June 2000, Sydney. In preproduction at Fox Studios Australia is the next installment of George Lucas' Star Wars saga, Episode II; in production on the coast south of the city is David Caesar's indie feature Mullet; and in post-production all over town is Baz Luhrmann's international vision, Moulin Rouge. Hollywood offshore jostling with low-budget and large-scale Australian movies: it's as good a picture as you'll get of the fight for the city's filmmaking soul. "What we are going through," says Luhrmann, "is evolution and change."
It's a change that has taken a century to unspool. In that time, celluloid
Sydney has constantly reinvented itself. The gritty working- class aura of The Sentimental Bloke (1919)-shot around Woolloomooloo, and Australia's most famous silent film-was followed by the slick studio years of Cinesound, where, during the 1930s, Oscar winner Ken G. Hall directed 17 features. And 70 years before titian-tressed Nicole Kidman, there was Sydney starlet Louise Lovely, who made 50 pictures for Universal and Fox in silent-era Hollywood.
Like the ABBA-singing bride in P.J. Hogan's 1994 hit film Muriel's Wedding, the city dreams big. Just look at Tropfest, Sydney's annual short-film festival, which sprang from a casual gathering of young filmmakers in an inner-city café seven years ago. "Tropfest started as a handful of people watching a video, and we had a quarter of a million hits on our webcast this year from around the world," says founder John Polson, who went on to create Tropnest, a Sydney studio for budding screenwriters, act in the recent M:I-2, and is now working as a director in Los Angeles. "That's indicative of a shift in focus for a lot of people around the world on Sydney in particular and Australia in general."
With the Sydney-filmed M:I-2, that shift in focus has never looked quite as glamorous. Locals might snigger at the city's celluloid makeover-actress Thandie Newton cruises past the Opera House on a harbor uncluttered by ferries, the movie's deadly virus is housed in an office tower normally home to the state's premier, and the Spanish hacienda is actually located in urban Elizabeth Bay. "As a colleague in Los Angeles said, Didn't like the movie, but God, isn't Sydney a star,'" says the N.S.W. Film and Television Office's Kingston Anderson.
Behind the star turn have been decades of industry toil. Since 1973, the city's Australian Film Television & Radio School has been a conveyor belt for cinematic talent, from The Piano's Jane Campion to Babe director Chris Noonan and Shine editor Pip Karmel, whose movies all won Oscars. The crop now coming through, says aftrs director Rod Bishop, "thinks about making films for the world, rather than just making them for Australia." For those graduates' cameras, the Sydney-based National Institute of Dramatic Art has honed no-nonsense stars like Judy Davis, Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett. "We're Australians and we tend to fling in and have a go," says nida director John Clark. "With people like Cate, the international industry's cottoned on to this-you've got an actress there who just commits herself passionately."
Until recently, they didn't have a studio to call home. Then, a couple of kilometers down the road from nida's sheds, the Royal Agricultural Society Showgrounds were handed over to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Filmed Entertainment by way of a state government lease in 1996. While locals protested that public land had been given to one of the world's richest men to develop, the act showed a political commitment to filmmaking. Since then, Fox's soundstages have hosted a cattle call of largely U.S.-funded productions, from Dark City to Babe: Pig in the City, The Matrix, M:I-2 and Red Planet. In the process, Sydney "has gone from a place where I couldn't make a film to a place that has arguably the best technical facility in the world," says nida-trained Luhrmann. The set-building expertise, digital effects and post-production facilities that have come with it have catapulted the local industry to another level, as shown by Australians Steve Courtley and David Lee, who won technical Oscars for The Matrix earlier this year. Says the Film and Television Office's Anderson: "We basically have critical mass."
Luring offshore productions to shoot in Sydney has been a strategic plan. "Each film is like another circus coming to town. It can pitch its tent or do its thing in your town, or it can go to another town quite as happily," says The Matrix's Australian producer, Andrew Mason, who, along with compatriot director Alex Proyas, persuaded U.S. studio New Line that Sydney had the technical capability to film their ambitious sci-fi movie, Dark City. That they were able to turn that project around for a modest $9.3 million helped convince the brothers Wachowski to base The Matrix at Fox at the same time as Babe: Pig in the City was shooting. "While that was going on, the decision was made to bring Mission: Impossible here," says Mason, "so you can see a rolling flow."
