Thirty years ago, the film Crocodile Dundee catapulted Kakadu into the international spotlight. Paul Hogan played the character of Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee, a legendary bushie, who had supposedly lost a leg to a croc in an outback encounter. Linda Kozlowski, a relatively unknown US actor, played the role of journalist, Sue Charlton, and while she discovered that the story of Mick’s severed leg might have been exaggerated slightly, she fell for both the man and the remarkable Kakadu landscape.
At the time, Kakadu was better known as a mining site, with uranium at the forefront. In fact, such was the prominence of uranium that the region’s most famous tourism attraction – Gunlom Falls – was originally known as UDP Falls, because it was the early camp site of the Uranium Development & Prospecting Company.
Today, it is tourism that glows brightly for Kakadu, and the region owes a massive debt to Paul Hogan for bringing the Northern Territory outback region to international prominence.
While Paul Hogan may have been the face of the film, the man responsible for selecting the locations and transforming a relatively untamed landscape into a film set was a young man by the name of Craig Bolles, who was based in the Northern Territory and had a very thorough knowledge of the Top End and its almost secret sites.
Kakadu Tourism spoke to Craig about how a sparkle of idea in Paul Hogan’s mind translated into one of the most successful and visually significant films in Australian cinema history.
Craig Bolles: “The location was terribly important for the success of the film. It showcased a part of Australia that I don’t think had been seen by most Australians, let alone foreigners, and it was inherent with Paul’s nature. He seemed to fit into the landscape perfectly.
“I was brought in as the location scout for the film because I’d spent a lot of time in the Northern Territory. I did all the location scouting for the film, then handed it over to a Location Manager and came in as Second Assistant Director for the film.
“I used to work for the Aboriginal Artist Agency during the late 70s/early 80s. I did a lot with local Aboriginal groups and spent a lot of time with them. I even learned to speak some of the language. We used to bring in touring groups for the Department of Foreign Affairs for their cultural exchange programme. I loved my time up there. I had a real passion for the Territory.
“I got into films via film called Manganinnie, which was a film about a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman who searches for her tribe with the company of a young, lost white girl. I got a call from a Producer saying could I organise a shoot for some Aboriginal actors, so I did that and it turned out to be a quite successful film, and because it dealt with wilderness and Aboriginal issues it led to me being contacted by the Crocodile Dundee producers.
“I had an open brief to choose anywhere in Australia that I thought suitable. I went across to the Kimberley as well, but in those days it was even more remote than Kakadu and I knew there would be a crew of 150 – 200 people, so I had to think of the logistics and Kakadu made more sense. Still, Kakadu was a very different place in the 1980s to what it is today. Only the main road was sealed and there were no hotel facilities at all as far as I can remember, just a few ‘dongas’.
“I just thought it was a great place because I had spent quite a lot of time there taking directors through the area for potential film shoots, including Jean-Jacques Annaud, who directed the film Quest for Fire. He was originally going to shoot that in Kakadu, so I spent a lot of time cruising around Kakadu looking for suitable settings.
“I always thought of Kakadu as an incredibly interesting and diverse destination, and as it had never really been showcased before, I thought it would be a great location to shoot Crocodile Dundee.
“Accommodating a crew of up to 200 in such an outback location was our biggest issue, but we had a stroke of luck early on. Initially I thought I would have to build the equivalent of a mining camp to house all the crew, but I was in a helicopter doing surveys and I asked the pilot ‘what’s that down there?,. and it turned out to be a mining camp that had never been used by miners.
“The Ja Ja Camp was set up by PanContinental Mining to house the workers for the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine, but the camp had never been occupied because they were waiting for approval from the Federal Government. So we landed the helicopter there and out came a manager with a shotgun and I explained what we were trying to do, He said the camp was ready to go and it could house up to 120 people, with five or six quite nice houses, plus a whole lot of dongas. It was perfect, so we contacted PanContinental and they agreed that we could lease it off them for the period of the shooting.
“The facilities were good. Paul Hogan had a four bedroom house with a massive dining room capable of seating 20 for dinner. It was set up for mining executives and full time workers coming in with their families, so it was pretty flash. Funnily enough, it was probably more sophisticated than Jabiru in those days.
