The Road To Oz
Hugh Jackman: Sexiest Man Alive. Wolverine. Third wheel?
The newly-titled actor recalls a twinge of concern when he signed on to play a lowbrow cowboy in the ambitious Baz Luhrmann epic “Australia.” Mostly because he was starring opposite Baz’s BFF, Nicole Kidman.
“I’ve heard Nicole describe Baz as her creative soulmate,” says Jackman, looking not-at-all lowbrow (but still superlatively sexy) while snacking on raspberries and melon in a posh Midtown lounge. He wondered whether he’d be intruding on the Kidman-Luhrmann partnership, which began with the Australian director’s lush 2001 musical “Moulin Rouge.”
“The moment we started shooting, though, I felt like it was the three of us,” Jackman says. “It was always inclusive, and that expanded to the entire cast.”
No one puts Hugh in a corner! Least of all Luhrmann, who says Jackman was the very embodiment of that “rough-hewn” type missing in today’s movies, Daniel Craig notwithstanding. (Though, truth be told, not even Jackman seems to know what rough-hewnness entails, exactly, or how it might surpass the brawniness of his “X-Men” character. “I’ve got a beard in this one,” he offers.)
“I think audiences will be surprised by Hugh Jackman in this film,” says Luhrmann. “He really easily assumes that classic movie style of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.”
Indeed, he squints like a champ, rides horses and looks good in a silhouetted clinch against a blood-orange sunset background. It’s all part of Luhrmann’s master plan to resurrect the old-school epic.
“The music must be sweeping!” the director says grandly. “The drama must be intense! You have high comedy, and then you have romance and action. These days, it’s either or. But this film has all of them. It’s a banquet.”
It’s also a big, expensive gamble. With budget estimates ranging from $130 million (the official version) to $200 million (the detractors’), “Australia” is crossing its fingers that audiences will clamor for an unapologetically heartfelt saga that owes more than a small debt to oldies like “Out of Africa,” “Gone with the Wind” and “The African Queen.” Especially “Out of Africa.” (See sidebar.)
Out Friday, the film’s set during World War II and is based around a relatively little known historical event: the bombing of the city of Darwin by the Japanese.
Nicole Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley, just arrived from London, has found her husband dead and herself the proprietor of an enormous middle-of-nowhere cattle farm called Faraway Downs. Jackman’s character, known only as The Drover, is the archetypal hot, reluctant hero – a mercenary who finds himself unwittingly drawn to the initially bitchy heroine he’s agreed to help out of an impossible situation.
So, does Luhrmann’s movie fit the requirements of a true epic? Let us count the ways.
The story of “Australia,” Luhrmann’s first film since 2001’s “Moulin Rouge,” is itself epic. He’d already been thinking gargantuan for years, planning a spectacle about Alexander the Great starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kidman. Then he found out Oliver Stone was working on one, too.
Luhrmann changed tack and began researching the history of his native country. Which involved spending quality time in the Aussie countryside he refers to fondly as “the faraway of the faraway.”
Once written, the project went through several casting changes. Kidman was attached from the beginning, but Russell Crowe was initially slated to play the Drover. When his demands about script approval became problematic, he was out and Jackman was in (with a reported brief period of consideration for Heath Ledger).
The story contains many chapters, most of them on a grand scale involving explosions, animal herds or extreme weather. Its running time is appropriately lengthy at two hours and 40 minutes. And – this is absolutely key – it was shot on location in the middle of a forbidding landscape that would inevitably be problematic for the cast and crew.
Despite the fact that the director and his stars were all in their home country, none had ever spent any time in the sort of remote terrain in which they’d be shooting.
“I’ve seen far more of this country during the making of this film than I had in the 30 years that I lived here,” Kidman says. “Even though it was extremely difficult at times, I’m so glad we traveled and filmed in those locations. To feel the air and be ravished by the elements was exquisite and necessary.”
Luhrmann concurs. “When you’re making a sweeping epic, you expect all sorts of challenges,” he says. “Equine flu? Raining for the first time in 100 years? That’s just normal stuff.”
He’s not exaggerating about the rain. “We were in the middle of the dry season, and they had so much rain – the last recorded rainfall that was anything like it was 100 years ago, and that was half what we got!” says Jackman.
And then there was the horse flu. “The moment equine flu hit, everyone freaked out,” Jackman says. “The government immediately put out a quarantine. And we’re in the middle of shooting a movie about horses. So we had 300 horses that were not allowed to move 5 yards.”
