Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann is no stranger to epic storytelling. From “Romeo + Juliet” to “Moulin Rouge!” to “The Great Gatsby,” his films are full of bombast, bold storytelling and big characters. But even for Luhrmann, a feature film felt like too small a box for a story as epic as “Australia,” his 2008 film about a cattle rancher, an English aristocrat and an Indigenous child in World War II-era Australia.
Which is why the Oscar-nominated filmmaker has re-edited his melodrama into a story told across six chapters for Hulu, incorporating nearly an hour of new footage and a completely different ending into a new work called “Faraway Downs.”
This retelling of “Australia” still follows the story of an English aristocrat named Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), who travels to the Australian outback with the intention of selling her husband’s cattle ranch. A series of unfortunate events ensue, and Ashley’s path becomes intertwined with a grizzled, lonesome cattle drover (Hugh Jackman). A key difference between “Australia” and “Faraway Downs,” however, is that the six-part version centers the story of Nullah (Brandon Walters), an Indigenous Australian child caught up in the government’s Draconian racial policy now referred to as the Stolen Generations.
Luhrmann came up with the idea to recut “Australia” while his Oscar-winning 2022 film “Elvis” was shut down during the COVID pandemic.
“I got the idea and started to relook at the footage and realized I’ve shot enough to do it as episodic storytelling through a revisiting of the piece, not necessarily as a better film than ‘Australia,’ but a different variation on the themes,” he told TheWrap in his first interview about the new project. “I was able to use the strengths of episodic storytelling to breathe those things out and explore them in a stronger way.”
In addition to expanding upon the film’s themes with additional footage and a somewhat reordered narrative, “Faraway Downs” boasts a new ending. Luhrmann shot two different conclusions to the film during production, and “Faraway Downs” features the one he feels is most true to the theme at the story’s center.
“I think that if I was being true to the bigger theme of the story, the ‘Faraway Downs’ ending speaks more directly to the primary theme of the movie,” he acknowledged.
Revisiting the film also gave Luhrmann an opportunity to take another look at the music (“Faraway Downs” features a new score) and, ultimately, grow as a filmmaker.
“I’ve surely been surprised by how much I have gotten out of this revisit myself personally, just in terms of the exercise of storytelling,” he allowed. And he may even be considering an expanded version of another film of his, depending on how “Faraway Downs” performs.
Read on for our exclusive interview with Luhrmann about the experience of revisiting “Australia” and what he hopes audiences take away from “Faraway Downs” when it premieres on Hulu in the United States, Star+ in Latin America and Disney+ in all other territories on Nov. 26, 2023.
TheWrap: Why did you decide to revisit “Australia?”
Luhrmann: What’s curious about “Australia” is it’s probably my least-loved movie in the U.S., but it’s still my biggest in Australia and in Europe. It’s still bigger than “Elvis.” When I made that film, I was trying to make a sort of twist, taking an old form – that would be the sweeping epic melodrama, something like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Gone with the Wind” — and turn it on its head. Exploring the entertainment value of it but using it to shed light on a really serious issue – in the case of Australia, the Stolen Generation. That was absolutely the stepping off point for me and my collaborators.
The thing about that is, you need a big canvas. In the process of making “Australia,” I really had to try to fit it into a not-epic box. It’s disjointed sometimes because I’ve had to compress the underlying themes and the epic nature of it. The thing that got me going about this idea of revisiting it was episodic streaming.
When did you first start thinking of doing this?
It was when “Elvis” shut down due to COVID. I got the idea and started to relook at the footage and realized I’ve shot enough to do it as episodic storytelling through a revisiting of the piece, not necessarily as a better film than “Australia,” but a different variation on the themes. I was able to use the strengths of episodic storytelling to breathe those things out and explore them in a stronger way. Particularly this idea of it being Nullah’s narrative. It’s this First Nations child telling the story from his point of view about the land, this strange woman and being taken away from his family. It’s kind of like what Drover says in the film, it’s truly about how you can’t own the land, you can’t own a child, all you really own in the end is your story, so you better just try and live a good one.
In the early collaborations with Steven McGregor, who’s an Indigenous filmmaker, and a lot of the First Nations collaborators, the biggest part of that narrative in the collaboration was about that notion — which is truly First Nations — which is, it’s a very European notion that you can own things or own children or own land. Whereas there’s a kind of spiritual flipside to that. That’s kind of the underlying current that I wasn’t really able to let that breathe as a central theme. Whereas in episodic storytelling, you have the opportunity. So I rang up Peter Rice at Fox and said, “What about it?” and he got really excited about this idea that you could take an existing film and do a variation on the themes, but a new work.
It feels like a richer experience, and the way you reveal key information about the characters is different and recontextualizes certain elements. Was that something you were noodling with when you were initially editing “Australia” or was it stuff you found when you went back and started re-editing?
I was a bit shocked, when I went back, at how many things I thought were in the film that actually I had eventually compressed. There’s a whole restructuring as soon as we get to Faraway Downs about whether Lady Ashley stays overnight or whether she goes straight back. There was this really character-driven, Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy kind of scene between Hugh Jackman and Nicole around the car where Hugh is goading her to stay. That scene wasn’t in the film. So a scene like that or when they crossed the Kuraman, there’s a lot of build-up to crossing the Kuraman and in the film it’s kind of just, “And the crossed the Kuraman.” In “Faraway Downs,” there’s a lot more. Another great one is King Carney’s demise. In the film, you just read that he gets killed, you don’t actually see Fletcher take him out and you don’t see the sociopathic qualities of Fletcher.
