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Baz Luhrmann discusses adapting his film 'Australia' into a TV miniseries
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Geoff Bennett: The new Hulu miniseries "Faraway Downs" is set in Australia's far north on the cusp of World War II and features the star power of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
It's also an unusual instance of one of the world's leading film directors getting a redo, reworking his own earlier material into something new.
Jeffrey Brown speaks with Australian director Baz Luhrmann for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: In the 2008 film "Australia," Nicole Kidman plays an English aristocrat who goes down under to sell a ranch she owns, but falls in love with the land and with the man, the rough-living cattle drover played by Hugh Jackman.
It was epic melodrama, nearly three hours' long, a big hit in Australia and Europe, but not so much with critics and not at all at the box office in the U.S. In 2020, when the pandemic shut down production of his film "Elvis," director Baz Luhrmann decided to go back at his old Australia footage, so much of it left on the cutting room floor, to see if he could refashion it in a new format.
Baz Luhrmann, Director: I knew that I had all this material.
And as I looked at the material, I realized that episodic storytelling really suited the epic nature of it. And I just thought about, I could really lean into the idea, particularly from the indigenous child's point of view, from his telling.
Jeffrey Brown: The result is "Faraway Downs," now a miniseries that unfolds over nearly four hours in six separate episodes, with new scenes, even — spoiler alert — a completely new ending.
Baz Luhrmann: It isn't really just "Australia" with a bit of extra seasoning.
Jeffrey Brown: What is it?
Baz Luhrmann: I think it's of the same story, but there are different plot points.
Jeffrey Brown: Most important, Luhrmann says, a greater focus on the indigenous, through new music composed and performed by contemporary musicians and a storyline centered on the then-official government policy of separating biracial children like Nullah played by Brandon Walters from their indigenous families.
The practice, impacting what came to be known as the Stolen Generations, ended only in the 1970s.
Baz Luhrmann: My idea was to take a very old melodrama form and put in the middle of this kind of old-fashioned movie-telling style this extremely horrendous and ugly chapter in Australian history.
Jeffrey Brown: A serious subject, but, as he says, wrapped within broad strokes, even high comedy, as in a scene left over from "Australia" in which Kidman watches the well-muscled Jackman have an outdoor rinse.
Luhrmann, who got his start in theater and opera, loves both high and low in art.
Baz Luhrmann: Shakespeare would use broad comedy to get you kind of discombobulated and then hit you with the meat of the issue. And I do that in "Faraway Downs" and "Australia."
Now, whether it works or not or whether people buy into it, that's up to the audience. But the idea is to sort of disarm with like Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy kind of broad comedy, and then suddenly a child is grabbed by the cops and stolen.
Jeffrey Brown: As much as any director working today, Luhrmann has developed a storytelling, visual, and aural style all his own, instantly recognizable, playing with the Bard himself in his version of "Romeo and Juliet" with a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
Ewan McGregor, Actor: Think you could fall in love with someone like me.
Nicole Kidman, Actress: I can't fall in love with anyone. I make men believe what they want to believe.
Jeffrey Brown: The over-the-top spectacle and thrilling energy of "Moulin Rouge!" also featuring Kidman. "The Great Gatsby." Note the hip-hop music grafted around jazz era scenes, another Luhrmann signature mash-up, in this case, created with Jay-Z.
Baz Luhrmann: It's a way of letting you feel the modernness of it. That's an access issue.
Jeffrey Brown: Most recently, the not-your-ordinary biopic "Elvis."
Always, Luhrmann says, the look, sound, and substance are conceived as one whole.
Baz Luhrmann: In terms of design, development, script development, I do all three, the text, the written word, the visual language, the musical language, simultaneously. So it's extremely all involved.
Jeffrey Brown: They have to work together.
Baz Luhrmann: Yes, they're like three scripts, and then I bring them together.
Jeffrey Brown: You're orchestrating the three scripts.
Baz Luhrmann: Yes, like, orchestrating is a good way of thinking of it. They have got to work in concert, but the music metaphor is a good one, because they — I don't look at the visual language as a background issue or the music as a background issue. They are a language.
And I think, when you say I have a style, probably a way of saying it is, I have a particular cinematic language that I work in. It's a way of telling.
Nicole Kidman: This place is so barren, I can't understand what he would have seen out here.
Jeffrey Brown: He sees "Faraway Downs" as an experiment, big screen movie house creation, small screen episodic experience, now existing side by side.
You still love the big theater experience.
Baz Luhrmann: Oh, I'm devoted to it. I'm devoted to the cinema, and the bigger, the better.
Jeffrey Brown: But you're open to, clearly, in this case, an episodic I can sit at home and watch.
Baz Luhrmann: Yes. I look at storytelling architecturally.
For the big screen, it's horizontal. It's like A, B, C. It's flat, horizontal. But in streaming, you can go like this and then go vertical, come back to horizontal, vertical, come back. So I just — I'm not scared of form.
I mean, I'm — but I am experimenting. I'm not constrained by anything, except, do I think that is a legitimate way to tell something?
Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Baz Luhrmann is so excited by his "Faraway Downs" experiment, he's already considering an episodic reworking of "Elvis" next.
Nicole Kidman: I'm going to bring Faraway Downs back to life.
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.