“Finding the locations for the shoot wasn’t as easy as it may look today. For instance, UDP Falls (Gunlom) was connected by a dirt track that you wouldn’t find it you didn’t know where it was. Some old guy just told me the falls were down the track and it took me a few weeks to find the falls. There were a lot of uranium signs around there at the time, and some old uranium tracks – that was about it.
“Lots of these places were really hard to get to, but I went in there with a 4WD and cut roads where we needed to. I’d just fill up the car with food, lots of water, camp in the bush at times and it was incredible. In fact, I discovered lots of amazing locations, with beautiful waterfalls, that might have looked even better on film, but they were just too hard to get a whole crew into.
“When we filmed at Nourlangie, there were no barriers to the art galleries, just a track and you could walk around without any restrictions in those days. I’d just heard about these places through working with Aboriginal people and wandering around doing film survey work. I found galleries in there that are possibly more impressive that Nourlangie and Ubirr put together. I just never told anyone about them because they still had skulls and skeletons inside the caves so I just left them as they were because they were probably sacred sites.
“It was an amazing experience for the Paul, Linda and whole crew because the bush was very special, but it was tempered by the fact that they were surrounded by 150 people on a film set. The film shows a magnificently tranquil sunset looking out from Nourlangie, but the filming involved 120 people and all the hustle and bustle of a film set – it still looked magical on screen.
“Even filming at a relatively accessible location like Ubirr Rock – where we did the 360 degrees panorama – was a real ordeal because we had to carry in all the tracks and gear, and equipment was really heavy in those days.
“What was so wonderful then was that it was so remote. No one went up to the East Alligator River – we had to cut roads into there – but because I had spent a lot of time in Arnhem Land working with Gapuwiyak, I had a permit to go in and I knew quite a few people in Oenpelli.
“I had a 4WD and found the place along the Bardedjilidji Walk where we shot a lot of Crocodile Dundee 2, and just around the corner from there was an amazing art gallery in a cave where there were still full skeletons, but I obviously didn’t let anyone go near that.
“When I identified UDP Falls (now Gunlom) as a setting it was still very dangerous territory. We had to get someone into grade the track so we could get the trucks and buses in. In all the time we were there, we saw no one.
“We also had the problem that this was at the end of the dry season, and UDP Falls had virtually stopped flowing so we sent up half a dozen guys a few days before to ‘dam’ it so that when we did the big widescreen shots we actually had a good flow of water coming over.
“I found amazing places, almost better than that, but there was the whole croc issue where I had to be 100% sure they could swim in the pools without being eaten, because even when I was flying in the chopper we could see croc tracks in some bizarre places.
“We were so concerned we had a crocodile expert from Darwin and when we filmed the scene where the croc jumps out and grabs Linda’s water bottle we actually did that in a billabong very close to Darwin. It was called Girraween Lagoon, less than an hour out of Darwin, but as we had a mechanical croc and it involved lots of people, I didn’t want to drag that all the way down to Kakadu. But it looked pretty real.
“When it came to filming Crocodile Dundee 2 I actually said we should mix it up and go somewhere else. I suggested WA, a place such as the Bungle Bungles, because I wanted to create another look for it, but Paul and John Cornell were keen to go back to Kakadu, which is why I pushed into Arnhem Land and Cannon Hill…places like that to mix up the locations.
“I had a helicopter pilot called Shane – an ex hairdresser from Melbourne – who decided to become a helicopter pilot and we just hung out for quite some time and we’d go up looking for sites and I’d just see a spectacular spot and say ‘put me down there’. But there was no way we could have got everyone in there except by chopper, which just wasn’t feasible.
“Looking back at it now, it cost $8.6 million for Croc 1, which doesn’t sound all that much, but no one had any idea how it was going to be. Paul was quite a popular TV character in those days, but there was still considerable scepticism in the industry about how it would go. In fact, he took points rather than a wage, so did very well, because the film ended up grossing over $300 million.”
Craig Bolles was involved with all the Crocodile Dundee films and went on to be a very successful director of films, TV shows and advertisements.