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Patrick Hughes debut feature, Red Hill was shot on location in and around Omeo in Victoria’s high country – a town that is more than the film’s pretty backdrop; it’s Red Hill’s inspiration, writes Allison Giuffre*.

“A storm is coming,” the townsmen say as they gaze toward the patch of menacing sky moving in on their territory from the distance – and, of course, they’re not just talking about the weather. 
Patrick Hughes’s modern western Red Hill is a polished shotgun thriller loaded with rounds of convincing performances from some of Australia’s most familiar faces. City-boy Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten, Home and Away) rolls innocently into town and no one, especially not hard-faced local lawman Old Bill (Steve Bisley), jumps on the welcome wagon. Cooper’s barely gotten his boots dirty when breaking news of a Melbourne jailbreak sends the local men into a panic to protect their turf. 

"Red Hill’s inspiration"

The film’s most valuable player, though, is relatively new to the big screen: the endless mist-covered mountains and high-def skyscape of Omeo, Victoria. This town is more than the film’s pretty backdrop; it’s Red Hill’s inspiration. “When the screen opens up and shows that landscape, it’s like watching Avatar,” says Hughes, who steps out of his commercials director main stake to debut his feature film career as writer, producer, director, and editor of Red Hill. “[It’s] an extraordinary landscape that people are not familiar with.” 

Just under a six hour drive from Melbourne, Omeo sits on an undulating plain with a protective fencing of mountain ranges looming in the distance. But do they keep intruders out or trap prisoners in? Hughes taps into the kind of carnal, clear-headed way of thinking that only an organic supply of Omeo’s fresh air, cold dirt and wide-eyed brumbies could yield. You see it in the wide shots and brilliant lights of the area – and it seems effortless, as though Hughes and his film crew only had to be there to capture it, and Omeo would do the rest. If towns were eligible to win cinema awards, Omeo would be a top contender.

Allison Giuffre’s picture of Omeo

He might not be an Omeo local, but Hughes, a successful commercials director, still manages to inject some of the small town’s invigorating persona into the storyline as much as he does the scenery. (It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Hughes spent time in his youth on holiday camping around the area with his father.) 

Residents of Omeo actively participated in the filming process, flattered to have their town featured for the film. Many hope that it will prove to show a side of Australia much forgotten in the rest of the cinema, much in the same way that Man from Snowy River did years ago. 

"beautiful mountain scenery and rivers and snow"

“Everybody all over the world thought Australia was desert and kangaroos,” said Ken Connley, an Omeo resident and veteran stunt rider (he did the riding in Man from Snowy River), whose horses were used for the film. “They didn’t realize we’ve got this beautiful mountain scenery and rivers and snow.” As nightfall creeps into the deserted main street, the tiny town is cloaked in an ominous filter of shadows. It’s easy for the faces underneath the shadows to get lost in the ambiguous darkness, just as the lettering on shop windows and storefronts blends into the evening.

Isolated by the eruption of chaos throughout the town, Omeo transcends the characteristics of time periods. Cooper (Kwanten) finds himself forced to travel on horseback without any communication to the outside world. It is here, in this natural setting, that Cooper comes alive. 

"the urgency of natural survival instincts"

Hughes effuses the urgency of natural survival instincts through a nearly merciless trail of blood and gore, and yet through it appeals to Omeo’s as a land where a man is called on to be a man and remembers how to do so. In real life, the town of Omeo might not pose such a serious threat to your survival as an escaped convict, but the parallels between small town living and man’s ability to thrive best in the open air are as clear as the night sky in town. (Not to mention the fact that little modifications were necessary to change the structure of the town for the film, so the storefronts are strikingly familiar.)

Christopher Connley, a 20-year-old Omeo native who acted as the stuntman for many of Kwanten’s riding scenes, has spent time in between Omeo and Sydney doing work for a railway. As such, he has a unique perspective to the differences between living in a small town versus a big city. The biggest?

“People wave here,” Connley said. 

Published November 25, 2010

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Written & directed by Patrick Hughes.
In cinemas November 25, 2010

*Allison Giuffre is a graduate from Boston University, where she studied Magazine Journalism and English Literature. Allison visited the location of Red Hill in Omeo, Victoria on a tour of small town Australia as a travel writer. Other sites visited include Ned Kelly country, Braidwood and south coast New South Wales. Back in New York, Allison will pursue a career in business and freelance journalism. 

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