Baz Luhrmann talks 'Faraway Downs,' dorky DiCaprio and why he wouldn't make a Madonna biopic after 'Elvis'

The filmmaker revisits "Romeo + Juliet," "Moulin Rouge" and "Strictly Ballroom" in our latest Director's Reel.

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

While the rest of the world spent our collective COVID-19 pandemic-caused lockdown growing sourdough starters or getting really into puzzles, Baz Luhrmann pursued a different hobby — transforming his 2008 feature film, Australia, into the six-chapter saga Faraway Downs, which is currently streaming on Hulu. But don't call this new version the director's cut of Luhrmann's period Outback romance, which pairs Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as squabblers-turned-lovers whose passion spans a continent... and a class divide.

"I understand people going, 'I guess that's a director's cut,'" and in no way is that true," the Australian filmmaker behind hits like Moulin Rouge and Elvis tells Yahoo Entertainment. "It's an experiment, and depending on how it goes it might have implications for other filmmakers going forward, as well as implications for the relationship between the theatrical experience and the episodic experience."

(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos; Everett Collection, Getty Images)
Baz Luhrmann talks Faraway Downs, Moulin Rouge and Elvis in our latest Director's Reel. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos; Everett Collection, Getty Images)

Luhrmann isn't the only filmmaker who has dabbled in creating separate versions of a single work for theaters and streaming services. Quentin Tarantino previously cut a four-episode extended version of his 2015 Western, The Hateful Eight, for Netflix, and Ridley Scott has a longer version of his Apple TV+ produced historical epic, Napoleon, prepped for its streaming debut. But Faraway Downs is perhaps the most ambitious version of this experiment, with Luhrmann remixing the 2.5 million feet of film he shot 15 years ago into a story that's both familiar and new.

"I must have been thinking about episodic television or something," the director jokes about his foresight. "But when I started looking at [the film] as episodic, I realized I'd be able to lean into the underlying theme of the idea, which is that you really can't own land and you can't own a child or a relationship. You can experience it, but in the end the only thing you can own is your story."

Turning Australia into Faraway Downs allowed Luhrmann to add a new ending, and enhance existing character and story beats. It also afforded him the opportunity to rewrite his own narrative with the film, which he describes as "fraught" and "contentious" the first time around.

"I felt unhappy about the way we brought it to the audience in America," he says of the movie's rough journey to U.S. theaters in 2008, where it met with mixed reviews and disappointing box office. "It was a completely different world back then. You'd spend $50 million [to open] a movie, and you were dead or alive within 48 hours. So that pressure led us to do some radical compressions."

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star in Faraway Downs, a six-part streaming version of Baz Luhrmann's 2009 movie, Australia. (20th Century Studio/Hulu)
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star in Faraway Downs, a six-part streaming version of Baz Luhrmann's 2008 movie, Australia. (20th Century Studio/Hulu)

"What's strange is that Australia is still my biggest film in Europe by far — bigger than Elvis," Lurhamnn adds. "So you do have these audiences who have a connection to it."

While Luhrmann didn't shoot any additional material with Kidman or Jackman for Faraway Downs, he reveals that both actors did record new dialogue for the streaming version — and got to watch their younger selves in the process. "At least they weren't looking at themselves de-aged by AI!" the director says with a laugh. "It was them on film. I should put a sticker on the series: 'These actors are all-natural and shot on film."

For our latest career-spanning Director's Reel, we chatted with Luhrmann's about his signature Red Curtain Trilogy — Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, which are all connected by theatrical motifs rather than a continuous narrative and characters — and why he won't be following up Elvis with a Madonna biopic.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Tara Morice and Paul Mercurio in a scene from Strictly Ballroom. (Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Tara Morice and Paul Mercurio in a scene from Strictly Ballroom. (Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Gather 'round children, and your Gen X/millennial ancestors will regale you with stories of a time when it wasn't cool to be musical theater geeks. That's why '90s teenagers with a passion for song and dance clung so tightly to Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann's feature film debut and — along with 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — one of the decade's defining made-in-Australia music-filled productions.

"Young kids won't get that today," Luhrmann agrees. "Now, if you're not a nerd, you're not cool. But back then we were not seen. I was trying to make a film that was universal, but I was certainly a theater-loving geek, and I wore those credentials on my sleeve as I told that story."

As Luhrmann tells it, Strictly Ballroom — which tells the Dirty Dancing-esque story of a would-be ballroom dance champion and his inexperienced new partner — came very close to not being seen. "The film was dumped in one theater here in Australia," the director remembers of its inauspicious debut in his native land. "And when we lost that theater, the owner said, 'Not only is this the worst movie I've ever seen, but you've destroyed Pat Thomson's career!'"

(An acclaimed stage and screen actress in Australia, Thomson delivers a delightfully larger-than-life performance as the aspiring champ's overbearing mother. She died of an aneurism before the film's international release and her own Best Actress victory at Australia's version of the Oscars. "It's a great sadness, and I always try to take an opportunity to celebrate her," Luhrmann says in tribute.)

Fortunately, the shoestring-budgeted production found fortune and glory when it danced its way into the 1992 Cannes Film Festival and bowed to cheers, applause and a global distribution deal. Even then, though, Lurhmann says that he sensed a vintage jocks vs. nerds divide in reactions to the movie. "Some critics would really embrace the idea that I was taking an older theatrical cinematic form and playing with it. But others were like, 'What's up with this guy? And what's up with the crazy close-ups?'"

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio play Shakespeare's most famous lovers in Romeo + Juliet (20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio play Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers in Romeo + Juliet (20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

"Dorky" isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think of '90s-era Leonardo DiCaprio. But the Titanic heartthrob is severely — and hilariously — game-deficient in Luhrmann's version of Romeo and Juliet's immortal balcony scene. Watching DiCaprio's Romeo awkwardly struggle to avoid detection by Claire Danes's dreamy Juliet reminds you that William Shakespeare's star-crossed kids really are just... kids.

