, gives it a competitive advantage by making filming less of a logistical challenge.
“It’s easy to shoot here. We don’t have traffic, we don’t have heaps of councils … in every other state and in big cities, you cross the road and you’re in a different council,” she said.
“You’ve got to get different permissions and pay for the location fees, so it becomes really expensive.”
Another factor not often thought about by those outside of the film industry is the light.
These factors have helped to make Canberra an attractive shooting location for independent films.
Blue World Order, which had its Canberra cinematic premier at Dendy cinemas on Thursday, is an independent science-fiction adventure film starring Titanic villain Billy Zane and is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The movie poster features Black Mountain Tower and was mostly shot in Canberra.
And while Hollywood hasn’t made an appearance in Canberra, its Indian cousin has.
Bollywood film Salt Bridge was filmed almost entirely in and around the Canberra region, showcasing Lake Burley Griffin, Black Mountain and Tidbinbilla, among other places.
The musical was also the first Hindi-language Australian film and seven of its songs were shortlisted for Oscars.
Despite those attractive qualities, the film industry in Canberra is too small to sustain larger pictures travelling to the region to film.
“Most overseas filmmakers don’t come to Australia for the scenery, they actually come for the crew and the facilities,” he said.
“That’s mostly because we have really good incentives to bring filmmakers to Australia — but nothing in Canberra.
That’s why many productions featuring Canberra are shot here for the sake of the story, like when the Kerrigans travelled to the High Court in The Castle.
Similarly, TV productions Secret City and The Code would have lacked their gritty political intrigue, had they not also been shot in Canberra.
But The Furies demonstrates that just because a film is shot in or around the ACT, doesn’t mean it has to be based there.
When director Tony D’Aquino pitched the film during Screen Canberra’s accelerator pod program, one of the requirements was that it had be shot in Canberra.
His vision was a simple one — he wanted to film the most violent, horror slasher film he could.
As it turned out Canberra seemed the perfect place to do that.
After all, where else can you find an abandoned gold mining village just 25 minutes from the centre of town?
“It’s amazing because it was run as a tourist attraction and when it went bankrupt they just walked away and left everything here. That was in the late 70s,” Tony said.
“So everything is already dressed and because it’s been weathering for 40 years it all looks old and decrepit. It’s absolutely perfect for a horror film.”
While Canberra is still hardly the Hollywood of the southern hemisphere, projects like The Film Distillery are working to make it viable for interstate productions to come to Canberra.
By producing a set number of films each year, the company aims to grow the industry, which will in turn make it more affordable for other productions to shoot in Canberra.
Andy said Canberra could aspire to reach the same filmmaking firepower as its sister city Wellington, New Zealand, which was integral to creating Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films in the early 2000s.
“Wellington grew from a Queanbeyan-sized town into one of the forces of filmmaking in the southern hemisphere purely because of Peter Jackson’s vision,” he said.
“The man that headed up Screen Wellington during the rise of Peter Jackson and [special effects company] WETA, was a guy called Graham Mason — he’s now head of Screen Australia.
Who asked the question?
Peter Bakos is a Canberra student and film fan.
He has always wanted to know more about movies made in Canberra.
He enjoyed joining us on the set of The Furies to learn more about his question.