Return to Oz: Baz Luhrmann’s Australia

With the much-anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s romantic saga Australia finally upon us, Empire sits down to talk with the director about the film he’s been waiting his whole life to make — and the pressure of
facing up to a nation’s expectations.

By most accounts, Baz Luhrmann should be exhausted. It’s been over four years since the director decided upon his latest project, more than two since he announced it to the world, and 16 months since cameras finally started rolling on the long-delayed principal photography. During that time he’s had to contend with an A-list actor dropping out, the film’s centerpiece set being demolished by flooding, wrangling hundreds of extras (both man and beast) in searing outback heat, and the pregnancy of his leading actress; not to mention the escalating expectations that come from being cooked in the high-pressure media cauldron surrounding the movie.

We’re not talking about any little film here, either. Modestly entitled Australia, Luhrmann’s fourth feature is a $100 million period romance the likes of which his country has never seen before. No less than an epic saga taking in a turbulent panorama of Australian culture, the film conflates the WWII nation with dreamtime myth, golden era Hollywood spectacle and a fable for the future of the country — in shorthand, it’s the outback via Gone With the Wind and a sprinkling of The Wizard of Oz, as orchestrated by a showman equal parts DeMille, Spielberg and Broadway dazzle. It could be, in the words of one local studio executive, bigger than Titanic — a weight that might drown a lesser filmmaker.

When Empire is ushered into Luhrmann’s post-production headquarters in Sydney’s Fox Studios, however, we meet a man who couldn’t be more at ease. With the din of buzzing assistants and frayed publicists just metres from the door, the director reclines with a measure of controlled optimism, as casually well composed as the knitted vest and tie he’s wearing over his gingham shirt. The office walls are festooned with the ephemera of his obsession — enlarged stills of stars Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in full swoon; Technicolor location shots; vivid production design art—and within this shrine to his creativity Luhrmann can scarcely contain his enthusiasm. Even the protests of his harried producer won’t prevent him from talking beyond our allotted time about what the film means to him. Ever conscious of the theatrical, he lives for that moment when he can throw the curtain aside.

“You’ve got the creative process and then you’ve got the actual mechanical road to getting there,” he begins, matter-of-factly. It’s an understatement, given the film’s rapidly encroaching November release date and the small army of sleep-deprived visual effects artists toiling toward the finished vision. Luhrmann has been chanting “Lean and Lucas” around the edit house like a mantra – referring to his wish to combine the location grandeur of the British legend with the post-production wizardry of the Star Wars guru. With Kidman and Jackman scheduled for last-minute reshoots, Luhrmann knows there’s still a challenge ahead.

“Yes, it is bold,” he acknowledges, referring to what he humorously calls the “ludicrous and painful ambition” of his picture. “I shouldn’t say it’s bold but it’s bold all right, because it’s not like it isn’t full of traps and it’s not as if people were going, ‘Oooh, an Australian epic’. We have enormous risk. We walk an extremely treacherous path. We have good materials but we have a very small window of time to get it right, and that puts us under great pressure.”

Indeed, it’s arguable that no other Australian film has arrived on a tide of such anticipation. It’s a fact that, if anything, emboldens Luhrmann.

“People want it to work,” he explains. “Because actually — you know why? — if it half works, it changes the dynamic of possibility for Australia.”

It’s certainly a gamble. Banking your fortunes on an expensive Antipodean opus could be a recipe for spectacular failure, but Luhrmann has never been one to play by commercial wisdom. His previous three films defy comparison to almost anything but themselves — no surprise, then, to find Australia cleaves closely to the Luhrmann agenda.

“I think that I speak for Nicole and Hugh and everybody involved,” he gestures, “that to a certain degree — I mean, it’s not like we need a job, you know; we have many other opportunities and there are many other epics one could have made — there is a little bit of giving back to the country that has given us so much.”

Australia was born at the movies. In the remote New South Wales town of Heron’s Creek to be exact, where, in the early ’70s, a young Baz Luhrmann was introduced to the local cinema his father managed for a brief time. Luhrmann senior insisted that Baz “learnt ballroom dancing and painted, wrote, grew vegetables, learned to ride horses, and had commando training”, but it was the cinema that would become the boy’s formative experience (he’s yet to put the commando skills into practice; stay tuned, action fans).

