It ended up on The Gold Coast, but the journey of Hurricane Smith started in Paris, Texas. Well, sort of. It was Wim Wenders’ so-named 1984 cult movie that provided the spark for what would later become the full-tilt explosion that was the 1992 Australian action flick starring American import, Carl Weathers. Sitting in a cinema watching cult hero, Harry Dean Stanton, wander through the parched nothingness of the American desert to the acrid strains of Ry Cooder’s sparse, guitar-driven score, Australian filmmaker, Kevin J. Dobson, had an urgent creative impulse.
“I had an idea for a noir piece,” Dobson tells FilmInk. “Melbourne had a strange underbelly back then, and it still does, to some extent. My idea was to set the film around Port Melbourne and South Melbourne, around the wharves.” Per Dobson’s original concept – which had the working title of You’re A Good Guy, Billy Baxter – the film’s lead character was a white Texan who comes to Melbourne looking for his missing sister. “I pictured this lonely figure on Collins St. wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, with these big shop fronts all lit up and no one around. The whole idea was based around this character. He comes down here to find his sister, and she’s turning tricks in a South Melbourne knocking shop. Like Paris, Texas, I wanted it to be very moody and dreamy. I was going to do the Texas scenes out in Melton, north of Melbourne.”
A longtime veteran of Australian film and television – he had directed 1977’s well received period drama, The Mango Tree, and the stylish 1982 gangster flick, Squizzy Taylor (predating 2013’s Underbelly: Squizzy production by a good thirty years) – Dobson originally planned to direct what would eventually become Hurricane Smith, and it was him who got the ball rolling on the film’s production. Dobson took the idea to major Australian distribution and exhibition company, Village Roadshow, who liked the possibilities of the project. Dobson then teamed with fellow film and TV veteran, Peter Kinloch (who had penned episodes of The Sullivans, A Country Practice and Matlock Police), to develop the script.
Dobson’s project came to Village Roadshow at a vital point in the company’s long and storied history. In 1988, they had teamed with major American studio, Warner, to open The Warner Roadshow Studios on Queensland’s Gold Coast, which boasted four soundstages and other facilities to support film and television production. The studios had been the brainchild of Italian-born movie powerhouse, Dino De Laurentiis, who had been behind the production of such films as 1976’s much maligned King Kong, as well as the likes of Ragtime, Conan The Barbarian and Blue Velvet. In Queensland, De Laurentiis was attempting to do what he had already done with his company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, in Wilmington, North Carolina: build a film hub in a location not previously associated with film production using generous assistance from the state government. In Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Hollywood heavy-hitter found a willing partner eager to support his plans for a steady stream of his own and other company’s productions at the studio.
But when De Laurentiis failed to make the studios a success, he pulled out fearing complete financial collapse, and they were purchased by Village Roadshow and Warner in what was then seen as a groundbreaking move. Film production in Australia at the time had largely been the domain of Sydney and Melbourne, and many in the local film industry viewed the Gold Coast studios with suspicion, seeing them as a beachhead for American cultural imperialism, amongst other things. But while US productions were shot at The Warner Roadshow Studios, money was still pumped into the local economy, and jobs were created for local film technicians.
“It was pretty much swamp land down there,” Dobson says of the creation of The Warner Roadshow Studios, which also included a number of theme parks. “They drained it, and over the years, they perfected it into the studio that it is today. It’s a very good facility. They wanted to make films; they were looking at screenplays and developing things. It was an earlier time for Village Roadshow. They were really coming together, and it eventually evolved into the Village Roadshow of today. Whenever someone’s going in to do a whole raft of things, it’s exciting.”
The Warner Roadshow Studios were under the control of veteran British producer, Stanley O’Toole, the then managing director of Village Roadshow in Australia. With credits such as The Last Of Sheila and The Boys From Brazil, he was well in tune with the commercial impulses of big budget filmmaking, and saw huge promise for the Gold Coast studios. “We are the natural home for Australian movie making, the same as Hollywood is in America,” O’Toole said in a 1991 television report on The Warner Roadshow Studios. “We have perfect weather, we’ve got the best film studio in Australia, and we’re attracting people from other states. I’ve known Dino De Laurentiis for 24 years, and what we’re able to do that he couldn’t do is make films and care about the industry in Australia, and especially in this state. Dino was here, and it was a good idea at the time, but you have to tough it out. We set things in motion when I came here, and those things are now being realised. We’re making movies on a regular basis, and I would suggest, more than anywhere else in Australia.”
