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Kwanten trades steamy Louisiana for subzero mountains

Charles Ealy

Ryan Kwanten had just finished shooting a season of HBO's "True Blood" a couple of years ago when he went home to Australia to star in the new Western "Red Hill."

Set in rural Louisiana, "True Blood" is one of HBO's highest-rated shows ever, and it's known for steamy settings and even steamier sex.

"It was so hot in Louisiana that you could lose half your body weight just by walking outside," Kwanten says during a recent appearance at Austin's Fantastic Fest, where he and director Patrick Hughes presented "Red Hill."

"And then I went directly up to the high country of Australia, where the temperature was subzero" for the movie shoot. "I nearly froze."

But Hughes says the shoot went smoothly, even though all the filming had to be done in just four weeks. "Ryan nailed his scenes on the first take. He was a real pro."

In the movie, Kwanten plays what he describes as "a good man trying to look after his wife and keep her safe so that they can raise a family."

His name has a classic Western hero sound: Shane Cooper. And he and his wife have moved to a small town called Red Hill, where he thinks there will be much less stress related to his job as a police officer.

Hughes uses the picturesque Australian settlement of Omeo as a stand-in for the fictional Red Hill. "It's next to a huge mountain range, the Snowy Mountains," Hughes says, "and I wanted to avoid the cliché of shooting in the Outback, which is where most Australian movies seem to be made."

Like the fictional Red Hill, Omeo is a mere shadow of its glory days in the mid-1800s, when it had "about 40,000 residents," Hughes says. "It was a Gold Rush town, a boom town, but then it was devastated by earthquakes in 1885 and 1892," he says. And then, in 1939, the Black Friday brushfires raged through Omeo, destroying many of the town's landmarks.

"I wanted to film the movie in a place that was isolated. That's key to the plot," Hughes says.

Convicted murderer and recent prison escapee Jimmy Conway comes to Red Hill and begins to systematically kill all the male residents, but before he reaches the town, he destroys the only communication tower that connects Red Hill with the rest of the world.

"I wanted to make it clear that horror has just walked into town," Hughes says, "and that help wasn't on the way."

Most of the movie's tension comes from Conway, who doesn't utter a word until the final movie scene. "By Jimmy's not saying anything, there is no way to judge him," Hughes says.

But Kwanten's Cooper begins to figure out that everything isn't as it seems. And he says the final confrontation is what attracted him to the script.

"You can tell more about a man in a single moment of extreme pressure," he says, "than you can in a whole lifetime of normal moments."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931