For the record, Luhrmann gives all the credit to his leading man for that take. "Leo is very text-based, and when we looked at the text, [we saw] that Romeo is just a geeky kid who is coming to know about love and relationships and coming of age. He's not cool! It's not like, 'Hey, Juliet — come up to my balcony.'"

"It's often a misstep in that role for actors play the romance or the result as we call it," the director continues. "Whereas if you look at the text, what it's telling you by the cadence of it is that he's got this out of control love. Like, 'I'm going to say this, and I hope it comes out the right way,' but he's really a silly boy taking an enormously dangerous risk. He's crazy in love... but not in love. He's just driven to see this girl again, and that's why he's hiding."

That's said, DiCarpio's Romeo does eventually get some romantic swagger going when he and Juliet adjourn to the pool for some aquatic nookie. But Luhrmann found a way to add a geeky flourish to that moment as well. "I shot it one way the first time, and then I went back and re-shot it where his goofiness results in him falling into the pool. Then, when they're in the pool, it allows for this kind of maturing romance or passion to fall into their characters. It looks like an obvious choice, but good choices always look obvious retrospectively."

Moulin Rouge (2001)

Kidman and Ewan McGregor in a scene from Moulin Rouge. (20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Kidman and Ewan McGregor in a scene from Moulin Rouge. (20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The Red Curtain Trilogy took a final bow in spectacular spectacular fashion with Luhrmann's kaleidoscopic oh-so-early-2000s movie musical. Certainly, no words in the vernacular can describe the great event of watching Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman play all the hits — from "All You Need Is Love" to "Your Song" — in the mix tape-tastic "Elephant Love Medley" for the very first time.

"We set out with this preposterous notion of, 'How do you make [McGregor] seem like a genius?'" Luhrmann says of that medley's origins. "And then we thought, 'What if, when he opens his mouth, well-known popular songs come out?' We got that device, but then we had to go and break a lot of rules."

Specifically, Luhrmann and his collaborators had to break the existing rules surrounding music licensing, which weren't ready for the looming arrival of now-standard mash-up culture. The director says that Elton John — who continues to find ways to bring his back catalogue to fresh life via collaborations with Dua Lipa and Britney Spears — was the first artist to help break the logjam.

"Elton really led the charge," Luhrmann recalls. "I didn't know him at the time — he's now a great friend — but he said, 'This is the best idea ever. Don't worry, I'll make it happen.' What's amazing is that the musicians themselves were the ones who went, 'This is great. I want my song to be used.' No one had mash-ups like the "Elephant Love Medley" [at the time]. There was no precedent for that."

The list of artists who eventually followed John's example included Madonna, who OK'd the use of "Like a Virgin" for a separate number, sung by Jim Broadbent. "Someone asked her, 'What did you think of Moulin Rouge,' and she said, 'Oh, I really liked 'Like a Virgin,'" laughs Luhrmann, adding that he's befriended the pop star in the years since the film's release. "The only person who turned us down was Cat Stevens. I opened the movie [with "Father and Son"] in the original version. He did it for legitimate reasons, but years later I heard him say on the radio, 'Gee, I regretted doing that,' which was quite big-hearted of him."

Elvis (2022)

Austin Butler as Elvis in Luhrmann's 2022 biopic. (Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Luhrmann's 2022 biopic. (Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)

After exploring other eras — and genres — with 2008's Australia and 2013's The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann returned to his Red Curtain roots with a music-drenched biopic of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley. Fueled by Austin Butler's immersive performance, Elvis became a summertime sensation that introduced a new generation to Presley's life story.

This year, those same viewers got to experience a different side of the story via Sofia Coppola's Priscilla, based on Priscilla Presley's memoir, Elvis and Me. Luhrmann says that he hasn't yet seen Coppola's film, but is happy to hear that the two movies work in concert to interrogate Elvis's legacy and legend. And he'd love to see more filmmakers tell their own stories in the Elvis Cinematic Universe.

"There should be many more Elvis biopics from many different points of view," he argues. "Sofia and I are not about going 'Mine's right and yours is wrong.' What the two films say is that Elvis's story was relegated to a kind of wallpaper; there wasn't much interest in Elvis beyond, 'Oh yeah, the guy in the white jumpsuit.' What's clear now is that you have to re-examine him if you want to understand the fabric of American history in the modern era. And I think that's great."

In the same way that Presley was woven into the fabric of '50s and '60s Americana, Madonna's music is key to understanding the mood of the country in the '80s and '90s. Having gotten the singer's thumbs up for Moulin Rouge's version of "Like a Virgin," it's tempting to imagine a timeline where Lurhmann helms the long-gestating Madonna biopic as an Elvis follow-up. But the director says that's a story Madonna should tell.

"We've variously talked about doing things, and she was actually creating it herself" he says, referring to the singer's plans to direct Julia Garner in a film about her life — a project that has since fallen by the wayside amid her ongoing world tour. "I'm just not going to be able to do a biopic next, and certainly not a musical one. I choose my own creative journey based on what's going to make me really engaged in my life. And right now, it would be too much of going back on the same road."

"Having said that, Madonna has been such an influence on us," Luhrmann adds. "When you start to dig into her body of work, you realize just how rad she was and how she stood up for gay rights and was a provocateur. She deserves a really good story. The thing about Elvis is that when someone passes and years go by, there comes a moment where you can use their life story as a canvas to explore larger ideas. But it's quite complicated if they're still around. Maybe then, they're the ones to do it."

Faraway Downs is currently streaming on Hulu.