Back to the land for 'Australia's' Baz Luhrmann
A continent-sized vision drove the director to make his epic.
By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
The most recognizable stars of Baz Luhrmann's cattle-drive drama “Australia” are Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. But on a December day nearly two years ago, even as Kidman flitted about Luhrmann's creative compound in the hills above Sydney, all of the Australian writer-director's attention was focused on an actor who is just as important a member of the ensemble: a 10-year-old Aboriginal boy who had never acted in anything. ¶ Luhrmann's new movie is as ambitious as its weighty title suggests. Arriving Wednesday, "Australia" represents an unusual amalgam of his heightened, modern theatricality, perhaps best exemplified in his last film, 2001's mash-up musical "Moulin Rouge!," and classic old-school historical epics such as "Out of Africa," "Gone With the Wind" and "Lawrence of Arabia," three films Luhrmann often refers to. Blending those seemingly incompatible filmmaking styles -- over-the-top outrageous on one hand, formal and restrained on the other -- was not Luhrmann's only goal, although it turned into a daunting challenge. He also wanted to dramatize his native country's less-than-virtuous recent history: One of "Australia's" central conflicts hinges on the government's campaign to separate mixed-race children (half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian) from their parents, a failed "stolen generation" attempt to make the population more white.
In the film, that half-caste child is named Nullah. It is this young boy who comes between, and ultimately helps bring together, the story's horseback-riding Drover (Jackman) and the English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) who has traveled to Australia to discover what has become of her husband and their failing cattle station. If the film was to succeed emotionally, Luhrmann knew on that day in late 2006, Nullah must not only captivate Drover and Lady Ashley, but also the audience.
The director and his casting department had discovered Brandon Walters among nearly 1,000 hopefuls in the tiny western Australia town of Broome, and the young boy had come to Luhrmann's estate, called Iona, with his family for a final meeting.
"It will be a little bit of play, and a little bit of serious work," Luhrmann said to Walters and his family of what he had in store for the boy that day, a schedule that included shooting plastic rockets with Kidman and singing beside Luhrmann's piano.
"But we need to find out if it's a good thing -- for all of us to spend the next year together. We still have to say at the end of the week, 'Is this right?' " Luhrmann told them.
As Walters and his family went off, Luhrmann expressed confidence in his choice, but knew how crucial it would be. "Is it right for the movie?" he said. "Is it right for the story? Is it right for them?"
In the end, hiring Walters was among the easiest decisions Luhrmann would face. The production ultimately would go months over schedule, costing Kidman a chance to star in “The Reader,”#/film/thereader/ an adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's novel. The production delays -- some caused by weather, some the result of Luhrmann's shooting a considerable amount of film -- would rekindle the fractious relationship between Luhrmann and 20th Century Fox, which also produced "Moulin Rouge!" (The studio says the film is "great" and that it didn't interfere with Luhrmann's work.)
Well after the film finished principal photography, Luhrmann would be puzzling over his film's final frames and the fate of one of the film's central characters. Even though "Australia" would cost well over $100 million, the production would have to cut its shooting schedule to save money, and buy and later auction several hundred cattle after feuding with Fox over what kind of cows the movie did or didn't need.
Just days before the film's scheduled release, Luhrmann was still working on the movie. A relentless perfectionist (he and his producing partner-production designer wife Catherine Martin held nearly a dozen meetings finalizing their Christmas card), he was adding a scene here, dropping one there, cutting in new music cues, as Fox fended off countless requests to show a film it didn't yet have.
Having tested a longer, unfinished version of the film earlier this year in Minneapolis, Luhrmann was relieved that American audiences didn't reject out of hand a western set in an unfamiliar foreign land. He knew too that, just as early skeptics had dismissed his previous movie, they were fretting over "Australia's" prospects.
"Very, very clever people said to me while I was making 'Moulin Rouge!' that people will never, ever go for it," he said.
But he nonetheless expressed concern. Fox, which has suffered through a woeful year, very much needs a critical and commercial success. And "Australia" faces strong competition this season from several other high-profile films, including David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" and Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road."
"The risk," Luhrmann said, "is staggering."
Dashed plans for a historical epic
This wasn't supposed to be his next movie. And it wasn't supposed to star Jackman.
Luhrmann and Martin saw "Moulin Rouge!" as the concluding chapter in what they call their "Red Curtain" trilogy: highly stylized productions that emphasized broad theatrics over everyday naturalism.
Those three films -- launched with 1992's giddy "Strictly Ballroom" and 1996's flamboyant "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" -- established Luhrmann as a distinctive voice, and he and Martin brought their vivid sensibilities to both opera Martin and perfume advertising.Martin
While he was winding down "Moulin Rouge!," Luhrmann started preparing "Alexander the Great," the first in a planned series of historical epics. He would reteam with Leonardo DiCaprio, his "Romeo + Juliet" star, but as happens frequently these days, someone else was making a very similar movie at the very same time.
Luhrmann spent months putting his Greek conqueror movie together, but when Oliver Stone's "Alexander" started filming, Luhrmann had to retreat. But it was not exactly his project's collapse that led him to "Australia." Instead, it was his and Martin's starting a family.
Like so many middle-aged parents (Luhrmann is 46, Martin is 43) who have children after launching successful careers, the two had begun to reevaluate their priorities after their daughter, Lilly, was born in 2003.
" 'Alexander' was about pathos -- that too much is never enough," he said. "And in a way, I found myself reflecting back on making an epic about family -- hardly something I would have chosen easily, because it didn't seem adventurous enough.
