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A huge journey, a vast continent, a major transformation, love, family and change in a precarious world – these are some of the big themes that drew Baz Luhrmann to a challenging task of making Australia – the movie.

An epic tale of transformation, love and adventure, Australia unfolds on the continent that director Baz Luhrmann sees as the world’s last great frontier. “To the rest of the world, Australia is the faraway of the faraway,” he says. “There’s a great line in the beginning of ‘Out of Africa,’ when Karen Blixen finds out that her husband is having an affair and she says, ‘I’ve got to get away, I’ll go anywhere. Africa, Australia … well, maybe not Australia.’”

Luhrmann grew up in a small lumber town in northern New South Wales, where his family ran a farm, the local gas station and, for a short time, the movie theater. “The movie musical was a great childhood love of mine, but I was also a big fan of the historical epic,” he says. “Epics were the kind of movies that you would hear about for weeks before the films actually arrived, and every single person in town would go to see them. You can imagine the impression made on a small boy in rural Australia by films like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Ben Hur’ – big, romantic adventures set in distant, exotic locales where the landscape amplified the inner emotional journeys of the characters.”

"Bringing people together brings comfort to the heart and sou in this unpredictable world"

Particularly appealing to Luhrmann was the idea of creating an epic film set in his homeland that, like the classics that so influenced him in childhood, would have broad appeal across all generations of people around the world. “When watching these kinds of films, from ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Ben-Hur’ to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Titanic,’ the audience was communing in one big motion picture experience,” he observes. “I wanted to create a cinematic work that would be similarly inclusive because I feel passionately about having more inclusiveness in our lives. Bringing people together brings comfort to the heart and soul in this unpredictable world.”

The story of Australia is set in motion by Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley, a headstrong British socialite lost in a loveless marriage and a staid, superficial life. “At the age of 40, Sarah has poured herself into objects of perfection and control,” Luhrmann says. “The only thing that she truly loves are her horses.”

Convinced that her husband is cheating on her during his trip to Australia to sell Faraway Downs, their struggling cattle ranch, Sarah travels from London to the rugged wilderness of the Northern Territory to confront him. The truth proves to be as harsh as her new environs, and it propels Sarah on a journey of profound self-discovery.

“When she first arrives in Australia, Sarah is as uptight as Katherine Hepburn’s character in ‘The African Queen,’” says Luhrmann. “She is closed off to life and to love. But at Faraway Downs and beyond, she is forced to engage with the landscape and with the people, and she experiences a rebirth of spirit. She is completely transformed by the journey.”

"our desire to reconnect with Australia"

“I was tremendously disappointed when our Alexander project fell apart, so I went on a journey on the Trans Siberian Railway to clear my head after focusing on it for such a long period of time,” says Luhrmann, who later joined his wife and young daughter in Paris. “We decided to spend time in Paris to regroup, recharge our spirits and assess what our next creative step would be. We began to discuss our little girl’s life. There is no border between our life and work, and due to the nature of what we do, our children will always be part of a travelling circus. But, we asked ourselves, Where is the place they’ll call home? Where will their roots lie? This, more than anything, prompted our desire to reconnect with Australia.”

While traveling back to Sydney from Paris, Luhrmann began to imagine a story about a main character who embarks on a great journey that transforms her in a profound way. “It is the issue of transformation that I am most interested in exploring at this time,” the director explains. “I recognize a feeling that exists in me and my generation that at a certain age, you get locked into a pattern of life that will remain constant for the rest of your days – growth simply stops. So I was very interested in the idea of growth and rebirth. Secondly, life in the post-9/11 world has created an unnerving environment in which the future seems unpredictable and precarious. So I was also interested writing a story about characters who live in uncertain and tumultuous times.”

Another important theme emerged for Luhrmann as he developed the character of Lady Sarah Ashley, a woman whose static life is transformed when she is plunged into upheaval during her journey to the farthest reaches of Australia’s Outback. “We are living in a moment in time in which the forces of change are so great that the only act that truly empowers us is to defend the love that we believe in,” he says. “On a personal level, I came to realize that if I am surrounded by the people I love, and especially by my family, then even during these volatile times I have everything. I have a truly vital and meaningful existence. This is the realization that Sarah comes to as a result of her transformation. Even if honouring your relationships means defying everything and everyone to be together, you do what you must do to be with the people you love.”

The wild, untamed world of Northern Australia in the late 1930s and 1940s, with the looming shadow of World War II darkening its shores and divisive governmental policies tearing families apart, provided a rich canvas on which to bring these themes and issues into relief. Luhrmann and his wife, production and costume designer Catherine Martin, conducted an intense period of meticulous research into the era.

“The DNA of this film comes from classic epic romances, but we had to find our own particular cinematic language to tell this story,” Luhrmann elaborates. “While we compress geography, time and some facts to amplify the drama and romance, we never change the fundamental truth in which the world of the film is set.”

To further his understanding of Australia’s relationship to its Indigenous people and the controversial issue of the Stolen Generations, as these half-Aboriginal, half-Caucasian children who were excised from society have come to be known, Luhrmann travelled to Bathurst and Melville Islands to speak to men and women who had been mission children.

"the idea that you cannot really possess anything; not land, not a person, not a child"

“Working with our Indigenous partners in the telling of the Stolen Generations led to a theme that we have tried to touch on in the film,” the director relates. “It is the idea that you cannot really possess anything; not land, not a person, not a child. Real love makes you realize that you are only a caretaker for these things. All that you do possess at the end of a life is your story, and stories live on in the physical landscape.”

Published November 27, 2008

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Baz Luhrmann - on set


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