Priscilla and Mad Max are the stars of Broken Hill’s showreel. Katrina Lobley reminisces with the locals at our Hollywood of the Outback.
From the moment Yorkshireman Adrian Bennett first visited Silverton in the NSW Outback, he was hooked. One of the world’s biggest Mad Max fans was making a pilgrimage to see the landscape that is as big a character in the second instalment as Mel Gibson himself. Travelling with wife Linda, “we grabbed a beer at the pub and went out to the Mundi Mundi lookout [five kilometres out of town] and that was it for me”, says Mr Bennett. “I felt like I’d come home.”
The lookout provides a jaw-dropping view across some of Australia’s starkest desert scenery: think red dirt, blue skies, clear light that is a cinematographer’s dream and clouds tinted fairy-floss pink by the earth below. Visitors often linger out here at day’s end to soak up the Panavision sunset. The landscape has attracted so many filmmakers over the years that the area is known as the Hollywood of the Outback.
Mr Bennett recalls, “I said to Linda, ‘Do you think you could live here?’ Well, to keep me happy she said yes.” That was 2004. The couple moved from Bradford, England, to Adelaide and, by 2009, Bennett had thrown in his panel-beating job to start creating a museum dedicated to George Miller’s 1981 post-apocalyptic Mad Max 2 film next to their hilltop home in Silverton, 25 kilometres from Broken Hill.
“I was hoping and praying we could find enough things and now we’re at maximum capacity,” says Mr Bennett as he stands near some of the vehicles and equipment – the Interceptor, roo buggy, gyrocopter and windmill – displayed out the back of his Mad Max 2 Museum. He’s fond of every item, including the bits and pieces the crew buried upon departure that he’s since tracked down and excavated. Three items, though, hold a special place in his heart. “If I only had a few minutes to grab some pieces and run, it would be the boomerang, the music box and the fork that Mel Gibson used to eat the dog food,” says Mr Bennett. To mark the film’s 40th anniversary, he’s creating a replica compound – in a yet-to-be disclosed location – that will open to Mad Max fans in 2022.
The region’s illustrious cinematic history includes 1971 thriller Wake in Fright, shot at the old Silverton railway station and Menindee Lakes. The cast included Broken Hill-born actor Chips Rafferty, in what would be his final film role. Canadian director Ted Kotcheff waxed lyrical when he recalled filming in the area. “I loved the outback with its unearthly colours and shapes, the courageous people who lived in its inhospitable circumstances, the town of Broken Hill and the men there who befriended me [and] the two-up schools I became addicted to,” he said. “For years I looked for a subject that would take me back to make another film in the Outback but it was not to be.”
The desert was depicted in a less frightening way in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which became a worldwide box-office hit in 1994. The film tells the story of three drag queens journeying from Sydney to Central Australia. Along the way, they spend the night at Broken Hill’s Palace Hotel on the main street. Other films that used Broken Hill and surrounds as a backdrop include Razorback (1984), Mission: Impossible II (2000), Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008) and Last Cab to Darwin (2015).
In 2019, Love Actually actor Bill Nighy was frequently spotted around town as he filmed Buckley’s Chance (yet to be released). A TV drama about the Royal Flying Doctor Service (with the working title RFDS) is currently filming in Broken Hill. Its extensive mining infrastructure is part of the reason the city of just 17,000 residents – also known as Silver City – can attract filmmakers of international renown. Mad Max director George Miller said part of Broken Hill’s allure is that “you had all that technology that they use in mines for welding and all the artisans”.
The stream of productions means that locals often score work as extras or behind the scenes, or have a tale to tell about meeting famous actors. The noticeboard at The Silly Goat, one of the most delicious places to grab a bite, might contain casting call-outs. Or drop in to Bells Milk Bar on Patton Street (South Broken Hill’s main drag) and you can chat about the film industry with owner Jason King. When he’s not busy serving chocolate milkshakes and soda spiders in the vintage-themed business, Mr King is a filmmaker and location scout. In 2017, he worked on the TV miniseries adaptation of Wake in Fright. With a strong eye for the visual, it’s no surprise to discover that Mr King has transformed the house connected to the milk bar into a series of retro rooms that serve as a nostalgic 1950s time capsule.
It’s easy to spend a holiday exploring the nooks and crannies, as well as the wide-open spaces of Broken Hill and Silverton, but another place aiming to put itself on the film-buff radar is Sunset Strip. Fronting the currently dry Lake Menindee, this quirky community 80 kilometres south of Broken Hill comprises lakefront weekenders and homes for 45 permanent residents, a post office run by volunteers, a red-dirt golf course, a community hall – and not much else. Earlier this month, the Strippers (as residents are cheekily known) received news they had secured a grant of almost $143,000 to develop film-themed attractions including a two-kilometre-long Walk of Fame.
The Sunset Strip Progress Association’s secretary, Barry Fowler, said plans include titling the currently unnamed entrance road Sunset Boulevard and installing a walk of fame that pays homage to 10 films, including Wake in Fright and Mad Max 2, and creating a mural dedicated to Chips Rafferty. Down the track, they hope to create celebrity handprints immortalised in concrete – just like those in Hollywood. There are no shops to capitalise on an influx of tourists but they hope to create merchandise that will provide another income stream. “It’s about repurposing the village,” says Mr Fowler, explaining that 30 families have left in recent years – a big loss when Sunset Strip has only 133 homes.
He hopes visitors will fall in love with the place and stay, just as Adrian Bennett fell head over heels for Silverton. Mr Bennett says, “The whole region feels really special and that’s what attracts people here.”
“There’s a serenity here where you can think, you feel like the weight’s lifted off your shoulders,” he says. “Of course, there’s the beautiful landscape and the clear skies. It doesn’t matter what direction you look in – you’ve got the backdrop for any movie.”
Drive: Broken Hill is about 760 kilometres west of Dubbo and 50 kilometres from the South Australian border.
Fly: Rex Airlines flies to Broken Hill from Sydney via Dubbo. Visit rex.com.au.
Stay: The photogenic Silverton Hotel has seven corrugated iron-clad modern five-person cabins. Rates start at $120 a double a night ($25 each extra person). Visit silvertonhotel.com.au or phone (08) 8088 5313. In Broken Hill, characters from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert stayed in the flamboyant Priscilla Suite in The Palace Hotel. The suite is priced from $230 per night. Visit thepalacehotelbrokenhill.com.au or phone (08) 8088 1699.
Eat: The Silly Goat cafe at 425 Argent St, Broken Hill, has a great outdoor dining area and is open for breakfast and lunch.