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EXCLUSIVE: Baz Luhrmann addresses big questions about "Australia"—and remains confident in his film

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This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with writer/director Baz Luhrmann just before he boarded a flight from New York to Sydney, where he will be completing post-production on "Australia," the epic film that he co-wrote and directed which is due to open nationwide two weeks from tomorrow. (Check out the trailer.)

"Australia" has been the subject of intense discussion and speculation ever since it was first announced, but never more so than in recent days, when written reports began popping up across the blogosphere that seemed to echo verbal rumors which had been spreading around Hollywood for weeks: that the film had gone way overbudget (some said $130 million); the initial cut was way too long; and that the film's ending was so poorly received at test screenings that Luhrmann was pressured by Fox to go with a different one in other words, that it was a trainwreck.

Just when it seemed that the vitriol toward the film couldn't get any worse, Luhrmann flew into New York to be feted by New York's Museum of Modern Art and to join his cast (via Skype) for an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Prior to the show, Oprah Winfrey and her audience were shown an almost-finished-cut of the film, something that only a select few others have seen. When the show went on the air, it quickly became apparent that they had flipped out for it! Oprah's opening monologue began: "I have not been this excited over a movie since I don't know when... it's the best movie I've seen in a long, long, long, long time. It literally swept me off my feet! The audience saw it last night."

She then asked her audience, "Did you not think that was some movie? Was that a movie?! Was that a movie?! Was that a movie?! Oh, my goodness! I mean, they just don't make movies like that anymore, they really don't!" To which the audience shrieked in agreement. They then literally went back and forth: "Didn't you laugh?" "Yeah." "And I know you cried..." "Yeah." "Weren't you on the edge of your seat?" "Yeah." "Oh, my God, and what can we say about Hugh Jackman?" Shrieks all-around.

And, with that, suddenly anything — including a Best Picture nomination that many speculated about early on but most (thought not all of us) gave up on recently — seemed possible again.

With more questions than ever about "Australia," this evening seemed the perfect time time to pose some of the big ones to Luhrmann, the man who envisioned it, brought it to life, and now has its fate, quite literally, in his hands. Following are key excerpts of his complete responses (the full audio of which you can listen to here) to my questions...

  • Where the film stands as of 6pm EST on Tuesday 11/11...
  • "I'm getting back on a plane to go back to Sydney to finish — I've probably got about seven hours left in the mix [sound mixing] of the film."
  • On comparisons between "Gone with the Wind" and "Australia"...
  • "I mean, 'Gone with the Wind' is more than a movie; it's an icon, you know? So it's always scary to make that comparison. But in the same way that 'Gone with the Wind' has a passionate love story that is played out on the canvases of a country's landscape and historical events, this movie has that about it."
  • Reaction from yesterday's Oprah screening...
  • "I've just had the interesting experience of seeing a show that Oprah did — she saw a rough-cut with an audience, the audience actually watched a rough-cut of it — and what is buoying and it doesn't mean we're hitting a home run yet, but — is how intensely the audience has reacted to that kind of emotional cinematic banquet."
  • Identifying his target audience...
  • "Certainly marketers wouldn't want you to say this, but it is a film that I really believe that the whole family — from, you know, grandparents to the groovy, you know, younger folk — can all come to and eat at the same table, so to speak."
  • Comparing "Australia" to his past work...
  • "It's not a musical in any way. I mean, it is a sweeping drama. It's different in the sense that absolutely it's much bigger. It's different in that I suppose it's more inclusive, you know — I think that different kinds of audiences, from young people to older audiences, can see it and have a different of it, you know? But probably where it's not different is that it does have, still, that ultra-romanticism about it, you know? I mean, the imagery of the landscape and the imagery indeed is somewhat heightened, because it's not naturalism, you know? It's a heightened motion picture experience."
  • On the special meaning of this project to him...
  • "When I began this film, I had just gotten over not doing 'Alexander the Great,' and we were living in Paris, and we had just had our children, and we thought it was really important that we understood our own home country so that our children understand where they came from and put down roots in their home country — because they obviously live on the road with us a lot. So we went back on our own personal journey to discover our homeland. And that journey was very focused on understand the indigenous side of Australia, the indigenous story."
  • On Aboriginal child actor Brandon Walters, whose discovery he previously said he counts "up there with the top 5 things I have done in my life, really"...
  • "The little boy in the film that we wanted to put in the middle of the movie had to be a mixed-race, Aboriginal child. I mean, imagine finding such an actor — you know, a young boy who is both Aboriginal and who could play the role. And my casting team saw a thousand boys, and then we went on the road and saw over 200, and then we brought 10 to Sydney, of which only one was a real possibility, and that was Brandon Walters."
  • Addressing reports that the ending had to be changed due to a poor response from test audiences...
  • "What's interesting is I wrote, I think, six endings in all the drafts I did, shot three, and I ended up concluding the film in a way in which I — probably more than anyone — least expected. And there is a death in the ending of the film, by the way — it's a bit of a twist and I won't give it away... And, incidentally, the two endings, by the way, tested completely the same essentially, you know? They really did in the numbers. But I came up with a third ending, and the ending that I've created about the film came from a place of a response, actually, to the thing that I wanted the movie to be the important, big idea of the movie — how to amplify that big idea. And, essentially, that's, as the little boy says, "The rain will fall. The grass grows green. And life begins again." And that idea — that in a world that is so full of fear, and things are falling down, and people are somewhat concerned — Sending a movie out there that can leave people with a sense that, despite it all, you can go back to Faraway Downs, or that you can go on, and a sense of hope, is something I really felt personally I wanted the movie to give out... But I think the big story is how the actual ending I came up with, which is quite unusualit's not easy to say it's 'the happy one' or 'the death one' — it's something quite surprising. And it found itself, really."
  • Addressing rumors that the runtime of the film is much longer than expected...
  • "The length is the length that I want it to be. It's the length that I think is the right length to be as inclusive as possible. I mean, my rough-cut, by the way, wasn't that long; it was only about three hours. I mean, for an epic, it was quite nothing. And the running length of it was always between two hours-forty and three. And it's probably — once I finish with it — gonna end up around two and a half hours, and I like that length. And, you know, it's kind of what I had in mind, really; I thought the film, ultimately, would be at two-forty. It's not really long for an epic work. I mean, 'epic' doesn't just mean long, you know? It means big in its scale and its ideas, you know?"
  • How he feels going into the release, responsible for a film with a massive budget...
  • "Will the film succeed? I cannot guarantee that. But is there a hunger for a movie like this? Yes. I mean, I am inviting all of America to "Australia" for Thanksgiving, and we're gonna serve a cinematic banquet. And what I mean by that is that the film goes from comedy, to tragedy, to action, to drama — and yet, underneath it all is a big, emotional idea. And if it in any way puts out there for an audience a sense of hope, and uplift, and the possibility of going on stronger in times of adversity, then we haven't wasted our time. Now I think the film has a chance of doing that."