There was a lot of actual character space that had been compressed out of it. Richer is the right word. It’s a richer telling – not necessarily better, just richer. Then there were other things that I was never able to do that suddenly got really exciting. I was able to revisit the music with a lot of new, young Indigenous artists from pop and atmospheric music – Electric Fields, Budjerah.
The first act of the film, presented here in the first couple of episodes, tonally and pacing-wise feels different. It’s more classical. Was that a consequence of the new music?
I was able to breathe a bit more. I think there were some choices, musically, that I had to make in the original film because I needed to kind of push it along. The music in “Faraway Downs” is more authentically Indigenous, but it’s also very, very contemporary. So what that does with these kinds of classical images — I do this a lot, I take something that’s quite classical, but music is the door into not what it was, but what it felt like. That’s a very important distinction. It’s something I did on “Elvis” with Doja Cat’s rap or something like that. We’re saying that’s what it felt like on the street at the time.
Without going into spoilers, “Faraway Downs” has a very different ending. There were reports when “Australia” was coming out that you were considering alternate endings. Is the ending in “Faraway Downs” the one you always wanted?
I was experimenting with different endings, but actually the initial ending, the initial instinct is probably the ending that’s in this version. And there is a reason for that. Without giving away what that ending is, I initially thought and then revisiting it realized just how important it is for Lady Ashley not to be defined by any one person so much as her relationship to her environment. It’s a melodrama and melodramas have a relentless amount of tragic twists and turns. But I think that if I was being true to the bigger theme of the story, the “Faraway Downs” ending speaks more directly to the primary theme of the movie.
Was there a third ending that was considered, as was reported at the time?
No, there wasn’t really three. That’s actually not true. There were only two possibilities. Landing the movie out in the public space was very fraught. I don’t know if anyone would remember, but it was actually at the time of the economic meltdown and the whole of America was profoundly depressed. I was running back and forth sort of engineering the ending, and there was just such a negative spirit out there that the conclusion I came to was, “Ah, you know, maybe it’s just too tragic.”
When I was looking back, there was a lot of negative press at the time and the film felt like it was under a microscope. But in the years since, it feels like “Australia” has been found and embraced by a lot of people who didn’t see it initially.
Do you know what’s curious? You’re absolutely right. In the marketing of the film, there was a huge effort to hide the kind of cowboy aspect of it. It was really sold as a kind of Australian Pearl Harbor, and that is very much a subplot.
This feels like a great way to either reintroduce the film to those who haven’t seen it since, or introduce it to a brand new audience.
That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I’ll be very interested, for those that have seen the film, what their reaction is to this variation on a thing. But there’s also a gigantic generation who’s never seen it, and it’ll be very interesting to see what the reaction is from those that never saw it.
Were Nicole and Hugh excited to hear you were revisiting it?
Oh yeah. Nicole saw the film about three years ago with her kids and she rang me and said it’s the family’s favorite movie that she’s been in. The thing that people forget with Hugh is that he is an icon now, but I think he had just done one “X-Men” movie. His profile as an actor was just beginning. I mean Nicole’s absolutely pitch perfect in terms of that character and her transformation, but I think people are gonna really be thrilled to see Hugh in his kind of — I think the American vernacular would be he’s a real sort of Clint Eastwood cowboy.
I know there have been developments with the Stolen Generation since the film was released as well.
The Stolen Generation is such a scar on the history of this country and the ramifications are so profound and so inhuman and culturally destructive. But what’s actually happened since then is in places like Canada and Spain, similar things actually happened. So we’ve seen in Canada, the church interfering with Indigenous peoples, and tragedies where they’re taking children from families. I had a really amazing experience in Spain. After the film opened, we went to Europe, and it was really big in Europe. I took our kids to Disneyland Paris and this woman said look, there’s a bunch of fans of “Australia” who’d love to say hello and get a signature. I said, absolutely. When I got there, they’re all women and they’re all of the same age, and there might have been 20 of them. It turns out that they were from the Spanish Stolen Generation, and the Spanish Stolen Generation was about politics. There was a whole bunch of children of communists that were taken away by the fascists, and sort of reprogrammed, and that’s never been resolved.
So this notion of taking children away from their families to kind of reprogram them or deprogram them is truly evil, and truly so blind and inhuman. I did want to put it front and center. But if you just did a didactic talk, you’re only gonna reach a certain audience. What I’m really happy about is “Australia” is, after “Crocodile Dundee,” the second highest grossing movie in the country. So if nothing else, a lot of people saw it here.
Contextually, how would you describe “Australia” in relation to “Faraway Downs?” Are they two separate films? Are they the same film and two different versions?
I think “Australia” is a single-sitting version. It’s a one-stop meal of the story. Whereas “Faraway Downs” is a banquet version. It has a starter, maybe an aperitif, the main meal, etc. It’s more time to enjoy different flavors and different peaks.
Is there another film of yours with extra footage that you’ve considered revisiting?
Look, I want to see how this plays out. Not “Romeo + Juliet” or “Moulin Rouge” because those films were made and they exist to be incredibly, structurally tight. I have to tread carefully here because I’m already being badgered about this, but it is not untrue to say that I shot “Elvis” with the knowledge that we can now do different variations on a theme that you can do a one-sitting version of a story and you can also do a banquet version of it. When I did “Elvis,” it’s not apocryphal to say that there was a very, very long first cut that actually I went like, “Hmm, yeah, maybe.” But honestly, none of the others. The thing about Elvis is that for someone who died relatively very young, he had such an epic life journey.
“Faraway Downs,” a film told in six chapters, will be released on Hulu on Nov. 26.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.