Sydney, Australia — TO tell the tale of the greatest American superhero, the producers of "Superman Returns" brought six tons of lumber to a rural parcel on the Breeza Plains of Australia and built a Kansas farmhouse, windmill and an ox-blood red barn. They planted five acres of corn and paved six miles of road to reach their new Midwest homestead. And all of this because, for Hollywood filmmakers today, it makes more money sense to build Smallville USA on a different continent than it does to simply stay home.
"It is quite amazing isn't it? I suppose that's the way things are now," said Guy Hendrix Dyas the production designer for the film, which will reach theaters in June. "The place we found was in a really desolate area about an hour's flight from Sydney. We built an entire working farm. When we were done with the corn we fed it to the cows."
There is no bigger popcorn movie for 2006 than "Superman Returns," Warner Bros.' attempt to relaunch the grand old Man of Steel as a heroic 21st century franchise. And the film is all the bigger for having been made in Australia, where the U.S. dollar goes far and the talent pool runs deep. The country is consequently turning into one of the busiest overseas production hubs for Hollywood and perhaps its most user-friendly outpost. The "Superman Returns" budget has been widely reported to be $200 million or higher (studio insiders this week denied recent reports that the total actually went north of $250 million) but whatever the price tag, it will be reduced in the final calculation -- government incentives in Australia add up to a 12.5% rebate on its final production costs. Then there are also the advantages of exchange rates and the largesse that Hollywood ventures enjoy (among them expedited permits and discounted hotel rooms) in a nation that has plenty of eager hospitality for visiting American big-spenders.
With the intense risk assessment that accompanies every blockbuster-budget film these days, the savings being offered by Australia (and New Zealand as well) has made it something of a bustling suburb of Hollywood -- one that does, however, require a 17-hour commute. It also has the sun-intense weather, surfing and spiky attitude of personal expression that feel familiar to Angelenos.
While Hollywood productions that traipse into Eastern European nations or far-flung exotic Asian locales gamble on what they will find, in Australia and New Zealand they have an established and homegrown film industry (and one that has produced a glut of talented directors, among them Peter Jackson, Peter Weir, Baz Luhrmann, Phillip Noyce, Bruce Beresford and Jane Campion), no language barrier and a considerable amount of existing studio amenities. And then there are those financial breaks....
"The Australian government wants filmmakers and films here and it now has a corner of the business, a busy corner," said "Superman Returns" producer Gilbert Adler, in his office on the sprawling Fox Studios Australia lot in the suburbs of Sydney.
Outside his office are six huge soundstages, cluttered craft shops and wardrobe warehouses and administrative bungalows -- all bustling with activity and set on a layout that would be familiar to anyone who has visited the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
Last summer, the lot also had a stunning, five-story Daily Planet facade ("It was too big to build inside a soundstage, so we built it to straddle the exteriors of two soundstages," Dyas said); a Fortress of Solitude; an elaborate set of a luxury yacht; a mansion; and assorted stand-ins for Metropolis and other Superman environs.
"This was the place that made the most sense for us and for the picture and it's really as simple as that," Adler said.
On the lot is also an animation house, Animal Logic, with one of the most massive amounts of computer memory under one roof anywhere in the world. That amount of computer muscle is needed to create the new-era animation projects, such as "Happy Feet," another Warner Bros. production that was underway over the summer and is due next fall.
Animal Logic is a visual effects house that has worked on projects such as "The Matrix: Reloaded," "Moulin Rouge!" and "The House of Flying Daggers." With "Happy Feet" -- a playful animated musical adventure about penguins that features the voices of Hugh Jackman, Robin Williams and Nicole Kidman -- the outfit hopes to catch industry attention by premiering a digital animation approach that brings a deeper realism to backgrounds, surface textures and lighting.
"The Pentagon and Animal Logic are both among the top five buildings in the world when it comes to computer power," said "Happy Feet" director George Miller ("The Witches of Eastwick," "Mad Max"), a Queensland native who said Australia's film artistry prowess has now dovetailed with a considerable amount of Hollywood commerce. "There is quite a bit of work being done here, obviously, and I think it will only increase."