Miracle worker

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: The birth of a modern nation in Fox's period epic 'Australia'

Stuart Beattie remembers the day that Baz Luhrmann performed a miracle.

"I was down (in Sydney) working on the script, and my family had come down to visit me for a week," the screenwriter says. "It had been raining nonstop, and they were stuck in a hotel. And I was just going out of my mind. I walked in one morning to work and Baz was like, 'What's wrong? You look terrible.'"

Within moments of explaining the situation, Luhrmann "walked out of the room, and he came in after about five minutes and said, 'It's taken care of.' And I swear to God, at that moment, the sun came out, and the sun shined the rest of the time that my family was there. It was a miracle."

No less than a miracle worker could have brought Fox's "Australia" to life. The film -- which Luhrmann says has been percolating in his mind since childhood -- is a sweeping costume drama that takes place against the backdrop of "the birth of Australia in the modern sense, when Australia was first bloodied in World War II with the bombing of Darwin (by the same Japanese forces that attacked Pearl Harbor), and the birth of the whole cattle industry, which really put Australia on the world map," Beattie says.

It's an epic in every sense of the word -- and precisely the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't make these days.

"Epics like this are not made because everything is expensive," Luhrmann says. "Shooting on location with 200 people in tents in the middle of 100-degree heat in the most inaccessible locations in the world? That doesn't happen anymore."

It was only after a painful false start on a different epic -- about Alexander the Great -- that Luhrmann started work on "Australia."

"I worked for many years on (the Alexander project) with Dino De Laurentiis, and Steven Spielberg was producing on it, and we built a studio for the film in Wazaza in Northern Africa," Luhrmann says. "That's how far down the road we were" -- until Oliver Stone went into production on 2004's "Alexander."

"This is no dig at Oliver," Luhrmann says, but "there came a moment when it was turning into a race, and my team and I said to ourselves, 'That's not us.'"

Instead, Luhrmann, who had been researching the birth of modern Australia for years, brought Beattie to his house outside Sydney. There they surrounded themselves with books and photographs and came up with the central narrative about an English aristocrat who travels to Australia and joins forces with a cattle driver to save the land she has inherited.

But Fox needed convincing -- despite a long relationship with the helmer: "Australia's" initial budget of $200 million was as epic as its subject. "There was trepidation (on Fox's part)," Luhrmann admits, "but they were prepared to take a risk."

The film went into development, but Fox felt that Luhrmann needed a producing partner, and producer G. Mac Brown (2006's "The Departed") was brought aboard.

"(The film) was just huge," Brown says. "It was a matter of lots of people working very hard together to come up with a plan and a scheme to do it cheaper. A lot cheaper."

That scheme resulted in what Luhrmann dubs a "Lucas-Lean" style. He initially wanted to shoot the wides on location in the far reaches of Australia, move to more controlled outdoor locations just outside Sydney (home to Fox Studios Australia) and finally film precision shots at the studio. "What that kind of comes down to is shooting the movie three times," Brown says. Instead, they decided to shoot it twice: David Lean-style in the outback, and George Lucas-style in the studio.

"We would go out to the most amazing locations with the biggest actors, and they were riding their own horses, and they were rounding up the cattle," says cinematographer Mandy Walker. "We shot what we could on location, and then we came back to the studio to enhance everything we did."

Luhrmann also had another miracle up his sleeve. This time, instead of making the sun come out, he made it rain -- dollars.

Before "Australia" went into production, the Australian government had already planned to increase its film production rebate from 12.5% to 15%. "But Baz was able to convince the government that Australian-based productions would get a higher incentive of a 40% rebate, which is a huge difference," Brown says.

Still, the production had already begun shooting, so Luhrmann and company had a choice: Take the 12.5%, then 15%, rebate on the production's entire eligible spend, or take the 40% rebate on the eligible spend that would take place after the law took effect. They chose the second option, Brown says, which -- in conjunction with $1 million-$2 million in state grants from Queensland, the Northern Territory and New South Wales -- means that the Australian government ultimately will write Fox a check for 20%-25% of the film's budget, resulting in a net budget of about $100 million, half the film's original price tag.

Casting was another adventure. Luhrmann needed someone who could be highly comic and "could also deal with intense, passionate tragedy," he says. "And when you start to think of that and find someone who's also a real movie star, that's a short list, and at the top of it is Nicole Kidman."

Kidman was on board even before reading the script. "I would do anything for him," she says.

The male lead proved more challenging. Initially, Russell Crowe was cast, but "trying to get Russell's and my schedule and the film's schedule to lock up ... I just couldn't get that to come together," Luhrmann says. So he met with Heath Ledger and Hugh Jackman. Ledger "was probably too young," says Brown, and with Jackman, the question was, "Was he a big enough movie star to carry a $100 million movie?"

Then, "overnight, 'X-Men 2' opens, and the studio was suddenly prepared to back the film with Hugh in the lead," Luhrmann says.

The script went through 19 drafts in all. In addition to working with Beattie and Australian Aboriginal writers, Luhrmann enlisted Ronald Harwood and Australian novelist Richard Flanagan.

Finally, there was the actual mounting of the film, a mammoth undertaking that involved roughly 2,000 costumes, 1,500 head of cattle, 50 horses and 100 brumbies; a desert tent city that at various times accommodated 200-700 cast and crew members, often in 120-degree heat; and the construction of two enormous sets: the 1930s-era oceanfront city of Darwin and Faraway Downs, a homestead and cattle ranch that the crew built in Carlton Hill, a location so remote the production actually had to build roads to get there.

"Baz likes to climb Mount Everest and then find the taller one next to it," Jackman says.