December 31st, 2005
Up, up ... and away
Superman may be quintessentially American, but it's cheaper to film him in Australia.
By Geoff Boucher, Times Staff Writer
SYDNEY, Australia — To tell the tale of the greatest American superhero, the producers of "Superman Returns" brought six tons of lumber to a rural parcel on the Breeza Plains of Australia and built a Kansas farmhouse, windmill and an ox-blood red barn. They planted five acres of corn and paved six miles of road to reach their new Midwest homestead. And all of this because, for Hollywood filmmakers today, it makes more money sense to build Smallville USA on a different continent than it does to simply stay home.
"It is quite amazing isn't it? I suppose that's the way things are now," said Guy Hendrix Dyas the production designer for the film, which will reach theaters in June. "The place we found was in a really desolate area about an hour's flight from Sydney. We built an entire working farm. When we were done with the corn we fed it to the cows."
There is no bigger popcorn movie for 2006 than "Superman Returns," Warner Bros.' attempt to relaunch the grand old Man of Steel as a heroic 21st century franchise. And the film is all the bigger for having been made in Australia, where the U.S. dollar goes far and the talent pool runs deep. The country is consequently turning into one of the busiest overseas production hubs for Hollywood and perhaps its most user-friendly outpost. The "Superman Returns" budget has been widely reported to be $200 million or higher (studio insiders this week denied recent reports that the total actually went north of $250 million) but whatever the price tag, it will be reduced in the final calculation — government incentives in Australia add up to a 12.5% rebate on its final production costs. Then there are also the advantages of exchange rates and the largesse that Hollywood ventures enjoy (among them expedited permits and discounted hotel rooms) in a nation that has plenty of eager hospitality for visiting American big-spenders.
With the intense risk assessment that accompanies every blockbuster-budget film these days, the savings being offered by Australia (and New Zealand as well) has made it something of a bustling suburb of Hollywood — one that does, however, require a 17-hour commute. It also has the sun-intense weather, surfing and spiky attitude of personal expression that feel familiar to Angelenos.
While Hollywood productions that traipse into Eastern European nations or far-flung exotic Asian locales gamble on what they will find, in Australia and New Zealand they have an established and homegrown film industry (and one that has produced a glut of talented directors, among them Peter Jackson, Peter Weir, Baz Luhrmann, Phillip Noyce, Bruce Beresford and Jane Campion), no language barrier and a considerable amount of existing studio amenities. And then there are those financial breaks....
"The Australian government wants filmmakers and films here and it now has a corner of the business, a busy corner," said "Superman Returns" producer Gilbert Adler, in his office on the sprawling Fox Studios Australia lot in the suburbs of Sydney.
Outside his office are six huge soundstages, cluttered craft shops and wardrobe warehouses and administrative bungalows — all bustling with activity and set on a layout that would be familiar to anyone who has visited the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
Last summer, the lot also had a stunning, five-story Daily Planet façade ("It was too big to build inside a soundstage, so we built it to straddle the exteriors of two soundstages," Dyas said); a Fortress of Solitude; an elaborate set of a luxury yacht; a mansion; and assorted stand-ins for Metropolis and other Superman environs.
"This was the place that made the most sense for us and for the picture and it's really as simple as that," Adler said.
On the lot is also an animation house, Animal Logic, with one of the most massive amounts of computer memory under one roof anywhere in the world. That amount of computer muscle is needed to create the new-era animation projects, such as "Happy Feet," another Warner Bros. production that was underway over the summer and is due next fall.
Animal Logic is a visual effects house that has worked on projects such as "The Matrix: Reloaded," "Moulin Rouge!" and "The House of Flying Daggers." With "Happy Feet" — a playful animated musical adventure about penguins that features the voices of Hugh Jackman, Robin Williams and Nicole Kidman — the outfit hopes to catch industry attention by premiering a digital animation approach that brings a deeper realism to backgrounds, surface textures and lighting.
"The Pentagon and Animal Logic are both among the top five buildings in the world when it comes to computer power," said "Happy Feet" director George Miller ("The Witches of Eastwick," "Mad Max"), a Queensland native who said Australia's film artistry prowess has now dovetailed with a considerable amount of Hollywood commerce. "There is quite a bit of work being done here, obviously, and I think it will only increase."
