In 1994, cult classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert brought Australian film, and Australian landscapes, to a global audience. A twist on the classic road story, it follows professional drag queens Tick and Adam and transwoman Bernadette as they travel in a bus named Priscilla from Sydney to Alice Springs.
On the way, they pass through Broken Hill, staying at what was then Mario’s Palace, now the Palace Hotel. It works perfectly, with the bush scenes painted on the walls of the hotel compliment the painted drag queen aesthetic, and mirror one of the overwhelming themes of Priscilla: vibrancy. Vibrancy of character, vibrancy of landscape; the fierce, strong beauty of the Australian outback and the strength of personality of the three leading ladies.
For writer and director Stephan Elliott, Broken Hill was a desired location long before he came to write Priscilla.
“I was an assistant director for many years before. I’d been out there about three or four times to do little bits, and there was just a magic to the place that got me very early on.
“At that point in my career it was still a bit of a wild place on Earth. It still is! So it stayed in my head, then when it was time to step up into the chair and decide where to film Priscilla, I’d already made up my mind that it was going to be Broken Hill.
“It was also the first time I’d faced real summer heat. It was terrifying. But the really interesting part was it was terrifying but equal parts humbling.
“With film crews, they will bitch about everything. But the first time I worked in Broken Hill was the first chance I got to see film crews get a little bit more humble. And then because the town has such great infrastructure, believe me, they’re really happy to go back there in the evening. It’s got beds, it’s got hotels, it’s got air conditioning – it’s got everything. But within 15 minutes you can be on the Mundi Mundi Plains, filming in some very serious desert.”
Despite the sense of distance covered in the film, Elliott explains that’s just a beautiful lie.
“What people don’t realise is that about sixty… no, seventy per cent of the film was shot in Broken Hill,” he laughs. “Although it’s shown as this big journey through the outback, it’s Broken Hill! Even a lot of the Sydney interiors, they’re all shot in Broken Hill. We simply decided to make it the set.
“It’s this amazing desert, but it can give you a little bit of greenery if you want. You know that fantastic scene where they find a dam in the middle of the desert outside Coober Pedy? That’s Broken Hill! The Sydney interiors in the club? That’s Broken Hill! We shot at the Imperial Hotel in Sydney for a bit for what we needed, then just bumped it all over to Broken Hill, because why not?
“And that’s the beauty. The beauty of filmmaking is still the lie.”
Despite being depicted in the film as the town where Priscilla is covered in homophobic graffiti, Elliott says the real Broken Hill is far from close-minded.
“That was just there in the film, but that’s not the Broken Hill people. It’s a town that does accept diversity. It’s still a frontier of type, where you can get away with a lot. It’s a little wilder than people expect. It’s a great place for ratbags!
“The town is eccentric and eccentric is good. It’s as simple as that.”
And Elliott isn’t finished with Broken Hill yet.
“My bigger plan is to make Broken Hill, for a period, become a living film. One film, a living film. People think they know what filmmaking is but at the end of the day it’s broken into these parts: idea, writing, directing, production design, costume, music, acting. All those things come together to make a movie, which Broken Hill is famous for, but people don’t see those singular parts on their own. And special effects! It’s a great town, it’s a town where I spent a lot of time blowing shit up. I can’t blow shit up in Sydney!”