Susan Ward

There is a certain frisson of recognition when places entwined in one’s personal life are suddenly there on the screen as story settings in features or television dramas. It was a novelty in 1995 to see the streets of Brisbane in episodes of the television series Fire. Before then, spot-the-location was a game South East Queensland residents may have played watching US Paramount series Mission Impossible (1988-89) or the US Lorimar series Time Trax (1993/94).

Over the years Queensland landscapes have been imagined in a variety of screen narratives and genres. Sometimes Queensland places appear to be filmed more or less the way they are; yet once inserted as elements of cinematic storytelling, they still become mythologised spaces, imagined and transformed. The Brisbane based biopic Swimming Upstream conflates story with the ‘real’, when the closely packed timber and tin cottages and historic Spring Hill Baths were used as locations for the 1950s period drama. The prominence given to idiosyncrasies of place which happened to be the actual place of Anthony Fingleton’s family history, added to the ‘truthfulness’ of cinematic storytelling. Yet these street scapes were still invisibly transformed; either ‘dressed’ in the removal of parking meters and traffic signs; obscured through carefully positioned cameras and historical props; or digitally manipulated to mask modern infringements that have the power to disrupt the pretence that we are watching ‘real’ space and time.

Similarly a 1950s Brisbane was recreated from historic precincts in Maryborough and Bundaberg to achieve historical ‘authenticity’ in the adaptation of Criena Rohan’s story The Delinquents, because the required historic precincts were no longer available in Brisbane. At the furthest extreme, Baz Luhrman’s Australia transformed Bowen’s waterfront, outdoor picture gardens and customs house (combined with sets built within Fox Studios) to create a hyperrealist version of  Darwin in the 1940s.

In general, though, Australian filmmaking has assumed the naturalistic, literal approach to filmmaking that makes do with locations that can be found. It is largely a pragmatic response to cottage industry conditions and small production budgets; but it is also a mode of filmmaking that assists in complying with important cultural obligations. Hollywood, on the other hand, approaches film as fantasised entertainment that assumes custom built sound stages and high end capacities in production expertise. Warner Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast — built in 1987 by Hollywood movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis — signals an assured scale in sophistication, technology and infrastructure on par with Hollywood’s mode of production.

Because artifice is central to filmmaking practice, it is not unusual for locations to stand in for somewhere else, whether Australian filmmaking or Hollywood entertainment. It works because the process is underpinned by similarities between places and spaces — not difference. The aim is not to recreate actuality but to function coherently within the context of genre and story meaning. For example, story settings such as South East Asia and the South Pacific in The Great Raid, Paradise Road, and Thin Red Line filmed in far north Queensland symbolise far flung places that are understood as uncivilised in opposition to civilised first world places. They function as liminal spaces from which to explore dystopian themes or places where the scary or fantastic may happen. Thus Queensland locations — rolling surf or palm fringed beaches, the blue sea and sky, the tropical rainforests — conform to cultural notions of sublime nature, empty non-social spaces that symbolise everything the modern world is not.

If we take a genre count of the international productions that do take advantage of Queensland locations the tally is heavily weighted to horror — Daybreakers, Ruins, House of Wax, Ghost Ship, The Triangle; action and war films — Streetfighter, The Marine, The Great Raid, Thin Red Line, Sniper, Paradise Road; speculative fictions such as The Island of Dr Moreau, Escape from Absalom, The Condemned; or fantasy/adventure — as in TV series Beastmaster, Lost World, and H20: Just Add Water, or the films Aquamarine, Nim’s Island, and Fool’s Gold. Most of these productions use a combination of forest/jungle, water/beach settings or elaborate sets built in or near the sound stages on the Gold Coast, though some go further a field in search of the right location.

The majority of this production activity is clustered around two regions — either South East Queensland, where we have the rainforest hinterland of the Gold Coast, beaches estuaries and waterways, and the studio complex; or far North Queensland, where we find significant ‘wilderness’ areas along the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree and Atherton Tableland. Unsurprisingly these aesthetically pleasing versions of landscape are also significant tourist destinations that are well served by airports, restaurants and entertainment spaces, five star resorts and luxurious retreats which cater to the comforts of production staff and A list talent.

Sons of Matthew (1949)

Inspired by the life story of the O’Reilly family, nationalistic filmmaker Charles Chauvel went to extraordinary lengths to create a cinematic classic based on Queensland’s pioneering history. In its time Sons of Matthew (1949) — funded by Universal Studios, Greater Union and the Rank Organisation — was considered an indulgent, overly extravagant example of location shooting in the effort to access the remote and spectacular landscapes of Natural Bridge, Numinbah Valley, Lamington Plateau, Christmas and Running Creeks near Rathdowney. Trained in Hollywood, Chauvel combined the more typical studio shoot with location shooting to compensate for Australia’s lack of sophistication in filming technology and industry infrastructure. It was an industrial strategy based on appeasing international audiences’ desire for cinematic spectacle and ‘authenticity’ by incorporating aspects of documentary realism.

The geography of film and television production

As state capital, Brisbane is the headquarters of the state funding agency Pacific Film and Television Commission and the majority of industry training institutions — QPIX, Griffith Film School, QUT’s Creative Industries and the private Queensland School of Film and Television. Brisbane also hosts the majority of creative producers, writers and directors who drive Australian cultural production, though this creative milieu is much smaller than that found in Sydney or Melbourne. With the absence of sound stages and filmmaking facilities on a par with the Gold Coast, Brisbane production tends to be concentrated in documentary, television commercials, small budget features and shorts, news, current affairs, and the live coverage of sport.

The Gold Coast with its studios and production services functions as the hub for the majority of film and television drama that may roam South East Queensland or further north. However, unlike Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne, the Gold Coast is entirely dependent on a fly-in-fly-out clientele attracted to Queensland for its locations and because of the state’s capacity to be cost effective and film friendly. During the 1990s, the marketing emphasis was on the mutability of the local landscape in providing locations that can play anywhere. However with increased competition from international and interstate places, Queensland has had to focus on pitching for productions that are more suited to its tropical and marine environments. The state’s competitive edge is in its reputation and longevity as an international production location and in the availability of specialisations and infrastructure such as the recently built horizon water tank and Sea World, with its simulated tropical lagoons, aquariums and trained dolphins, which complement Queensland’s jungle and water settings.

References and Further reading (Note)

Ben Goldsmith, Susan Ward and Tom O’Regan, Local Hollywood, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2010

References and Further reading (Note)

Tom O’Regan, Australian national cinema, London and New York, Routledge, 1994

References and Further reading (Note)

Jonathan Dawson and Bruce Molloy (eds), Queensland images: in film and television, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1990

References and Further reading (Note)

Ben Goldsmith and Tom O’Regan, The film studio: film production in the global economy , Lanham, New York, 2005

References and Further reading (Note)

Celmara Pocock, ‘"Blue lagoon and coconut palms": the creation of a tropical idyll in Australia’, The Australian journal of anthropology, 16/3, Dec 2005