I met with the mining engineer and World War I History enthusiast, Ross Thomas in Townsville and within 10 minutes I was convinced this was a story crying out to be told. Ross knows more about The Australian Miners in WW1 than anyone in the world, and that was a damn good place to start.
When he told me about the tunnels of Hill 60 and the heroic deeds of Captain Oliver Woodward, I knew the story could only be done justice with a major Feature Film.
I was well acquainted with David Roach the screen writer from previous projects and felt he had the passion and creative flourish needed to turn Woodward's diaries into a thrilling 90 minute film script.
Ross had a relationship with Oliver Woodward's descendants in Melbourne, who agreed to allow us to adapt his incredible war diary. The Australian War Memorial Archives in Canberra had the original support material. Months of film research followed, to gather as much detail as possible of the miners beneath the trenches.
Next, I needed a strong director to bring it all to the screen.
I wanted to produce it for Australian and International Cinemas and TV as well as DVD audiences worldwide. But it had to be made for a budget of $6million Australian dollars. So I needed someone who could conceive ways to cut down on the need for a large cast and lots of expensive sets but keep it action-packed and claustrophobic. Then I saw Jeremy Sims' film, LAST TRAIN TO FREO, all set in a claustrophobic train carriage.
Jeremy read our treatment, met up with writer David Roach, and together they worked through months and many drafts to produce a film script, well on the way to a final masterpiece of drama, action and love lost.
We started making plans for a starting date of April 2009 - to make delivery available for the Christmas market, 2009. We have now had the full $6,050,000 (AUD) budget prepared by Dennis Kiely, a Production Manager of 25 years experience with feature films shot on location. The scheduling of the film was done by PJ Voeten, who has a long and glorious track record in film-scheduling for some of the world's best film directors (eg Happy Feet and Crocodile Dundee). He put together a finely tuned 6-week film schedule to be shot entirely in and around Townsville.
On my first reconnaissance trip, I found the perfect fields, just outside Townsville, where we can dig to create the trenches of WW1.
Within a large shed on an industrial site of a Townsville building entrepreneur, Brad Webb, we will build the tunnels above ground so that the camera team and the actors can work within a controlled environment.
With locations chosen, a script written and a director rearing to go, we needed to find the perfect actor to take on the leading role of Oliver Woodward - a miner notable for his courage, dedication and determination. Receiving a Military Cross and two bars for his daring bravery, Officer Woodward is also a man bitten by love and. A truly Australian character, whose charisma and pragmatism was as essential in inspiring his team of tunnellers, as it will be to moving contemporary audiences. His undertaking of an unbelievable task beneath the trenches at the climax of his war experience, is a shocking twist, bringing home the harsh realities of war.
Brendan Cowell was the perfect choice. His many awards and accolades are well-earned for the immense and successful body of film, TV and stage work that has catapulted him to the A list of actors. He is destined for Hollywood status, in the footsteps of Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush.
Early on, star photographer Wendy McDougall took some great still photos of Cowell for us and with graphic designer, Katerina Stratos, created a first poster that is as revealing as it is potent
Because Woodward started his mining career at the Charters Towers School of Mines, and the Australian Miners of WW1 are so close to the hearts of Queensland, we decided to make the entire film there. Townsville played a large part in WW1 and has been an army garrison town ever since, still playing a big role in our ongoing military history. It always has been Ross Thomas' intention to leave as much of the film's props, costumes and sets to the military museum building up there today.
Jeremy Sims and I traveled North to Townsville from his Fox Studios office in Sydney to meet with the community and spread the word of our exciting project. Our initial presentation was to some of the city's dignitaries at the North Queensland Club where Jeremy spoke of our ideas to combine a production team from Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville, mixing local actors, extras, and tradesmen to build sets and create tunnels and trenches.
Jeremy immediately fell in love with Townsville and was soon convinced that this beautiful area and enthusiastic community were exactly the foundations needed to support our project.
