Following its world premiere earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival, Patrick Hughes’ feature directorial debut “Red Hill” hits U.S. theaters in limited release this Friday, November 5. In anticipation of the film’s opening, Hughes shared an exclusive scene from his thriller with indieWIRE.
When a young police officer, Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), relocates to the small country town of ‘Red Hill’ with his pregnant wife, he does so in the hope of starting a new family. But when news of a prison break sends the local law enforcement officers into a panic, Shane’s first day on duty quickly goes from bad to worse.
Enter Jimmy Conway, a convicted murderer serving life behind bars, he returns to the isolated outpost seeking revenge. Now caught in the middle of what quickly becomes a terrifying blood bath, Shane will be forced to take the law into his own hands if he is to survive. Told over the course of single day, “Red Hill” is a modern-day western, set against the stunning backdrops of high-country Australia.
“Red Hill” was shot entirely on location in High-County Victoria. When I was a younger I was fortunate enough to do some ‘brumby’ chasing in the region, it was an experience which lingered with me to this very day. I remember riding back down from the mountains and passing through a small country town named Omeo. As I rode on horseback through the Main Street of this town – passing by a post office, a town hall, a police station, a smattering of rickety shop fronts and of course, a local pub – I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a living, breathing western.
So when it came time to find a location for “Red Hill,” I had only one town in mind. Resting on the foothills of the Great Dividing Range (a stretch of mountains that run from New South Wales through to Victoria), Omeo truly is a frontier town. At the end of Main Street are snow capped mountains, stretching as far as the eye can see. This breathtaking expanse of wilderness is so vast; you could literally ride a horse and in a straight line for six weeks and never see another soul. The sense of isolation in this brutal and unforgiving terrain is inescapable.
At the height of the gold rush in 1890, Omeo’s population matched that of Melbourne, boasting some 40,000 residents, it stood as one of Australia’s most profitable boomtowns. Of course, over the years its population dwindled along with the industries on which the town’s very foundations were built. Today, only 120 people live in Omeo.
When developing the story I was drawn to the tragedy that was apparent in these forgotten boomtowns. What happens to a town when its glory days have long gone? What happens to those that are left behind? What happens to everything they fought for? And most importantly, how far would they be willing to go in order to protect what is left? For me, it felt like the perfect setting for a modern-day western.
At its core, “Red Hill” tells the story of such a town, a dying town, fighting for survival and its place in a modern world.
I’ve always been a fan of the old-school, classical style of filmmaking, John Ford, Walter Hill, Don Siegal, Sam Pekinpah were all masters at crafting lean, mean and visceral stories. So when it came time to make my own film, I wanted to try and do the same.
Aesthetically, I wanted to make a film that would look and feel timeless. To achieve this the rule was simple – anything made after 1980
was not allowed within the frame. In a small country town, this is not a difficult task to achieve as much of town’s infrastructure was already fraying at the seams. Before we began official pre-production, I’d scouted the region with my production designer (Enzo Lacono) and cinematographer (Tim Hudson). The benefit of shooting in a small country town is that a lot can be achieved for very little money. Props, vehicles, locations were all secured on our very limited budget, thus enabling us to put the actual ‘money’ on the screen. Wherever possible, my goal was to keep the coverage lean. Like “High Noon” and “High Plains Drifter” I wanted to tell a story that was raw, striking and spares but one with a very strong sense of place. As with all westerns, the location would play a pivotal role in the film itself.
In keeping with this western flavor, we used only wide angel lenses, very wide, even for close ups. Not only did this allow us to incorporate the stunning landscapes within each frame but it also helped maximize our wide screen effect. Throughout the shoot, many hip level tracking moves were utilized, helping to enhance the tension and draw viewers in on moments of dramatic suspense and intrigue.
Before we began shooting, we decided on a color palette of rich alpine tones. Only shades of greens, browns, blacks and blues were to be incorporated. We designed police uniforms to match this code, many of our prop vehicles were re-sprayed and in some cases we even gave a few of the local shop fronts a fresh lick of paint. When working in a town like Omeo, it wasn’t all that difficult to capture the old west, in fact the only thing we really did to the actual town was remove some of the traffic signs.
Unfortunately, due to the strong and bloody violence in “Red Hill” there aren’t many scenes I’m able to share with you over the internet. However, I think this small clip perfectly demonstrates the western flavor we set out to achieve. Essentially, the scene is the first bubbling of conflict between our two leads. A conflict which progressively builds over the course of a single day as it heads towards its inevitable and explosive climax.
The particular issue at hand in this scene is Shane’s missing firearm. When I sat down to write the script I wanted Shane’s first day on duty to start off on the wrong foot. A missing firearm felt appropriate as it not only connected to the inner journey Shane will be forced to take but also felt like the perfect catalyst in a long line of compounding problems that confront him on this first day.
It’s the age-old screenwriters law of conflict: find a way to get your hero stuck up a tree, then throw rocks at him for the next two hours as he tries to find a way back down. Alas, Shane’s first day on duty begins without a gun and his new boss isn’t all that impressed. As this scene marks the first real encounter Shane has with Old Bill (Steve Bisley), I wanted audiences to immediately sense the grizzly nature of this old time lawman. Short on words and even shorter on emotion, I liked the idea that Old Bill wouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of his fresh faced recruit. He has little respect for his new Constable and this needed to be evident from the get-go. When blocking the scene, I loved the idea that Old Bill would simply continue on with whatever duties he had planned that day, like a bitter old pit-bull being tailed by an eager young pup, Shane is forced to haplessly tag along, desperately trying to resolve the situation.
This scene is the perfect example of the ‘lean’ approach I was aiming for as it all takes place in one extended take. To give the location a timeless quality, we sourced prop vehicles from a local mechanic who happened to be an avid collector of muscle cars from the ’70s. He agreed to park a couple of his prized beauties out front of the town hall. It’s a small detail but one that helps cement the texture and tone of a town slowly fading away.
At its core the film is a representation of the changing of the guard. Old Bill represents the past, a man still clinging to the long gone glory days of his dying town and Shane Cooper, the future, a new breed of police officer, one with a strong sense of justice. Two men, both from the law but with two very different perspectives on the world around them.
I’ve always been fascinated by the western genre, they are stories built upon the backbone of the moral code. When it came time to make my first film, I wanted to tell a western, a modern western, one which would explore those same themes but in a new light.