How can I ever look at Black Mountain Tower in the same way again after cowering before its central and dark role in Canberra-produced martial arts sci-fi film Blue World Order?
I was fortunate enough to be among a handful of filmgoers who had no direct connection to the film but landed a ticket to the sold-out preview screening held at the the National Film and Sound Archive, not far from the aforementioned iconic telecommunications tower, last night as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
I won’t spoil the plot by giving you too many details, but if you consider that the film is set after a massive electro-magnetic pulse has killed all children bar one on the planet and think about from where such a pulse might have been released, you may begin to see the tower differently, too.
Who knew the 36-year-old building had the potential to become a symbol for all that is wrong with humankind, or that it would one day have what is virtually a lead role in a feature film that is this very day being shown to potential buyers, among them festival producers and distributors, in Hollywood?
Che Baker did. When the Canberra writer and filmmaker set out to produce his first full-length film in the capital region, he chose Telstra Tower as its centrepiece. The fact that the operators of the tower were “fantastically supportive” about the shoot taking place there helped, too.
“It’s more or less a metaphor for all the cool stuff around Canberra,” Baker said after the preview last night.
“I think the local crowd enjoy seeing it, but for anyone outside of Canberra, it’s a really cool headquarters for an evil organisation.
“It’s absolutely what it was built for, I reckon … I think in the ongoing story, there’s lots of those towers around, so we’ll just get to shoot it again and again.”
When Baker and his team first thought about what would be on their wishlist for the production, and the tower was high among the priorities.
“One of the things about Canberra is you get people who are supportive and give you access to that kind of thing,” the writer-director said.
“You’d try and shoot something like this in Sydney or Melbourne … and you’d just have a lot tougher time getting the production value on screen, because it’s people in Canberra who get behind you and say, ‘Sure’.
“You know, the Glassworks, the guys out at Lake George who have the farms out there, Telstra Tower and the Brickworks, just all around, the support we got to do something a little bit different just made it possible.”
The Yarralumla Brickworks forms the backdrop for a makeshift post-apocalyptic hospital and the Canberra Glassworks a secret munitions factory. Lake George is the scene of a wild, Mad Max-style car chase.
Bible Lane, between Bunda St, City Walk and Garema Place, Civic (one audience member said it looked as though no additional props or special effects had been required for this scene, with the grimy alley perfectly suited in its natural state), Carey’s Caves in Wee Jasper, the Australian National University, The Henge, Red Rocks Gorge, Kambah Pool, Movehappy Physiotherapy, Watson Technology Park, The Big Hole and Stockade Gym also make appearances (the latter featuring an original mural by Dave Chavez).
They all feature during a full screen of the credits entitled “The Blue World is” and stating that the film is “proudly shot on location in the Canberra region, Australia … Come and visit the Blue World … visitcanberra.com.au.”
Which suggests that if the film takes off, we can expect Lord of the Rings-style tours to all of these capital region sites, and an increase in visitors particularly to Black Mountain Tower, which made it onto the movie poster, a powerful emblem for the story Mr Baker and his team tell in this film.
The real stars are, of course, human beings, with taekwondo champion and Underbelly star Jake Ryan playing our hero Jake Slater, a man who is mysteriously immune to the virus that has struck everyone else on earth and who is on a mission to save the life of his daughter Molly (played by Billie Rutherford, 11, of Robertson), the only remaining child in all civilisation.
Ryan became a black belt at the age of nine, the youngest person to do so in Australia at that time. He was a member of the Australian national taekwondo team for eight years, ten times Australian champion and ranked fourth best in the world on three occasions. A knee injury prevented him from competing at the Beijing Olympics.
The plot provides Ryan with ample opportunity to demonstrate his martial arts prowess, which makes for dazzling if at times exhausting viewing. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed a Matthew Reilly novel (the author is one of the film’s executive producers, by the way), you’ll be in familiar territory here. Non-stop action is the name of the game from the start.
Slater’s mentor, Master Crane, is played by US actor Billy Zane (Back to the Future, Twin Peaks, Titanic). Veteran Australian star Jack Thompson plays a doctor who treats Slater and daughter Molly when they come in from the wilds.
Thompson (pictured immediately above with co-director Dallas Bland on his left and co-star Stephen Hunter on his right) was in Canberra for the preview, and said during the Q&A afterwards that his favourite moment of the film was when his character, Dr Harris, met Slater and Molly for the first time.
“I’ll never forget that day, I’ll never forget that moment,” he said.
“Standing there, and seeing you walk in, out of the wilderness with Billie in your arms, and all those extras around, I realised I was part of a real movie being made.”
There are two New Zealand-born name actors on the cast list: Stephen Hunter (Janet King, Love My Way, The Hobbit), who brings some comedic touches to the mix as Madcap, a scientist who leads the resistance against the thought-controlling virus created by ‘the Order’ (pictured immediately below), and Bruce Spence (Mad Max, Dark City), playing an inflicter of torture on their behalf.