"The great motivation to make this film was when we were in Paris -- we had lived in Sydney, London, New York, Paris, and we've got a little girl, our little boy [Will] is on the way, and -- who are our children? Where are they from? Are they Australian? What do I think of my own country? What do I think of the indigenous story, the stolen generation? I wanted to sort that out, while telling this huge romance."
After Luhrmann sketched out the movie's basic story of a woman and a man on their own in the wilderness, he worked with four different writers ("Collateral's" Stuart Beattie, "The Pianist's" Ronald Harwood, Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan and his longtime collaborator Craig Pearce) to shape "Australia's" screenplay. (The film is shot by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker.) While the characters are purely fictitious, the 1940s story is grounded in copious research, including the little-known Japanese bombing of Darwin.
Drover and Lady Ashley anchor the romantic conflict. He wants to be left alone, and her love is reserved for horses and fashion, but they are thrown together by circumstances beyond either's control. When Lady Ashley arrives in Australia from England, she is taken by Drover to Faraway Downs, the huge, inland cattle station owned by Ashley's husband, whom they find murdered the minute they arrive.
The death may be part of a plot by land baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) to monopolize the livestock business. Alone in the middle of nowhere, Drover and Lady Ashley decide to push their 1,500 cattle across the empty, rough country to Darwin.
"My first childhood, blown-away experience, was 'Lawrence of Arabia,' " said Luhrmann, who grew up in a tiny town in New South Wales where his father ran a gas station and a movie theater. "I was struck by the raw power of landscape films, where landscape is used to amplify the emotions of the story."
"Australia's" ragtag cattle drive team includes Nullah and several other Aboriginals, as Carney and Fletcher try to sabotage their effort to get to Darwin. When the government comes after Nullah, Drover and Lady Ashley must confront their personal relationship.
Have they become a family? Are they willing to make a sacrifice for one another and Nullah? Are their emotional wounds ready to heal?
At first, Luhrmann pictured Heath Ledger, who died of a drug overdose earlier this year, as Drover, but decided he was too young. Fox pushed Brad Pitt as the film's star; Luhrmann wanted Russell Crowe, only to have the actor leave the movie over his reduced compensation, famously saying, "I don't do charity work for major studios."
Jackman initially had been cast as Fletcher. Because the Australian actor's "X-Men" films had been huge hits for Fox, the studio supported Luhrmann's moving Jackman into the lead role.
With the cast mostly in place, Luhrmann and his team had to figure out how to film a sprawling story that included a stampede, the bombing of Darwin, weeks of location filming miles from any major city and a severe western climate both beautiful and unforgiving.
"With Baz, every breath is like a new idea," said producer G. Mac Brown, who was charged with shaving production days and the budget by a third. Luhrmann helped convince the Australian government to more than triple its local production rebate to 40%, but that still wasn't always enough.
"So you have to allow a way for the film to keep growing and changing," Brown said.
A few months before filming began, Brown was in Sydney shopping for cows. The film wanted short-horned cattle that were not only more accurate to the 1940s but also wilder.
"Every day, it's something new," Brown said, "that you've never done or even thought of before."
'Show and tell' for filmmakers' vision
Luhrmann's movies may be distinctly his own, but he's also a willing collaborator -- the director's personal assistant, Schuyler Weiss, shares a songwriting credit on "Australia's" Elton John song -- and that all-for-one spirit was tangible in late 2006 on Stage 5 at Fox Studios Australia.
A few weeks before production began, Luhrmann and Martin invited more than 100 "Australia" crew members, from hat makers to accountants, for a "show and tell" in which they laid out their vision for the film.
The cavernous stage was filled with set drawings, costume sketches and location photography. Martin presented a slide show of her design ideas, and included a Marlboro cigarette ad. "These are the iconic images," she said, "that we are fighting against." Familiar history, in other words, needed to be reinvented.
Luhrmann, dressed in green cords, a white shirt and narrow tie, tried to prepare everyone for what lay ahead. Full of energy and willing to share stories about how out of place he sometimes felt among real cowboys, Luhrmann started revving up his troops.
"It's going to be hard, because the ambition of the film is absolutely enormous," he said. "It is every single person's responsibility in this room to directly contribute to making this story as good as it can be. If we can just put a little bit of beauty in the world, it will be worthwhile."
Bryan Brown was impressed by what he had seen, but knew what lay ahead would not be easy. "It sounds like a great movie," the actor said. "But it will take 10 years to make."
To Luhrmann, who hasn't yet decided what he will do next, it only felt that long. His production delays were the talk of Hollywood.
"Calamity followed me everywhere," he said.
Director Stephen Daldry waited two months for Kidman to finish "Australia" so she could star in his adaptation of "The Reader," but then he had to recast the role with Kate Winslet when Kidman became pregnant as filming drew to a close. After test audiences gave mixed verdicts, Luhrmann struggled deciding whether the Drover lives or dies at the film's conclusion.
"It was just relentless and endless and everything was harsh and hard," Luhrmann said of the production. "Psychologically, it was just really hard to get up every morning and lead, to hold up people's spirits."
But the film's hopeful message, Luhrmann added, is what kept him going, and he's especially pleased that a movie about half-castes is arriving just weeks after the United States elected a mixed-race man its president.
"The film is ultimately about family, but not a nuclear family," the director said. "And family is defined by those you love and those who love you back. That is what it's about -- that in these times, we come together, through love."