Baz’s Australian Passion
by Paul Fischer
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When it comes to defining an original voice in film today, Australia’s Baz Luhrmann leaves a unique stamp on conventional genres, from musicals to Shakespeare and with his latest film, the much talked about Australia, comes his ambitious take on the classic romantic epic. 46-year-old Mark Anthony Luhrmann grew up in rural Australia and it was at his father’s movie theatre that he first became enthralled by the world of movies and the power of story telling. He also encountered a variety of interesting people while working at the local gas station, and Luhrmann went on to use these experiences as a source for his own creativity. His most notable works to date are the three films that make up his Red Curtain Trilogy. The Red Curtain style of filmmaking was devised by Luhrmann to actively promote audience participation, and the third movie in the trilogy, Moulin Rouge! (2001), has been his most successful film to date. The visionary director now reimagines classic romanticism as well as his own exploration of Australian cultural diversity with Australia. Set during WWII, the film centres around English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) who inherits a large cattle ranch in northern Australia. When local cattle barons plot to steal her land, Sarah reluctantly joins forces with The Drover (Hugh Jackman), a tough Outback larrikin, to drive her 2,000 head of cattle across the country. As they go across the unforgiving lands of the continent, the Japanese bomb Darwin, engulfing their world in chaos and war, while at the same befriending a young Aboriginal child.
With its old fashioned grown up romance that is heart-pounding, thrilling and cinematically exquisite, this is the unapologetic work of a master filmmaker with his own unique style, who is clearly glad the journey has ended. Paul Fischer first met Baz on the set of the then little-known Strictly Ballroom. Sixteen years later, the pair chats about this epic film and his own personal journey as a filmmaker.
Paul Fischer: I was wondering whether or not you sat down one day, maybe several years ago, and you watched, perhaps, Gone with the Wind again. Then you thought to yourself, “You know, Australia’s never had a movie like this before. It’s about time that we did something like this.” Is that true?
Baz Luhrmann: That was exactly what I thought. I mean, I didn’t just watch Gone with the Wind. But also Giant, From Here to Eternity, and I thought about exactly that. I thought, “These kinds of films—African Queen—are relationship, emotional stories, but they’re painted on a canvas of landscape and political upheaval. And really, you know, Gone with the Wind comes from War and Peace, my other favourite piece. So I just thought, “Well, we have dramatic landscape and we have these big, historical events.” And exactly—it really is that. I mean, I really wanted to do my very best with my creative team, and see if we couldn’t tell a story with a sort of sweep and scope, and heightened drama, and a heightened romance of a film like that. And the answer to that is, absolutely.
PF: What were the challenges for you to draw the line between character and visual scope?
BL: Well, it’s an interesting question, because these films—and you could take the same story, essentially, and you could set it in Manhattan, and tell it psychological and grounded. But the comedy is broad in Gone with the Wind, and romance is big, the action is thrilling, the drama is operatic. So I wanted not just to do—I mean, Out of Africa’s a lovely movie. And unfortunately—and I have to make this caveat. I do believe the sale of the film, particularly in the United States, is communicating Out of Africa. And that’s misleading, because the film has this heightened visual language about it that suits the heightened performing in it and I guess that is the achievement of those films. Is that you’re bringing character—you’re amplifying character, and you’re amplifying performance, through this heightened environment, through this heightened world. And that’s what I wanted to do. So the really big challenge is—with the film, is simply a question of scale. Just the enormity of scale, the difficulties we had in shooting, the difficulties in balancing so many performing elements from young Brandon to—you know, the large cast. The physical difficulties of the location. But above and beyond everything else, was just not giving up. That was the biggest challenge. Finishing. You know? Not giving in to the sort of crushing weight of scale and expectation required.
PF: In fact, you know, it seems to me that the pressure on you from external forces seems to be bigger than this movie. I mean, you know, the fact that it’s—it’s been touted as the savior of the Australian film industry. I read reports, it’s been touted as the film that’s going to regenerate tourism in the country.
BL: Yeah. And that’s the thing, Paul. It can’t carry the weight of those things alone at all. It can’t just—it’s—no single film can do those things. Can it show that we can make large scale and small-scale films in Australia? Yes, even if it’s not some breakout financial success, the bottom line is, is it already—I mean, already from Oprah to Good Morning America, to every journalist you meet, to people I’ve met here going, “My goodness, I must get down to Australia. What a magical land, far, far away.” And there’s no doubt about that. I mean, the other phenomenon at the moment is just the level to which Brandon Waters is beguiling people all over the world.
PF: He’s extraordinary.
BL: He’s just one of those people, you know.
PF: How did you come across him, and what were the challenges of casting that charascter?