“Dad only ran it for a couple of months, but to me it was a lifetime, sitting in the projection box,” Luhrmann recalls. “So I became very, very obsessed with film and theatre. I had a Bolex camera and I used to make little movies with my brothers, but in my mind I always thought, Gee, those really big Westerns, those landscape films, you know — that’s like our country. Why don’t we make those kinds of films?

“The interest in [Australia] came from my own childhood fascination with those grand old movies that use landscape to amplify emotion,” he continues. “I’ve always gotta be careful about saying Gone With the Wind and pictures like that — I mean, they’re iconic films that are beyond film — but those films left an impression upon me, which was: ‘Why can’t we use our landscape, because it sure as Hell is dramatic and powerful and unique, to tell a story?’

Giant, for example, is a family saga; a romance. They’re not documentaries but they take a bigger, universal human idea and expand that through historical landscape or background. That really defines this genre. Your canvas is landscape—the faraway, generally — and they tend to be played against historical activities.”

Three decades later, and Luhrmann — coming off an unbroken run with Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! — had arrived at a personal impasse. Alexander the Great, his ancient Greek biopic with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kidman in the leads, had fallen over in the wake of Oliver Stone’s failed version. Luhrmann and his wife, acclaimed production designer Catherine Martin, were living in Europe with their two kids — and wondering whether it wasn’t time for a change.

“The choice was really to stop, walk away from it, and spend time getting our family going — which I could not regret for a second,” he ponders. “Our little girl was with us in Paris and I was thinking about the next step. I was thinking about my children — ’cause we’d lived around the world pretty much non-stop for many, many years. Where would their home be? Where would their roots be? And it made us talk about the Australia project again; the idea of doing an Australian epic. And pretty much I was on the plane back from Paris and we got here and we went straight to Broome [to scout locations]. That was maybe four years ago.”

The journey from epiphany to production would take the director another two years of research, writing and planning. Drawing inspiration partly from Australian author Richard Flanagan, Luhrmann then collaborated with four writers (including Pirates of the Caribbean scribe Stuart Beattie) to transform history into a universal tale of love for the modern multiplex.

Opening on the cusp of the Second World War, the story follows the aristocratic Lady Sarah Ashley, who returns home from England to settle her vast cattle station in the Northern Territory. Along the way her paths cross with a mixed-race boy, Nullah, and she’s drawn into a wild cross-country trek — and romance — with an iconic outback drifter known only as The Drover.

For Luhrmann, the love story became the canvas onto which he could paint grander ideas. “It’s a romance and it uses landscape and historical background,” he explains. “A fundamental part of the story is the idea that the child, who is mixed race, is being sought by the government to put him on a mission, to be turned into a European against his family’s wishes. It’s not done in a didactic way. If you look at Gone With the Wind, the issue of the slave history of America is a background part of the story. It’s a romance, but it’s unavoidably part of the spirit of the bigger idea of the film.”

Australia, says Luhrmann, “is fundamentally about Lady Sarah Ashley’s rebirth through putting herself out of her comfort zone, and really about the acceptance of a non-traditional family. It’s about a drover who can never be tied down; a mixed-race child and an English aristocrat; and the rest of society saying, ‘This is wrong’, you know — this relationship cannot be. They’re judging that and they fight that to be together. And what they realise in the end is that the most important thing is that you’re with who you love and who loves you.

“The rest is irrelevant — changing history, possessing things. There’s a line in it: ‘You can’t really own forever’. The only thing you own in the end is your story, so you’d better make sure it’s a good one. That’s what the Drover says. And that’s the big idea of the film — that you own your own story.”

This being a Baz Luhrmann picture, of course, you can forget a stolid textbook recreation of history. As the film’s trailer implies, he’s spared no visual or aural sensation in stamping the tale with his trademark brand of theatrical realism. And in between the roaring bombers overhead, galloping horses and homesteads ablaze there’s the distinct tone of a fairytale — as Lady Ashley puts it, one from “the faraway land of Oz”.

