Issue: Winter 2018

Hollywood Discovers Melbourne

Melbourne, Australia

From Errol Flynn to the Hemsworths, Australia has long been exporting their best actors to Hollywood. Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Margot Robbie, Toni Collette, Geoffrey Rush, Rebel Wilson, Jackie Weaver and “Crocodile Dundee” Paul Hogan have entertained us for years.

Australia has long been a popular location for filming. Similar to California, it too has everything from surf to mountains to desert, and there are currently three studios in the country including one owned by Fox, and the small Docklands Studio in Melbourne.

Actors Blanchett, Ben Mendelsohn, Eric Bana and Chris, Liam and Luke Hemsworth all come from Melbourne. With a burgeoning arts scene, array of museums, connection to film it was definitely time to visit “Hollywood Down Under.”

I already had a Hollywood-Melbourne connection: My wife Wendall Thomas, a novelist and adjunct professor in screenwriting at UCLA, had given day-long lectures at the Melbourne International Film Festival for the last few years, and was returning again. The annual three-week festival was founded in 1952 and is one of the oldest film festivals in the world.

Greeted on my first morning with clear sunshine, I opened the newspaper and saw two articles about Melbourne and its movie connections: Russell Crowe and Charlie Hunnam had both been spotted locally, as they were about to start filming The True History of the Kelly Gang.

Bush ranger and outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang—who robbed banks and evaded the authorities in the 1870s before donning cobbled-together suits of armor for a final shootout—are folk legends in Australia, and their story has been bought to the big screen a number of times.

Ned Kelly Death Mask on view at the State Library of Victoria
Ned Kelly Death Mask on view at the State Library of Victoria
Photo by James Bartlett

Perhaps contrary to Hollywood’s creation story of its first feature length film, The Squaw Man made in 1912, The Story of the Kelly Gang was Australia’s first feature-length movies filmed in Melbourne in 1906. Although Rolling Stone Mick Jagger was lambasted for his efforts in 1970’s Ned Kelly, there was more praise for Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom in 2003’s version.

Kelly was born about 30 miles outside Melbourne, and his famous robot-like suit of armor—and his death mask—is proudly displayed in the State Library of Victoria. Even now it’s still impressive to see the dings, tears and bullet holes pockmarking the metal, and to marvel at the audacity and confidence displayed by Kelly and his gang. Kelly—the only survivor of that final confrontation—was tried and later hung at Melbourne Gaol.

Ned Kelly Armor
Ned Kelly's famous suit of armor, on display at the State Library of Victoria
Photo by James Bartlett

Australia has developed its own film genre and through the years, Hollywood filmmakers have ventured down under. Older movie fans might remember On the Beach filmed in Melbourne nearly 60 years ago. The Cold War-era, post-nuclear war tale both shocked and enthralled audiences at the time.

With a famously troubled production—from doubts about the cast, battles between director and the novel’s writer Nevil Shute, and having to build a ramshackle soundstage studio on the city’s equine showgrounds – the saga almost couldn’t have been more Hollywood.

Producer/director Stanley Kramer bought in Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, and curious crowds gathered to watch filming on the city streets and in sites around the city. Cinephiles will recall the Salvation Army’s banner “There is Still Time… Brother” was seen in the final riveting scenes outside the State Library.

Capital of the state of Victoria, Melbourne is the second-largest city in Australia. It was originally founded by free settlers from the British colony of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) on 30 August 1835 in what was then the colony of New South Wales, and became part of the Crown itself in 1837.

It was given the name “Melbourne” by the NSW Governor in honor of the British Prime Minister of the day, William Lamb, Second Viscount Melbourne, and officially declared a city by Queen Victoria in 1847 becoming the capital of the new state of Victoria in 1851.

Like California, Victoria had its own gold rush in the 1850s. In a short time it became one of the world’s largest and most prosperous cities which you can see reflected in the many grand and ornate Victorian buildings around the city.

Many of the major theatres, museums, restaurants, clubs and the National Heritage-listed Queen Victoria Market are in the CBD—Central Business District—a packed, grid-like area that has everything from Rodeo Drive-like high-end stores to bustling cafés, bars and restaurants hidden down its many mural-lined alleyways.

The ornate Victorian Fire Services Museum reflects the prosperous post Melbourne enjoyed in the 19th Century
Photo by James Bartlett

“One of the reasons that we chose Melbourne was the city’s alleyways, they were great, exactly what we needed,” said Gary Fister, the executive producer of the Nicolas Cage film Ghost Rider.

“The central business district worked really well for us in creating a large Texas city. There was a huge amount of variety in Melbourne that allowed us to really play with the various locations,” he added.

The CBD also hides a big movie-related secret: The Limelight Department. Home to the first movie studio in Australia—and perhaps the world—it’s a cramped wooden attic that sits atop the Salvation Army building and traces its history back to around 1892.

Amazingly, around 300 films of various lengths were produced here. Initially the process involved slides created in the Coloring Room for simple lantern projection, the name “Limelight” coming from the process of heating a block of limestone until it was white hot, and then taking that light and focusing the image with a prism.

Teams travelled the country showing their movies to raise funds, but later Salvation Army leadership soured on the idea, and the studio was wound down in 1910. Well worth a visit, the attic studio showcases colored slides, vintage cameras, equipment, posters and artifacts.

With its impressive early history, movie-making languished in Australia. According to Wikipedia, only five productions of note were made from 1906 to 1933, seven in the 40s and 50s, and 16 in 1960. In 1970, 22 garnering nine AFI Best Film nods, 24 in the 1980s with Crocodile Dundee and Breaker Morant. Then things took off with 39 films in the 90s, 80 in the 2000s and 70 so far in this decade. Further, the talent emerging and merging with the U.S. is headspinning.

Today, in recognition of the mediums impact, Melbourne is also home to ACMI—the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Dedicated to movies, television, video games, digital culture and art, it is situated at the heart of Melbourne in Federation Square, it hosts to MIFF.

The Australian Center for the Moving Image
The Australian Center for the Moving Image (AMCI) pays homage to TV, film, video and digital culture.

Its “Screen Worlds” exhibition is quite a feast for the senses. Ambitiously covering the history of the moving image from day one to the future, it’s populated with countless screens and interactive exhibits, as well as more traditional souvenirs and artifacts like local girl Blanchette’s Oscar for The Aviator (2005).

Almost overwhelming and arcade-like, it’s a must—especially for the kids—and just another example of how many unexpected connections there are between Hollywood, USA and Hollywood, Down Under...even though the two cities are over 8,000 miles apart. 

Editor’s Note: The 16th annual G’Day USA Los Angeles Gala ( on January 26 will honor three exceptional Australians: actor Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games and Independence Day: Resurgence), production designer Emmy Award winner Deborah Riley (The Matrix, Moulin Rouge and Game of Thrones) and present Lifetime Achievement Award to singer Helen Reddy. Hollywood chef Aussie Curtis Stone (Gwen) will “curate” a menu of Australian food and wine.