The entire way in from Northridge, I’m sure I’m late.
When I take Highland into Hollywood, then cut east on Franklin, that’s the neighborhood where I lived for ten years. I use every shortcut I can to shave minutes off my time, and when I pull my car into the Marmont’s garage, that crazy tight little left turn, I’m exactly on time. 4:45.
It’s actually good that it takes another fifteen minutes or so for Baz Luhrmann to arrive. Gives me a moment to decompress. I’m a fan of the guy’s work all the way back to “Strictly Ballroom.” I’m excited to be talking to him. Unabashedly a fan. I think his “Romeo + Juliet” is lovely and alive and rude. I was a vocal fan of “Moulin Rouge” upon release, and I remain one.
And, yet, I didn’t see “Australia” when it opened.
Part of that is that I’m just not on Fox’s radar as press. If I don’t see something at a screening, as part of that constant schedule I’m juggling, I might not get around to it theatrically. That’s just how it works out sometimes. A lot of Fox’s films end up being movies I see on DVD or BluRay now. I’m playing catch-up on seeing a handful of movies before I write my year-end top-ten list, and if it’s not a priority to someone that I see their film, then why should I make it a priority over someone who’s gone to every effort to make sure I can see something?
But normally, if my wife really wants to see something, we’ll see it as soon as it opens, and when the first trailer showed up online for the film, I figured it would be a slam dunk. Nicole Kidman. Baz. Hugh Jackman. Big epic romance. Great scenery. Director of “Moulin Rouge,” her favorite film of all time.
Annnnnnnnd… not so much. And the second trailer didn’t really do it for her either. She watched them both, said they looked “nice,” and that was that. If she wasn’t excited, then I figured something must really be wrong with how they’re selling this film. It wasn’t speaking to the exact viewer I would expect it’s aimed at.
She didn’t really seem motivated one way or the other regarding the film until I told her that i needed to see it on Wednesday night. Late. Like 10:45 late, which is a big committment for a film that’s 2 hours and 45 minutes. Our house wakes up fairly early between Toshi and school and Allen and his morning routine and my mother in law and her job and whatever tasks I end up with every day. So getting out of the theater at 1:30 in the morning was a lot to ask of her, and she stepped up. “No one will be there,” she said.
Actually, there were about 50 people there, maybe a few more. It was more full than we expected, and it was a mix of mostly couples with a few families, or groups. And as the film played… it played. That crowd was with it.
And so was I. For the most part. I think the film’s rather laconically paced, and not always to the best effect. It’s the shaggiest of Luhrman’s films. But it’s very much of a piece with what he’s done in the past. The sensibilities are the same. The cartoonish sense of humor, the broad reality… Luhrmann’s fingerprints are all over the film.
It’s not really what I would think of as an awards-bait type film. It’s something broader and more audience-oriented than that. I think Luhrmann’s a populist, a guy working in a very loose vernacular sort of film vocabulary, and I think AUSTRALIA is a movie that could have connected to more audiences if it had been sold differently. It represents a rare stumble by the otherwise able-to-sell-anything Fox marketing team, doubly surprising considering what a priority Luhrmann is for the studio.
Finally, after I’d been sitting in the lobby of the Marmont watching someone decorate a Christmas tree for about fifteen minutes, Luhrmann came sweeping in. Immaculately dressed, styled like he just came from a photo shoot, Luhrmann is a compact, trim guy about a decade older than me, his salt-and-pepper hair in marked contrast to a boyish, unlined face and a youthful energy that seemed just barely restrained as he took a seat across from me. He ordered some Earl Grey and a mineral water and asked me to explain about my move from one website to another. I told him how anxious I was about it, and how it seemed like a real sea change after having one home for the past twelve years.
“Life has a rhythm. You have to be daring enough to make a change, or you don’t grow,” he told me. That led to us talking about having both started families in recent years. His kids are five and 3 1/2 now, while mine are 3 1/2 and nine months. We both agreed that life was radically different now with the kids around. He asked about the gender of my kids, and when I told him I had two boys, he just shook his head and laughed. “You’ve got no chance. Retire. It’s over, baby.”
I explained to him that I’ve felt like I was growing away from part of the Ain’t It Cool audience for a while now, and how I don’t think it’s fair to expect the audience’s interests to change just because mine have. “They like what they like,” I told him, “and it’s not their fault that I find the fanboy fare less and less compelling right now.”