Photo (left): Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind." Credit: M-G-M. Photo (right): Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in "Australia." Credit: Fox.


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I really hope the film is as good as the Oprah audience suggested. Though Oprah never mentioned Oscars on the show. I know she had helped "Hairspray" become a hit as well as helping our next President get national exposure. Crossing my fingers on this. It is sure to get a handful of technical nods come Oscar nominations.

I can't wait for Thanksgiving to come, "Australia" is one of the films I am quite excited to see this year.

The fact that you put a photo from Australia next to a photo from Gone With the Wind is enough to make me want to see it. Oprah just doesn't cut it for me.

It would be nice to know beforehand that there is a spoiler in the interview. You should let people know that.

That Oprah show was filmed a few weeks ago. Not sure what they saw, but it certainly wasn't the a final cut. And it's not as if Oprah would come out & say the movie sucked. It's all a PR game.

The last time I heard nay-sayers talking like this was a little film about a big ship...

I think, if we're talking Oscars, only one movie this year has really felt like it can go the distance.. This looks and sounds great, but I doubt we'll see a movie sweep the Oscars (Titanic-style).. Some awards will go the way of The Dark Knight; some will go to these 'intended' contenders.

Anyway, if something is able to better The Dark Knight for 'Best Picture' (this certainly looks like it can), then 2008 will be a big year for.. movies.

hardly long in the scheme of things...

It's a good length, so long as the plot is solid!

I just can't wait to see Australia. It feels like a winner and the kind of transportive experience that we really need right now.

Whenever I watch movies about indigenous injustice I am really affected. It wasn't long ago and we need the real history in our schools. I know of a girl who tried to remove some of her skin because she has been made to feel bad about her skin. How dare people make you feel like that. This movie has more than one layer and I'm glad that I didn't have to see another car chase or hear the term collateral damage or see tart trash.

Baz Luhrmann is a hack.

Millions on expensive sets, and all you see is extreme closeups of Nicole and Jackman. Kidman can't act her way out of a paper bag.

Luhrmann substitutes camera trickery for dialog. Australia is like a movie that's not yet completed!

And the funniest part - "Australia" is revealed to be just an extension of "The Wizard of Oz" - Australia is really an extension of America!

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Scott Feinberg is one of the film industry's most trusted awards analysts. He boasts one of the best track records at projecting the Academy Awards, including a 21 for 24 effort in 2006, first among all pundits according to OscarCentral and Variety. Feinberg, who studied film at Yale University and Brandeis University, is the founder of
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