April 19, 2024

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers from the film “Australia” and the limited series “Faraway Downs,” now streaming on Hulu.

Fifteen years after the release of his 2008 epic romance “Australia,” Baz Luhrmann still struggles to find the right words to sum up its production. In this particular interview, he settles on one –– “fraught.”

While shooting the film on location across its namesake continent, the native Australian director tried not to take it personally when the set-trained horses contracted a rare equine flu, or when the portion of the outback where they were filming received its first major rainfall in 150 years. But one thing after another repeatedly delayed production, and tested the cast and crew’s resilience.

“I don’t know why I’m addicted to making things that seem impossible to make,” Luhrmann tells Variety. “But of all my films, I have never faced the level of relentless obstacles I did on this one. I often tell people that if you are having trouble with vegetation and need things to grow, just have me come make a movie there. You’re guaranteed rain.”

All of these hindrances make Luhrmann’s eagerness to revisit the material a decade and a half later all the more inexplicable. And yet, he has recut and reimagined the movie “Australia” into a six-part limited series called “Faraway Downs,” now streaming Hulu. Whether it was unfinished business or a means of making peace with the very personal story, Luhrmann still isn’t sure.

“I feel like it is an experiment, and I think the implications of this could be far reaching,” he says.


Courtesy of Hulu

By far Luhrmann’s least commercially successful film in America (although he says it’s his most popular in Europe), “Australia” stars Nicole Kidman as a posh British expat named Lady Sarah Ashley who teams up with Hugh Jackman’s grizzled cattle drover, known only as The Drover, to save Faraway Downs, a struggling Northern Australia cattle station owned by her late husband. When she meets a precocious aboriginal child named Nullah (Brandon Walters), Lady Ashley begins to embrace the wild lifestyle of the outback just as it becomes a target during World War II.

Since the film debuted in November 2008, Luhrmann has garnered acclaim for his successful directorial efforts, “The Great Gatsby” and “Elvis.” But when the latter production was shut down in March 2020 –– “when Tom Hanks famously got COVID,” he notes –– he found himself sequestered with an abundance of time, and an unexpected interest in reacquainting himself with the 2.5 million feet of film he’d shot for “Australia.”

“Because it’s a melodrama, it was already episodic,” he says. “At the end of each episode, there is a tragedy, and there’s a real reason why you want to know what happens next. Because we were compressing for a single film in the cinema, there were really valuable sequences and scenes that we didn’t put in. But here, they aren’t just padding. They are different ways of telling the story.”

He offers the example of an early scene immediately following the discovery that Lady Ashley’s husband has been killed. In the scene, she is almost whisked away by the greedy station manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who wants her land, but he makes a fatal mistake. He says she should leave because it is no place for a woman like her. The scene doesn’t exist in the movie, but in the series, it serves as a pivotal first confrontation between Lady Ashley and the men of the outback trying to tame her simply because she’s a woman.

“It may be a scene you can do without, and I did,” Luhrmann says. “But what you learn by including it is the relationship between all those three characters, and you get a better sense of the fabric of the relationship between Hugh and Nicole’s characters. The stakes are higher. You are able to lift things up, and lean into them more.”

After pitching the series, which is billed as “A Baz Luhrmann Film Told in Six Chapters,” he recruited Kidman and Jackman to do additional digital recordings, called ADR, for the scenes that had been cut from the finished film. He also sought out First Nations musicians Budjerah and Electric Fields for new music, and commissioned works from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts graphic artists for a new opening title sequence.

No new footage was shot, however. Everything Luhrmann used to expand the 165-minute movie by nearly half an hour was pulled from the archives.

The new footage largely reinforces Luhrmann’s initial vision for “Australia”: a twist on “Gone With The Wind” that is still a sweeping epic with a central romance at its heart, but one that’s told largely through the eyes of an aboriginal child. Nullah is the story’s acknowledgement of Australia’s tragic history of aboriginal children being taken from their families and assimilated into white culture — a program now known as “Stolen Generations” that didn’t end until 1973.