Shooting the feature in Townsville would jack up the costs of transport and accommodation by up to 30%, but we hoped the community support and enthusiasm could more than balance it out. It would also bring work, money and tourism to the region. Also, from my Producer's position, it was good to see a city so recession-proof. With China as its main mining market, it wasn't going to crumble immediately. People were keen to see is happen there and many were keen to invest to make it happen.
So, Jeremy and I began to scout for Locations. Much to our delight, we found the fields on the outskirts of town perfect for the WW1 Western Front scenes and a rising ridge which is uncanny in its resemblance to the notorious 'Hill 60' upon which our movie relies.
While there, Jeremy also presented to the Artistic community at the successful Tropic Sun Playhouse in the middle the city. After an inspiring first workshop session, Jeremy had an arm-full of would-be supporting actors and actresses from Townsville and Cairns champing at the bit to be part of this new film coming to their city, and enough extras to build an army.
One month later, I returned to visit Townsville - this time accompanied by the screen-writer, David Roach, who started off our visit with another workshop, this time on screenwriting at James Cook University. It was set up by Debra Thomas from their School of Creative Arts.
The University has bent over backwards so far in their efforts to offer our Production the support we vitally need so far away from major film cities - in the form of studios, rehearsal space and even student attachments.
I went on to meet with Townsville Enterprises (TEL), from their very beginning, a group set up to help bring commerce and tourism to the city. They were very supportive in introducing us to interested parties who would like to help make the project a great success.
We engaged with commercial and non-commercial radio stations, journalists at the Townsville 'Bulletin' and had already had been a leading item on the TV's nightly news. This coverage has been integral in promoting the film and raising awareness and enthusiasm in every area for our venture.
Back in Sydney, the film was selected to be one of only seven films presented at this year's SPAAmart, presented by the Screen Producers' Association Australia (SPAA - visit www.spaa.org.au). SPAAmart is a sort of "speed dating" between local / international film distribution companies and prospective film makers.
During the conference in 2008 on the Gold Coast between November 12 - 15, Jeremy, David and I pitched to representatives from the Distribution Companies attending such as Hopscotch, Roadshow, Icon, Transmission, Disney, Palace, Jump Street, Madman, Granite, All Media, Warp, Bankside, IST, Tribeca and Film Sales Company, amongst others. We came away from the conference with a lot of interest from some very prominent distributors, with whom we are currently deliberating.
This year, the Federal Government has amalgamated three different government film bodies (the investment arm, the development arm and the archival arm) to create one large 'SCREEN AUSTRALIA'.
To draw investors into the Australian Film Industry, they have made available a rebate of up to 40% for the investors in Australian film.
Creating the proper financial strategy for the project has been an interesting process. After some deliberation and consideration of the new SCREEN AUSTRALIA incentives, we are now dividing the film into units, each at $275,000, available to professional or sophisticated investors only. We have created a strategy whereby each unit of investment will receive the rebate offered by SCREEN AUSTRALIA, plus a 100% tax deduction for their investment (over 5 years). Further information can be found on our Expression of Interest, available on the website, to sophisticated investors.
Already in Townsville alone, we are thrilled to have secured the financial interest and enthusiasm of investors - businessmen, families, miners and even one Knight of the Realm, Sir Mick Curtain.
My last trip to Townsville for 2008 was once again fruitful. The plans to build the Western Front at the back of the city are still going well with the excavator, Shane Pool. He has been a font of information and inspiration and guarantees that the trenches and No Man's Land will be dug in two shakes. Ross and David are still sniffing around to find the right shed in which to build the tunnels. We need at least 1500 square meters and that size space is not easy to find! The tunnels will be re-created above ground in this shed so we are sound proof and weather proof and the camera team can get to the cast inside.