He assured me that he was just happy to be the guinea pig for the new site, my first sit-down since joining, and I remarked how it made a sort of sense to me, since I mark some other significant landmarks in my life using his movies as reference, too. When I met my wife originally, it was before “Moulin Rouge” came out. Our first date was to see “A Knight’s Tale,” and afterwards, we went walking. We stopped in a record store, where I saw that the soundtrack for “Moulin Rouge” had just been released. I’d been hearing about the film for a while, and I suspected the album might be fun on its own, so I bought a copy for the future Mrs. McWeeny. She took it home and listened to it a lot over the next few weeks, so when we went on our third date to see the film on opening night, it was easy for us to get caught up in the romantic spirit of the thing, and it became a favorite for us, something that perfectly captured the buzzy intoxication of our own budding romance.
“Come what may, eh?” Baz remarked as I told him about what the film meant to us.
I then told him how disappointed I was in the advertising for “Australia,” and how I thought it was sold as a war movie. I told him that what I would have sold, and what I thought really worked, is the notion that this is the story of an unconventional family and how they found each other. Before I even finished saying it, he sat forward in his chair and started saying, “My God,” over and over. “I’m sorry to overreact, but… my god…” I wrapped it up, saying I would have made every effort to push that notion in the ads… you don’t choose your family. Something about that, especially now as the definition continues to shift for everyone, really resonates.
“Boy, I mean… I never give short answers, but yes. The short answer to all of that is yes.” The tea arrived, and he poured himself a cup before continuing.
“What you were talking about is where I began. I began with this… forget the genre. Forget me trying to get comedy, drama, action, and romance into one movie. Forget genre. Where I really started was when I was in Paris, contemplating my next work and just living. That’s when I had my two children, so I’m thinking of family already, and… as you say, family doesn’t have to be a nuclear family. Family is… and I hope you get this in the movie… it doesn’t matter about war. It doesn’t matter about the crash. It doesn’t matter if you have two cars in the garage. What matters, at the end of the day, is if you’re with the people you love and who love you. In our film, family is a mixed-race child, an aristocrat, and a working-class guy. And most importantly, emotionally, if all of that is in place… the rain will fall, the grass grows green, and life begins again. That ending took me a while to find. It found me, actually. And it started with the thought that my children are growing up, and will they know where they’re from and who they are? It began with family.”
When Baz has hold of an idea, no one talks faster. It’s a blur of Australian accent and enthusiasm, and one question sets off this volley of thoughts from him, interrupted only by quick sips of tea.
“Your point is the right one. You make two really big points, but one… it is a film about a family being formed. I agree. The other subject is a touchy one and… look… the cinema style I’m talking about… you said something quite great. You don’t really have genres that speak to everyone these days. Action is for 15-year-old fanboys. Romance is for you and your wife before you were married. Romantic comedy is for your wife when you’re not there. And drama is for older people. The idea of any movie where the 17-year-old, the grandmother, the child… the family… the family… can go and have a cinematic experience together. I mean, family films are for children now. It didn’t used to mean that. Thematically, I tried to make something that….
… you remember when “Moulin Rouge” came out? People said it can’t work. Very serious people said to me that no musical would ever work in America. And what’s ironic is that now, seven years later, I’m fighting off HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3 at the box-office. Not even HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 1. It just shows you that cinema is always in transition. More than ever, a piece of cinema that plays to all quadrants is really, really important. But here’s the problem… and you brought it up… how do you, in the current and rigid mechanisms of selling, fit it into that machine? And when you say it was sold as a war film… what can I say to that?”
I brought up the idea of the shelf life of films, and how I recently read a piece by Pauline Kael about how she hated seeing films on television, and how she didn’t like movies of different eras playing alongside each other. Me, I love that, and Baz talked about how much he loves it as well.
“That’s very much what my cinematic language is all about. I love that collision of things. Either you’re onboard with that, or you’re not. That’s why I try to shake people up right at the beginning.” I like the way he paints broadly in his films, but that throws many people completely. I think he starts with types rather than characters, then gradually adds real depth to them. “It’s a trick,” he said when I mentioned it to him. “It’s absolutely a trick. You take what is a cliche and then turn it upside down. Someone starts as Mary Poppins, but then you get into the fact that she can’t have kids and she’s not what she appears. People think they know what they’re going to get from this film, but then they get there, and it’s not what they expect at all. It’s very different.”
I told him that my parents were there opening day. “Hugh Jackman, shirtless? Sold. Done.”
“Fantastic,” he smiled. “Should have put that in the trailer.”
I told him that another movie that is going to face some of the same expectation issues right now is Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO, which is being sold as a straight drama, while in fact, the movie’s got a pretty high percentage of comedy.
