Reel Deal: On Location in the Great Barrier Reef

Promising wild encounters beyond the fictional world of Dr Seuss, the Great Barrier Reef has long topped the wish list of the world's biggest movie moguls.

It's the set of Dame Helen Mirren's first movie; Sir David Attenborough's last documentary; the debut underwater IMAX 3D; Disney's Finding Nemo; laugh-out-loud scenes from Aussie classic Muriel's Wedding; Martin Scorsese's second favourite film of the nineties; and an epic $217 million Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries.

Lights. Camera. Action. [Cue drum roll] Welcome to the Great Barrier Reef.

Long before it was listed as a World Heritage icon, in 1981, recognising its 'outstanding universal value' to all peoples of the world, this natural wonder graced the credit roll of major film and television productions.  

Indeed, in the first 20 years of Australian TV, the makers of cult show, Skippy, sold another series, Barrier Reef, about the adventures of a scientific search and recovery team, to more than 50 countries, including the UK, where it was screened by the BBC and, in the US, via NBC.

Launched in 1969, and shot entirely in Tropical North Queensland, it was the first series in the world to feature extensive underwater filming on location, also introducing Australian actress Rowena Wallace, best known as 'Pat the Rat' in 1980s soap, Sons and Daughters (popular with audiences in the UK and Belgium).

And while the film and television industry has moved on from the 1960s, switching from celluloid to digital technology, nature's biggest wonderland – the only living structure visible from outer space, which astronauts say defies description – continues to offer 'out of this world' locations. No special effects required.

A destination that's 'better than travelling to the moon', says the world's most famous naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, who first went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef in 1957, returning almost 60 years later to cap his career with a three-part masterpiece, David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef, released in Australia in 2016.

Another living legend, Dame Helen Mirren, similarly cut her teeth on the Great Barrier Reef. In 1968, the then 22-year-old landed her first movie role starring alongside Hollywood great, James Mason, in Age of Innocence, filmed on Dunk Island – also the location of one of the final scenes in James Cameron's underwater 3D offering, Sanctum (2011).

In a 2006 interview with Venice Magazine, the multi award-winning actress who pocketed an Oscar for her role in The Queen recalled her Great Barrier Reef adventure: “That was an amazing experience, very surreal! I'd hardly been on an airplane before doing that film, and here I was in the first class compartment of a Qantas airliner on this long plane ride to Australia.”

On her first trip to Australia, the young Helen Mirren also set tongues wagging with what would today be considered modest nudity scenes, resulting in edits to the US version, as revealed by one of Australia's most respected film editors/producers, Anthony Buckley, in his autobiography, Behind a Velvet Light Trap.

That, however, was not the only eyebrow-raising moment during the making of British director Michael Powell's adaptation of Norman Lindsay's novel. For Anthony Buckley, it meant setting up a cutting room in an old tin shed 'with probably the best views in the world', with an air conditioner finally ferried to the island after film started sticking to itself and the mirrors on the Westrex film editing machine deteriorated.

An entire projection/sound system was also shipped to Dunk Island for screening of daily rushes, shown to residents and crew each evening in a massive tent erected as a makeshift cinema-cum production office.

Times have certainly changed, with today's film makers often choosing CGI over real locations. But, as Cairns-based film location scout/manager, Karen Jones, points out, there's nothing like an awe-inspiring location to bring out raw, award-winning emotion in actors.

As the go-to for film makers in Tropical North Queensland, she's seen it time and again, stick-handling blockbusters from The Thin Red Line, when a cavalcade of A-list actors descended on Port Douglas including George Clooney, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and Jim Caviezel; to Angelina Jolie's Unbroken; Fool's Gold starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson; Paradise Road starring Glenn Close; and The Pacific produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

“We were very close to getting the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean here,” says Karen of the blockbuster filmed entirely in Queensland, at Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast and nearby locations. “But in the end it came down to money and film and script changes.

“As much as they loved the locations up here, when it came to telling the story, they could do it in simpler ways and save themselves millions – plus some of the things they wanted to do required a high level of liaison with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and national parks.”

Such watertight environmental checks and balances, Karen says, are big pluses for the region. The positive knock-on being the pristine locations that first lured major Hollywood productions – starting with, Sniper (starring Tom Berenger and Billy Zane), shot in the jungles behind Port Douglas in 1991 – remain today.

“The natural resources that film makers came for at that time, they are still coming for; the reef and rainforest areas,” says Karen. “Big tracts have been protected that we can still access because of those protections.”

The $217 million miniseries The Pacific incorporated an equally epic revegetation project, she says.

“We did a survey of every tree and plant and a mapping program and anything impacted by the production was replanted over a three-year period at a ratio of seven to one. That's a massive commitment to the area.

