AMID tight security and much hype, Hollywood star Heath Ledger rode into Clunes yesterday to film eagerly awaited scenes in the new $30 million Ned Kelly movie.
On set in the town's main street with the rest of the Kelly Gang - including both Australian and UK actors - the Aussie hunk was armed with a pistol and astride a black horse, the perfect bank robber's mount, for most of the morning.
Looking very unlike his trademark blonde self, Ledger made an imposing sight with thick brown hair and bushy beard in the title role.
Security formed a tight cordon around the set, with people able to catch glimpses of the action from one end of Fraser St.
At the other end, hundreds of eager fans and delighted townsfolk got a closer look as they watched fascinated through gaps in black screens surrounding the set.
The very lucky caught glimpses of the star as he had hair and make up done and rehearsed scenes with cast members.
More than 12 horses, 25 local extras and 120 crew arrived in the transformed town for the start of filming at first light yesterday, which went through until dark.
Film crews have been working in the town for the past five weeks creating a scene in the main street reminiscent of the 1800s.
A gravel street, false fronts on buildings, a butchers shop complete with carcasses hanging from hooks, and the old bank building formed the backdrop to the three scenes being filmed in the town.
The film, directed by acclaimed Australian director Gregor Jordan, is due for international release early in 2003, and will be distributed by Universal Pictures.
Its believed Ledger turned down several other plum roles to play Ned Kelly, principally to work with Jordan, who also directed him in Two Hands.
On set yesterday, Jordan said an effort had been made to ensure the film, loosely based on Robert Drewe's novel Our Sunshine, was historically accurate.
"The film will hopefully capture Kelly's essence, in simple terms he was an under dog," he said.
Jordan was also asked how Ledger was handling filming, as he stars in a lot of the scenes during the 12-week shoot.
He described Ledger as "a professional actor" and said he was fortunate to work with the cast, which includes Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Griffiths and Naomi Watts.
Location manager Russell Boyd also praised the Hepburn Shire Council and the people of Clunes for their friendly approach to filming.
"It's a very film friendly area," he said.