‘Faraway Downs’: How Baz Luhrmann Turned a Movie Misfire Into a Magnificent Miniseries

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Faraway Downs - Credit: 20th Century Studios/Hulu
Faraway Downs - Credit: 20th Century Studios/Hulu

In Europe, it was embraced as an instant classic. In the country that gave the movie its title, it remains one of the highest-grossing homegrown films of all time. And in America, it was considered such a misfire that many thought it would end Baz Luhrmann’s career.

The movie was Australia, the writer-director’s unabashedly gushing love letter to the Hollywood epics that he grew up watching as a kid. It was also a star vehicle for Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, a WWII drama, an outback Western, a star-crossed romance, and an attempt to deal with the way in which the Indigenous population of Luhrmann’s native country had their culture systemically stolen from them. It was almost as vast as Australia itself. Coming on the heels of the filmmaker’s hugely successful “Red Curtain” trilogy (1992’s Strictly Ballroom, 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, and 2001’s Moulin Rouge), however, this throwback to yesteryear’s big-screen adventures proved to be both too much and not enough for audiences here. It remained a bit of a black mark on the maximalist auteur’s resume.

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Despite the fact that Luhrmann’s vision of a socially conscious, old-fashioned melodrama writ large — and then, characteristically, writ even larger — was considered out of fashion and out of order when it was initially released on these shores, the director never let go of the idea that Australia felt, for all of its spectacle, like a slightly unfinished project. Which is why, in the summer of 2020, right as his long-in-the-making mondo biopic on Elvis Presley was temporarily shut down and the whole world essentially stopped in its tracks, Luhrmann returned to an archive of unused footage he’d shot for that 2008 feature and thought: More. There’s so much more to be done with this combination of stories. And because the landscape of how people tell and consume stories has changed so drastically since the film had its initial release, he knew what he needed to do. He needed to supersize it into a multi-chaptered limited series.

The result, now called Faraway Downs and currently streaming on Hulu, is less a “director’s cut” and more of a remix and a reimagining of the material that thrusts a subplot about the “Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal youth further into the spotlight. It also recontextualizes a number of sequences, adds in a few new showstopping set pieces, and gives the entire saga of a cattle driver known as “the Drover,” an English rose named Lady Sarah Ashley, and a mixed-race boy named Nullah fighting against the tides of history a brand new ending. There’s a reason there’s a different name on it. In so many ways, Luhrmann has fashioned a whole new work out of these old parts. Which he’s more than happy — ecstatic, really — to talk about at length, along with a few other aspects of the film’s checkered past and his career.

When it was first announced that you were going to recut and refashion Australia into a six-part miniseries, a lot of folks assumed it would be something like a “Director’s Cut” with a new title — you add in an extra scene or two here, cut a little thing out there, etc. I went back and rewatched the original and then watched Faraway Downs
You did? What was your takeaway?

That my original feeling about Australia remains the same: It feels way too overstuffed. Whereas with this reimagining of it, and the way in which it’s divided into chapters… what you’re trying to do seems better suited to serialized storytelling. All these ideas and storylines get more room to breathe. Especially the idea of doing, to quote you, “A Gone with the Wind-type epic but seen from the perspective of an Aboriginal child.”
I agree — there’s definitely more room for things to breathe here, for sure. My whole gestalt from the beginning was really that: I wanted to take a silly, melodramatic form and flip it over, in order to deal with this very, very difficult issue. There was this horror in our country’s history that few people were talking about at the time, and is still very controversial. And I mean, I make big movies, you know. I make movie-movies. So I wanted to make something that was big and also got into what happened to the “Stolen Generation.”

This whole thing comes about because of Covid, right?
What happened was, we were a day away from starting to shoot Elvis. We were rehearsing the scene where the Colonel [Tom Parker] is leading Elvis through the crowd, and someone comes up to me and says, “I think Tom [Hanks] has this flu thing.” We weren’t even calling it Covid at that point on set — it was just “the flu thing.” Then we shut everything down, and then everything else is shut down. I’m sitting there in lockdown, going, “Well, this movie might not come back. What am I going to do? How do I keep from falling into an abyss?”

And I’d remembered that, when Australia had come out, I’d wanted to turn it into a two-part movie. Not just with a proper intermission, like you’d get with something like Lawrence of Arabia… although I’d thought about doing that as well. It would be more like something where you’d have an entire weekend, and you could dip into the whole thing over two nights. Instead, I compressed everything into a two-and-a-half-hour film.

When I went to look back at the footage, however, I thought: Oh, we can space a lot of this out now. And if we do that, we can add things back that we shot back then which really emphasizes the Aboriginal perspective as well. Once I had that epiphany, I rang up Hulu and said, “I have this idea…” Then, as I started working on it, Elvis went back into production, so I just sort of leapfrogged over it. But at that point, I knew I’d go back and finish what I’d started.

