There's no doubt Baz Luhrmann is one of the more colorful writer-directors in Hollywood. His latest film, Australia (now out on DVD), has just recently become the second biggest Aussie flick of all time, while his other films -- like Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet and Strictly Ballroom -- have gone on to become huge fan favorites around the world. Because we have so many Baz fans here at Cinematical, we decided to do a little something different and allow several of our writers to contribute questions ranging from Baz's work on Australia to the much talked-about musical number he put together for this year's Academy Awards. We also touched upon the writer-director's future film slate, including his planned adaptation of The Great Gatsby and whether he'd like to once again dabble with the musical-movie down the line.
Contributing to this interview were Scott Weinberg, Peter Martin, Elisabeth Rappe, Jessica Barnes and Erik Davis.
Cinematical: When Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman's characters were being developed for Australia, did you have any particular classic Hollywood pairings in mind?
Baz Luhrmann: I very overtly drew inspiration from the films that inspired me to make this one as they were classic romances. The coupling of the main characters is the most important decision that you can make. Indeed in Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman I was looking for a Gable/Leigh, Bogart/Hepburn, Redford/Streep - like chemistry.
Cinematical: What's the toughest part about producing a film that "performs" below expectations?
BL: Of course when you work on a movie with many people for a very long time it was sad that in the US we failed to get an audience in on the opening weekend. Having said that, I am pleased that the film has gone on to do so well throughout the rest of the world and in our home country
Cinematical: Were any changes made to the character of the Drover to play up Jackman's strengths when he replaced Russell Crowe?
BL: Over the years of development, Russell's (who is a friend of mine) and my own schedules could not lock up. Meanwhile I became more and more aware of the constantly surprising talent of Hugh Jackman. At the same time the script was evolving and the character of the Drover was becoming a more classic hero of the kind realised by Wayne or Eastwood. The moment Hugh donned the Drover's Akubra hat and picked up the stockwhip it was hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.
Cinematical: Prior to its release, Australia was hyped as a WWII romance. But the film was more about The Lost Generation than it was about WWII or your lead characters. Was this focus a shift that happened organically and unexpectedly, or was it intended?
BL: I think the intention was to take an important social issue, 'the Stolen Generations', and place it amidst the high comedy, action, romance and drama of a historical epic. I've never seen the film at any point as a WWII romance.
Cinematical: What's something you learned making Australia that you didn't know before?
BL: One of the reasons I started on this creative journey, what I sought to get out of it, no matter what the outcome, was a more direct understanding of my country. I've learned so much by researching the country's history, particularly its relationship with England, what it means to be independent and self‐governing and the conflicted history with the indigenous people. When it came to the very sensitive issue of the Stolen Generations I travelled to Bathurst and Melville Islands to speak to the men and women who had been mission children. When we were trying to find the little indigenous boy we had to spend time with his family going walkabout.
It was then that I realized that I had already got what I had been looking for in this project. I was becoming deeply connected to the truth and realities of my country, its history and its people. Being in the cross‐fire of these stories, while in the process of creating my own, has deepened my personal understanding of Australia.
Cinematical: You've talked about the benefits of shooting in remote, never been seen locations, yet you also freely mixed in scenes that were obviously shot on studio sets. Some of those sequences -- I'm thinking of Hugh and Nicole just before that cattle stampede -- look like they're an homage to stage-bound, 40s Hollywood Westerns. Was it only practical considerations that caused you to shoot certain scenes in studio? Or did you have other artistic intentions in mind, perhaps the idea of subverting conventional thinking about the artificial and the "real" settings and their varying effects on the characters?
BL: This is very accurately observed and languaged. In making this film I wanted, while paying homage to the sweeping romantic epics of yesteryear, one had to pay attention to the fact that the visual beauty of these films was a combination of location photography and studio artistry.
When Vivien Leigh holds up the turnip and says 'as God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again..' the backdrops are painterly and heightened in colour. They allow us to feel comfortable with the equally operatic emotions. When classic films use glass matte paintings we attempted to engage painterly blue screens in the sound stage.
In addition, mimicking the techniques of the 30's and the 50's; shooting on location and in the studio allows there to be visual power of the landscape but also visual control over the actors close ups, faces and costumes.
Cinematical: That great stampede scene -- ending up by a cliff with the young boy having what feels like an ephiphany -- plays like it came straight out of a fever dream (or nightmare!). Were you concerned that you might lose your audience because you shifted tones so quickly from panicky danger to tragic loss to joyful, if restrained, acceptance of destiny? Or is that reading too much into an action sequence?
BL: Films like this used to have comedy, romance, action and drama, in that order. Films these days have one of them while this film has all four things.
This sequence is a good example of the philosophy of the whole film. On the one hand it is very classic in its construction but at the same time it employs an extreme compression of a variety of emotions in a short space of screen-time. This idea is very contemporary, some might say too contemporary. But I can't help my fascination with this old yet 'new again' style of storytelling. It allows for different kinds of audience to have different kinds of experiences, a child sees it in a very simple linear sense, others as you've described, have a more complex response. It's the difference between poetry and prose.
Cinematical: Oscar host Hugh Jackman insisted (more than once), that "the musical is BACK," and gave some sort of credit to Mamma Mia! for its resurgence. Do you think the musical was ever GONE, or does it just go into hibernation every few years?
BL: Hybernation, it's just a question of finding a specific style for a specific moment in time. What is exciting about the musical in this moment is that it's not locked down to a particular set of rules and I'm really looking forward to what musical cinema brings in the next few years.
Cinematical: What was your favorite part about putting together that number for the Oscars?
BL: Being in the rehearsal room in snowy New York while Hugh and Beyonce sang 'you're the one that I want' together, that was fun!
Cinematical: Is there a musical you've always wanted to adapt for the big screen? Do you have any plans to do so?
BL: I have a lot of musical cinema plans for the future.
Cinematical: Can you talk about adapting The Great Gatsby. What's the status of that? What are you looking to bring to this adaptation that sets it apart from other versions? And finally, do you have a cast yet? If not, tell us your dream cast.
BL: Indeed I have the rights to Gatsby and am developing it. As to what my next project will be is something I am consciously avoiding committing to for the next month or so.