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Film & screen

Location in focus: the Gold Coast

June 11, 2021

Jacobs Well

With the only local government production rebates in the country and fast-tracked permit applications, the Gold Coast is the most screen-friendly city in Australia.

The city’s unique combination of natural and built attributes makes it the perfect location for cost-effective, high-impact screen production.

The Gold Coast boasts easy access to experienced local crew, world-class studios and production infrastructure, diverse locations and almost 300 days of sunshine each year.

Below, two Gold Coast Location Managers speak on the challenges of mounting recent productions locally: Imagine and MGM’s true-life thriller Thirteen Lives and Netflix’s chic sci-fi Escape from Spiderhead.

Veteran Location Manager Duncan Jones helped steer Netflix’s visually ambitious sci-fi film Escape from Spiderhead to a range of natural Gold Coast locations. Spiderhead, starring Chris Hemsworth, was also the first film to utilise the 4000sqm Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre as studio space.

What looks were the filmmakers chasing? And how did the Gold Coast meet those needs?

Escape from Spiderhead is science fiction; it could have been shot anywhere in the world, but the Gold Coast has a range of diverse backgrounds, and that helped the director a lot. We found some really unique locations that strengthened the script and really enhanced the look; some of our locations have never been seen on film before. Locally we were at Advancetown, Arundel, Jacobs Well and Tallebudgera Valley. To have access to such a diversity of looks in such a small geographical space is unique. We also spent time on the water at the Whitsunday Islands.

 

Hinze Dam, Gold Coast

 

With the Gold Coast’s Village Roadshow Studios already occupied, how did you solve your stage space issues?

There were some phenomenal sets for the film, so we knew warehouse space was not going to work. We were incredibly lucky to take over the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre for our stages and production offices. It’s the first time a film has used the space like a studio… we worked on 4000sqm of stage space, and half of that was taken up by the film’s biggest set. It was a wonderful collaboration between Netflix, the Queensland Government, City of Gold Coast and Convention Centre management.

How did the City of Gold Coast support the production?

The City of Gold Coast has a full-time Film and Television Adviser, who’s an invaluable resource for inbound and domestic productions. They’re always proactive in supplying information on infrastructure, and that helped to bring Netflix here. Gold Coast City as a whole is extremely supportive of film at every stage of production.

How has COVID impacted your work as a location manager?

We have to plan extensively for COVID management – sets and locations have become a completely different environment. Crew, for example, used to just park and walk up to breakfast, but with COVID they are funnelled through testing checkpoints; we need more space for social distancing and facilities to manage testing.

 

Stradbroke Island

Does the Gold Coast present any environmental advantages to shooting under COVID?

COVID has increased demands for space, but in saying that, the Gold Coast is well positioned to maintain production because we have so much space, even in our CBD. We’ve worked hard as a community to be able to keep filming and working: virus case numbers have been kept incredibly low, we have outstanding local crew, and can accommodate these large-scale films safely and effectively. We had several hundred crew on Spiderhead without a single case. Productions in COVID hotspots are shutting down or turning over big numbers of crew – we haven’t had to do that here.

As Supervising Location Manager on Imagine Entertainment and MGM’s Thirteen Lives, Gold Coast local Nick Smith leads a locations team of three. Ron Howard’s dramatic thriller, which recounts the miraculous 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, will utilise the Gold Coast hinterland to double for rural Thailand and shoot the complex cave sequences on local stages.

What were your first location challenges on Thirteen Lives?

With the wonderful Village Roadshow Studios occupied, we needed to piece together substitute floor space. That meant our first focus was a search for several commercial facilities to house stage space, workshops and a production office. With the assistance of a fantastic local commercial property agent, we managed to create a hub of five facilities at the northern end of the Gold Coast: four within two minutes of each other, and the fifth eight minutes away. We’re also close to some great cafe options, including my favourite that has the best chocolate thickshakes in the world!

How have COVID protocols forced you to think or work differently as a location manager?

More space… and luckily the Gold Coast has plenty of space! Locations and our unit base need more area around them for social distancing and COVID testing, plus more temporary infrastructure and more vehicles to safely move crew to and from set. On the Gold Coast, we’re grateful to be working during COVID. But at the same time we’re aware of productions shutting down overseas and how hard that instability would be on crew and their families. We appreciate how lucky we’ve been here, and hope the broader industry recovers quickly.

What looks were the filmmakers chasing? And how did the Gold Coast meet those needs?

Rainforest, mountains, tropical clearings and creeks – and the Gold Coast provided a staggering selection, all within our production zone.

 

Tropical jungle, Gold Coast

Of the COVID protocols currently in place around location management, might any actually stay post-pandemic?

I am a quasi-germaphobe, so I am hoping the hand sanitiser stations everywhere I look stay! I think the greater understanding and use of remote communication technology to share location scouting will also stay. Much of the early scouting presentations for Thirteen Lives were via zoom meetings and sharing photos and drone footage with the creative team on the other side of the world. They are smart people and did a great job of making it work.

How has the City of Gold Coast’s film unit supported the show?

City of Gold Coast always provides amazing support to the film and television industry.

They offer in-kind support by providing a location scout for a couple of days while productions consider the Gold Coast as a film destination, as well as mostly free city-owned locations for filming and parking of unit base. The City also provides a financial incentive to attract productions, and all of their departments take a collaborative approach to problem solving location issues. City of Gold Coast covers the whole of city too; it’s a massive benefit to only deal with one Council for the entire shoot.

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