Part of that business of making movies was Village Roadshow’s instigation of what was termed The Silver Series. These were low budget films targeted to a specific – often genre-based – market, and made for a very competitive price. The first film in The Silver Series was 1990’s slasher/horror flick, Bloodmoon (famed for its “fright break” towards the end, where the audience had a chance to walk out and claim a refund), and the second was the thriller, Dead Sleep, starring American import, Linda Blair (The Exorcist), and local legend, Tony Bonner.
Hurricane Smith was set up as the third film in The Silver Series, and was placed into the capable hands of producer, Daniel O’Toole – an executive at Village Roadshow, and the son of the company’s managing director, Stanley O’Toole – by Greg Coote, the head of Village Roadshow Pictures, and the man who had picked up Kevin J. Dobson’s original movie concept. “We weren’t trying to create art with The Silver Series,” Daniel O’Toole tells FilmInk. “We were trying to turn a profit, and I’m happy to say that we succeeded. Hurricane Smith – and, indeed, the entire Silver Series – reflected a concerted effort to get away from the more parochial and very Australian films that had been produced in the past. At the time, we had hopes that it might enable us to drive a new market, as well as prove to the world that films with a truly international flavour could easily be produced in Australia at low cost. We’d already undertaken several feasibility studies proving that the cost of filmmaking in Australia was significantly cheaper than producing equivalent films in the USA. At that time, it was also cheaper than Canada and the United Kingdom. The Australian Film Financing Corporation, now Screen Australia, was also starting up, and there were new opportunities for accessing ‘soft’ money from Australia.”
The development of Hurricane Smith kicked off at a precarious time for Daniel O’Toole and his employers at Village Roadshow. “To be honest, there was pressure on all of us working at the Gold Coast studios from the moment that my father arrived in Australia in March of 1989,” O’Toole tells FilmInk. “There was a feeding frenzy by the press, but not in a negative way – expectations were high that we could turn Dino’s disaster into a raging success. Predictions abounded that we would turn The Gold Coast into the film capital of Australia – the Hollywood of the southern hemisphere. Some people suggested that there would be a mass migration of specialised film talent and labour from Sydney and Melbourne up north.”
While the strong crime-based narrative of Kevin J. Dobson’s You’re A Good Guy, Billy Baxter – and its necessitated American star – appealed to the commercial ambitions of the execs at Village Roadshow, they wanted to push the project even further into a position of almost guaranteed box office success. “They conceived it as more of an action packed piece,” Dobson tells FilmInk. “We continued to develop it up to a certain point. They definitely wanted to give it a bit more rev, and they wanted to have more happening. They perceived it as a larger, more commercial piece, which is okay. It was then re-located from Melbourne to Surfers Paradise, which instantly changes the whole tone and complexion of the piece. Much of the original concept is still exactly the same, except it has much bigger boat chases! My idea never had any of that. It was a punch-up in a laneway!”
Part of the ramping up of the thrills and spills of the film involved bringing in a major American star, and the film’s producers set their sights on Carl Weathers, the charismatic African-American actor who had faced off against Sylvester Stallone in the classic, Rocky (before eventually becoming his trainer and buddy by Rocky III), and then carved out his own niche in the action genre firmament with films like 1987’s Predator, and his own 1988 vehicle, Action Jackson. “Once he was cast, we attempted to tailor it more to Weathers’ Action Jackson persona,” says Daniel O’Toole. “Working with Carl was a real pleasure – he was a complete professional, and he also enjoyed having a good laugh on set.”
By the time that Carl Weathers had been cast, and the script had been suitably punched up, Kevin J. Dobson was in production on a television film called Miracle In The Wilderness with Kris Kristofferson Kim Cattrall, and was no longer available to helm what was now called Hurricane Smith. “It was much better in the hands that it was in,” Dobson says today. “They had their ears to the ground and their eyes to the locations around Surfers Paradise.”
