Beneath Hill 60: On the front line

Beneath Hill 60War is an unfortunate reality, but also an endless source of powerful stories that can resonate strongly with audiences. Jeremy Sims and Bill Leimbach told Miguel Gonzalez how the pride of a town helped them create Beneath Hill 60, a big film on a limited budget.

While the list of films that have focused the efforts of Australian diggers during World War I is long, some stories have remained untold and ready for someone to bring them to audiences hungry for recreations of that increasingly distant past which helped shape the contemporary Australian identity.
Beneath Hill 60 tells one such story, that of the first Australian tunnelling division led by Queensland miner Captain Oliver Woodward (played by Brendan Cowell) to take down Belgium’s Hill 60, a high point that the British had been unable to claim from the Germans.
The battle was taken underground; first holding the mines under Hill 60 and ultimately blowing them up, allowing the Allied forces to open a road to Berlin.
Mining engineer and World War I enthusiasm Ross Thomas was an expert in the history of Australian miners in the war. He met with producer Bill Leimbach, who found potential in Woodward’s story and got in touch with David Roach to work on a script – with the collaboration of Woodward’s descendants in Melbourne and support from the Australian War Memorial Archives in Canberra.
The producers wanted a director who could deliver high production values for a low budget, but also knew how to create a sense of action and claustrophobic. Theatre director Jeremy Sims’ first film Last Train to Freo, set in a train carriage, seemed to be the right person.
Sims came on board as a co-producer as well as a director, further developing the script with Roach.
“It was an incredible story, and it would potentially have a market. It’s a genre picture, a war movie,” recalled Sims. “We were aware that we were initially making a niche art house picture, and we wanted
to make one that could reach the broadest possible audience, so we decided early on making a picture with a wide commercial appeal.”
The plan was to finance the film independently out of Townsville, a city that at the time was experiencing the economic strength of a mining industry at its peak.
Leimbach got nowhere with the big corporations – Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton – but found a very receptive group of cashed-up mining resource companies wanting to get involved with a local story.

“If they were not going to get rich at least they were going to have a good time,” said Leimbach. “People who would spend money on horses, race cars or lavish holidays overseas felt they could  contribute to this. Besides, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia was just being made down the road at Bowen, and with the attention and money spent there, Townsville saw the opportunity to have some of that
themselves with their first ever feature film.”
“I always suspected that we would come back to the funding bodies at some point,” admitted Sims. “It was a good way to begin the process, seriously trying to make it independently. Initially we thought we might be able to make it for $3m, but it couldn’t possibly be made for that amount of money.”
The Global Financial Crisis struck as the contracts were about to get signed, and the producers lost half the money from private investors. They only had a third of the $9m budget, so they went back to the financing bodies and found a very supportive Screen NSW, Screen Queensland and Screen Australia, who supplied the second third.
“It was a beautiful timing because Ruth Harley had just started her role [as CEO of the federal agency] and they were looking for a picture that was Australian and full of heritage, something they could be proud of,” explained Leimbach.
The final part of the budget was a loan from Fulcrum against the Producer Offset, which Leimbach expects to receive around October.
“The offset has not created a big flow of investors to the industry, but it has encouraged companies that will lend you the money because they know they’ll get it back if you’ve got a completion bond on your film,” argued Leimbach. “It’s the future of financing films in this country; if you can get a good story partially financed, they’ll lend you the rest at 10–14 percent interest. It’s the easiest money you can find and they don’t care if it makes a profit or not, as long as it gets made. It will keep the industry alive for a while.”
Beneath Hill 60Once the financing was in place, the challenge was to make a big film set in 1917, with 2009 costs and on a relatively low budget.