BL: That was a big one. I mean, the team saw 1000 boys and then they brought it down to 200. I think I travelled the road. I went on an outback tour that took two weeks, and I must have seen 50 boys. And then we got ten down to Sydney, and we workshopped. Out of that ten, you know, it came down to just a couple of possibilities, and he was one. Now, one of the great things about Brandon was, he also had a strong family around him and he went from being a little boy who’d not been to a big city before, really, to interacting opposite Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. And what’s kind of incredible. Now I read today, if you look at the calendar section of the Los Angeles Times—“In the Envelope”—you know, their Oscar predictions—they’re talking about an Oscar for him. I mean, whether that’s real or not, the sheer fact that they are talking about that is just beyond your conception.
PF: Do you think that American audiences will get this film’s disparate cultural elements?
BL: I actually think that’s the thing they get the most. I have seen it first hand. Whether or not the film can break out—our biggest problem is—in America—in an extremely crowded marketplace, and the ability to convey that this film is a great, big entertainment, with a social issue at the heart of it. Now, the social issue, I’ve got to tell you, and the Aboriginal—the indigenous culture, they’ve got—the Americans go crazy for it. I mean, the other day I was on Jimmy Kimmel. You know, that show. And the guys—I just casually said, on Jimmy Kimmel—“Look,” I said. “You have to understand, Jimmy, that if your President-Elect—the age that he is now, if he grew up in Australia, there would have been quite a possibility, because the program didn’t stop ‘til ‘70, that he may be put in an institution.” The bar in the green room went completely quiet and everybody was completely still. You know, everyone was talking and chatting on, watching the show in the green room. Paul, what is my sense? Everyone just went totally stunned and quiet. So that side of the stolen generation issue, they find absolutely incredible. Because their President is, to put it bluntly, their President is a creamy.
PF: It’s interesting that you ended the film with Australian Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation. How important was it for you to give this film almost like a cinematic closure to those events?
BL: I wanted to make a great, big entertainment, but I also wanted—you know, you say, did I want to do something like Gone with the Wind? Yes, because it’s a big romance, but it brings to terms both war and the issue of slavery in the Deep South in America. And I wanted to not be didactic, or no blame, but I think it’s really important to say, Paul, that there is no one group in the film where everybody is bad, or everybody is good. Not all aboriginals are good. There’s the Tracker. Not all of the missionaries are bad. There’s heroic Brother Frank. You know? Not all society people are bad. There’s Cath. So in a Shakespearean way, it’s saying, “These things happened.” And I did want to put that card in there. Because actually, I wanted audiences that were not Australian to recognize not only how real this issue was, but that it’s recently come to a head, at the same time that they’ve—America has voted its first black—not black President, mixed-race. Like Nullah, mixed-race President. We have also apologized for this strange and sad chapter.
PF: Now, Nicole’s character goes on this journey of self-discovery and I’m just wondering how much of a journey of self-discovery making this film was for you.
BL: Very real and very absolute. I started out sort of thinking it might and then for a while I thought, “Ah, you know, it’s just a very, very difficult project.” But actually, the indigenous part of it, kept looking for those boys. Coming to terms with how my country really is, the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and ultimately, I think when we started in Paris, we had our little children. And they didn’t know where their home was. Not only do they know what their home is, we know what our home is. And we feel deeply connected to it. And whether this film is a huge box office bonanza, or average, or is below par financially, the reward for us is that we’ve been able to go on a journey and connect with our country.
PF: You know, the very first time I met you was on the set of Strictly Ballroom.
BL: I remember that.
PF: Nobody, of course, really in the film industry, knew what that movie was going to be like and there were no expectations, I guess, at the time, of the shooting of that film. Looking back at your beginnings as a filmmaker, how surprised are you at your own development as a director from that point to this?
BL: You know, Paul, I never think about these things. It’s always just—I mean, CM and I and all my collaborators—we measure our life out not in years, but in films. “That was the time of Strictly Ballroom,” or “That’s when we did Romeo and Juliet.” And they’re sort of creative adventures. So you’re just always on it, and you’re just in the middle of it. I mean, we’re sort of fronting the global task of trying to get an audience to take the risk, buy a ticket, and come and see our movie. And right now we’re doing that, you know and you have all those things that you have to over come. So I never really think, “Wow.” I just think—sometimes I go—it’s very rarely, but occasionally I’ll go, “Oh, I must have been around a long time now.” I mean, the Chateau Marmont, I think we have the record for the amount of years we’ve stayed in it. I think they should put a plaque up. So many people here have become old. You know, waiters and things are old people now, used to be young, so there’s that kind of thing. But I don’t really see my own journey at a distance, you know?
PF: Now, since, of course, you started out, the whole DVD revolution has taken off. When you make a movie like this, and you have to be aware of all the things that you have to do as a filmmaker, do you look at things like the BluRay? Does Fox kind of pressure you to make sure that those things are not forgotten while you’re shooting this movie?
BL: They don’t pressure me at all. But, you know, I made a big hullabaloo about DVD back in Moulin Rouge! days, because I loved the format. And I love the idea for—like, you know, in a way, record collecting has gone away, but movie collecting on DVD hasn’t. And BluRay—in fact, right now I have to get off and I have to go to the Director’s Guild of America lecture I’m giving, you know? But right now, Anton Monsted’s got the BluRay—already, the basic BluRay stuff for me to start approving. It’s in front of me right now, the menus and everything.