With Carl Weathers headlining, Hurricane Smith was now a different film. The eponymous leading character had been reconfigured into a Texas oil field worker (the cowboy hat was now officially gone) who comes to Surfer’s Paradise looking for his missing sister upon the death of their mother. Once down under, Billy “Hurricane” Smith finds himself tangled up with call girl, Julie (Cassandra Delaney), and her pimp, Shanks (David Argue), and caught in a turf war between criminal kingpins, Charlie Dowd (Jürgen Prochnow) and Howard Fenton (Tony Bonner).
Directorial duties were eventually handed to Colin Budds, a veteran television director (he’d helmed episodes of Prisoner and Sons And Daughters, as well as the new version of the classic American series, Mission: Impossible, which was also shot at the Gold Coast studios) who would make his big screen debut with the film. “Hurricane Smith followed the action/adventure recipe book,” the director replies when FilmInk asks for his first response on reading the screenplay. “Cliche caricatures, emotionally wanting, and festooned with action sequences. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was hard to mimic the Stallone and Arnie blockbusters of the time with a budget approximating their catering budget. I decided to accept the challenge though…after all, it was Warner Bros.”
When he signed on to direct, Budds also asked if he could take a pass at the script. He was given the green light, but had to work on it in his own time, as the film had already rolled into pre-production, and Budds needed to be available for all of the day-to-day requirements of kick-starting a major movie. “The script was clearly written for a white lead, and my producers were adamant that there was no need for a pass to address Carl’s involvement,” Budds says. “I was keen to embrace, explore, and applaud what was in hindsight very progressive casting for the time. Carl Weathers and Cassandra Delaney – black and white, if you like – would be among the first racially mixed on-screen lovers in a commercial film. I presented my revised draft, only to see it placed swiftly in a bottom drawer, and to be told that we were too far down the track for any changes. My protests about backstory, journey, depth and breadth fell on deaf ears. It was just the first of our many speed humps.”
Though Carl Weathers unfortunately declined to be interviewed for this article, all of those that FilmInk did speak to have nothing but high praise and genuine warmth for the Hollywood star. “Carl was an absolute gentleman,” says Colin Budds. “There was no waiting, and no tantrums. He made positive suggestions, and he was also a pretty good cook, as we came to discover when he hosted a dinner party at his apartment.” Daniel O’Toole also enjoyed his time working with Mr. Weathers. “I recall Carl Weathers and I on set singing Bill Withers songs a capella,” the producer says. “Carl and I were both huge fans of [American soul singer] Bill Withers, and had discussed the possibility of a biopic about this very talented musician.”
Aussie legend, Tony Bonner – famous for his iconic role as helicopter pilot, Jerry King, in the much loved TV series, Skippy, as well as a whole host of other television shows and big screen movies – also has fond memories of Carl Weathers. “I don’t think that Carl had any illusions about his acting ability,” Bonner tells FilmInk. “He knew that he was a good looking man who could deliver a line, and that his comedy timing was always quite good. Carl was a realist about his own abilities, and that endeared him to everyone. He wasn’t above us, and he didn’t place himself at a station where he came in as the great god from America to work with these little people in Australia. That was never part of Carl’s reasoning. He knew that we had a very healthy, professional, and creatively artistic industry here, so he came fully expecting to work with professionals. During rare moments of down time, we’d talk about life in general, and about my times in Los Angeles, and who I knew there. It was always more than pleasant and convivial and rewarding.”
According to Colin Budds, there was only one very, very minor sour moment when it came to Carl Weathers. “He only had one meltdown,” the director says. “In the final sequence, Hurricane Smith runs toward a helicopter fleeing with our heroine, and makes a grab for the skid. The steel skid was suspended from a crane, and Carl enthusiastically hurled himself upward, driving his front teeth into the unforgiving skid. Landing with one front tooth neatly snapped in half, he was immediately organising flights back to a specialist in Los Angeles. We had freeways, electricity, and spoke approximately the same language, but clearly we didn’t have advanced dental care. After long discussions, I convinced Carl to visit my dentist in Southport. About two hours later, and with that perfect smile restored, he declared my dentist a genius. Roll camera.”
