A little slice of Hollywood is making its way to Canberra – and it is all thanks to the ACT’s wide, open roads.
A “thrilling car chase” scene for new action movie Blacklight, starring Liam Neeson and written and directed by Ozark‘s Mark Williams, will be filmed in Canberra next week.
“It’s going to be shot in the middle of the city, which is going to be interesting,” Screen Canberra chief executive Monica Penders said.
“The stunt director [Guy Norris] is Australian, he’s done all the Mad Max movies … he said to me that Canberra is one of the best places in the world to do these scenes because of the limited amount of roads that you have to affect to get the figure of eight they need to get the long runs for the film.
“The amount of roads you have to shut down compared to other states and other countries is minimal.
“It’s really exciting. We’ve never done anything of this scale before.”
While Australian television shows like The Code and Secret City have been shot in the ACT, the star power of Hollywood has previously evaded the national capital.
Ms Penders is hopeful the success of Blacklight and the comparative ease of filming in Canberra will change that.
“The part is a really crucial car chase sequence, and great for testing all of our systems here … [how we] work with the government, there are lots of moving parts – traffic permissions, insurance, blocking roads,” she said.
“[It] is a great opportunity to showcase Canberra as an ideal location of film productions of an international scale.”
Ms Penders said a “one-day test run” in Canberra had already streamlined Blacklight‘s production.
“From that we learnt a heck of a lot, because we’ve not done anything like this in Canberra before, including communication with the public,” she said.
“We had a few calls in the office saying, ‘I think there’s a scam going on, they say they’re shooting an international film here!’.”
The day of testing also gave Blacklight‘s crew the chance to use the “world-leading pre-visualisation” gaming technology featured in the film.
“They pre-visualised the whole chase scene, and they’ve converted it into the Unreal Engine technology, so that they know exactly every single shot, every single movement of the cars, and what’s going to be done as a practical car, and what’s going to be done in CGI,” Ms Penders explained.
But Canberrans should not expect to recognise any street signs when Blacklight hits theatres: Canberra will be transformed into downtown Washington DC.
COVID-19 impacts filming logistics
As with so many things in 2020, COVID changed Blacklight‘s production schedule and made filming far more complicated.
Neeson, who plays a “troubled off-the-books fixer for the FBI”, had to quarantine in Sydney in late October before flying to Melbourne to begin shooting under strict conditions.
But initially, the bulk of Blacklight was to be filmed in Canberra.
“Originally it was going to be the majority of the film [here], but thanks to our wonderful friend COVID, unfortunately that changed,” Ms Penders said.
“We’re really thrilled that we were able to still get a part of the film here.”
While a smaller slice than anticipated, Blacklight is still expected to bring in over $1 million in revenue to the city, at a time when Canberra is traditionally very quiet.
“It would have been 60 crew and hundreds of extras, and a flow-on to restaurants and hotels and car hire,” Ms Penders said.
“[Now] we’re thinking it’s going to be around 60 jobs [and] a $1.5 million spend, which is pretty amazing for a week’s worth of work.”
New COVID-19 restrictions have also increased the administrative load, as things like travel exemptions became par for the course.
“We have a 40-page document on COVID protocols,” Ms Penders said, highlighting the need to bring specialist drivers into Canberra.
“They’ve brought in cars from America because they have to be opposite drive ones, so there’s a whole heap of American groovy cars here.
“They’re using specific technology, there are only two drivers in Australia who can drive this particular camera car, so they’re coming up from Sydney which means we go through all the protocols and exemptions for them.
“It’s not something you can say, let’s wait three months to do – it’s got to be done now.”
Ms Penders estimated the cost of operating during the pandemic increased by “about 15 per cent” – even feeding people has become difficult.
“Normally you have lovely big buffets and everybody’s milling around … [but] it’s all individually packaged food, and there’s no milling of any shape at all,” Ms Penders said.
“There are very strict COVID-safe protocols for all film productions, and Blacklight is no exception.”
So … will Canberrans get to see Neeson?
As for whether Canberrans will be able to spot Neeson himself walking down Bunda Street, the answer, unfortunately, is no.
Ms Penders confirmed Neeson had already flown back to America, with his car chase scenes to be filmed by his stunt double.
“His stunt double, also from the United States, will have to go back to America soon [which is] why filming has to happen now,” Ms Penders said.
“This is the last scene that they’re doing.”
The road closures will affect Akuna Street, Bunda Street and London Circuit, periodically between Thursday, January 14 and Tuesday January 19.
More details can be found on the City Services website.