A deep dive into ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ the 1975 cult film that inspired everyone from Chloë Sevigny to Alexander McQueen and redefined Australian cinema

Everyone agreed that the fate of the film hinged on the picnic, and not just because it was in the title. “Some scenes aren’t crucial to the story’s point but are more informational, and some are crucial for the storytelling—the set pieces,” says Hal McElroy, who co-produced Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) with his brother Jim. “We quickly realized that the picnic was the set piece. We had to get that right.”

A brief synopsis for the unfamiliar: Central Victoria, Australia, 1900. A group of teenage girls at a genteel ladies’ college take a picnic at a local rock formation, where three of them and a teacher go missing. Everyone left behind slips into the bottomless chasm of guilt, fury, and mystification. The case, crucially, is never solved.

If The Unresolved Disappearance wasn’t entirely groundbreaking material in 1975—Antonioni had done it fifteen years earlier in L’Avventura—it still held the potential to frustrate audiences who hungered for the surety of an answer. Picnic had an expectant audience it needed to bewitch. And so the disappearance, and its build-up, would have to cast the spell.

Posterity, we can now say, has vindicated Weir, the McElroys, all of them. Picnic at Hanging Rock is untouchable, commonly heralded as the high watermark of Australian cinema. Interviews with its cast and crew have been legion. Fan sites and forums indulge in whimsical speculations on the film’s events; academics do the same. There are documentaries, TV reports, online exhibitions, and fan fictions. Even today you can hear the paeans to Picnic from our most hallowed cultural voices. “Pure magic. Every fashion film and NYU undergraduate thesis takes its cues from this lyrical masterpiece,” said Lena Dunham, speaking to the Criterion Collection. “In college I tried to make a satirical remake entitled Lunchtime at Dangling Boulder, but all my actors slept too late.”

As I waded through this trove of archival material, and interviewed several cast and crew from the original production, it became impossible to miss the one aspect of the film that almost everybody mentions: the puissance, seduction, and artistry of its titular scene.

What is it that elevated Picnic to its venerable status? Whence sprang its lasting influence on the taste-makers and high priests of the fashion industry? Why does Chloë Sevigny name it one of her favorite movies? At a time when the national film industry’s taste du jour—broad comedies (and their sequels), spinoffs of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, and exploitation films—put Australia in a league of kitsch other countries daren’t dream of, how did there suddenly come to be what could rightfully be called a piece of cinema art? And as clamorous voices decry the pitiful state of things on the silver screen, what artifacts show us that the cinema is never really beyond redemption? All signs point to the picnic.

The Survey

It wasn’t just the producers who knew how right they had to get the picnic. The director knew it too. Which is why, in January 1975, weeks before the first frames of the film were to be shot, Peter Weir, his cinematographer Russell Boyd, and first assistant director Mark Egerton ventured to Hanging Rock—a six-million-year-old mamelon located in the bushy hillscapes of the Macedon Ranges—to plan what none of them suspected would become one of the most important scenes, mood-setters, set pieces in the history of the Australian film industry.

The survey brought out the best in all three men. The Peter Weir of January 1975 was not yet the Peter Weir who tallied six Oscar nominations topped off by an Honorary Academy Award. And it was most certainly not the Peter Weir who made Dead Poets Society, a film the critic Pauline Kael found (rightly) dogged by a kind of “conservative craftsmanship,” where “everything is overdetermined” and every actor “camera-angled and director-controlled.” In short, this was a Peter Weir who hadn’t yet gone Hollywood. He was rough around the edges, swayed by spontaneity, tempted by artsyness, ruled by imagination—all traits which were activated that day on the Rock. Using Boyd and Egerton as stand-ins, he positioned them along the low slopes of a clearing to visualize the perfect arrangement of the girls. (Did he have William Ford’s 1875 painting At the Hanging Rock in mind as he was doing this? It sure as hell looks like it.)

Russell Boyd’s task was a little more elemental. Gazing around the clearing, he saw that Hanging Rock’s early afternoon light, descending on the scene in brumous clouds of gold, was perfect. The problem? It only lasted about an hour, and then was gone. “Light played such an incredibly important part in that film,” Boyd recalled in A Dream Within a Dream, a 2004 documentary about Picnic’s production. “I felt I couldn’t manufacture it. I couldn’t even try and recreate that beautiful light.” The only way to give the picnic scene its golden preeminence would be to shoot it at, and only at, that exact time in the afternoon.

