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Andrew L. Urban went high above ground (to the 25th floor of Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel) to meet director Jeremy Hartley Sims and his star Brendan Cowell, to dig up a few battle yarns about the making of Beneath Hill 60 – the untold story of Australian mining engineer Oliver Woodward drafted to blow up a hill full of Nazi troops in World War I from a maze of tunnels deep beneath enemy lines.

Fear was what director Jeremy Sims felt at the start of production on his first large scale movie, the $9 million fact based World War I drama, Beneath Hill 60 – all shot around Townsville, Queensland. Fear was also the emotion that the film’s star, Brendan Cowell felt underground in the cramped tunnels where most of the action takes place. After a series of mild panic attacks he realised he suffers from claustrophobia.

But sitting in a 25th floor hotel room overlooking Sydney Harbour, Cowell now looks back on the experience fondly. “We had more laughs between takes than on any comedy,” he says; it was the best way of coping with the brutal hardships of the shoot.

"the scale of the production"

As for Sims, he’ll never forget shooting the opening sequence of the film, a long, single tracking shot. “I walked on set and there were these six giant cranes holding shades to block out the Townsville sun, another six giant cranes for the rain gear, 100 extras, several fog machines … and (special effects supervisor) Dan Oliver placing bombs everywhere. As I arrived, they all stopped and looked at me; OK, what do you want us to do…’ That’s when I truly understood the scale of the production.”

Beneath Hill 60 tells the little known story of Australia’s role in one of the key battles in World War I, across Europe and far from Gallipoli. It’s a war story, but writer David Roach has woven it through with character and relationships that give the film added layers.

“I had the most intimate and fruitful collaboration in film or theatre I’ve ever been involved in,” says Sims of working with Roach. “I’m a structure Nazi and he’s into it too. But I’m hot headed and he’s calm and neat.”

Roach was called in to turn mining engineer Oliver Woodward’s war diary into a screenplay. It had been discovered by Queensland mining engineer Ross Thomas, “while reviewing old government mining journals about 18 years ago when I worked as an Inspector of Mines with the Queensland Government in Charters Towers,” he explains.

"fuelled this passion"

“More interest was generated when I further read that Captain Oliver Holmes Woodward, who threw the switch to detonate the vital Hill 60 and Caterpillar Mines (the subject of Beneath Hill 60) at the commencement of the Battle of Messines Ridge, was a mining engineering graduate from the Charters Towers School of Mines, immediately adjacent to my Inspectoral office in Charters Towers. My passion finally drew me to the Western Front to see physical evidence of the tunnelling. Having some past war interest with my father being a Lancaster bomber pilot during WW2 also fuelled this passion.”

Roach’s father was a stretcher bearer in the same war, which accounts for the stretcher bearer featured in the film – a tribute to Roach senior.

Roach did more than tell the story of the tunnels, the terrible life in the trenches and the tension of the mission, which was to make the largest explosion the world had seen to that date. He also touched on Woodward’s private life as recorded in his diary, which is a romantic gem. Woodward, then 26, was wooing 16 year old Marjorie when his skills made him ideal for this mission. They kept in touch via letters, and the affair is recorded in the film – often providing welcome rspite from the horrors of the battlefield.

But in short, it’s the story of now Captain Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell) and his men, who are sent across the border from France to Belgium near Ypres, to the Messines Ridge with its notorious Hill 60. Directly beneath strategic sections of the German lines, the allies have crammed the largest amount of explosive ever collected in one place.

Woodward’s company must protect the tunnel system – and extend it strategically - until he receives the order to detonate the explosives; it’s all mud, fatigue and the risk of tunnel collapses.

"willpower and concentration"

It was tough even just to shoot the film. “Over the seven week shoot, I found it the hardest challenge of willpower and concentration.” He sings the praises of his cast and crew, saying the advantage of the bigger budget is that the various departments (eg production design) have enough resources and man/womanpower to get done what has to be done, often even surpassing his expectations.

Cowell echoes the praise, and talks about the brilliant sound technicians who “dug little holes overhead, they pinned tiny lapel mikes inside our clothing, they had boom mikes … and extraordinary attention to detail.”

Among the many hurdles along the way, Sims recalls one in particular, an early meeting with the Townsville city fathers, where the production planned to recreate the battle field and the tunnels. All they had was the first draft and the amazing story; they needed money.

Sims and producer Bill Leimbach, an expat Californian with 50 or more documentaries to his credit, faced seven senior members of the Chamber of Commerce.

“I told them the most moving parts of the story and handed over to Bill to talk about the financing. Then he just stopped and said ‘OK, now I want a show of hands who’ll put money into the movie.’” No hands went up. Sims buries his head in his hands as he recalls the scene; “Oh no! This is a terrible mistake … but Bill pointed to one of them and asked him to confirm that yes, he would indeed put money in. So that guy raised his hand. Bill moves to another guy … and another … and soon there were three hands in the air. By the time he finished, we had seven hands in the air. I’m just amazed at Bill’s relentless, old school Hollywood optimism.”

Published April 15, 2010

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Jeremy Hartley Sims

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