“It’s a comedy?!” Baz seemed shocked. “It’s funny? Let me ask you a question, and this can be a difficult point. Why don’t the materials look funny? They’re just selling it as a noir.”
Basically, how do you set up the idea of making a post-modern commentary on your own movie star iconography in thirty seconds on a TV commercial? It’s impossible, and it seems that Warner Bros. chose to sell a fragment of the film instead of the full experience. Baz talked about about film marketing in general is in transition, and how right now, there are a number of different theories about what makes a “good” campaign. Is Robert Zemeckis right, who gives away everything in his movie on purpose because he feels like audiences won’t go unless they know exactly what they’re getting? Or can you still tease an audience effectively?
“You should advertise what sort of food your restaurant sells and what kind of meal you’re goign to get, but don’t give your recipe away. And I don’t want to hoe into the people who are selling the film, but you are on it. And I’ve just come back from Europe, where the tracking is through the roof. And the reason is because they’re being more daring and more honest with the materials there.”
Talking about Fox in general terms led to a conversation about the more specific realities of that studio and the way it works. There are very few filmmakers who work at a certain level who are allowed to thrive there. I’d argue that Lurhmann and James Cameron are the only two guys who have their own voice who are able to work at Fox without being micro-managed to death. We talked about how “Avatar” should present a whole new level of challenge to the marketing department at Fox. “I’m a molehill compared to him,” said Luhrmann. “That’s the mountain.” I asked how you go about selling something that ambitious.
“Well, to be fair, I only got the film to Fox at the last moment, so they could’t… look, in Europe, they’ve had some time with the movie, so they’re able to really figure out how to sell the film. Here, all we have is word of mouth, and it is starting to kick in. We’re doing the same business in our third week that we did in our first week, so it’s holding steady. We’re doing the same pattern that we did for ‘Moulin Rouge,’ which is very good. Where did you see it?”
“North Valley. Suburbia. And we went to a 10:45 show, which had about 50 people in it, which is pretty great…”
“10:45? Really? I love that. Look at that. That’s beautiful. I feel very good about that.”
He talked about how important it is that audiences talk about a film. For any movie to hold steady at the box-office right now is impressive, because the pattern has changed. These days, movies burn out fast. People assume that if they miss it when it opens, they’ve missed it completely, and as a result, this sort of steady performance is increasingly rare and a real indicator that something’s happening with audiences, that they really are talking to each other.
I asked him how much pressure is put on him during production to think about awards season. I’ve always been curious if that’s a real conversation that a studio has before something’s even finished. “So listen, we want to win some Oscars, so could you…” It seems like it would be a whole different kind of pressure to put on someone who just wants to make a good movie.
“That’s a good question. Cameron and I would be the same. I personally engage with everybody. I have a good dialogue with Fox and everyone around me. THe creative process is very important, though, and all I focus on while we’re working is how to communicate the big ideas of the movie. Now, as soon as you’re done… now, the marketing is this juggernaut that’s running parallel to you the whole time you’re working, and then as soon as you’re done… I literally finished mixing the movie on a Friday four weeks ago, screend it on Tuesday for 3000 people, and then opened it in NY and LA on a Friday. So the marketing is still coming together in some ways. I think they just found it really for England and Europe. So to answer your question, it’s not very present, and then it’s suddenly very, very present.”
Much of the rest of the time we spent sitting and chatting was devoted to the history of Australian cinema. As I mentioned in my DVD review for “Stone,” I’m in love with “Not Quite Hollywood” right now, and I’ve grown up watching Australian films anyway. There is a sensibility that you can trace straight through from the craziest, sleaziest exploitation film to Luhrmann’s work, and I think it makes a real case for there being a national identity to Australian film. I called it “rude”, and Baz seemed to like that word a lot. I mentioned how much I loved seeing Bruce Spence in the movie as a grotesque reverend who expounds on one of the ugliest race policies in Australia’s history.
What was obvious in the time we sat together is that Baz is a guy who has very strong feelings about filmmaking, and chatting movies with him was easy and enjoyable. I am sorry that “Australia” got killed here, because I think there’s a lot about it to like. It’s a lot like he is… packed with contradictions, energetic to the point of mania, and very, very Australian. I had to get back out to Northridge for Toshi’s very first appearance in a school play, or I have a feeling I could have sat and talked movies with him all evening. This is exactly why I love sitting down with a filmmaker, and sometimes it’s nice to see that someone really is who they seem to be.
“Australia” is open nationwide right now.