Sims and cinematographer Toby Oliver (The Combination, Cane Toads: The Conquest) had decided to shoot digitally, but when calculations proved that it would ‘only’ cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars more to shoot on 35mm, they decided to go down that path. It was Sims’ intention to make it look and feel like a 1970s film, which he considers the ‘golden era’ of filmmaking.
The shoot took place in Townsville but, according to Sims, shooting there increased costs by about $0.5m because they had to accommodate cast and crew, in addition to flights and ground  transportation.
The director believes it was worthwhile, because the film would not look the way it does or be “as well constructed as it is” had they tried to make it in Sydney – where post-production took place at Cutting Edge and Soundfirm.
“To quote a line from The Castle, it was about the vibe really. It was really important that if we were to make a lower budget war film that looked like a big film, we had to do what Apocalypse Now did and turn up somewhere with your team and say ‘ok, we’ve got 7 weeks to make this thing, let’s do it’,” he argued. “When people got there they had no other engagements and everybody worked 24×7.”
Townsville also offered opportunities that would have been impossible to have at a studio. The tunnels were built above ground within a large shed on an industrial site, owned by a local building  entrepreneur, and the trenches were created on the outskirts of Townsville.
“We had a whole property to build the trenches on. We built an irrigation system that no one thought would work, and managed to turn a dusty north Queensland paddock into some mud.
“Half the investors owned building and machinery companies so we could build a massive shed for the tunnels. [Production designer] Clayton Jancey and I decided we would build them the way they built them and make it just as claustrophobic for the camera as it was for the actors,” explained Sims. “Toby’s chiropractor is still thanking me for that.”

Sims believes his background in theatre was an asset when it came to reduce costs, a strategy shared by all head of department.  For example, they only bought seven body parts, which were utilised creatively throughout the shoot, with the help of make-up and visual effects.
ANZAC-themed films lend themselves to an exacerbated patriotism, which can ultimately result in box office success. Although the film will be released close to ANZAC day, Sims is adamant that
that is not the kind of film he was trying to make.
“I wasn’t interested in building up the ANZAC legend or telling people that Australians are unique. It’s important to stop and remember the sacrifices made by other generations, but I’m opposed to the
idea that somehow Australians are more special than other nations, that our soldiers were braver,” he explained.
“When he released Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg said that everybody knows war is hell, and we don’t need another film that’s going to stand on a soapbox and say ‘in case you didn’t know’. It’s similar to The Hurt Locker because it’s not about who’s right or wrong; it’s about the incredible things human beings have to do, and their involvement is intensely dramatic and it reveals character in the most interesting ways.
“The film is not a cheap kind of attempt to cash in on the ANZAC legend. It’s more personal and intimate than that. Hopefully people will get a feel of what it might have been like for those guys,” he added.
On the other hand Leimbach believes the film’s historic relevance will indeed make it an attractive option for Australians, as well as international audiences interested in war films – particularly in the  countries that were involved in the western front campaign.
“There will be a lot of people who will want to see Beneath Hill 60 because it’s part of their history. We want it to become part of the country’s cultural heritage’ there are 11,000 high schools that will see
this and it will become part of history because this is an untold story.
“The picture is in the right place at the right time. The limelight is being pulled from Gallipoli across to the western front, which was longer, larger, and ended with a positive result. Last year was the first time there was a dawn service for the western front; Australians want to learn more about it and this film will help fill that gap.”
According to US-born Leimbach, Australians are only beginning to take pride in their history, and with the opportunities presented by lower-cost CGI, the producer believes more historic films will be made.
A WW1 film might initially sound old-fashioned, but Beneath Hill 60 has certainly tried to be cutting-edge to approach a wide audience. Leimbach has delivered one of the most active social network/online communications strategies ever for an Australian film, with a very detailed blog and constant Facebook updates chronicling the film’s development and every stage of the production,
also with great detail. He first targeted the filmmaking community, then film lovers, and finally groups of people interested in WW1 and Australian history.
“It’s also helping the international sales agent (London-based In Tandem); people are contacting them from England, Germany, and Canada because the film is building buzz before its release. And it only costs us one hour a day to maintain,” explained Leimbach.
Paramount Pictures will release Beneath Hill 60 in approximately 150 screens on April 15.


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