“It’s a fable, yes,” agrees the director. “In 1939, the same period our film’s set, The Wizard of Oz opened. So there’s a subconscious referring to it — and there’s a conscious referencing to it. What happens is, the little boy gets it all mixed up. She tells him that story to cheer him up, ’cause he’s gone through a tragedy. She’s just whipping it up. And he mixes it up with Rainbow Serpent and, because he’s black and white, he gets that mythology mixed up — and that’s kind of true of this country, I think. It’s a great strength of this country. He’s a child first before he’s European; before he is Aboriginal. He’s a child, and he sees things through a child-like innocence and truth.”

In Nullah’s (Brandon Walters) story, Luhrmann also saw a chance to address the lingering Australian issues of the so-called “stolen generation” and the Republic: “What’s the real Aboriginal history of Australia?” he wonders. “What’s our relationship to being a Republic? These things are important to me. It’s time for us to self-govern — it’s just a no-brainer.”

When it came to pitching this lofty idea to an American studio, the prospect of a multi-million dollar Australian period drama wasn’t the easiest sell; even with Luhrmann’s track record. “Nobody wants an historical epic,” he admits. “Nobody wants to fund that.”  Though he’s always followed his own maverick path, the filmmaker hints that the stress of realising his own projects may one day see him take a hired-gun assignment.

“Well, you know what, the next time they offer me James Bond I might just say, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea’,” he says, only half-joking. “Most of those things come our way and for a long time I’ve said, ‘Don’t open the door.’ Occasionally, when someone’s offering you the small income of a nation to do the first Harry Potter, you sort of think, Hmmmm. I wouldn’t be flippant about that. Because every day CM and I think it would be — not easier, because it’s really hard to make a film — but not to actually have to begin with the larger idea, do years of research and construct a story, which is the most difficult part. Story building — that’s the heavy lifting.”

Not that production was exactly easy. By now, the tales of Australia’s beleaguered birth are well-known: Russell Crowe was originally set to star (at the studio’s insistence) before pay issues saw him replaced by Jackman; filming was delayed when the size of the undertaking was realised; and most notoriously, the movie’s Kununurra set was wiped out by a flash flood.

Yet Australia’s massive location shoot — which literally spanned the width of the country — seemed to energise the director. “It’s probably one of the last times a film will be made in this way,” he declares proudly — if, perhaps, with the first hint of fatigue.

“I get up every morning going, ‘This is the last time I’m doing this, this is too difficult.’ Why are we so addicted to taking the road less travelled? Why not just take one of those ‘gigs’, you know? The only thing is, we’ve never been for hire.”

With mere weeks left to Australia’s release, Baz Luhrmann’s project of a lifetime will soon be handed over to the whims of fate. Ever the risk-taker, the director held the first test screening not in some New South Wales coastal town but in Chicago’s Mall of America  —the largest retail complex in the US, right in that country’s middle-class heart.

“The biggest concern from the studio was that there would be wholesale rejection of the ‘Australian-ness’ of it,” Luhrmann says. “And what was amazing was [the audience’s] overall enthusiasm. Their number one reaction, which took us all by surprise, was for the indigenous storyline that glues the romance together. A lot of people wrote about how it felt like a magical epic — they used the words ‘magic’ and ‘epic’ — and this was really inspiring.”

Back in his home territory, Luhrmann is pleased that the overwhelming media tone is one of encouragement for the film to succeed. Still, he feels the pressure — after all, it’s not every day that a filmmaker carries the expectations of an entire national film industry on his shoulders. And that’s no easy thing, especially in a year that’s gone down for producing a string of audience-poison flops.

“I mean, I like to talk about the films, I like to talk with people,” Luhrmann continues, “but the pressure of the Australian media, I think  —it’s not just the media — it comes right down to our family and our associates and our friends. Do you think we wanna disappoint anyone? But you can’t go down a road like this and not carry that reality with you.”

October 2008

Originally published in Empire

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