Patrick Hughes is living the dream. His debut feature, Red Hill,“Opened up every door imaginable,” remarks Hughes, over the phone from his new LA digs. But success has been far from handed to Hughes, who is still reeling from Red Hill’s Hollywood premiere just two days earlier. “It was surreal,” the young director offers, “having a film that we made in incredibly tight and gruelling conditions come to Hollywood.”
Red Hill was shot on a low budget in the remote country town of Omeo. An eight-hour drive from Melbourne, Omeo sits undisturbed by the 21st century in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Undisturbed, that is, until last winter, when Hughes and his crew arrived for four weeks of filming.
Inspired by a personal connection to the countryside, Hughes wrote the script specifically for Omeo. The untamed landscape of the high country sets an eerie tone for this neo-Western drama, which features rising star Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) and established Aussie film legends Steve Bisley and Tommy Lewis.
Kwanten plays Constable Shane Cooper, who relocates to Red Hill – population, 130 – to escape chaotic city life and start a family with wife, Alice (Claire Van Der Boom). Cooper’s first day on the job turns out to be anything but peaceful. When town sheriff “Old Bill” (Bisley) hears that feared Aboriginal convict, Jimmy Conway (Lewis), has escaped from gaol and is headed for Red Hill, all hell breaks loose. The disfigured Conway rides into town seeking revenge on the police who put him away.
Writing, directing, producing and editing the film, Hughes maintained creative control over his vision until the end. But he’s quick to admit he couldn’t have pulled it off without the support of the Omeo community and his cast and crew. “It was really amazing. It felt like a real sort of team spirit up there.”
Hughes says that Kwanten “literally got on a plane from Louisiana and then 48 hours later he was in front of the camera in Omeo, in minus seven, under a rain machine – that was his first shot.” Despite sub-zero temperatures, Kwanten was eager to act in his first Australian role in eight years. “Every time I called ‘action!’ Ryan kept popping into this Americano Southern twang… he was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m Australian!”
Working with Bisley and Lewis was a special treat for Hughes. “[Bisley] was awesome. He kept coming up with these great ideas: the Cuban boots, the cowboy hat, and he did this thing with his gun belt, he slung it nice and low – he thought he’d be sort of like an old-school gunslinger.”
Getting Lewis on board was another triumph for him. The indigenous actor made his film debut in the title role of 1978′s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a not-dissimilar story of racism and revenge. “When I gave the script to Tom I was terrified it might offend him,” Hughes recalls. But the day after he received the script, Lewis rang Hughes at six in the morning to tell him, “‘This is the film my peoples have been waiting for.’”