Once known for betting and brawling opal miners, Winton is now a star-spotting, dinosaur-digging hotspot, writes Natascha Mirosch.
For a small town, Winton in Central West Queensland has a number of “first and onlys” to pin to its chest. Longreach might be billed as the home of Qantas but the original headquarters was actually in Winton. Then there’s our unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, which Banjo Paterson wrote while holidaying on nearby Dagworth Station. It was first performed at Winton’s North Gregory Hotel in 1895. And in 2016, a new genus of dinosaur – the huge, herbivorous Savannasaurus elliottorum – was unearthed in Winton.
Some 1400 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, Winton was originally known as “Pelican Waterhole”. Local folklore has it that after an 1876 flood moved the settlement a kilometre down the road, postmaster and publican Robert Allen did his bit to further wipe Pelican Waterhole off the map. In the absence of an official stamp, he had to write out the town’s name by hand and, finding it tiresome, he changed it to the suburb in Bournemouth, England, where he was born. Winton was gazetted as a town in 1879.
By all accounts, it was a rough place in the early days. In his book, Reminiscences of Queensland, 1862-1899, one of Winton’s founding fathers, W. H. Corfield, writes that the town was, “the rendezvous of some of the worst characters of the west; fights were frequent on the then unformed streets”.
Drinking, gambling and brawls had to suffice as entertainment for the opal miners, shearers and travellers until the first movie theatre, the Olympia, opened in the early 1900s. The townsfolk enthusiastically embraced film-going and soon there were four theatres on the main street. Eventually, the Star and Olympia fell victim to fire (common in the days of highly flammable cellulose nitrate film) and the Lyric closed. But the Royal Open Air Theatre lives on and is one of the few outdoor picture theatres still in operation in Australia. It plays a starring role in the town’s nine-day movie binge, The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival (29 June to 7 July).
Winton has been dubbed “The Outback Film Capital”, not only because of the locals’ love of cinema but also due to the town and its surrounds becoming popular shooting locations. Movie buffs might recognise the region from Nick Cave’s film, The Proposition (2005); Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016); the thriller Gone (2006); and American historical miniseries Texas Rising (2015), featuring Bill Paxton, Kris Kristofferson and Brendan Fraser.
What makes Winton so appealing to cinematographers? “It’s steeped in history,” says Jeff Close, a history writer and chair of the town’s Waltzing Matilda Centre. “There are so many easy-to-access sites: opal mines, old pubs, cattle farms and a huge variety of landscapes within a short distance of town. Locals are always keen to help, whether it’s the historical society lending props, someone driving a film crew around or residents acting as extras.”
Plus, he says, Winton inspires people. “There’s a clarity away from the static of the big cities that allows people to really focus. Because of the remoteness, there’s a lot of creativity out here.”
And with Winton Shire Council planning to invest in a production studio, there may be another “first and only” for the town. How does Winton, “Hollywood of the Outback” sound? ￼
Top image: Rob Mulally