Sydney’s starring role on screen

Sydney as depicted in the 1985 post-apocalyptic Australian film, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Photo: Nick Rippon/Twitter.

Sydney has been an official UNESCO City of Film for nigh on ten years. Rita Bratovich looks back at the significant international productions to grace the Harbour City, where filming continues apace despite Covid-19.

It may surprise many people to know that Australian filmmakers were pioneers of the film industry. We had one of the first film studios, adopted and invented cutting edge technologies, and were screening films well before many other countries. 

The Australian-made 1906 film The Story Of The Kelly Gang is generally regarded as the first feature-length film ever made. Since those auspicious beginnings, the fortunes of the Australian film industry have waxed and waned, but in the last few decades there has been a resurgence – and our films, talent and locations are now considered among the very best. 

Sydney is particularly popular with location scouts and a number of Hollywood blockbusters have had some or all of their scenes filmed here. 

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) was largely set in Sydney and includes a tourist checklist of local sites: the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, The Rocks and the Royal Botanical Garden among them.

Thandie Newton on Sydney Harbour in a scene from Mission: Impossible 2. Photo: The Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

Governor Phillip Tower in the CBD was used throughout the film as the Biocyte headquarters, and the final scenes of the movie are filmed within the sandstone catacombs of Bare Island, off La Perouse. 

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013), is set in Long Island, New York, but was filmed entirely in Sydney and the Blue Mountains. 

For exterior shots of Gatsby’s magnificent mansion, the imposing, castle-like facade of the International College of Management in Manly was used. Gatsby’s driveway, however, was recreated from a road in Centennial Park. 

The White Bay Power Station at Rozelle was used as the derelict industrial backdrop for the Valley of the Ashes, and Mount Wilson in Blue Mountains provided Nick Carraway’s home. 

Most of The Wolverine (2013) was also shot in or within two hours of Sydney – even though the plot is set in Japan and Canada.  

The Wolverine official trailer. Video: 20th Century Studios/YouTube.

The Japanese prison was built in Kurnell at the southern end of Botany Bay; the once popular music venue, the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills, was temporarily revived to serve as the Yukon bar; and the wintery landscape of Oberon, just west of the Blue Mountains, served as a Canadian forest. 

The local Japanese airport in the film was actually Bankstown Airport, and Tokyo city was somehow recreated in the unlikely streets of Parramatta. 

Slightly closer to an authentic location was the choice of Chinese Garden of Friendship in Darling Harbour, which was used to depict a temple grounds. 

Truth (2015) brought Hollywood heavyweights Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford into the humble Wagon Wheel Hotel in St Marys, 45 kilometres west of the CBD. 

The pub, built in 1859, was decked out to resemble a hotel in Arkansas. Blanchett also filmed some scenes a little further west in the Penrith Panthers carpark. 

Mel Gibson had to recreate a battlefield in Japan and a town in Virginia in the 1940s for his WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge (2016) – and once again, Sydney delivered.  

Filming locations included Centennial Park and Newington Armory (Homebush Bay). 

The battlefield was built on farmland in Bringelly (south-west of Sydney), while Richmond (north-west of Sydney) was transformed into the small Virginia town. 

Many more films have been shot or set, partly or wholly, in and around Sydney including: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Australia; Babe; Dark City; Independence Day; Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome; several Matrix and Star Wars films; Moulin Rouge!; Muriel’s Wedding; Peter Rabbit; Strictly Ballroom; Superman Returns; Unbroken; and this year’s sci-fi horror film, The Invisible Man

The Matrix – Original Theatrical Trailer. Video: Warner Bros./YouTube.

Even more have had post-production completed in Sydney, especially in the world-class Fox Studios, Moore Park. 

In 2010, Sydney was officially listed as a City of Film as part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network – and while Covid-19 has put a dampener on the film industry, even a global pandemic can’t put a stop to Sydney’s starring role in the film industry. 

Several major films are currently being filmed in and around the Emerald City, including the Michael Budd-directed Ruby’s Choice, starring Jane Seymour and Jacqueline McKenzie. 

The crew reportedly don masks on the set at Windsor, on Sydney’s outskirts, while a Covid-19 safety marshal calls “distance please” whenever anyone slips up on social distancing. 

Meanwhile, Hollywood star Natalie Portman arrived in Sydney this month to begin work on the latest instalment of the Thor film franchise, the Taika Waititi-directed Thor: Love and Thunder.

Natalie Portman and family arriving in Sydney by private jet on 1 September, 2020. Video: 15 MOF/YouTube.

Principal photography will take place at Fox Studios in Moore Park, with location shooting occurring around Greater Sydney.

So next time you’re out and about in Sydney, make sure you smile. You never know – you might just be on camera!