The town near Sydney that Hollywood fell in love with

RAAF Base Richmond. Minister for Emergency Services David Elliott, NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and NSW RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers will attend the arrival of the first Large Air Tanker C130 Hercules “????????Thor”???????? in preparation for the bushfire season. The plane in operation at Richmond, Sydney. Photo: Peter Rae Tuesday 1 September 2015.

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It’s served as a film set for Hollywood blockbusters and seminal Australian TV shows, but most Sydneysiders wouldn’t have visited the quiet town of Richmond on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.

The quaint settlement, which lies north-west of Sydney at the foot of the Blue Mountains, boasts an unusually large number of historic buildings, many of which date back to the early 1800s.

It’s these architectural features that first drew film and TV makers to Richmond in the 1970s. Since then, it’s gained a legendary reputation among industry insiders.

Richmond appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s epic The Great Gatsby in 2009 and in acclaimed Australian comedy The Black Balloon in 2008. Back in the 1970s, it played a starring role in the big-budget Hollywood production Adam’s Woman starring Beau Bridges.

Most recently, Richmond stood in for a World War II-era American town and other locations in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-nominated war epic Hacksaw Ridge, which told the story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss.

“We were looking for a location that matched, as accurately as possible, the town in Virginia where Doss grew up – something that would fit the time period that we could build on to create a fully functional set,” location manager Edward Donovan says.

“Finding a location in or around Sydney that can provide that sense of history takes a lot of looking.”

Donovan’s job as a location manager is to search for places that can be used in films and television programs, then to negotiate with councils and private stakeholders to make filming there a reality. His CV includes big-budget movies such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Superman Returns, as well as TV shows such as Cleverman and the eagerly anticipated Wake In Fright. Related: The phantom suburb with a train stationRelated: Vicar of Dibley house for saleRelated: Pemberton’s starring role in Jasper Jones

Donovan says that location scouting can be an exhausting process. “There are a lot of boxes to tick: the first thing, of course, is what it looks like. But you also have to be able to gain access and shoot. Money also comes into play.”

According to Michelle Nichols, a historian who works for Hawkesbury Council, the sheer number of heritage-listed buildings in Richmond makes location managers incredibly excited when they visit.

“The main street still has that traditional country-town feel,” she says. “The public square, which was established in 1810, is still centrepiece of the town.”

Richmond was one of the first settlements established by European settlers in the late 1700s and, in 1810, it became one of Macquarie’s five designated towns for development.

It was also the site of the Battle of Richmond Hill, which was part of the Hawksebury and Nepean Wars between Indigenous Australians and settlers, in 1795. After the battle, the Aboriginal population was driven from the area.

Nichols adds: “Buildings from the early 1800s include churches, public buildings like the old post office and the old police station, the School of Arts, and some lovely bank buildings in the main street. It’s a good mix.”

It’s this abundance and variety that convinced Donovan to have Richmond stand in for multiple locations in Hacksaw Ridge. But he says there was still work to be done once the permits had been signed.

“The art department and the cinematographer did a lot of augmentation there, covered a lot of signs and redressed a couple of shopfronts,” he says. “There was a Westpac bank that the art department had to do some radical work on to bring it back to period correctness.”

Shooting historical dramas in Richmond makes sense, but in recent years the town has also started appearing in contemporary TV shows including long-running soap Home & Away, which used a modern motel building for a major storyline. But why?

Donovan says there are multiple factors at play. “Firstly, there’s space in Richmond,” he says. “You can go out there to shoot and park all the trucks. You can bring the whole circus to town. It’s workable, as opposed to say, Mosman, where there’s no room for anything.”

The co-operation of Hawkesbury Council is also key. “The council was great during Hacksaw Ridge,” Donovan says. “Councils across Sydney aren’t supposed to deal with filming applications differently, but there’s always interpretation. The Hawkesbury council’s [positive attitude] is one of the reasons that film crews keep going back there.”

Sydney’s suburban sprawl may be advancing on Richmond, but Nichols says the town still feels removed from modern-day bustle, making it an attractive location for residents and Hollywood.

“Although the actual town is now urbanised to a certain extent, once you get onto the outskirts of the town you still have the floodplains down to the river and lots of open space,” she says.

“It seems to have retained its old-worldly charm more so than [neighbouring] Windsor.”

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