There are so very many pitfalls involved in shooting an epic, one almost begins to suspect people of making them just for the anecdotes. (After all, a wild tale of a near-escape from wildlife in the outback sure beats recounting your latest foray into Studio City.)
“At night, we’d shine a light into the river and you could see all the crocodiles. It was infested with crocodiles,” Jackman recounts, a little nostalgically. “We were up on a hill, and they told me crocs rarely go up the hill. But Baz was camping down by the bottom of the river.”
“We kid each other about who had the most threatening crocodile story,” says Luhrmann, who’d insisted on camping the entire time the film was shooting.
Luhrman’s movie has been one long cavalcade of challenges – and in that respect, it can count itself in the ranks of all the epics which Luhrmann freely cites as influences.
When David Lean made “Lawrence of Arabia,” his star was nearly trampled to death by a camel. “Gone with the Wind” went through three different directors. Meryl Streep, on the set of “Out of Africa,” had to contend with territorial hippopotami, lions on the loose and a beetle as big as her hand.
And nearly everyone on the set of “The African Queen” got sick, except for Humphrey Bogart, who claimed it was because he subsisted on Scotch.
Luhrmann’s shoot was plagued with sickness of a different sort: the morning kind. An astonishing six crew members, plus Kidman herself, found out they were pregnant during the seven-month shoot. Local aboriginal waters were cited as the reason for the fertility – though, one might note, there also wasn’t much else out there in the way of nightlife.
The rockiest territory of all may have been the film’s Aboriginal-oppression theme. “I think you can’t really tell a story about Australia without handling the first inhabitants of our country,” says Jackman. “They’ve been there for 40,000 years. We’ve been there for 200.”
The film’s youngest star is Brandon Walters, who plays a “half-caste” boy – half-Aboriginal, half-white – in danger of being rounded up and shipped off for cultural “retraining” by whites. This dark chapter in the country’s history is known as the Stolen Generations.
“This was a big scar on the history of our country,” says Luhrmann, who says he isn’t taking any overt political stance. “The film doesn’t purport to say it’s right or wrong. It just says it happened.”
In early reviews, the director’s handling of the Aboriginal issue has been largely praised, with Walters even garnering some Oscar buzz.
But a larger question remains: Do American audiences really care? Some are speculating the movie will be a bomb. (Although, famously, Gary Cooper said the same thing about “Gone with the Wind,” predicting it would be “the biggest flop in Hollywood history.”)
“There’s a reason people don’t make movies like this anymore,” says Jackman. “They’re hard to do. God knows, they may never make them again – not like this, anyway.”
The naysayers are nothing new for Luhrmann, of course. When he made “Strictly Ballroom,” they said nobody wanted to see a high-concept dancing movie. When he released “Moulin Rouge,” they said the movie musical would never make a comeback.
And when he pitched the idea for “Australia,” they said nobody makes movies this way anymore. Luhrmann had a one-word response for his detractors: Tara.
“I’ll go back to Tara. I’ll go home,” he says, paraphrasing the final lines of “Gone With the Wind.” “It means, ultimately what matters is that you’re with people who you’ll love and who love you. It means that life continues on. That’s the big message of my film. And I think people are absolutely famished for it. I wouldn’t have said that until I saw how intensely the audience reacted.”
The audience he’s referring to is the crowd at “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which was recently treated to an advance viewing of a rough cut of the film (when The Post spoke to the director last week, he still wasn’t done editing).
But rumors began shortly after that screening that Luhrmann had been pressured by the studio – and negative test-audience reactions – into re-cutting the film’s end into a happier conclusion. Which Luhrmann has denied repeatedly, if vaguely.
“I wrote about four endings, and I shot two,” he says, “and I’ll tell you something – the ending was actually a surprise, even to me, because it was really a response to what I was feeling as I edited it.”
Jackman, who at the time of the interview had not seen the film, thinks people ought to give Luhrmann the benefit of the doubt.
“I think it’s redundant, and a little unfair, to talk about what could have been until people have seen it,” he says. “Because it’s a work of fiction. So there’s always options. People should just see it straight out. They shouldn’t see it thinking, ‘Oh, I heard there was going to be this other ending.’
“Whatever he chooses,” he says, “I’m sure it will be the right thing.”
I admit, I have no desire to see this film, but I know that I will have to…booo!!!!
The Road To Oz