Had it occurred to you to go back and revisit this before? Is this something you would have gotten around to eventually, even if the pandemic hadn’t happened?
I don’t know. I mean, somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that I’d shot a lot more footage than we were able to use, and… well, let’s go back a second. I grew up watching a lot of old movies in the tiny town that I grew up in. I mean, I love the French New Wave, but I grew up on a steady diet of Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, things like that. I love epic movies. I don’t mind spending hours and hours at a cinema, watching this stuff. That was always how I’d envisioned Australia. It was a throwback to those types of films. And I always kind of knew there was an even more epic version of this I could have done with the material.

Put it this way: Australia was a meal. Faraway Downs could be more like a banquet. And the banquet version could get into something that felt very relevant to me today, which is what Hugh Jackman’s character says in the film: We don’t own the land. We don’t own children. We don’t own anything but our story, so make it a good one.

The pop-psychology answer as to why you might return to Australia is that it flopped, and now you’re returning to the scene of the crime in order to “fix” it. But the movie was a massive hit in countries like Spain and France…
It’s still my biggest movie in Europe, yeah. Even bigger than Elvis. I think it’s the second biggest Australian film of all time — it’s Crocodile Dundee, us, and then one of the Mad Max films, I think. Yeah, look: I can’t be an audience member for my films. I think all of them are imperfect. But I would hate for somebody who really loves Australia, who really connected with it, and have them think I’m somehow “fixing” it with this serialized work. There’s nothing to fix.

Director Baz Luhrmann poses for portrait photographs for the film 'Elvis' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)
Director Baz Luhrmann, creator of the Hulu miniseries ‘Faraway Downs.’

Why do you think it didn’t resonate with American audiences? Was it a question of timing?
I have a lot of opinions about this. One, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about the marketing — that we shouldn’t show anyone with beards, or any of the cowboy stuff.

Wait, what?!?
It was being marketed as the Australian Pearl Harbor! Which, you know… no! [Laughs] And the other thing was, it was being released on Thanksgiving. Which, look, I’m glad Faraway Downs started streaming on Thanksgiving, because people are home and that means maybe they’d have the chance to really sit down with it. But in terms of a theatrical release, I just couldn’t work it out. So people are going to be celebrating a holiday in which they give thanks for America — and then they’ll go out and see a film called Australia? It’s funny, because when we did the trailers for the European release, it was nothing but cattle drives — and people loved it! I don’t know. I think we fumbled it here.

Maybe in Europe, people recognized the Old Hollywood grandeur of what you were trying to do — the “movie-movie” thing. And maybe in America, it was just seen as: “Not Moulin Rouge!”
[Laughs] It’s funny, when Moulin Rouge came out, it was just as divisive. There were critics in the States who just hated it. And then… you remember that show Ally McBeal? There was a whole episode in which Ally keeps going on about how she can’t be friends with people who don’t love Moulin Rouge! It was like a running gag. So, yeah, there are people who never really got on board with that film either, and people who are passionate about it. The stage show is doing incredibly well. The idea of mashing up songs and things from other eras together is now kind of accepted. It was controversial, and somehow it endured.

So where was all this extra footage? Was it just sitting on a hard drive or in a vault somewhere?
Some it was vaulted — it was kind of like the concert footage of Elvis we found, just sitting in the salt mines! And even though we shot on film, we had some of the rushes sitting on hard drives, but because of the pandemic, we had to go through all of these protocols to get them shipped out from L.A. I remember at one point, my editors and I were sitting in the top floor of this grand hotel which normally would have been packed with tourists, just locked in for weeks at a time and surrounded by all of these different reels and drives and things, trying to excavate stuff that was almost two decades old and thinking: My god, this is just bizarre.

So you have this unused footage, some of which are small extensions of things already in Australia, and others that are completely new sequences that change the story entirely. But you’ve got to integrate all of this into something that’s already its own piece of work, and it all has to work in concert…
Yeah, this isn’t just adding a suite onto a symphony — it’s composing a whole new symphony from old melodies and motifs. I had my editors Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond with me, trying to figure this all out. The thing with episodic cinema is… OK, pretend I’m drawing a graph. A standard film is A-B-C-D. [Makes flat line gesture] With episodic, you can do that then go vertical [raises hand high], or go over here [moves hand far left] and then bring it back here in another episode. You can deviate from the main melody, and then you can come back to it.

I don’t know that I’d do it now, or next year, or whatever, but I could do an extended version of Elvis. It would be very different, though. It’s such a different form and style of telling a story that it would have to be different, and not just, you know, longer.

You could have done an entire episode that just follows King George [the Aboriginal grandfather, played by David Gulpilil] for a half hour, then go right back into the narrative and it makes perfect sense. If you suddenly had a half-hour vignette in the middle of the movie…
Yeah, that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all! But we do something kind of similar to what you just said. In the film, the group goes, “We have to cross the Kuraman!” That’s the vast desert plain that they call “the Never Never.” It’s this massive obstacle. And in the film, from them saying that to them being at the pub afterwards, it’s a few minutes of screen time. And when we get to that part in Faraway Downs — it’s almost the last half of a full episode. You see them cross it. You see King George leading them. Nullah, the young Aboriginal boy, begins to have visions. We see a Japanese pilot who’s already made it to the outback and crashed. By the time they get to the other side, it’s like they’ve been reborn.

