Few have seen finished epic 'Australia'

Days before its Nov. 18 world premiere, Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” was still an unknown quantity, a period romance shepherded by a director known for his visual flair, a lengthy wait between passion projects and a penchant for tweaking his films right down to the wire — while often commenting publicly on his frenzied work in progress.

In other words, this guy has a flair for the dramatic.

A pair of research screenings in June yielded some upbeat reaction, and an “Oprah” crowd who saw a rough cut was enthusiastic. But few people, outside top studio execs, have seen the final film.

Luhrmann is nothing if not ambitious. With “Australia,” the director/co-writer set out to fashion a sweeping 1939-set romantic adventure styled after “Gone With the Wind” and starring two stars from Down Under, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. The pic costs $120 million, less 30%-40% from Australia’s new filming rebate.

After wrangling with Fox over the pic’s budget, Luhrmann shot the pic over nine months with a crew of 300 on remote locations in Northwestern Australia and at Sydney’s Fox Studios.

The production, after coping with 110-degree heat, windstorms and delays, finally wrapped last December. Reshoots were completed in August to cover some shots that revealed Kidman’s surprise pregnancy.

Luhrmann, 46, finally delivered his locked print in time for the studio to start striking thousands of prints in Sydney and Los Angeles at 9 a.m. on Nov. 13, five days before the pic’s Sydney premiere.

But for Fox exec Peter Rice, who has supervised Luhrmann’s films ever since he met the “Strictly Ballroom” director at the Cannes film fest and brought him to Fox to develop “Romeo + Juliet,” there’s a method to this Baz-ness.

While Luhrmann told Australia’s the Age that he repeatedly asked for more time to finish the picture, and the film did get an additional 13 days when Fox moved “Australia” to open on Nov. 26 after “Quantum of Solace” and “Harry Potter” changed their release dates, Rice confirms that pushing back the film had nothing to do with Luhrmann’s editing needs and the director was always committed to finishing on time.

Rice knows the writer-director is prone to fine-tuning his edits up until the last minute, delivering dripping-wet prints just under the wire.

“Baz’s movies are beautiful and unique because he’s a perfectionist,” says Rice. “There are things he’d still change on ‘Strictly Ballroom.’ “

On 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” Luhrmann persuaded Fox to push the pic’s release date back from Christmas to May, giving him six extra months in the editing room. The $50 million “Moulin Rouge!” scored $57 million domestically and doubled its gross overseas.

At 2½ hours, “Australia’s” running time reduces the number of daily showtimes. And, while it has a clear appeal for adult women hungry for romance, the studio hopes to bring in young women and men, too, and execs believe the pic has strong international potential.

The film is resolutely old-fashioned, broad, accessible storytelling, centering on Kidman’s uptight Lady Sarah Ashley as she spars with, and then falls for, Jackman’s rough-hewn Drover as they drive cattle across the Outback, bonding with a young Aborigine boy before being attacked in Darwin by Japanese bombers.

Oprah and her audience certainly went gaga.

“It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Winfrey gushed on the Nov. 10 show. “They just don’t make movies like that anymore. … It is epic, it is majestic, it is romantic, it is a spectacle. The scenery is so gorgeous. It’s everything a great movie should be.”

Score one for the target demo.

As for the recent flurry of online speculation over the film’s ending, and word that the studio was urging changes, Rice said the helmer — who has final cut — has always had a handle on the final vision.

Luhrmann wrote six endings, shot three, and tested three different versions of the film. Someone does die at the end of the pic, but Luhrmann found an ending with hope.

“It’s neither happy nor sad,” says Rice. “It’s bittersweet and complex. It’s not a simplistic ending. It’s an incredibly satisfying one.”

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