Australia's low dollar-which saved the Wachowskis an estimated $30 million-and Fox's generous payroll tax rebate have added to Sydney's allure. "Right now, if you want to make an independent English language film, this is the cheapest country you can make it in," says Rick McCallum, the U.S. producer of the next two Star Wars episodes, which are being shot in Sydney. While Canada attracts the most "runaway" Hollywood trade, followed by England, "what's important is that Australia is now one of those players," says Fox Studios Australia chief executive Kim Williams, "and is a significant player on the world production map." Late last month in Los Angeles, Ausfilm, the industry body that markets Australia as a movie location, pitched for 25 potential projects. Many of them look like going Sydney's way, including the two Matrix sequels planned for later this year. Says Anderson of the fto-which has seen filming double in the last five years, with 65% of Australian production going to Sydney and the rest of New South Wales-"Basically, we've got the sexiest city at the moment."
But in the selling of celluloid Sydney, others wonder whether the city has sold its filmmaking soul. The Australian Screen Directors' Guild has warned that cheaper local crews tailored for Hollywood will become "Mexicans with mobiles," while Sydney director David Caesar fears that with the shift to offshore productions, "we run the risk of just being a stand-in for other places, other planets." Meanwhile, Marian Macgowan, producer of last year's award-winning Two Hands, says that filming in the city center has become too expensive. "The bottom line is that for someone like me making a $A4-5 million film, I'm just going to move to another town," Macgowan says. But Ausfilm's Trisha Rothkrans is unapologetic about the benefits a film like The Matrix can bring to the local economy: "$A80-100 million. Then they leave with the rolls of film. It's brilliant."
Whether this tradeoff can be a sustaining one for the local industry is still to be seen. For the moment it would seem nothing can stem Sydney Harbour's Hollywood tide. "You can't stop change," says director Luhrmann. "And the idea is to embrace it in such a way that it serves us, not hinders us." Star Wars' McCallum, too, sees an industry in momentous flux. "I think the wave's just building," he says. "It's either going to just drop and destroy a lot of people, or a lot of people are going to ride the wave into an incredible life."
It is three days before Star Wars: Episode II begins shooting, and producer McCallum is buzzing. For 10 weeks, Lucasfilm will hold hostage Fox Studios Australia's six soundstages, where 60 sets are being constructed and a team of 500, many of them Australians, is being assembled. With the radical decision to shoot the budding romance between Anakin Skywalker (Canadian newcomer Hayden Christensen) and Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) with high-definition digital cameras, "we're going to a place that nobody's ever gone before," he says.
Shepherding the change will be an all-local camera team. "Australians have the most flexible film crews," says McCallum. But that's not the primary reason he and director George Lucas have decided to shoot the last two installments of Star Wars Down Under. That lies with Hollywood. To both men, "it represents everything repugnant," says McCallum. "It's so overbig, it's so unionized, it's so complicated and difficult, litigious and xenophobic and jingoistic."
And expensive. Because of the weak Australian dollar, McCallum estimates Episode II will save 25% of its budget, bringing the final cost to around $115 million-what it cost to film The Phantom Menace three years ago. Fox's Kim Williams calls movie production "probably the most speculative business outside of wildcat oil drilling," and McCallum says the savings gained in Sydney "take the risk out of making the movie," still two years away from release. Just look at The Matrix, he says: "They got much more freedom and much more movie for their money."
At Kiama, a couple of hours' drive south of Sydney, the low-budget Mullet is into its fourth and final week of shooting. A film about fish, football and family, "this is the story I really want to tell," says writer-director Caesar, an aftrs graduate, "and it's the sort of story that should be told." Otherwise, he says, "we run the risk of having an industry that is genre-based, which is really only for filling up video shelves around the world."
This is the underside of Sydney filmmaking, on whose talent base many of the offshore productions are being built. "American productions bring money and expertise into the country and create employment," says the fto's Anderson. "Our own industry allows us to tell the stories we want to tell about ourselves and export them to the rest of the world."