“The main beach we used was at Rocky Point, north of Mossman, which was not heavily accessed by locals. I wouldn't have tried to do what we did on Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas because you can't impact on the public for that amount of time.

“We were filming at night and we had gun shots and mortar shelling and all sorts of stuff for weeks on end. The local Mossman population were very kind in tolerating that.”

Laid-back locals – and an absence of celebrity stalkers and paparazzi – are another winning ingredient in the tropics, matched only by Queensland's hard-working and talented film crew.

Angelina Jolie, who filmed a large part of her World War II biopic, Unbroken, in the state – on the Gold Coast, in Brisbane and near Tropical North Queensland's Airlie Beach – made no secret of the fact she wants to return.

“I hope I can work with everyone again that I did on this film and we can make another film together,” Angelina notes in a tribute on Screen Queensland's website, also praising the state's 'perfect locations' and good tax incentives in media interviews.

Karen Jones was among those who worked on Unbroken, scouting private homes near Airlie Beach as locations for scenes intended to portray Hawaii. “We filmed in a couple of fantastic properties that are coastal and in very, very private locations,” she says, being careful to keep their whereabouts secret.

Angelina Jolie and husband Brad Pitt, meanwhile, stayed briefly at Peppers Airlie Beach resort.

Major films with a longer presence in the region, spanning up to several months, include The Thin Red Line (1998), written and directed by Terrence Malick, and notably drawing kudos from Martin Scorcese as his second favourite film of the nineties; The Pacific miniseries (2010); Paradise Road (1997); and Fool's Gold (2008).

Interestingly, in all of them the Great Barrier Reef and surrounding region moonlight as other locations.

World War II drama, The Thin Red Line, starring more A-listers than an Oscars' party, depicted the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Solomon Islands. Like Sniper, it was primarily shot in the Daintree rainforest, with beach scenes at Newell Beach and Bramston Beach.

Paradise Road, which boasts another all-star cast (Glenn Close, Cate Blanchett, Pauline Collins, Frances McDormand, Julianna Marguiles and Jennifer Ehle), tells the story of a group of English, American, Dutch and Australian women imprisoned by the Japanese in Sumatra during World War II. Much of it was filmed in the lush hinterland of Mowbray Valley, behind Port Douglas.

More recently, Fool's Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, transformed the main street of Port Douglas into Key West, Florida, with scenes filmed inside the popular Central Hotel, while Hamilton Island, Lizard Island and Airlie Beach doubled as the Bahamas.

Of note, Kate Hudson labelled Lizard Island Resort the 'most romantic place on Earth' while Matthew McConaughey raved about Port Douglas and Four Mile Beach. He hung out like a local in bars and restaurants, played frisbee and rode his bike (shirtless and shoeless) up and down Macrossan Street, even shouting up to 600 Iron Bar Hotel patrons a drink on his 37th birthday.

The pair also learned to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef for underwater scenes in the film about a treasure hunter in search of a Spanish galleon.

Having worked with them all, Karen Jones says aside from easy, safe access to two World Heritage sites (rainforest and reef), film makers and A-list actors are also drawn to Tropical North Queensland's stellar opportunities for mixing work with pleasure, often bringing family and friends to experience 'bucket list' activities.

During filming of Paradise Road, Frances McDormand brought her husband, Joel Coen (one half of the famous film making brothers), who in an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald said: “Oh it was fantastic, four weeks in Port Douglas. I just hung out at the beach.”

“When The Pacific was being made, so many of the crew and actors brought their wives and families over,” says Karen.

“They were going out to see the reef on the weekend and would be back on set Monday and I'd ask what they'd got up to and they'd say they did a half-day snorkelling at Low Isles, went to the Port Douglas markets and had a counter meal at the Court House Hotel. How great is that!”

The Great Barrier Reef also inspired Disney's Finding Nemo (2003) and the follow on, Finding Dory (released in June 2016); while the Whitsundays' One & Only Hayman Island resort featured in Modern Family's 2014 'Australian vacation' episode.

The waters of the Whitsundays were also used for 1989 thriller Dead Calm, which launched Nicole Kidman's international film career; Hamilton Island became 'Hibiscus Island' in Muriel's Wedding (1994), famed for its hilarious pool scene and Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths lip-sync rendition of Abba's 'Waterloo'; and Hinchinbrook Island, the largest island in the Great Barrier Reef, was the set for Nim's Island (2008) starring Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler.

Last but not least, the Great Barrier Reef even has a Star Wars connection. Each year, between June and July, it's the only place on Earth where pods of curious dwarf minke whales seek out human interaction, emitting what scientists label the 'Star Wars sound', akin to Luke Skywalker firing up his lightsaber.

Out of this world, indeed! Discover it for yourself and experience the greatest show on Earth.

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