PF: What’s going to be on there?
BL: Well, they’re first going out with a very simple one, because these days, you just want to get the film out. And it’ll just have a few deleted scenes. But the big one, next Christmas, I’m going to try and do something really special, because—see, I’m a fan. I’m a crazy fan of DVDs. I love to put them on and see all the extra stuff, you know? And I try to make something that’s got a lot of depth in it. You know, Moulin Rouge!, at the time when it came out, had quite a few groundbreaking ideas on it.
PF: What do you think you would want to do next? I mean, you’ve done the red curtain movies. You’ve done your epic.
BL: Well, Paul, I definitely want to go on walkabout. [laughs] And maybe not come back. But I’ve actually got an epic work in development, but I am actually considering a few surprise, more immediate projects. I’m just going to consider doing something so I don’t go into a sort of seven-year hole. Where I have to be honest with you. The emotional battering that you do take when you deliver a film—that’s just par for the course, and I’m not complaining about it. But you—it takes something out of you, you know? And, you know, I will need to get back to my center.
PF: How has the Australian press reacted to Australia?
BL: Well, I don’t want to comment on it, because it’s too idiosyncratic, but I must say, it’s not that you don’t get a negative kick in America. But the playing field is more even. And so there is, I have to say, your kind of position is more reflected, certainly in all the meetings and the—a lot of that intense—not intense, but just a recognition that the opportunity to do these films don’t come along. We had to fight very hard to even be able to take the risk of doing it. Look. Paul, it’s hard to be drawn into that. I’ve just got to go through, because we have such a big mission just getting an audience in. Now, by the way, I can say pretty confidently when an audience has gone in—I mean, I’m just seeing really intense reactions. I mean, intense reactions, in a good way. And I do believe if we can get an audience in, then it has legs. But you know, what the Australian press never really understood, could never understand, is what a jungle it is out there in the world at large in terms of releasing cinema.
PF: You’ve never been one to play by the rules, or play by convention.
PF: Has it always been instilled in you, ever since you were young?
BL: No. In fact, honestly, every day I think, “Oh, I wish I’d just take that Bond picture.” [laughs] I mean, Star Wars—you know what I mean. But it doesn’t start like that, Paul. It doesn’t start with, “Oh, I must be Von Stroheim. I must have a huge ambition.” I just go, the simple phrase. I go, “Gee, wouldn’t it be good to see Nicole’s work again?” And it seems like a simple little idea. Or, “Wouldn’t it be great—I love those inclusive, sweeping epics, where there’s broad comedy and fun and then romance and action and drama.” A sort of banquet of cinema, at which everyone can come to the table. Not cinema that says, “You’re a 17-year-old boy. You must have action.” Or, “You’re a woman of 40, you must like Sex and the City.” Or—you know, divisive. I wanted a big banquet, that everyone from Grannie to the kids to the groovers—everyone come to and eat at. And I just think, “Wouldn’t it be marvelous to do that?” But that seems like a simple idea to me. Of course, you know, cut to seven years later, or five years later. And, you know, having—been aged by the process, you know? And so what I’m saying is, I never—as far as not playing by the rules, it doesn’t come out of a desire to break rules, so much as having been schooled in classicism and the DNA of cinema, is trying to create—you know, you can’t just go and photocopy Gone with the Wind, and get back out now and expect it to work. Like, I couldn’t have just done a perfect copy of an old musical. It just wouldn’t have connected, you know? And—you know, later on—Moulin Rouge! being the first cap off the ring in terms of breaking open the musical genre again, had to be very aggressive. So I had to break some rules, and step outside the box to kind of find solution to making it engage with a contemporary audience. Albeit having a sort of classical heart, you know?
PF: The stress, the exhaustion, the gruelling shoot of this movie. At the end of the day, was it all worth it?
BL: Even now, one is tested by the road show, and the need to deliver the baby. But it was worth it way back when I saw my kids playing with the little Aboriginal kids. And it was worth it when we sat under the stars in Connemara. And it was worth it when the Stolen Generation—a woman called Ellie, who was an extra on the film, and I didn’t know she was Stolen Generation at all. And she came up at the end of it—she’d been with us for six months. She was a stand-in. She told her story to me, and—and what it meant to be on this film, and what had happened in the film, and how it had actually given her a sense in her own life. And, you know. So, it’s been worth it on that level. And it was worth it when the cast and the crew believed so intensely, and never gave up. And it’s worth it when just one person—and I’ve seen many, many more than one person—comes to you afterwards and says, “My goodness.” You know, “That was a cinematic experience”—and, you know, sort of going, “Oh, goodness. Thank goodness.”
PF: The movie kind of reinforced my own sense of Australianism, or my Australian identity, I guess. Did it do the same with you? Did it make you more Australian, the more you worked on it?
BL: I think I’m the only person who can’t experience it like an audience, but I’ve gone on the journey of making it. And through that journey, it’s reinforced my absolute connectivity to my Australian-ness.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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