Which is where Mark Egerton and what he calls his “god-given gift” came to use. The original shooting schedule for Picnic, drawn up by the McElroy brothers, set aside two days for the pivotal scene. Boyd knew that wouldn’t fly. It would have to be shot piecemeal, in that brief span of best light, every afternoon, over the course of a week. It was the first AD’s job to make it work. If god was handing out gifts, you might consider a felicity with scheduling somewhat of a lackluster talent to be endowed with. But it put Egerton at the heart of Australia’s burgeoning film industry, and that’s not nothing. “There was one first assistant director of note in Australia,” recalls Egerton, “and that was me.”

Egerton’s zero-hour finagling of the picnic shoot is the kind of invisible triumph on which every successful film relies. Movie-making is about impossible synchronicities, mysterious amalgams, finding the blurred edge of luck and fate. The legacy of Picnic at Hanging Rock and its titular scene lies somewhere on this blurred edge. The film’s company of novitiates had the raw talent, but the end result—an object of real beauty and real charm—depended on such a miraculous alignment of creative forces that you’d be tempted to call it predestination. Which it certainly was not. Yet there is, in filmmaking, such a thing as aligning the stars. Getting exactly the right people, on exactly the right project, at exactly the right time of their career—or even, in this case, exactly the right time of day.

Pulling from the stockroom of genre pictures and kitsch, the film fashions itself into miraculous, transcendent artfulness.”

Till Death Do Us Part

In the same clearing in which Weir, Egerton, and Boyd had stood several weeks before, a somewhat more intricate scene was now set. It was the first week of February 1975. Thirty-five mostly inexperienced crew dressed in bucket hats and singlets mulled about before a scattered array of 18 young women, bedecked in full-length white gowns of cotton voiles and muslin, complete with organza cuffs, lace trims, corsets, stockings, and hats. Each of them had their instruction: Read a book, eat some cake, play with another girl’s hair. Meanwhile, the camera would gently rise and fall, panning from face to unblemished face, letting us linger on this reliquary vision.

“Russell was a leader in the art of cinematography when the renaissance of the Australian film industry was beginning,” says John Seale, the camera operator on Picnic and later an Oscar-winning cinematographer. “It was photography back then. It wasn’t just collecting pixels and rearranging them in post. It was proper photography. And watching the clips of Picnic, Russell nailed it.”

Boyd’s brilliance had not been limited to one afternoon surveying at the Rock. Pre-production involved trading a gamut of visual references with Weir—the British soft-(and not so soft-)core photographer David Hamilton; the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan; the masterworks of the Australian impressionist painters—and then finding a way to reproduce their vaporous, almost prurient veneer. The cinematographer spent weeks in late 1974 and early 1975 camera-testing filtration with a variety of mosquito nets and gauzes, dyed to different shades and hues. Unsatisfied with his results, he went to plan B: one bright day in the heat of summer, he walked into a Sydney department store, went up to the counter, and asked to see their wedding veils.

That every frame of the picnic scene was shot with a bridal veil over the lens exemplifies the kind of expansive, even excessive creativity that would eventually win Boyd an Oscar in the same category as Seale. It’s also so on-the-nose it seems almost ludicrous. The moment in which virginal young girls farewell their innocent luster and enter the derisory, desultory, makes-no-sense world of adults, captured… behind a wedding veil? It’s like something out of a daytime soap. But in some way, it encapsulates Picnic’s improbable achievement. Pulling from the stockroom of genre pictures and kitsch, the film fashions itself into miraculous, transcendent artfulness. Without that subtle filter, the picnic scene isn’t The Picnic Scene, nor is Picnic at Hanging Rock really Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s Generic Australian Bush Romp No. 412, and it’s forgotten. Once again, the fine margins of film—so fine that, like a veil, they’re almost invisible.

Fashion people love Picnic like young male sophisticates love Camus and the word ‘metaphysic’: they know it’s a cliché, but they just can’t resist.”

Pin Tuck by Pin Tuck

Most of the girls had never been in a movie before. If some were enchanted by the irresistible duende we all associate with professional filmmaking, it’s hard to imagine that illusion of glamor lasted long. Perhaps it evaporated when the girls were rustled out of bed at five in the morning for a wardrobe and make-up call at six. Perhaps it happened when, having assiduously practiced their lines on the 10-minute drive up to the Rock with their chauffeur, Picnic’s third AD and resident “shit-kicker” Ian Jamieson, the girls eventually saw the final cut and discovered all of their voices had been post-dubbed. Maybe it happened the instant they first caught sight of an old shed by an old racetrack at the foot of the old Rock, and realized it was the film’s costume department. Squeezing into Edwardian-style corsets and remaining so, all day long, amid the late summer heat? So much for glamor.

