Baz Luhrmann is not the type of filmmaker to repeat himself.
From “Romeo + Juliet” to “Moulin Rouge!” to “Elvis,” his films are each uniquely specific, traversing fresh genre territory in the way that only Baz Luhrmann can. Which is why it’s no surprise that “Faraway Downs,” a newly edited version of Luhrmann’s 2008 film “Australia” that includes nearly an hour of new footage, is anything but a retread.
In fact, Luhrmann was thinking about expanding his melodramatic epic starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman back when the film was being made.
“I think in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Well maybe one day I’ll release it in two parts with an interval,’ because I used to love those epics like ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” Luhrmann told TheWrap for our “Faraway Downs” digital cover story presented by Hulu.
It’s also not lost on Luhrmann that between “Oppenheimer” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” long movies are in vogue at the moment. There’s never been a better time to get lost in a 220-minute melodrama divided into digestible chapters.
“Everyone’s complaining about length, length, length but what’s kind of interesting is a lot of movies right now, when you go out to the cinema, a lot of the films drawing people out are quite epic in nature,” he said.
Epic is an understatement when it comes to “Faraway Downs,” which charts the story of English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) who travels to the Australian outback in 1939 with the intention of selling her husband’s cattle ranch. A series of difficult events ensue, and Ashley’s path becomes intertwined with a grizzled, lonesome cattle drover (Hugh Jackman) and an indigenous Australian child named Nullah (Brandon Walters) caught up in the government’s draconian racial policy now referred to as the Stolen Generations.
Luhrmann’s 2 hour and 45 minute film “Australia” has been reimagined as the six-part “Faraway Downs,” which rolls out on Hulu in chapters on Nov. 26 complete with a new score and main titles for each installment — and a brand new ending.
The result is something richer and more complete than the film that was released in 2008. Or as Luhrmann describes it, a banquet vs. a meal. One doesn’t negate the other, but “Faraway Downs” is the full version of this particular story, which Luhrmann sparked to at a time when Hollywood was waiting to see his next move.
As the director was coming off the mammoth success of “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001, Luhrmann’s inspiration for “Australia” came from a desire to showcase his home country in a way it hadn’t before, but also to firmly plant roots in his homeland for his children.
“’Australia’ really came from my children, and the fact that they were very young, and that we were living all over the world,” he explained, noting that it takes “years” when he goes to make something. “I really wanted the kids to have Australian roots, but with international wings, I guess is a way of saying it,” he added before acknowledging the Baz-ism that just came out of his mouth:“Too arty?”
The only thing you really own is your story, and so you better make sure you’re living a good one.”
Luhrmann was also keen to put his own spin on the “great pastoral epics” he loved, but inside that genre he wanted to chronicle the issue of land rights for First Nations people. “The Stolen Generation is this incredibly painful and horrific scar on the history of the country, so the gesture was really to flip an old, melodramatic, sweeping epic from the perspective of a First Nations character, which ends up being Nullah.”
The “Stolen Generation” refers to the thousands of mixed-race indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families by the state and integrated into “white society.” It’s this issue that gets a larger focus in “Faraway Downs,” as the entire story is now told from Nullah’s point of view.
The idea to revisit unused footage from “Australia” came about during the pandemic, when production on Luhrmann’s Oscar-winning “Elvis” was shut down. He started looking at the scenes that were left on the cutting room floor and sparked to the notion of expanding the story in episodic format as a way of more clearly identifying the major theme.
“I felt that the underlying theme, which is you really can’t own anything, you can’t really own land, you can’t own a child – you can curate it, but you can’t own it. The only thing you really own is your story, and so you better make sure you’re living a good one. I was looking at the footage and realizing that now with the advent of streaming, I can really lean into that theme,” he said.
The notion of more fully embracing that theme also led Luhrmann to change the ending to the story. The ending in “Faraway Downs” was shot during the production of “Australia,” but jettisoned for a happier conclusion to that telling of the story due to the national mood at the time.
“There was a huge financial crisis [in America], I remember that. There was a real shift in the spirit of the world, there was a sense of deep insecurity and fear. I just remember that feeling and I was somewhat calibrating what I was doing to the audience’s feeling at the time,” Luhrmann recalled of his decision to go with the conclusion seen in “Australia.”
“Australia” opened on Nov. 26, 2008 in the United States and underwhelmed at the domestic box office despite a stronger performance overseas. The film would gross $49.5 million domestically compared to $161.5 million internationally, and Luhrmann acknowledged the Thanksgiving release date wasn’t his ideal choice (“Let’s just say it wasn’t crazy about the idea of releasing a film called ‘Australia’ on Thanksgiving”).
And yet, “Australia” is still Luhrmann’s most successful film in Europe and the film’s esteem has only grown over time. “Faraway Downs” isn’t so much Luhrmann’s “preferred” version of the story as it’s a more complete telling that allows the epic to breathe a bit more. Which begs the question, which ending is “correct?”
“It’s not that I go, ‘One ending is right or wrong,’” he said, but allowed that the ending of “Faraway Downs” is closer to his initial instinct when making “Australia.” “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.’”
25 years later, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman are even bigger stars than they were at the time, and Luhrmann said they’re both “really warm-hearted” about this new retelling. He’s also eager for audiences to see Jackman’s “cattleman craft” on full display. “I don’t think there’s anything physical that Hugh Jackman can’t actually do,” he said. “It’s not just that he does it, he does it like he’s done it all his life, with such grace and confidence. That was just something to behold.”
Ultimately, the filmmaker hopes viewers of “Faraway Downs” will give themselves over to this “richer” telling of the story in longform format, and he feels it’s coming out at a fortuitous time.
“The world is in such tumult, and it’s not just that it’s a world in which there is great rupture, but we’ve just come through the pandemic and all these things that just keep coming at us,” he said. “I think that what sustains in the story is no matter what happens, in the end, you can’t control anything. So live a great story. Live a great life. Don’t cower in fear, don’t shrink backwards.”
The filmmaker took a beat and concluded, “Go forward and embrace life and be in the moment.”
Creative Director: Jeff Vespa
Photography: Hugh Stewart
Videography: Jeremy Gryst
Video Editor: Thadd Williams
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