Mullet might be one from the heart, but Caesar is looking weary. With Star Wars in town, and Lord of the Rings and the remake of South Pacific currently shooting in New Zealand and Queensland, "a lot of the crew you'd normally have access to go, Why would I work on a film like that when I can get four-times as much money on an American film?' " And the dipping Australian dollar, while a boon for offshore producers, bumps up the cost of American film stock and technical equipment. Still, Caesar isn't complaining too much. "I don't think people will believe that we made this film for only a million bucks," he says, as a picture-postcard dusk breaks over the local fish markets. "A lot of that value is in the locations, and what it's going to look like is because of the locations."
Such million-dollar views are also drawing an increasing number of India's Bollywood filmmakers to Sydney. Line producer and consultant Anupam Sharma says 21 crews have visited since 1998 to film their song and dance dream sequences. "Just visualize an Indian actor standing with five Australian girls and you see this huge Opera House in the background," says Sharma. "Combined with the music, that does it for [Indian producers]. Bingo! Cut. Next he's standing with the limousine at the Kiama blowhole. Then cut to the Jenolan Caves [west of Sydney]. They're getting three things that they might have got in three different countries in Europe." Yet for Caesar, Sydney's real value for filmmakers is as more than just a backdrop; it's the starting point for a deeper exploration. "It is," he says, "about living in this certain place in the world."
If the shoot for Moulin Rouge wasn't tough enough-production was delayed when star Nicole Kidman broke a rib during rehearsals last October, and then again after a death in the director's family-now Baz Luhrmann really has his work cut out. With Fox backers and much of the local industry watching over his shoulder, the Sydney wunderkind is expected to deliver another hit by Christmas. "Nobody in the world wanted to make a film about Shakespeare or ballroom dancing; it was a great battle," says the director of Romeo + Juliet and Strictly Ballroom. "Same with Moulin Rouge. No musical has worked in the last 20 years."
A musical, set in Toulouse-Lautrec's Montmartre of 1899, and all shot within the walls of Fox, Sydney-it's a huge leap of faith, and one that attempts to bridge local and global filmmaking. With a Sydney creative team and foreign imports such as British actor Ewan McGregor and America's John Leguizamo, "that's the reality of filmmaking now," says Fox's Williams, "that you want the best and most appropriate people to be working on any one film in order to give it the maximum opportunity of realizing its potential." In the process, Moulin Rouge could redefine what an Australian film is. "I think we can confidently have an Australian point of view and voice and tell a story set in Europe," Luhrmann says. "And that's a fairly newish thing. [Culturally], that's something that is true of the city, and of the country at large."
The pressure's also on for the visual effects house Animal Logic, which has the task of digitally creating Paris from models at its Sydney base. "The change for me is not about Fox Studios, it's not about whether U.S. studios are shooting in Australia," says Animal Logic managing director Zareh Nalbandian. "The change is about the role our artists and technicians play as part of the overall team of filmmakers."
With Animal Logic having weaved its magic on international pictures such as The Matrix, Holy Smoke and Babe: Pig in the City, Nalbandian should know. And the technologies that are seeing Montmartre blossom from Sydney's Moore Park are also allowing companies such as his to become players in Hollywood's backyard. For the World War II opus The Thin Red Line, shot in Queensland and Samoa, U.S. director Terrence Malick didn't set foot in Sydney, where Animal Logic created the digital effects. "Our work would finish at 8 p.m., it would be downloaded into The Thin Red Line editorial office site during our night, and by the time they'd resolved those issues, we would be just rolling up at work," recalls Nalbandian. "Whether we're two blocks away at Venice Beach or 12,000 km away at Bondi, it doesn't really matter."
Luhrmann, for one, knows where he'd prefer to be. "We live in a country where you have the luxury of being so disconnected from some of the complexity of the world that we have the time to imagine and think," he says. "I can think and imagine more in Sydney, just because I have a different headspace."
Which leads us back to The Matrix. At the end of the film, as Keanu Reeves steps out of the phone booth and into Sydney's Pitt Street rush hour, the narrator says: "I'm going to show you a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders and boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you." He could have been addressing the city's filmmakers. So will they take the blue pill, and stick to what they know or, like Reeves in The Matrix, take the red pill, and plunge further into the rabbit hole of global filmmaking? Perhaps, to be safe, they'll take both.