The hands knotting the corsets and buttoning the buttons belonged to Judith Dorsman, Picnic’s costume designer, and her assistant Mandy Smith. They were also the hands that smoothed out every crease and draped every fold as the girls took their positions at the base of the rock for the all-important picnic. “I think there’s something special about that picnic scene,” says Dorsman. “It’s the combination of the lighting, the staging, the music, the girls in their costumes. It’s the whole scene of it. There’s some sort of untouchable beauty about it. And I think designers want to capture that.” She’s referring, directly, to Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2005 presentation, Raf Simons’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection for Dior, and Marc Jacobs’s Daisy Trio campaign from 2014, all of which absorbed and re-rendered the Picnic look. But Dorsman’s also hinting, indirectly, at a world of high-profile, fashion-adjacent culturati enraptured by Picnic’s sumptuous set piece: Dunham, Chloë Sevigny, Coppolas Gia and Sofia.

Fashion people love Picnic like young male sophisticates love Camus and the word “metaphysic”: they know it’s a cliché, but they just can’t resist. The sight of those svelte figurines in muslin and organza, backlit by a soft summer light against the crags and canopies of the Australian bush, would make any aesthete a little frisky. Who doesn’t love a corseted waist, a flaring hemline, a bit of lacy Edwardian frivolity? Even if the story was a dud, Picnic’s old-world wardrobe was bound to hit the spot.

Or was it? Judith Dorsman, at the time she got the job on Picnic, was a 25-year-old film industry fledgling with a love of period garb but scarcely a breath of on-set experience, all of a sudden entrusted to go solo on a major Australian production. Her task: to design, revise, and sew the entire wardrobe, including duplicates for the main talent, in a meager five weeks.

Having Alexander McQueen base a collection on your designs might seem gratifying, but Dorsman found the whole thing a bit outré. “I cringe when people go back and analyze these dresses to the nth degree, pin tuck by pin tuck. My god,” she says, “they were put together so quickly. They shouldn’t be analyzed like that. People should take it as it is. Don’t pick it apart.”

The problem for Dorsman is that she did such a bang-up job, and herein lies the conundrum. Though many of the personnel on Picnic are barraged with laudatory words, usually accompanied by requests to reveal the secret of their success, few if any of the 50 or so people milling about the foot of Hanging Rock in the first week of February 1975 suspected that they were making a great film. “We were all in the industry on the front of the wave,” says John Seale. “And that wave, I’ve since realized, had a very interesting naivety. We were making movies, but it never crossed our mind that they’d be any good,” he continues. “We were just making them.”

“The scene was nothing but soft edges, striking highlights and sombrous lowlights, held beneath an exquisite veneer of mist.”

The New Australian Art

Peter Weir had only one credit to his name when he was approached to direct Picnic at Hanging Rock. Homesdale, released in 1971, was a black comedy that ran barely an hour long, was shot in a week, and cost a few thousand Australian dollars. Now, he was choreographing the pivotal scene of a $450,000 production. “He exhausted himself with the movie,” says third AD Ian Jamieson. “He was the movie. We were having to slip some brandy into his coffee to keep him going at times, he was that exhausted.”

Weir had been approached not by the McElroys, but by Patricia Lovell, who was executive producer on the film and had conceived the whole project in 1973 when she approached Joan Lindsay to buy the rights to her famed novel. Lindsay—exacting, ethereal, protective over the legacy of a book she’d feverishly written in a series of dreams at age 70 (but more on that later)—played hardball. Sure, Lovell could have the rights, but only if Lindsay approved the director. So, in the early months of 1973, the determined producer dragged Weir from his home on Sydney’s northern beaches down to Lindsay’s estate south of Melbourne—a 600 mile trip. At the time Weir felt it was a kind of “audition”; the meeting now seems fated. “She and Peter immediately were soulmates,” recalled Lovell in A Dream Within a Dream. “I could tell the minute we went in there.”

Two years later, with stray hairs flaring out from under his Panama hat, sweating profusely beneath a denim button-up, the author-endorsed wunderkind watched on as his camera team put the final touches on the William Ford-esque wide shot. The afternoon light eased through sheets of silk that Boyd had fastened to the tree canopies; the scene was nothing but soft edges, striking highlights and sombrous lowlights, held beneath an exquisite veneer of mist. In other words, an art scene in an art film, of a kind Australia had almost never ventured to produce.

Was it overtly indebted to, nay imitative of, a set of highfalutin references? Maybe. If this was an attempt at synthesizing Ford’s stolid realism, Frederick McCubbin’s mythic impressionism, and David Hamilton’s honeydew ethereality, could it easily have come out a bogus piece of aesthetic indulgence? Sure it could’ve. But this was the gamble the producers took when they hired Weir, Boyd, Seale, and co. That they’d ended up picking three Oscar winners at an enterprising moment in their young careers, unhampered by studios or by traditions, still working with what John Seale called a “what if” spontaneity, seems more good fortune than good taste. A distinction which in theory we recognise, but in practice seems perilous to make.

