Filmmaker Baz Lurhmann hasn’t made a movie since his Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge!, but the Australian writer/director is bursting back into Hollywood with his dynamic personality and enormous ambitions which ooze onto the big screen through the brilliant direction of the A-list talent in his latest film, Australia.
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star in the romantic epic set during WWII. The film is about a pretentious English aristocrat (Kidman) who inherits a sprawling cattle ranch in northern Australia and is forced to team up with a stockman, infamously known at “The Drover” (Jackman), to save her land from a greedy and evil cattleman who is doing everything he can to run her out of town.
Lurhmann creatively weaves the story of a half white / half Aboriginal boy, played by newcomer Brandon Walter, into the film which acts as a symbol for racism and explores the horror of the stolen generation (mixed race children taken from their homes against their will and placed in Australian government agencies and church missions).
The very entertaining and gracious director stood waiting to greet us eagerly as we walked into his hotel room in Beverly Hills to chat about the film he’s hoping audiences will embrace this holiday season.
ComingSoon.net: I read that “Australia” is a metaphor for the feelings of mystery, romance and excitement in the movie. Can you elaborate on that?
Baz Luhrmann: “Casablanca” is not about the town Casablanca. “Casablanca” is kind of a naming metaphor for refugees – for the kind of character that has to run away. He’s running somewhere else and there’s sort of a holding place called Casablanca. “Australia” is not about Australia. It’s about this land to the rest of the world that’s far, far away where if you go the extra distance like Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) then you can get caught up in a relationship or a romance and go on a journey and find yourself loving and feeling in a way that you didn’t think was possible and reawakening your spirit and your soul. It’s a metaphor for that. I didn’t want to make a film about Australia. I wanted to make a film about people, but all people. And yes, it’s a huge entertainment, but at the heart of it is the Stolen Generation and this little boy. It’s about actually knowing in a world that is full of fear and when things are falling apart and everyone is terrified that all that really matters is that you’re with the people you love and who love you.
CS: I also read that making this movie was a deep personal journey for you. How so?
Luhrmann: Well, when I was thinking about it we were living in Paris. We just had our children. We know where we’re from, but where are they from? Will they grow up and say where is their home? So on with that, we sort of went on a four year journey to connect ourselves, myself personally with the issues of my country, the “Stolen Generation.” I wanted to let my children in their formidable years to know their country.
CS: Do you have your own personal experiences with Aboriginal lore and is that why you wanted to include it in the movie?
Luhrmann: I grew up in a very small country town, but I would say I absolutely wanted to go on my own exploration of indigenous historian stories. I worked with an Aboriginal filmmaker on a lot of the film – on the writing and evolution of ideas. I’ve been completely transformed by my experiences there. Just to work with Brandon [Walters] alone… Brandon’s not even from a small town. He’s never even seen a city. I had to go with Brandon’s father hunting and shooting and living on their traditional lands just to find a way to bring him into the life of our movie. I will never forget these experiences.
CS: How did you find Brandon?
Luhrmann: We had a team look for around 1000 boys. Then they brought it down to 200, then we went on the road and auditioned maybe 10. Then we brought 10 to Sydney. He’s sort of a miracle because he’s so responded to around the world and yet at the moment he’s riding around on his dirt bike. We tried to send him home as much as possible. As Jenny his mom says, “Oh don’t worry if things get tough we’ll just go bush.”
CS: What does that mean?
Luhrmann: It means a walkabout. It means they’ll just uproot and disappear into the vast emptiness. Just disappear.
CS: “Wizard of Oz” was one of the themes in the movie. Why is that?
Luhrmann: I think that these films are always about journeys – about transformative journeys down the yellow brick road where you meet interesting characters. I wanted to sort of lightly parallel that.
CS: You’ve worked with Nicole Kidman quite a lot and I understand she accepted the role without reading the script first. Can you talk about your relationship with her and how she influences your vision on a movie like this?
Luhrmann: We go back a long way now. We keep pushing each other and challenging each other as artists. We also have a great friendship and we’ve been through big tumultuous issues in our lives together when we make films. She’s got two beautiful kids and now she’s got a third child which she’s given birth to. Also there comes a place where you come to know each other creatively and as friends. The high wire act that she performs means there’s more trust there. I think we’re at a very special place where she’s at the prime of her life as an artist and I’m able to work with her and she’s able to work with me in a place where probably we couldn’t get there if you signed up and have known each other for a month. To play the broad comedy and then do tragedy. To be screaming for her child one minute and then you’re doing pratfalls the next. That takes bravery. That could kill you. That could damage you in terms of career. We have to be in a trusting partnership to go there.
CS: You’re last film “Moulin Rouge!” was shot in a very confined stage since the movie takes place in a theatre and then this film is shot in very vast open spaces where the cast and crew stayed in tents in the outback. What was that transition like for you?
Luhrmann: That was part of the motive. I wanted to get out and shoot outdoors. It brings me to another big point. In a film like “Gone with the Wind,” it needs to be shot on location, but it also needs to have a heightened visual feeling to it. We wanted to mix what we call a David Lean and George Lucas. We wanted to make sure the visual effects aren’t so much about reality, as beauty. There was sort of a painted feel to the whole movie. You know how “Gone with the Wind” feels like although it’s sort of real, it’s of romantic. Everything feels more than reality. Shooting out on location, but at the same time trying to get a heightened paintly feel was a big mission and quite difficult to do – to bring the two styles together.
CS: The movie is set in 1939 and it really had that look and feel of that time period. Was “Gone with the Wind” one of the films that inspired you visually?
Luhrmann: Yeah that’s right. With the visual effects too you don’t want them to be too realist. You’re not about gee doesn’t that look like a mountain so much as isn’t that such a beautiful painting? “Gone with the Wind” is like that.
CS: What special effect techniques did you use to give the film that look?
Luhrmann: We built the sets and all of that and then we used CGI very kind of paintly. For example, the house is on a real location and it’s all mountains – it’s all real. When we did the stampede, we shot it on a real location, but the rock formation was quite sacred that we wanted to shoot around. So we did a sort of paintly version of it. We brought the cliff face close to the rock formation. We used CG like we would have in the ’30s. You’re right, in the ’30s they would have used a painted glass matte. They would have painted the trees, but they would have used real sets so we did the same thing. We were very inspired by that period.
CS: Speaking of the stampede and the animals, how challenging was it for you to get them to do what you wanted?
Luhrmann: Very. Those particular cow don’t run. Our guys actually went and actually researched with the guys who did “Red River,” the last great American Western that has a stampede. We couldn’t reproduce what they did on “Red River.” They were able to do things then that you wouldn’t do now. We had to find different techniques to get the stampede to work.
CS: I understand it was really Hugh Jackman on a horse in the middle of the stampede.
Luhrmann: Yes, we did close ups and stuff, but it was him riding the horse through the stampede.
CS: Was that his idea or something you encouraged him to do?
Luhrmann: He wanted to do it. There’s always a line, but Hugh is like that. I’ve never worked with an actor who could prepare himself physically to do whatever is required. When he ropes that horse, he ropes that horse. When he makes the horse lay down, he learned to do that. He’s on that horse a lot and most of it is him.
Australia opens in theaters on Wednesday, November 26.