Real Estate Entrepreneur Sally Elliot's Christmas Party was the highlight of the trip, with just about half the business city attending, in the big parking lot at the back of her building. Great to hear so many of the Townsville townsfolk wishing us well with our filming plans. Seems the whole town wants to see the film made there. AUSTRALIA the movie premiered in the city while we were up there, coincidentally. Townsville watched all the kudos brought to their southern neighbour, Bowen, 100 km down the highway - for Baz Lurhmann's film being made there. They now would like to see some limelight thrown on their great town for the birthplace of BENEATH HILL 60. A lot of pressure on us.
The Exchange Pub re-opened in Townsville while we were there - celebrating its place as the oldest pub in town. They have embraced the film and its owner Greg Rains is becoming one of our investors. He loves the film and the period and wants to redecorate one of the rooms in the Pub, as the HILL 60 ROOM. Looks like we will have our film office not too far from the bar. Sweet.
One interesting development kickstarted while we were there was the notion to create Beneath Hill 60 as a 'carbon neutral' film. Bill and David are now working with a few different firms in Townsville to conjure up the best plan of action to build a production that leaves no footprint, other than the its legacy.
Elisa Fraser is our Townsville co-ordinator and her job is getting busier as more and more things need to be tended to as we get closer to Pre Production. She is now joined by Townsvillian, Col Kenna, taking on the roll of Business Development Manager, chasing our local investment and sponsorship opportunities.
I took a trip over to beautiful Magnetic Island, and was welcomed by John Domelow who with more Beneath Hill 60 enthusiasts, wants to create a syndicate of investors from the locals on that magic island. Magnetic Island is just offshore from the city and has effectively become a suburb of Townsville with over 2000 permanent residents. Accessible by ferry the island has long become established as a holiday destination and a haven for wildlife. More than half the island is National Park which is mostly located on the steep hilly interior and rugged north-western side. Two of the most distinctive features are the native bush stone-curlew - a bird with a piercing cry and the Koalas are which are relatively common on the island and can easily be spotted just overhead on a walk in the park. The name of the island came about because of the apparent "magnetic" effect it had on the Captain Cook's compass as he sailed up the coast in 1770.
We cant wait to do some filming of our hero's Queensland home before the war started, in this glorious spot.
We move forward into the new year with the latest draft of the script by David Roach, distilling the incredible story into a tighter, more compelling and historically accurate tale.
During the research process to thoroughly check every detail possible of the events, settings and characters against historical fact, we came across a photograph of the only Aboriginal tunneller in WW1 - labeled simply as 'unknown'. The only clue was "ear wiggers" scribbled on the back of the photo, colloquial for tunnellers.
Townsville journalist Isis Symes ran an article in her Bulletin newspaper spearheading a search for the identity of the unknown soldier which so far has lead to lots of enquiries but not EUREKA as yet.
We discovered that service by Aborigines in World War I is something that few Australians know about - often their colour prevented them from enlisting, and they often returned from war with little record of their service or awards.
Check out the Inside Film website for another article. Click here:
Jeremy and I were invited by the North Queensland Club's Vice President, Fay Barker to come back up to Townsville again for a gala dinner Feb 13th, to once again present the package, the investment and sponsorship possibilities and consolidate more of the support from the locals who are keen to see the project go full-steam ahead. Jeremy will present some snippets from his last feature film LAST TRAIN TO FREO and discuss this new one with regards to the cast and character portrayal. I'll show some snippets from my Western Front Doco I made for History Channel this past November to set the scene for exploring Australia's significant involvement on the WESTERN FRONT - five times bigger than Gallipoli. Five times more Aussie men fought on the Western Front, the fighting lasted five times longer, and five times more men were killed. Most importantly, the story of the ANZACs on the Western Front is one of victory. Unlike the defeat at Gallipoli, the Australians on the Western Front helped to win World War I. And Townsville played a very important role in the war at that time. Every man or boy from North Australia who went to war embarked from that city, and still today it is Australia's largest garrison city.