Sometimes you just have to resort to cliches, and one such cliche when you’re talking about Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is ‘They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.’
Luhrmann’s film feels like it was made in a more technologically advanced 1940s or ’50s, and hearkens back to the sprawling historical epics that open with a five minute overture and stop for a fifteen minute intermission. Many filmmakers pay lip service to the films of the old masters, but Luhrmann has done his best to make a film like they would have made (if they were perhaps a little bit mad and had CGI).
I cornered Baz at the Australia press day in Los Angeles on Friday to talk about some of the classics that were influences on his film. The first title I dropped, Red River, got him pretty excited. Trying to nail down Howard Hawks’ greatest film is a tricky proposition, but you can probably make a damn good case for Red River, which sees John Wayne and his adopted son (played by Montgomery Clift) driving a massive herd of cattle to the titular Red River. When Clift learns some disturbing facts about the old man he takes off with the cattle and Wayne pursues him for vengeance. Like Australia the film is a sweeping story, but it really influenced Luhrmann with its famous cattle stampede.
“My stampede guys went and talked with the old-timers who did the
stampede in Red River,” Lurhmann told me. “It’s the last time a really great stampede was
done. That’s the fun part. That’s the adventure.
“I’m influenced by everything from Gone With the Wind to Giant, Here to
Eternity. All of those touchstones. I tried to wink to them a little
bit. For someone like yourself it’ll be fun to see them. The auction
scene? I winked to the auction scene from Gone With the Wind, it’s the
stuff that’s in the DNA [of these films],” he said.
As for directors that influenced him: “[David] Lean, [John] Ford. George Stevens shouldn’t be overlooked. When you think
about some of those central Hollywood-based directors, they’re really
grand storyellers. Hugh [Jackman] will tell you that I had a reel cut
up of man on horse scenes. Three hours of it. Anyone who ever shot a
man on a horse, it was there. Just to have that in my blood.”
But beyond the standard films that influenced Luhrmann, there was something more abstract about these movies that really influenced how he approached Australia.
“When I was young there was this genre of cinema, and you all went to
it. You laughed, you cried, you swooned, there was action. It was all
one big banquet of cinema that everyone could come to. It wasn’t a time
when you said, ’17 year old boys – action film. 40 year old women, Sex
in the City.’ If you’re using the food metaphor, it’s sushi for you and
fast food for you. When I was a kid I saw cinema that was a
Thanksgiving banquet. Grammy could say, ‘After Thanksgiving dinner
we’re all going to the movies!’ And everybody could go and everybody
got something out of it. That’s considered deeply uncool now. Deeply
uncool to even talk about it. The old people can’t be with the young
people. There’s no mechanism to sell films like this anymore. But
honestly what we’d love to happen is invite all of America to Australia
I think the reception to Australia is going to be mixed (I liked it but didn’t love it, and often admired it more than actually liked it), but you have to give Luhrmann credit for trying to make a movie like this, one that isn’t niche marketed to one quadrant of the demographic but rather that can play to everybody. Whether or not it does play to everybody, he gave it a shot, which in today’s highly fractured marketplace is worthy of note.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen all of the films Lurhmann mentions, you should. Start with Red River. It’s magnificent.