Not everyone is happy with the southward migration of Hollywood productions. The idea of "Superman Returns," for example, a quintessentially American creation, taking flight in a foreign country has not set well with some observers. "Truth, Justice and the Australian Way" was the snide appraisal of the Film & Television Action Committee, a group active in the fight to stem the flow of film production away from the U.S.
There was also the public complaint of the director known as McG, who had been set at one point to work on the film. He left the production for several reasons, one of them the shooting site. In a statement issued when he parted ways with the project, he said the hero belonged on an American skyline: "When I flew to New York to scout, I became enamored with our greatest American city. It was clear to me that this was Metropolis. As a filmmaker, I felt it was inappropriate to try to capture the heart of America on another continent."
Producers of the movie have responded that McG's self-acknowledged fear of flying over bodies of water had more to do with his departure from the project than any sense of sanctity regarding Superman's iconography. But either way, the split highlights some of the downsides of working on a studio lot on the other side of the globe. For most projects, however, the upsides are far more compelling.
The "Lord of the Rings" films, the "Matrix" franchise, the most recent "Star Wars" trilogy, "King Kong," "Peter Pan," "Ghost Rider," "Charlotte's Web," "House of Wax," "Scooby-Doo" and "Stealth" are just some of the recent mainstream Hollywood product made in Australia or New Zealand. All were wooed by aggressive government deals that pull in productions to add amperage to the local economy.
An abstract by the New South Wales Department of State Development, for example, reports that "Superman Returns" injected some $80 million into the local economy, created 800 local jobs and employed as many 10,000 people as it shot on 60 sets on nine stages over eight months. A crowing minister told the Sydney press in November that the movie will be "more powerful than a locomotive at the box office" but that it's "already proven a winner" for the Sydney area.
For the cast and crew who live in Los Angeles and fly down for extended work stays in Australia, the locale and infrastructure make for a fairly comfortable transition. But there are some rough spots. As sheets of rain came down on Fox Studios one day last summer, the "Superman" crew hustled to a lunch tent after shooting a scene at the entrance to the arctic Fortress of Solitude (in this case, a soundstage covered with painted sawdust and faux snowdrifts). The complaint of the day: Weather and catering that fall short of L.A. in every way.
The film's director, Bryan Singer, said shooting in Australia afforded every convenience on the technical side and that the distance from home actually helped to keep the production focused. Not only did the long hours keep the crew on task, when they're cut free the sleepy suburb surrounding the studio was hardly a Sunset Strip of temptations.
Despite the activity there is still a lazy feeling to the Fox Studios Australia complex, especially just beyond the gates of the working lot where a retail hub has been built in the vein of CityWalk at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Downtown, Sydney is a cosmopolitan and gleaming city by the sea, but the suburbs are not terribly exciting — the exception being the grim recent civil strife that made headlines around the world. The news of racial unrest in some of the beach districts earlier this month was the sort of unpredictable dispatch that can send a shudder through Hollywood producers who never know what new chaos will affect their overseas ventures.
Studio executives say that in planning productions, they consider a range of factors, including shifts in economic policies, changes in government, currency exchange rates, weather and natural disasters, and union and labor issues.
The vagaries of production travel might present sandstorms or packs of wild dogs in some corners of the world, but in Sydney, Hollywood has found a steady sister. The prospect of high predictability always makes accountants and studio executives breathe easier, but sometimes the cast and crews have to stifle a yawn.
One night, for instance, executive producer Chris Lee, screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris and a dozen others working on the film struck out for a midnight screening of "War of the Worlds" — because of the international date line, the show at a movie theater adjacent to the Fox Studios lot was one of the first screenings of the film in the world.
The group bought their tickets hours early anticipating a crushing crowd — they ended up, literally, being the only people in the room and chuckling about the different pace of life from L.A.
"It's like summer camp but a really brutal summer camp," Singer said the next day. "The thing is, with the advantages here we can get everything we can out of the budget. Everything is bigger in Australia. Big is bigger in Australia."