Hunter said he always knew that Blue World Order was going to turn out to be a great film.
“I just knew that he [Baker] had the vision,” he said.
“Some days would be complete carnage, but you just knew that he was going to get whatever he wanted out of it, and shape it, and the way Robb shot it, and the way it was edited, I was really pleased with how it came out.”
Bolude Fakuade (Dumb Criminals: The Movie; pictured immediately above with Jake Ryan) is Marion Conners, a scientist whose research is the foundation of the Order’s devastating power, while Kendra Appleton (Terminus, In Your Dreams) is Clare, an Order guard who knows more than she lets on.
The behind the scenes team consists of Baker’s partner Sarah Mason, who is his co-writer and co-producer as well as looking after marketing for the film; Baker’s friend Dallas Bland, who is his co-director and a co-writer of the film; producer Tim Maddocks; cinematographer Robb Shaw-Velzen and executive producers Reilly and Michael McGoogan (the latter is co-owner of the RiotACT along with another investor in the film, Tim White).
Like Mason and Baker, Shaw-Velzen is a Canberran. He said last night he always knew the film was going to be “amazing”.
“But I didn’t quite know how much he had up his sleeve, so I’m blown away, Che,” he said.
“It’s magic. The film was magic, and we had a mentor behind the scenes, Andrew Lesnie, who we called the magician, and he’s given us some magic, I reckon, because it shows.”
That magician of a mentor won an Oscar for his work as director of photography on The Fellowship of the Ring. The cinematographer for all six Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit films as well as both Babe films and Happy Feet, Lesnie died in April 2015 of a heart attack. He was 59.
Shaw-Velzen said Lesnie sent him some advice in an email early on in the production process for Blue World Order.
“He said, well, for what it’s worth, Che’s got so much enthusiasm, get inside his brain. We still didn’t quite get there, but we’re learning how to do that.
“[He also said] wake up every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and say I am an artist, not a craftsman, or a tradesperson, but an artist, and then go to work and do your stuff, and I gave that a go, so thank you Andrew.”
Asked whether Canberra was set to become a film production capital, Shaw-Velzen said the Australian city was “the new Wellington”.
“I think Canberra has a wealth of potential,” he said.
“There’s a strong community here, and I’d love to try and exploit the potential that we have.
“We saw some of the locations [in the film]. In scouting this thing, we saw hundreds more that were fantastic, not appropriate for this film, but there’s a whole wealth of stories that can be told here, above and beyond the political thrillers, those things are fantastic, but we can make anything. We don’t need to make just those kinds of films.”
The dates for the international premiere and theatrical release are unconfirmed at this time, though Baker said last night he would anticipate cinema-goers gaining access in the first or second quarter of next year.
It may not end there, either. Asked “where next” during the Q&A last night, Baker responded: “Oh the Netflix series, obviously!”
“There’s a lot more stories to be told,” he said.
“I would like to say that about six hours from now, the film will be screening in Hollywood to a bunch of buyers, so whatever way you worship, say a few prayers. It’s screening at AFM, which is the American Film Market, so we’ll know if a couple of weeks what kind of update we have internationally with that.
“The release domestically is probably going to be early next year, about March or April, but it depends very much on how the film is received internationally. Hopefully it gives us a lot of scope to do more here.”
Baker, pictured immediately below with Mason, said that the best thing about the whole experience was finding a great team, and having done that, he was ready to do it again. Several viewers mentioned last night that they were keen to see a sequel.
I was petrified that I would not like the film. Knowing several of the players involved, including Baker, Mason and McGoogan as well as Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo role (pictured immediately below at the launch of the Canberra International Film Festival), meant that not liking it would’ve been awkward. Being Canberra-born and an advocate for all things capital, I wanted to be a fan of the film given what it means for the city, too.
Knowing how talented the team behind it was didn’t mean I was going to like it. I’m not into martial arts films, only an occasional fan of sci-fi and generally averse to anything involving blood and gore.
So it was a huge relief to find I was utterly gripped from start to finish, entertained non-stop and indeed so intrigued by the plot that I’m off to buy Baker’s novel, The Rule of Knowledge, and start reading it tonight. By the way, in case you’re thinking of trying to track it down too, it’s published under the name Scott Baker rather than Che.
The familiarity of the Canberra scenery may have played a role in my falling hard for this film, but I genuinely believe it has the potential to be a success internationally. It has all the elements such a film needs: memorable characters, a complex, twist-filled plot geeky sci-fi fans will love, themes around family, love, war and technology that will resonate everywhere, rapid-fire action, humour, tragedy and technical wizardry.
I recommend you get a group of friends together and see your city (and Black Mountain Tower) in a whole new light ASAP when the film opens next year.
All photos are by Charlotte Harper aside from film stills, which are supplied.