One of the more pleasant surprises of the presence of Carl Weathers was his on and off screen relationship with the great David Argue, a famed Aussie eccentric who has lit up the screen in films such as Gallipoli, Razorback, BMX Bandits and Midnite Spares. “Carl and David’s off screen relationship mirrored the on screen bringing together of two complete opposites,” Colin Budds explains. “Carl recognised that often a little genius is accompanied by a little madness, and he navigated that accordingly. The contrast of calm, controlled Carl and the total mischievous calamity of David was an accidental bonus that we exploited on screen and laughed about out loud behind the camera.”
The film also allowed the handsome and usually heroic Tony Bonner to play a particularly smarmy bad guy. “Howard Fenton was certainly a character that I had seen when I had been in clubs in Los Angeles, London and Sydney,” the actor laughs. “I took those fellows that I had seen in those clubs, and put him in a shiny suit, put an earring on him, and dragged out my remembrances of those people. I was thinking of having a ponytail too – that was very hot at the time – but I let that go and had my ear pierced,” he laughs. “I didn’t want to fake it by having a clip-on earring, so I had my ear pierced. Fenton was one of these dudes that would have a ponytail or a pierced ear, or both, so I went with the pierced ear and a shiny suit.”
As Bonner’s sadistic on-screen nemesis, European import, Jurgen Prochnow, proved to be the exact opposite of his character off-screen. “We got along famously,” Bonner says of the German actor, who would later become a Hollywood fixture, often in bad guy roles. “We had some friends in Germany, and he knew actors that I’d worked with in Turkey and London earlier in my career. So we hit it off. Plus Jurgen was in one of my favourite films, Das Boot.” Adds Daniel O’Toole: “Jurgen Prochnow was a consummate professional, and he enjoyed his time on The Gold Coast. His family was with him, so it was no doubt an enjoyable workman’s holiday.”
The other major figure in the cast was Cassandra Delaney, the sister of Paul Hogan’s sexy TV offsider, Delvene Delaney, and an actress on the rise who had given a brave performance in 1982’s controversial Ozploitation flick, Fair Game, as a resourceful woman menaced in the outback by three rapacious revheads. “I know Delvene very well, so it was great being with Cassandra,” says Bonner. Adds Colin Budds: “Cassandra Delaney gave the film a centre. She was attractive, vulnerable, and tragic, but most importantly, she was accessible. She and Carl indeed made an attractive couple.”
This, however, didn’t go unnoticed by Cassandra’s husband, who just happened to be the late American country music superstar, John Denver. “He made several visits to the set as Cassandra tried to forge a career beyond just being Mrs. John Denver,” says Budds. “John, Cassandra and I were in my apartment one night when he asked if he could take a look at some rushes. Randomly, up comes the steamy love scene between a seemingly naked Cass and Carl. No amount of dialogue about being surrounded by crew and scaffolding would soothe the angry superstar as they left to continue their discussion in private. Although he’d read the script, John obviously couldn’t visualise his topless Cassandra up on the big screen straddling a male, especially Carl. Many months later, I received an invite for my family and I to enjoy one of John’s chalets in Aspen for a holiday, so I can only assume that any differences were settled, and that I was no longer seen as an agent of pornography!”
The Hurricane Smith shoot moved quickly and without major incident, despite being lensed on what was a relatively low budget for a film with fight scenes, shootouts, and a helicopter chase. “The shoot was not as intense as it had been on Bloodmoon and Dead Sleep,” Daniel O’Toole tells FilmInk of the previous Silver Series films. “They were made on very tight budgets and, at that time, we were creating a new and untested formula. By the time that we started work on Hurricane Smith, we’d already proven that the formula worked, so budget constraints were eased…just a little! Additionally, most of the below-the-line crew had worked on one or both of the previous Silver Series films, so most of us had worked together before, and were used to it. Overall, things ran smoothly on the shoot. I tried to ensure that I was on set every day, and I have many happy memories of that time.”