Brandon Walters
Courtesy of Hulu

The final scene of the film and the series remain almost the same, with Lady Ashley realizing her love for Nullah can’t take precedence over his chance to live with his people, specifically his elder King George (the late David Gulpilil). As Jackman’s Drover tells her, she can’t own another person or thing — all she can own is her story.

“What I hope we are left with at the end of ‘Faraway Downs’ is that Lady Sarah Ashley hasn’t come in and saved everyone,” Luhrmann says. “She has actually been the one saved by learning to live a good story and be responsible for herself.”

The film “Australia” was ultimately a product of its time, as reflected in its original ending. The final act of the film plays out against the 1942 Japanese attack on Darwin, the real Australian town near the fictional Faraway Downs. In the chaos, Lady Ashley, The Drover and Nullah all reunite against great odds before they let Nullah go with King George. But in “Faraway Downs” the series, Luhrmann deploys an alternate ending where Drover is killed after the attack, leaving Lady Ashley to face her next chapter of her story alone.

“The ending at the time, through the whole process of getting it out into the U.S., was also the time of the economic crash,” Luhrmann says. “Everyone had end-of-the-world feelings. And I think I was just wondering if this would just be too much tragedy. But if you have more time to tell it episodically, then the amount of loss has more rise and fall. It allows us to really go there with this. We are not pulling any punches.”

Re-releasing the material also meant shouldering responsibility for the aboriginal actors and communities it depicts. As Jackman’s Drover tells the audience early in the film and series, the aboriginal practice when someone dies is to never speak their name again. In the 15 years since the film was released, some of the Indigenous people involved with the production have died, including Gulpilil. In order to brace viewers who might be among this community, each episode retains the film disclaimer informing audiences the series contains “images, voices and artwork of deceased persons.” It also now includes a second card thanking the Indigenous people for their contributions to Australia’s land and culture.

In order to make sure they didn’t violate any customs, producer and longtime Luhrmann collaborator Catherine Martin also returned to Northern Australia to share their new version.

“When a name was brought up, we got special permission to use it,” Luhrmann says. “David Gulpilil’s family really wanted David to be acknowledged. So none of these decisions are made arbitrarily. In fact, we had an open screening in Australia. Catherine went up and screened all the episodes in this tiny country hall and the whole community came. They are, and always have been, so thrilled by this. Theirs is a storytelling culture, like we say in the beginning of the show. The most important thing in First Nations culture is storytelling, and I never felt like this was something I could do solo. It has always been told in partnership, because it is about collective storytelling.”

An acknowledgement of those customs and their importance to the story led Luhrmann to make one more major change to the story. In the film, Jackman’s character is only known by his profession as The Drover. But as he lays dying in his final scene in “Faraway Downs,” he finally reveals his name to be Jack Clancy.

Luhrmann says he had forgotten they’d filmed the scene until he was pouring over the footage in 2020. Just as “Faraway Downs” is a chance to deepen Lady Ashley’s story, this was Drover’s revelatory moment.

“I think in Drover’s mind that once he lost his wife, he just became the Drover,” Luhrmann says. “He became no one. But in ‘Faraway Downs,’ he gets to reveal his name, and I love it. But it’s not just that he says his name. He wants Lady Sarah Ashley to say his name. I think the thing he wants to remember forever is the sound of her voice saying his name.”

As Luhrmann speaks about all the ways in which built upon his polarizing creation to create “Faraway Downs,” it’s hard not to recognize a thrill in his voice, which raises the question –– would he ever revisit any of his other films episodically?

“This might have implications on my other works,” he says. “Not necessarily the really tight ones, but when I was working on ‘Elvis,’ I know there is a different version of ‘Elvis’ that is episodic that might have a life.

“But they shouldn’t destroy each other’s existence. They should live with a relation to each other, like two children.”

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