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From Red Hill you can see Hollywood ... his strong debut feature has propelled Australian filmmaker Patrick Hughes on a path to the summit, as Andrew L. Urban discovers.

Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz (Oscar winning star of Inglourious Basterds) were sitting in the front row of the Sunset Boulevard cinema in Los Angeles when contempo Aussie Western Red Hill opened there on November 5, 2010. At the back was Red Hill writer director Patrick Hughes, a recent Los Angelean. “We had a quick chat afterwards,” says Hughes lounging back in his armchair at a Sydney hotel for our interview, “and Tarantino raved about Steve Bisley’s performance …”

In a nutshell, this little episode highlights the propulsive power of a successful debut film; a year earlier, Patrick Hughes would not have been in Los Angeles and he certainly wouldn’t be talking to Quentin Tarantino. Nor would he have to juggle a list of meetings with Hollywood studio bosses, producers and agents. Indeed, a year earlier the film wasn’t even finished.

"Red Hill is not average in any sense"

But Red Hill is not average in any sense. Just 11 months after he started writing the script he was attending the world premiere of the film at the heavy duty Berlin Film Festival in February 2010. Within 48 hours of the premiere, not only had Sony acquired distribution rights for several key countries, but so had several other companies for others.

Hughes has moved to Los Angeles not because he’s abandoning Australia, but because he wants to broaden his horizons and this is his hot ticket. “I didn’t want to go to Hollywood on spec,” he says. “That doesn’t work for a director, although it may work for actors.” So Hughes is pitching to direct two studio films as well as prepping his own projects, which include the next two in his Three Colours Revenge trilogy; Red Hill is the first, and will be followed by Black Valley, set in the badlands of Mexico. The third is White Mountain, set in the snowdrifts of North America.

Why the Western? Because Hughes is drawn to the moral code of the genre. After a frustrating eight years trying to get a film financed, Hughes took stock of his situation. He dug into his psyche and he looked at his DVD collection and suddenly it all came together. “I sat down and started just blurting it out… and I realised that all along I had been drawn to the moral code of the Western. So the script came from a place of frustration.”

He then looked his 10 favourite filmmakers, “and I realised that 90% of them mortgaged their house and sold body parts to get their films made.”

Hughes avoided selling any body parts, but he did start shooting the film with barely enough to pay minimum wages to everyone (almost everyone – producer Al Clark, for example, worked for the love of it). 

Al Clark wasn’t the only one to pitch in. “I sat down with Greg McLean (of Wolf Creek fame) and he said, what’s the point of difference in your film. I had a hook, which was a guy just out of jail going after the people who put him there. But that’s not a story.”

"the powerful, iconic image of a figure on horseback in a long coat, shotgun in hand and riding into town to exact his revenge"

All the same, the powerful, iconic image of a figure on horseback in a long coat, shotgun in hand and riding into town to exact his revenge gave Hughes the imagery and he began piecing together a story. “I remembered something Stephen King wrote in one of his books about writing, saying it was a bit like archaeology: you sweep away the dirt and dust and you’ll discover the skeletal remains….the story.”

He wanted to make a film with universal resonance, or at least with an element that would resonate in the US. “I made Jimmy an indigenous Australian, a figure with parallels in American Indian social history.”

All the time he worked on the film, Hughes felt he was paying homage to the classic Western; but the film refreshes the genre and gives it contemporary relevance.

"rich elements"

The young city cop Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) isn’t the typical loner; he’s moved to the small town for the sake of his pregnant wife. Old Bill (Steve Bisley) is the top dog in town, the man whose love for the town is his driving life force, and the town has been dying for years. He blames Jimmy (Tom E. Lewis) … these are rich elements that ground the story – and the characters.

“Omeo, where we shot the film, is not unlike Red Hill in that regard,” says Hughes. In the gold rush days of the 1890s it had a population of 10,000 and even in 1954 it had over 2,000; now it has less than 500. (Omeo is derived from the Aboriginal word for hills or mountains.) 

Hughes hopes to make an Australian film to be shot in Melbourne, and a studio film he hopes to bring back to shoot in Australia. “It’s fantastic to have so much choice.”

Published November 25, 2010

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