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Australia - Baz Luhrmann interview

Baz Luhrmann directs Australia

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BAZ Luhrmann talks about the epic lengths he went to realising his sweeping romantic drama Australia, as well as the significance of the historical events that are depicted…

Q. Where did you get the inspiration for Australia and the style in which you told it?
Baz Luhrmann: Well, it’s two parts. There’s a childhood love of the genre. There’s going back to my childhood and this cinematic banquet where you can have broad comedy, romance, action, drama… all in one film. Those films, which I came into contact with when I was very, very young, made a great impression on me. So, then you jump forward to a time when we were trying to make Alexander The Great. That was a great journey… I was working with the legendary Dino De Laurentiis and Steven Spielberg. We built a studio in the Northern Sahara and Leonardo DiCaprio was in it. It was a hugely emotionally involving journey that never happened because there was a competing project. But then Catherine Martin [his wife and Australia co-producer and costume designer] and I had another project in mind, which was to have our children. And we did a lot of work on that and had children!

We were living in Paris and I remember asking this question which was, you know: “Who are they?” Which, of course, is something a father should never ask [laughs, realising what he has just said]. Or rather: “Where are they from?” We move in circles where you meet kids who say: “We spent three years in LA, and then a few years in Paris, etc, etc….” But having roots seemed to be an extremely important thing. And that was the beginning of a journey that took us back to Australia four years ago. So, I combined this personal journey with this love of the sweeping romantic epic.

Now, the films of the past were invariably played out on a canvas of historical events and landscape. As much as I began in pursuit of it out of love for the epic, pretty quickly it occurred to me that the historical event of the bombing of Darwin was a good action sequence – plus it wasn’t very well known, plus it was the same Japanese attack force that hit Pearl Harbour. But the stolen generation stopped me in my tracks. I knew about it but the more I researched it, I realised that this dark chapter in the story of our country, this scar, that I was in a place where I could take something very serious and difficult – a difficult pill – and put it inside a great big entertainment. And this was the genesis of the idea. This was what sort of made it more than a movie, because my children were going to grow up in Australia and this stolen generation thing had never really been dealt with. It had in smaller films but not told in a way in which it could never be swept under the carpet. So, I felt I could do that and, foolishly perhaps, combined those two things. So, that was day one, four years ago…

Q. And the journey isn’t yet complete. You only just finished the film…
Baz Luhrmann: It’s so crazy because three weeks ago I was literally at a mixing desk doing the final voiceover, and recording little Nullah [Brandon Walters]… The truth is, you never finish movies – they just get taken away from you! That was a Friday, and the following Tuesday some 3,000 people saw it in one sitting in Sydney. We got on the plane the next day, we went to Los Angeles and did a junket there, then to New York and this week we’ve been in Paris, Madrid and Rome.. and now we’re here [in London]. And I still haven’t finished. But that’s sort of the way it is with me… none of my films are really finished. They’ve crossed the line and sort of lived.

Q. How much research did you do?
Baz Luhrmann: Well, there’s this thing called research which is fun and obsessive and relentless, so every image ever printed from that period we would have collected. So, everything comes from absolute research and reality… but then again it’s a romance, so it’s an interpretation. We then had a rule, which was so long as it doesn’t fundamentally change the truth, we could make conjuncture. I had a lot of start-up images, but my first dialogue is always with Catherine [Martin, his wife], where we create the visual language. She then goes out and talks to hundreds of other people.

We then create the books, which start with the script and the visual script. It is a book per scene… so if the scene’s set at the homestead, it’ll include all the different images of a homestead. Then that book, through photo-shop work, is turned into characterisations in those locations, and drawings, and we work with lots of artists. Eventually, once Hugh [Jackman] comes on, we start fittings and photo-shop him in the book. And then when we finish making the final movie, we make the final book, because in the end it’s storytelling – and it becomes a storytelling book with pictures.

Q. Nicole Kidman has been quoted as saying there’ll never be an Australia movie like this again. And yet you’ve said you conceived this as part of a trilogy. So, who is right?
Baz Luhrmann: I think she meant something different. I think what she’s saying is, first of all, the cast, the serendipitous nature of how it came together…. I’d like to think that a film like this could me made again and that there will be more films made like this, of this scale, that are Australian stories with Australia practitioners… doing what America has done for a very long time, which is to take their storytelling on a level that will play around the globe.

But I think what Nicole might be getting at, though, and this is probably right, is that to go out in the landscape with 200 crew members in put-up tents, and actually go out there and shoot on location, that is definitely dying. We barely got away with it. We mixed the [David] Lean – which is shooting on location – with the [George] Lucas, which is using visual effects. Maybe it will happen again. But I know what Nicole means in that, for a variety of reasons, it will certainly never happen in this manor again.

As for the trilogy, yes I was a fool to say I was doing three epics because one nearly killed me! But I do have them. I have a room full of things I want to make before I’m shuffled off this mortal coil, and they’re in a variety of sizes. The only thing I will say is that once I work out what’s worth doing next, then don’t be surprised if it’s something fun and quick before I get on to do the next major work because they just take a lot of time.

Q. Do you think there should be more gratuitous torso shots in Hollywood movies?
Baz Luhrmann: It’s actually a much more serious question that you think [laughs]. It is much harder for actors, particularly in cinema, to do that sort of broad humour. I’m not saying anything less about exploring the emotional depths… but you expect that in the current cinematic vernacular. So, to have Hugh and Nicole go out and take on so many different genres… the requisite bravery in doing that is far more petrifying, and a much bigger ask, than asking them to do the dramatic, sweeping epic stuff.

Q. Did you fall in love with Brandon Walters [who plays Nullah in the film] because of his eyes?
Baz Luhrmann: Yes. If there’s an incredible thing in this movie, it is that boy. To give you some context… as I speak to you he’s probably hitting some creature on the head with a lump of wood in the bush, but it was bold to say: “Let’s have a seven-year-old Aboriginal boy be the co-lead in the film!” I would have trouble finding a European boy of that age who could act. So, to find that boy was a living nightmare. The team saw 1,000 boys to start with. That little fella was incredible. He’s actually not acting. Something real is just so much more affecting. The truth is, he doesn’t read the camera. He looks past it with the eyes. So did I fall in love with his eyes? Yes, because his eyes don’t play for the camera. He was quite a miracle and we were lucky to have him because no Brandon, no movie.

Q. I’m assuming that filming with the likes of Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson had its fair share of moments?
Baz Luhrmann: I kind of imagine it was the equivalent of the days with Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole, just in a different style. When I was a kid, I acted in a film with Bryan Brown and he was an absolute icon. And Jack had two wives, who were sisters…. which given that its illegal in our country is a hell of an achievement! He was also an absolute sex God, like the Brad Pitt of our time. So, to think that one day I’d do a film in which there was a little Aboriginal boy, the current reigning Australian actors in the world [Hugh and Nicole], David Gilpilil – remember Walkabout? – and then Bryan and Jack, I’m privileged. Imagine what it was like for me? The guys I grew up with, my contemporaries and the upcoming generation… so maybe that’s another part of what Nicole meant – maybe that won’t happen again.

Did you also know that Jack began his life as a ringer on a cattle station, and was fired for being too friendly with the Aboriginal stockmen? So, can you imagine when I pitched the film to him. He said: “This is my life…”

Read our review of Australia