Colin Budds agrees that the shoot largely went off without a hitch. “We shot in pre-production to take some pressure off a very ambitious schedule,” the director explains. “It took us a few days to find our tempo and realise the required screen time. I was constantly juggling the efficiencies of television coverage versus the time-consuming cinematic big production shots. I was lucky to have Guy Norris and his team as the second unit/action unit. The action scenes were not split off, but were part of the main unit, and so without the stunt team’s preparedness and Carl’s athleticism, we’d still be there. Carl’s stunt double was on a paid holiday really.”
Tony Bonner concurs with the general consensus about the shoot. “It all went pretty smoothly,” the actor says. “Colin Budds, besides being a very good friend of mine, is a very confident director. Colin would have been on top of anything or any problems that arose. I’ve directed a few things myself, and you always have a Plan B and a Plan C. Colin was aware of all that, and there were, for that time in Australia, spectacular stunts in the film.”
With its myriad action sequences, Hurricane Smith indeed punches well above its cinematic weight, largely thanks to the crew that so ingeniously pulled it all off. “Australian stuntmen had a worldwide reputation for being tough bastards, and I will always remember Carl’s American stunt double, Dwayne McGee, performing that jump with the speedboat,” says Daniel O’Toole. “Had it been shot in the states, they might have gone with a dummy and a remote control boat, but that’s not how they did things in Australia. When Dwayne successfully completed the stunt, he jumped out of the boat and literally kissed the ground, thanking God that he was still in one piece.”
Though all of the action of Hurricane Smith had taken place amidst the sun-scorched glamour of The Gold Coast, its post-production took place in a far more grey and inhospitable climate. By the time that Hurricane Smith had completed shooting, the film’s producer (and managing director of Village Roadshow in Australia), Stanley O’Toole, had been head-hunted by Warner Bros. to become their managing director in the UK, and he took the film with him, where it was edited at Pinewood Studios. The decision to cut Hurricane Smith in the UK still sits uncomfortably with Colin Budds. “I presented my director’s cut and was thanked for my contribution,” he tells FilmInk. “The film would be recut in England under the producers’ hand. I don’t have a copy of my version, but they are vastly different. My attempt to bring some integrity to the romantic narrative was summarily dismissed. I learned the hard way: make sure that you’re all making the same movie.”
When it was finally released, Hurricane Smith was a major disappointment. “It came and went in a week at the cinemas,” says Colin Budds. What had initially been positioned as a possible franchise starter was almost announced as being dead on arrival. “We were all disappointed by the poor box office performance, but significant pre-sales helped offset this disappointment,” says Daniel O’Toole. “We were under no illusions that we were creating an award-winning film – it was always a commercial business venture that held with it high hopes for the future of filmmaking on The Gold Coast and for Australia in general.”
Though a box office disappointment, Hurricane Smith still indeed proved that Hollywood could – in some shape or form – be replicated on The Gold Coast. Films are still being made there to this day, and arguments still quietly rage about the role of international interests in the Australian film industry, and what sort of films we should be making here.
For screen veteran, Tony Bonner, who’d been working since before the Australian Renaissance, it was an exciting time. “It had the feeling of the beginning of a valid and viable and hopefully profitable film industry within Australia,” the actor says. “I certainly was a great supporter of Stanley O’Toole’s, and most actors and technicians were, because of his vision of turning that studio into a major player, which he ultimately did. It was exciting to make a film like Hurricane Smith in Australia.”
For Kevin J. Dobson – the man who started it all – Hurricane Smith stokes up a sense of nostalgic warmth. “It was exciting,” he says. “I’d never really had that experience before of actually conceiving something and knowing how I wanted to do it, and then working with my very good friend, Peter Kinloch, on the script. I have a great deal of affection for the fact that I was able to get it to happen. That, in and of itself, requires all the planets to align, and they did for Hurricane Smith. The idea of an American coming to Australia clearly appealed. In the bones of it, that’s what it was. It was originally laced with that and driven by a different character. You couldn’t miss Carl Weathers in Surfers Paradise in those days. You’d know it if that man was on your tail! But some weird guy with a cowboy hat? I don’t know about that, but I still like the image of it. It pitches well, doesn’t it?” It sure does…
With warm thanks to Kevin J. Dobson, Colin Budds, Daniel O’Toole and Tony Bonner for giving generously of their time to be interviewed for this article.