So now it’s gone from a few lines to a whole other thing that we can add back in, that supports the idea of making the Aboriginal characters more of a focus, and still makes it feel like…

“It’s all one big outback adventure, isn’t it?”
[Laughs] Exactly!

How hard was it to get the actors back to re-record dialogue?
It was actually pretty easy, because we all have great memories of making the film….

But the production was plagued with problems, right?
Oh, yeah, it was an extremely difficult production. It rained for the first time in the Australian desert in 100 years. There were all these obstacles, natural and otherwise, in terms of shooting it. I’ve been in the Sahara desert, and that’s significantly easier than being in the north part of Australia. The only thing they have an abundance of there is nothing.

But it was also this incredible experience that we all went through in terms of making this massive production that was designed to be a very old-Hollywood-type epic. So it wasn’t that hard to ask them to come back and make sure everything sounded good. Nicole only needed to do some ADR; Hugh did quite a lot. There were a number of instances where the footage was shot, but if we could get them saying something offscreen that would help clarify things — that could smooth some transitions out — we’d do that.
Would you potentially go back to other works of yours and try to extend or expand them?
Just one.

I assume you’re talking about the four-hour cut of Elvis, right?
I have to be careful… the word is assembly. The fans are on me about this kind of stuff all the time. It’s more like an assembly, not a cut. I’m not sure if it’s four hours, but it’s definitely longer than the running time of the theatrical version, which is a little over two-and-a-half hours. But yeah… I don’t know that I’d do it now, or next year, or whatever, but I could do an extended version of Elvis. It would be very different, though. It’s such a different form and style of telling a story that it would have to be different, and not just, you know, longer.

How did your previous work in episodic storytelling — notably something like the TV show The Get Down that you did with Nelson George — affect how you started divvying this up into chapters?
I certainly drew from the rhythms of doing a show like that. It’s funny you bring up The Get Down, because you have to remember: Netflix had several big shows at that point but it still felt like streaming was this new frontier. I was originally ready to just be a producer, because I hadn’t felt confident that I knew how to make something like that. Then Nelson and I were brought on to be showrunners, and I sort of became “Uncle Baz.” But Netflix was still like, “No one knows how to do music storytelling.” So Nelson and I went back to the Bronx, we got Grandmaster Flash involved, we worked with Nas, and we all evolved our own language and style in terms of how to tell the story. I learned a lot from that.

It’s not surprising that you wanted to do a show about hip-hop, given the way that sample culture has played into your filmmaking. Obviously, when you look at the soundtracks of Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby, you’re pulling from all of these different musical sources and reconfiguring them to fit what you’re doing.
Completely, yeah.

And with Australia, and now Faraway Downs, it almost feels like you’re sampling old Hollywood movies in the way that you used music in your other films. You’re sampling The Wizard of Oz, you’re sampling Casablanca, you’re sampling Red River and David Lean movies …
I can’t think of a more accurate description of my particular storytelling style. The way that a D.J. or producer would take a sample of a song and turn it into something new — that’s very much what I’m trying to do. If someone had said that to me a few years ago… I mean, I’m old enough now that I no longer feel judged by someone saying, “You’re just sampling old movies.” When I watched Flash get rid of what he called the “wack” part of a song, introduce it into a beat and come up with something new, or saw how Jay-Z worked on the music for Gatsby, it was like: Yeah, I get this. I can see why that comparison fits. Now, if someone says, “Well, you’re kind of like a sampling filmmaker,” I embrace that. It’s part of a shared language.
How do you feel about being labeled a “maximalist filmmaker?” Is that something you’re comfortable with now as well?
There are times when I think, “Maybe I’ll do a really small film, like a psychological thriller or something.” I mean, I almost certainly will do that one day, just to go back to the germ of doing that. But yeah, I sometimes joke I’m the Stanley Kubrick of cinematic confetti. That’s my background in storytelling. That’s my language, in the same way that… once, when I was at Cannes, I was on this “new directors” panel with M. Night Shyamalan, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. And I look back on that now, and I think: We’re all still working because we all have our own language as filmmakers. I used to joke with Quentin that, “What you do for violence, I do for confetti and music!” [Laughs]
You’ve talked about signing a contract with the audience, and that’s kind of part of the deal, right? They expect a “Baz Luhrmann movie.”
They do. And then one day, I’ll do a “Mark Luhrmann movie,” which is nothing like a Baz Luhrmann movie, and well, we’ll see what happens.
So how does that signing of the contract with the audience work when it’s not a feature film, but — as Faraway Downs describes itself on its title card — “a Baz Luhrmann movie told in six chapters.”
Right. Yeah. It’s still the same contract, but hopefully it’s one in which, rather than pay for the ticket and just watch everything in one huge gulp, it’s parsed out well enough that you get to the end of that first chapter and go, “OK, got it. I’ve signed on. What happens next?”

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