Whose Pan Flute Is It Anyway?

Weeks after production wrapped, the composer Bruce Smeaton was in his studio, staring at a 35-millimeter projection of the picnic scene, exasperated and bemused. Smeaton had already composed an entire score for the film, but neither the McElroys nor Weir were satisfied. The proof: a towering stack of records by his side, given to him as reference music. “The whole way through, both Peter and the McElroy brothers have been feeding me LP tracks,” Smeaton told the film critic Ivan Hutchinson, who interviewed him as he was finishing the score. “I think we got up to 17. But now, having started with Palestrina, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Pink Floyd, Hawk Wind—another wretched group—they’ve ended up with Romanian panpipes. I find,” he finished with vexation, “that there’s nothing in common with those things.”

How the works of a Romanian pan flute player named Gheorghe Zamfir came to sit atop Smeaton’s pile of reference albums, let alone ring out while we watch the ill-fated girls wandering off from the picnic, is by turns a tale of woo woo divination and sheer dumb luck. The story: Jim McElroy is watching a documentary one night when he hears the haunting lilt of Zamfir’s panpipes. He is overcome with the inexplicable urge to ladle this sound over a movie about the Australian bush. McElroy rushes down to the record store, brings back a couple of Zamfir’s albums, plays them for his brother, then for Weir, and then delivers them to the hands of Bruce Smeaton, much obliged.

Or, at least, that’s the story as told by Hal McElroy. Here’s Smeaton’s version: Peter Weir’s penchant for Australian impressionist painting led to an interest in French impressionist music as the basis for the score. Smeaton played him Ravel and Debussy, who Weir found too sophisticated. The task of seamlessly coalescing the salmagundi of references he was subsequently saddled with proved impossible. Then, in his time of desperate need, the composer suddenly, magically recalled hearing Zamfir’s panpipes on The Nana Mouskouri Show. Divine inspiration, misbelief, or truth?

“As we know with everything,” Hal McElroy tells me, “memories are faulty. Particularly with a hit. You’ll find that everybody wants to rush and grab the credit.”

The End of the Fever Dream

And then something inexplicable happened. Anne Lambert, who played the enchanting Miranda, one of the three girls to disappear, was taking a quiet moment during a break in shooting when she felt a strange presence descending onto the set. She turned and saw an apparition: what looked like an 80-year-old woman, staggering over the rocks and tall grasses, heading straight for her. And she knew it was, could only be, that mystical magus, the anachronous Australian dame of letters, Lady Joan Lindsay.

Nine years earlier, in the winter of 1966, Lindsay had sat on the floor of her American Colonial-style house, typing out the final ghostly pages of a mystery that, for 10 days, had possessed her. Picnic at Hanging Rock came to her in a succession of dreams, a subconscious misadventure that she simply had to translate into words. Endowed with a strong visual sense—as a youth she’d studied under the famous Australian impressionist painter Frederick McCubbin—these somnolent visions seemed to encapsulate everything she’d been marked by in all her 70 years. She was, in some way, fated to write the book.

And fated it all may have seemed to her that day in early February 1975. Coming upon a scene which could only be described as McCubbin-like, Lindsay saw her past re-animated before her eyes. The characters she’d created, the set pieces she’d dreamed up. She was so spirited away that some of the girls grew disturbed by the whole thing and decided to keep their distance from her. But it was the sight of Anne Lambert that really transported her. Why? Because, staring into Lambert’s eyes, she saw not the actress, but the mythical Miranda, the haunted totem of a memory she’d lived long ago. Lindsay threw her arms around Lambert. “Oh, Miranda,” she said, burningly. “It’s been so long.”

“She just hung onto me for what seemed a long time,” Lambert recalled in a television interview some years later, “and finally she let me go and just sort of stared at me. She had tears in her eyes and she was quite shaky. It felt like a very powerful, very true thing that she was feeling. She was remembering somebody or something that was true.”

How better to describe the devastating beauty of the picnic scene? In those girls’ faces, in their long-lost glances, in the cool, graceful purity of their unblemished dresses, in the sublime melody of a Romanian pan flute, and in the evanescent sun diffused so gently by tree canopies lined with silk; in the confluence of it all, an idyll is created, grasped, and then lost. And when the scene is reprised in the film’s final moments, it plays not like a predictable coda but like a memory conjured from a shadow-world—a place where white muslin dresses never dirty, and where girls who go missing always get found.